Unwashed Coffee Mugs

How the recession is affecting family relationships.

Recession means worry—all too tangible worry, like making mortgage payments. And the intangible but no less consuming fear of how unemployment is affecting your laid-off wife or girlfriend—or, more often, husband or boyfriend. The data showing that men have experienced 82 percent of the recession’s job losses suggest that we’re in a moment of uninvited cultural shift. The dislocation of the contracting workplace is tangled up with the dislocation of changing gender roles.

For feminists, the prospect of more women as breadwinners, and more men at home, is “a thought to file under ‘let’s try to find a silver lining,’ ” as Lisa Belkin put it in her blog for the New York Times. As of last year, about 25 percent of wives out-earned their husbands. What if the recession pushes that number up to one-third of marriages, or more? How high would the number have to go before we stopped seeing these couples as worth remarking on? And if laid-off dads turn into stay-at-home dads who do the afterschool pickups and get dinner started, won’t gender roles become more fluid for everyone?

Maybe. But I wonder about the costs of pairing newfound sex equity with the recession blues. This seems like a really risky way to get where feminists want to go. It has backlash written all over it. In her post, Belkin points out that Rosie the Riveter was also born of necessity during World War II—and when the war was over, she had to go home and stay there. This does not bode well for the current moment of women working while men peddle their résumés or sit around staring into their coffee dregs. (In my mind’s eye, I confess, they’re not so quick to wash their mugs.)

At the beginning of the month, I put out a call to readers for their stories about relationships amid the recession. The thoughtful e-mails—whether sad or angry—I got back add to my fears that the silver lining is already pretty tarnished. A reader from Atlanta has been married for 20 years, and in that period she and her husband have each been laid off four times. It’s harder for him than for her, she says: “He takes each layoff as almost a body blow.” Men who are depressed about staying home don’t seem like great prospects for resolving the famous conflict of the second shift—the familiar dynamic in which the woman in a two-career couple does most of the chores and the child care on either end of the working day. And indeed, the latest time-use data show that men don’t do more child care than they did before after they lose their jobs. Instead, “they spend more time sleeping, watching TV, and looking for a job.” That’s the stat that made me conjure up unwashed coffee mugs.

The e-mails also reminded me how many people don’t fit the standard today’s-trend story line. A reader named Cecily wrote in to say that she’s still struggling with her layoff in October—but her husband is struggling more. He works for the same company she used to work for, and “he seems to think that the company should have known that by laying me off, they would risk losing him, as we might go elsewhere looking for something better, and that therefore, my getting laid off was a personal insult to him.” Oh dear.

I got e-mails from a man and a woman from opposite sides of a different gender divide. In both of their (separate) marriages, it was the woman who’d lost her job. Paul reported that his wife “refers to herself as a ‘freeloader’ and makes remarks that she is ‘worthless’ because she is not bringing in an income.” His reassurance, he says, doesn’t seem to help. The laid-off wife who wrote in, Beth, said that since she was laid off in December, her husband “has become increasingly distant, almost resentful.” He’s under pressure at work—additional pressure, since all the earning responsibility is his now—and he misses spending time, which Beth now has more of, with their daughter. “Because the present is so bleak, it is hard to be optimistic about the future,” she concludes.

This is a reminder that women’s work is already integral to the lives of many families. If their jobs have been secondary, it doesn’t mean that either half of the couple wants that work, and the income it brings in, to disappear. So to recap, the recession is increasing the number of couples in which a man’s layoff underscores the importance of his wife’s job—and, secondarily, the number of couples in which a woman’s job loss makes the same point.

To go back to the silver lining, at least for feminists, economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress points out that these trends “confirm that the opt-out story”—the notion that educated women were voluntarily abandoning their careers in droves—”turns out to be a non-story.” It’s nice to be able to put that claim, with all the back and forth and woman-on-woman finger-pointing it caused—to rest. There’s another piece of data, however, that’s drearier. Women aren’t suffering layoffs at the same rate as men in part because they’re earning less. They still tend to work in lower-paying fields, or on the lower rungs.

That leaves me to imagine a family with a husband rattling around the house, unemployed and unsettled about it, while his wife keeps working but brings home a paycheck that’s less than half the income the two of them used to make together. Boushey’s concern is that this scenario won’t be a fleeting one, because these laid-off  men won’t find new jobs in a few weeks or months. Her hope, however, is that eventually the men caught in the economy’s vise will start to find new ways to contribute at home. “Hey, there are a lot of diapers to be changed,” she says. “We’ll be watching how the roles in these families develop.” Me too. I just wonder how much we’ll like what we’ll see.

Addendum, Feb. 23: I’ve got a follow-up question  about the recession and its effect on who’s doing the second shift. Send me  your stories.