(WOMENSENEWS)–Until last summer, Denalee Bell had always considered her Internet and Web site marketing hobby as a side hustle that helped the family living in the prosperous suburban town of Eagle, Idaho, live a little better.
But last summer, as the real estate market headed into the serious doldrums, Bell’s contractor husband ran out of houses to build.
Now Bell, who used to "pick and choose her clients and the projects," is less finicky about project selection and she has upgraded to an additional full-time employee. Market Conversion, Bell’s company, is not quite replacing her husband’s salary as a custom home builder, but it’s coming close, she says.
In short order, Bell morphed from homemaker mother of two boys–9 and 16–into the mother who works nearly 24-7 and barely has time to cook or attend church on Sunday, let alone take her kids to sporting events.
Along the way, her husband–who has taken over caring for the kids full time and helping his wife’s business when needed–has commandeered the kitchen, preparing almost all of the family’s dinners while also doing time-consuming housework such as grocery shopping. He’s pushing the 16-year-old to help more around the house and he’s also become quite adept at keeping the house clean, Bell says.
Primary female breadwinners have been steadily rising since the 1960s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2007 more than 4 million families looked to mom as the main breadwinner, double the number in 1990.
Home Role Reversals
In the current downturn, plenty of women have been losing jobs, but heavy job losses in certain male-dominated industries–such as construction and financial services, perhaps most notably–also means many households are undergoing role swaps that couples may never have expected.
"Particularly in the financial sector, there has been such huge downsizing that it’s happening to a lot of families," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York agency that produced a 2008 study examining the habits and thoughts of working families. "Unexpectedly, because times were so good for so long, when the crash happened in September, it happened fast."
Galinsky said that compared to 2002, families today are psychologically better equipped to deal with a female moneymaker-in-chief as fewer men today are tied to the ideal of a wife who stays home to care for the family.
But as the Bells’ experience shows, it can be tough for breadwinners to change roles.
"We really wanted and needed to put (my) business into high gear, but my husband has traditional values and was battling the feelings that come with being ‘the man’ and bringing home the money," says Bell.
She found herself taking some strong stands.
"Washing dishes? I just quit doing it," says Bell, 36. "I just don’t have the time. I’m working 14-15 hours a day."
Understanding Mom’s Sacrifice
Six months later, Bell says the couple has worked out a lot of their problems. "It’s interesting to see him struggle with the things that I struggled with when the roles were reversed. I appreciate that he is sacrificing what he is sacrificing so we can have some stability."
For the Goddard family of Dallas, the demands of the transition have been intensified because their daughter is still an infant.
Abel Goddard, 34, a drafter who draws blueprints for construction companies, finished his last project last summer. One week before his wife, Stephanie, was due to come off maternity leave, Abel lost his job. He’s been taking care of 8-month-old Annalise ever since.
Meanwhile, Stephanie has been working hard at her local bank job, where she’s pulling overtime in the securities department, trying to make ends meet.
At first he found it difficult to take over as "Mr. Mom" and be what he calls the baby’s "whole world." But six months into it he thinks it’s fair if his wife gets miffed when the basic chores are undone. "Basically you have to recognize your responsibility and take care of what has to be taken care of."
Stephanie Goddard, in turn, is missing her baby girl’s first smiles and laughs.
"I feel a constant pressure," she says. "I feel that I have to go above and beyond on my job so that I can keep my job. I didn’t really plan for this."
Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist, warns that such transitions often breed serious resentments.
Money-Fueled Marital Strife
A man’s ego is often tied up in his profession, says Lieberman, so joblessness can lead to infidelity or other forms of marital strife.
The wife who works outside the home will "feel sorry at first for their husbands who are now out of a job, and will try to boost their self-esteem," says Lieberman. "But, after weeks of seeing him sitting around the house, becoming more discouraged and escaping into TV, the Internet or his friends, the wives’ patience will be exhausted and they will increasingly resent being the primary breadwinner. This is when the arguments start and things can get out of hand, including alcoholism, domestic violence and cheating to boost his sagging masculinity."
"We won’t be having babies until I get a job," said Brandon Mendelson, an unemployed and newly wed man from upstate New York.
He and his wife, Amanda, recently moved in with her parents to help make ends meet. At the moment, her part-time job as a substitute teacher is their sole source of income. "She can’t even get a full-time job because no one else is retiring."
Financial counselor and psychotherapist Ken Clark urges laid-off husbands to take the upper hand at home, especially if the wife is coming home dog-tired and snippy. He sees a lot of depression in his male clients, many of whom used to have jobs in real estate.
"They kind of get frozen," Clark says. "They can’t get off the couch; they can’t get off the Internet. They remain detached and it creates a unique situation for the wife."
Clark, whose forthcoming book, "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting out of Debt," part of the well-known consumer guide series published by Penguin, says the role switch can have an upside for women.
"What I see is women beginning to get to this point where they say, I’m gonna buy what I wanna buy because I earn the money, and if I want to treat myself to better shoes then I will," says Clark. "This may be kind of healthy. I see (some women) becoming a little more independent and entitled."
In the end, couples facing difficult times are advised to talk to each other, try counseling and keep open lines of communication.
"I love him more than I did before because I realize how hard this is for him," says Bell. "We have constant communication about it. And if the dishes don’t get done, they don’t get done. It’s not the end of the world."
Adrienne Gibbs is a Boston-based freelance writer.