Switching roles between breadwinner and family caretaker can
shake a family's foundation when the change comes from an
unexpected event such as job loss. Alice Stuhlmacher, professor of
organizational psychology at DePaul University, offers some tips to
ease the transition.
Try to reframe the situation. Realize that in some ways,
this can be a good thing. "Being a stay-at-home dad can give them
the chance to be the father they want to be," Stuhlmacher
Remember you're in this together, with a common goal of
supporting and raising a family. It's a team effort and these roles
will trade off at different times.
Some women think if they're not home much, they're not
good moms. Be honest about what you're feeling and let go of the
Men may be intimidated by the idea of caring for children,
but it's not an innate talent, Stuhlmacher says. Recognize that the
more you do something, the better you are at it.
Communicate and empathize. Be sensitive to what the other
parent is feeling, recognize the frustrations you both feel and
talk about it when something upsets you.
Maritza Rodriguez had worked throughout much of her son's
childhood, but her husband, Jr., was still the primary breadwinner.
He worked in construction, Maritza in telecommunications. Her
take-home pay was not nearly what Jr. earned, but her salary was a
good supplement to his income. Then came the recession and the
construction industry ground to a halt. Suddenly Jr. found himself
a full-time, stay-at-home dad while Maritza became the family's
A recent study found the role-switch the Rodriguez family has
undergone is playing out in more homes across the country as the
recession hits male-dominated industries. The study showed women's
share of family income jumped to 47 percent in 2009 from 45 percent
in 2008, the largest single-year increase in the past 15 years,
says Kristin Smith, author of the study, conducted by the Carsey
Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
But don't think that's a sign of progress for women in the
workforce. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true, says
"This is really an indicator of family financial strain. If you
look at the median family income over the recession, it's gone
down," Smith says. "Poverty rates have gone up. Women are earning
less than men. For the most part, the job loss is of the primary
earners, so they're getting by on their secondary earners, which
they may not have anticipated."
For the Rodriguez family, getting by on Maritza's salary meant
downsizing from renting a house to renting an apartment. They sold
one of their cars and moved from the suburbs to Chicago, where they
could use public transportation. Jr. has taken over the bulk of
child care and housework. Maritza leaves for her job at 5:30 a.m.,
so Jr. wakes up their son Jovannie, gets him ready for school and
packs his lunch. He also chaperones field trips. Because he hates
sitting around while his wife works, Jr. does pretty much
everything around the house with the exception of cooking-he helps
with the prep work for evening meals but isn't ready to tackle
The role reversal is hard on both Maritza and Jr. "It's tough on
him mentally. He feels he should do more, but his hands are tied,"
Maritza says. "I feel good that I'm able to provide for my family,
but it's a lot of pressure with everything on me."
Still, Maritza is lucky. The majority of men who are forced into
the role of Mr. Mom due to the recession aren't helping out any
more than they absolutely have to, says Jenny Hoobler, associate
professor of management at the University of Illinois at
"When a woman is the breadwinner, she does a larger share of
home responsibilities than when a man is a breadwinner," Hoobler
says. "A woman is more actively involved. It's not that they go to
work and come home and relax. Women are still on the second shift
when they come home."
Both Hoobler and Smith fear any gains made by dads taking an
active role in parenting will be lost once the recession is over
because the change was forced on them rather than being something
"It's two different things: men making the decision to parent
and men being forced into it as no better alternative," Hoobler
says. "My assumption is that when the economy improves, this won't
be something that's sustainable. Men will go back to work and still
be the primary breadwinners. But even if men are forced to stay
home and parent because of the recession, maybe it could have the
effect of changing societal values. It can be good to see men in
more active parenting roles, even if it's not a choice they're
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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