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When Role-Reversal Hits Home

Across the country, a growing number of married women are becoming the primary breadwinners for their families as more husbands lose their jobs.

Over the last two years, federal labor figures show, the unemployment rate has risen much faster for men than for women—reaching 10.5 percent, compared to 7.9 percent among women.

The dynamic creates not only financial turmoil for households, but emotional stress as wives and husbands cope with a reversal of traditional roles.

Laurie Flanagan of Clovis, Calif., knows that stress all too well.

Flanagan, a respiratory therapist at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, Calif., has been supporting her family since her husband Michael's business selling embroidered promotional apparel went bust last December.

"I just thought, my gosh, what are we going to do?" Laurie Flanagan recalled after two of her husband's biggest clients went out of business and spending by other customers virtually dried up. "Thank goodness for my job ... (but) we were still spiraling downward."

Her paychecks weren't enough to avoid losing their home to foreclosure and filing for bankruptcy. Now the couple and their two children—daughter Kelsey, 3 1/2, and son Kade, 1 1/2—live in a rental home in a quiet neighborhood.

"I'm lucky because the medical field is one that's stable," Flanagan said.

But the strain isn't far below the surface. "It's hard for me," she said. If Kade is asleep when she goes to work or comes home from her 12- to 14-hour shifts, "sometimes I'm away 48 hours without holding him."

She also worries about her emotions rubbing off on the children. "They're smart kids," she said. "If you're under stress, they know it. ... It tends to build up, so you have to make time to unwind and get away from it."

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in the last two years, the number of unemployed men in the workforce rose by more than 5 million—nearly double the number of women who became unemployed in the period.

California doesn't track unemployment by gender at the state or local level. But of about 20,000 jobs lost in the last two years in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties, 16,000 were in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and transportation—industries that federal labor officials say are historically dominated by men.

The same is happening nationwide.

"As husbands lose their jobs, family earnings plummet, and the role of wives' earnings often becomes critical to keeping families afloat," University of New Hampshire sociology professor Kristin Smith said in a report issued last week by the university's Carsey Institute.

"Job loss and unemployment are expected to rise for the next year, alongside the growing importance of wives' earnings to family stability," Smith said. "This increased reliance on wives as breadwinners will continue to shine a spotlight on changing gender roles in the family, equity in the workplace and work/family tensions."

For Teresa and Jeff Douglass of Visalia, Calif., challenges came after he was laid off in August from his job as a welder for a company that manufactured fruit-packing equipment

About a month later, Teresa Douglass lost her job as a newspaper photographer. She was out of work for three months before she landed a part-time job with a nonprofit agency.

"When Jeff lost his job, I was working full time," Teresa Douglass said. "Then I got laid off. It was hard, but I think each of us had more empathy for what the other was going through."

"We're at a time in our lives when we should be working hard and putting away money, but we can't do that now," she added.

Financial stress is only one issue facing families in which the responsibilities have shifted, said Dr. Sue Kuba, a professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University in Fresno.

Each family is different, Kuba added, and cultural differences can affect how a family deals with the upheaval.

In some families, "shame and doubt may keep a couple from talking about the changes in a conscious way," Kuba said. "There may not be clear communication about the need to shift those roles and responsibilities."

A wife who has to work more hours to make up for a husband's lost income "may feel guilty about not being able to be with the children and the other things that she finds emotionally rewarding, or feel that she needs to try to do everything," Kuba said. "He may try to make up for some of the things she's always done at home, and she feels intruded upon."

In the workplace, a woman whose husband has lost his job may become more afraid for her own job as well. "She may become less assertive and have more fear," Kuba said.

Women also may increasingly experience things that traditionally have been associated with men, she said, such as cardiac disease or ulcers. The stress can also express itself in alcohol or substance abuse, she said.

Communication is an important tool.

"They have to make a conscious decision that they need to solve these problems together," Kuba said.

That's how the Flanagans are approaching their situation. Michael Flanagan is launching a publishing company with a book inspired by complications the couple had when Laurie was pregnant with son Kade.

The book details different couples' problem pregnancies from both the husband's and wife's point of view, along with a doctor's explanation of the medical issues.

"It's exciting because it may be able to help other couples who are having problems with their pregnancies," Laurie Flanagan said. And its success, she added, "would be lovely" to ease the financial and emotional burden.

"I look at it like this: I supported her in college and early in our relationship," Michael Flanagan said. "This is just a downturn in which I can't contribute financially as much to the team - but we're still parents as a team."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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