The dismal job market is taking its toll on us all. But job losses have been disproportionately hitting men, who are more likely to work in down-and-out industries such as construction and manufacturing. Calling the recession a "Mancession," as many have, is an overstatement. But women represent half of the employed workforce for the first time.
The changing workplace is reshaping households as well. In many families, women have become the primary earners, and men the primary caregivers. They're taking on more household responsibilities both by choice and necessity. From childcare to kitchen chores to errands, the home is becoming the man's domain.
How much of a long-term influence this job market will have on gender roles remains to be seen. But if the three fathers and husbands I spoke with are any indication, unemployment is giving many men a valuable opportunity, not to earn, but to grow.
David Chun (above), 37, lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. He was laid off from a product management position at a music technology company in February 2009. Rather than dive headlong back into the rough waters of the job pool, he became a stay-at-home dad. "It just seemed natural," he says.
Chun was used to seeing his toddler only at night and on weekends; his last job kept him out of the house from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m most weekdays. But in unemployment he's taken on an equal share of the child-rearing. As we spoke, two-year-old Everett played in the background, occasionally interrupting, as toddlers do. On the days his wife works, Chun watches his son, goes to the grocery store and the dry cleaners and does what needs to be done around the house. On the days his wife is off, he looks for work and pursues personal and freelance projects.
On-duty as dad he has little time for anything other than parenting, which has been an adjustment. "For my own sanity I need to see other people," Chun said. Lacking a private workspace in his apartment, he sometimes decamps to the local Starbucks when his wife is home. The separation helps him to be productive.
Chun feels that he could be a full-time homemaker if his family could survive and prosper on one income. "I just needed to gain a certain level of confidence in myself." Over time he did.
Chun recently landed a new job in his field, though, which will mean many more hours away from home again. The additional paycheck will be a welcome change. But he is happy for the time he had at home with his son. "[Everett] will only be a toddler a short while longer," Chun says. "I got to see him change from day to day, which is something most dads miss."
Aaron Artessa, 27, of Brooklyn, NY became a stay-at-home dad by choice. Formerly a designer in the book industry, Artessa quit his job to stay home with his now one-year-old son, Henry. "I can work from home and find freelance work," he said. And "my wife made about twice my salary." it made more sense for him to take over the household duties, and he says, "I really wanted some quality bonding time with my son."
He spends his days jumping back and forth between household and professional responsibilities. Chores and Henry's playtime take up much of the day. When Henry naps or goes to sleep for the night, Artessa does what work he can, answering emails, looking for work or doing research. "It's hard to get anything done," he admits.
Artessa says that being a stay-at-home parent is the hardest thing he's ever done. "The worst of it is the lack of adult connection," he says. "Work provides this kind of intellectual stimulation and I miss it." He's looking to return to a full-time job. But like many unemployed and under-employed men, he finds his job prospects limited.
Still, the choice he made has its upside: "I love getting to know my son," says Artessa. "I love having the kind of relationship that I can understand his cries or little noises. I think a lot of dads of previous generations were almost scared of their children."
Mark Dali, 37, lives in Catonsville, MD with his wife and son. Previously employed as a field marketing manager for a global advertising agency, he became a stay-at-home dad after being laid off. "I consciously decided to devote my time at home to raising my son."
Cooking, errands and playing with two-and-a-half year-old Aidan leave little free time during the day. "I'll put the TV on to Nick Jr. or Disney channel for a half hour to an hour to give me a break to check email, Facebook or shower finally," Dali says. Job hunting has to wait for the two days each week his son goes to daycare. Though it's a significant expense, "we feel it's important for him to play with and interact with other kids his age," Dali says.
Dali also misses the adult interaction that comes with an office job. "Without adult conversations, I feel a little regression in my behaviors every so often and hope it doesn't negatively impact my social skills for either interviews or the daily life after getting a job."
But he relishes his time with Aidan (aside from the occasional toddler temper tantrum). "I teach him about honesty, morality, humor and sarcasm, having fun and being good – and the right way to have action figures drive slippers that look like cars and chase each other around the carpet." The price – worrying about where the next paycheck or mortgage payment will come from – is worth it.
Traditional gender roles are fading when it comes to the logistics of running a household. Families that endure a layoff and get by on one paycheck (or no paycheck) understand this. And they do what's required to survive. Men thrust into the role of homemaker adapt. Many embrace the job and the opportunity it provides to spending fleeting time with their kids. The work is hard and not financially rewarding. The hours are long and social interaction with peers is limited. But these stay-at-home dads cherish the experience.