More Women Become Breadwinners as Male Unemployment Jumps

As the country heads into Mother's Day weekend, many families will be grateful to mothers for a new reason: they've managed to keep their jobs.

The government reported this morning that while the national unemployment rate jumped from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent, employers shed fewer jobs last month than expected -- companies cut 539,000 jobs last month instead of the 620,000 analysts were projecting. The news provided a boost to Wall Street: The Dow Jones industrial average closed up some 165 points.

Employers cut 539,000 jobs in April, less than analysts had projected.
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The April jobs report followed patterns established in previous months, showing that men continue to outpace women in job losses.

While the recession has taken a toll on both sexes, male-dominated industries such as construction and financial services have taken a greater hit than more female-driven professions in areas such as healthcare and education. Between April 2007 and last month, the unemployment rate for men age 16 and older more than doubled to 10 percent; among women, the unemployment rate also increased, but less dramatically -- from 4.4 percent to 7.6 percent.

For families with children, this new economic reality is bolstering an already-growing trend: wives taking on roles as primary breadwinners while husbands -- these days, often newly-unemployed husbands -- stay home to become primary caregivers.

VIDEO: Mark talks about life as a stay-at-home-dad.
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"It wasn't what we originally planned, we can't really say for sure how long we want to do this, but it works for us," said Brie Hudgins, 31, an insurance adjuster in Mississippi.

Hudgin's husband, Jeremy, lost his job at a student loan company more than a year ago and now stays home with the couple's two daughters. Jeremy Hudgins says he relishes spending time with his children, but his new role hasn't come without hang-ups, including a hit to his ego and the disapproval of his parents.

"My parents don't really get what I'm doing," he said. "They think I should be out with a job -- I explained to them, it's not that easy to get a job right now."

While married stay-at-home mothers outnumber their male counterparts by more than 38 to 1, according to recent U.S. Census bureau statistics, the number of stay-at-home fathers has grown substantially: Some 140,000 married men acted as their family's primary caregivers last year, up from 98,000 in 2003.

Before the recession, job loss wasn't necessarily the key factor driving the increase in stay-at-home dads. Monique Derenia, who spent a year researching and filming California stay-at-home dads for her short documentary, "Why Not Dad?", said she found that many fathers volunteered to stay home.

"Most of them talked about the value in and of itself of being more involved than their fathers were," Derenia said. "When it became clear that they would have this opportunity, they jumped at the chance to be more involved with parenting."

Making Ends Meet

The men could afford to stay home with their children, Derenia said, because often their wives earned higher salaries than they did.

But today, wives who assume the roles of primary breadwinners in the face of a husband's job loss may not be as fortunate. According to most recent U.S. Census data, women on average make about 78 cents for each dollar earned by men.

For the Hudgins, it's a statistic that hits home: Her $30,000 salary is about a third lower than what her husband used to earn, she said.

Jeremy and Brie Hudgins, pictured here with one of their daughters, are struggling to make ends meet now that Brie is the family's primary breadwinner./Photo courtesy of Diane Hinchcliff Photography

To make ends meet, the couple has spent their savings, dipped into Jeremy Hudgins' 401(k) retirement plan and gotten help from family. While Brie Hudgins has free health insurance through her job and her children receive health insurance through the state, the family can't afford coverage for Jeremy Hudgins.

For Brie Hudgins, worrying about her family's financial straits are exhausting.

"When the air conditioner broke two weeks ago, I silently freaked out," she said. "I shuffled money around in my head, thinking how are we going to pay for this."

If there's a silver lining to the income challenges faced by today's growing number of breadwinner women, said Andrew Stettner, the deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, it's that they may help increase pressure to shrink the pay gap between men and women.

"We all know of anecdotes man will get a higher starting salary because the boss knows they have to support a family," Stettner said. "Hopefully, that will start reversing."

Less Shock to the Family?

For now, the good news for women like Hudgins is that they face a lot less adversity than they would have years ago.

The last time that the economic climate moved large numbers of women into primary breadwinner roles was the Great Depression, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit group at the University of Illinois.

That era came decades before the women's movement that "clearly established women's rights to work" and so working women met with "huge hostility" for supposedly taking jobs away from men, Coontz said.

"The good news in this recession is that families are more grateful and respectful when a woman steps up to the plate that way," Coontz said. "They've already been working, their families respect the work they've been doing , and so as they need to step up to the plate even more it's not such a total shock to the family system."

But the shock hasn't disappeared completely. Jennifer Walden, a Bowling Green, Ky., mother of two says that her new role in controlling the family finances has brought some tension to her marriage.

"He has to ask me if he needs something...if we can afford this, we can afford that," said Walden, 39, who works as a forecast analyst for an apparel company and whose husband lost his job in October. "I just make all the decisions because I know what needs to be done and I don't consult with him. That might be bad, but right now it's all I know to do."

Bonding With Children

For his part, Walden's husband Don says he doesn't mind that Jennifer makes the family's financial choices. But he does miss working.

"I've always enjoyed going to work," he said. "I've always wanted to be the man of the house. It was a big adjustment, it really was."

But like Jeremy Hudgens, Don Walden said he too treasures the time he now gets to spend with his children.

"I'm just using this time to bond with my sons. I have a very important job, I think," Don Walden said. "It's not one that pays any money, but it pays in a different way."

As fathers grow accustomed to their roles inside the homes, some new breadwinning moms must contend with being the parent who is now less in tune with their children.

"Now I come home, I'm out off the loop some days. I wasn't there to see Sammy hit her head so I don't know why she was upset. I don't know what Sammy's favorite gummy bears are anymore," said Brie Hudgins. "I'm not the one with them all the time. I'm not the preferred parent anymore."

Jennifer Walden said it's been difficult to explain to her children why they see her so much less than they see their father.

"Little minds just don't understand what's going on in the world," she said. "I tell them I have to go to work so I can make money for more toys."

Still, both women say they value the relationships their children are developing with their fathers.

"I know how important it is for their emotional growth, and it'll be huge when they get older," Brie Hudgens said. "They'll know, no matter what, their daddy adores them."

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