When Mom Becomes the Breadwinner

More men than women losing jobs, and it's putting terrible stress on marriages.

March 16, 2009 — -- Ann Pleshette Murphy is "Good Morning America's" parenting contributor. The advise she dispends is her own opinion and in no way endorsed by ABC News.

Since the recession began in December 2007 more than 80 percent of pink slips have been handed out to men, which means more dads are home with the kids, while moms are bringing home the bacon.

But a sudden role reversal can upset the balance within a family, causing stress and tension.

Rick Hemmert, a salesman from Ojai, Calif., used to spend his days calling on clients, not doing laundry. But since he was laid off in November, Rick has found his time consumed by housework and the care of his 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

To keep the family afloat, his wife, Eleanor, also in sales, has increased her hours significantly, often getting up at 4 a.m. and coming home long after Elizabeth is in bed. She said she never imagined that Rick would be the full-time caregiver.

"I don't even like hearing [the term] 'Mr. Mom,'" she said.

The reversal of roles has turned their marriage upside down.

"I think it is in every man's DNA to be the breadwinner. It's very humbling for me," Rick said. "It changes the dynamic of our relationship immensely. There is a wedge that has appeared. I feel the anger. I feel the tension. This house is not as joyous as it should be."

His wife said she also resents the increased time she has to spend away from home. And she admits to seeing her husband in a new — and far less attractive — light.

"It's the respect," she said. "I wish I could say something different, but I've lost so much respect for him. And I think the dynamics with a man and a woman is a woman has to respect her husband. And if she doesn't, that relationship just goes away."

Although Eleanor's honesty is harsh, counselors say her feelings are quite common.

"Often, in the cases where couples are facing role reversal ... there's significant resentment," family therapist Bruce Gregory said. "And the biggest problem with the resentment is not the resentment itself; it's that people act it out. And they end up punishing each other and withdrawing, and more tension develops in the home and nobody benefits from that."

Recession Impacts Family Roles

Children, who often suffer silently, can be especially affected by the tension. When her parents get mad, Elizabeth said she struggles to find ways to respond to the situation.

"I feel like I have to go outside and go on the swing and swing, and then stop, and then go upstairs," she said.

"We don't really have arguments, per se," Rick said. "But Elizabeth picks up on the snippiness. She'll go 'stop it, stop it. Come on you guys.' And that's about as bad as it gets. ... But Elizabeth definitely is picking up on it to say that."

Eleanor said she also notices Elizabeth picking up on the tension.

"I remember ... we were sitting here in the kitchen, and she held one hand out to him and one out to me and just said 'stop,'" she said.

These days, the Hemmerts aren't just arguing more, they're also sleeping in separate bedrooms. And the emotional pain is evident.

"In spite of being laid off, I feel I am so blessed when I get a phone call from my daughter, and she says 'daddy, I don't feel well,' I can be there for my daughter," Rick said. "But the bad hand comes from that I don't have the support from Eleanor."

"That's one of the basic things that little girls grow up thinking — that the man is going to put the roof over her head, he is going to support the family," Eleanor said.

Eleanor also said she is jealous of her husband's time with their daughter.

"I am a woman, I am a mother," she said. "Elizabeth is everything to me. I want to be a mother first, but I can't."

During their interview, the couple spoke about their frustrations and ways to alleviate them.

"This is the closest we have been sitting together like this, in months, years. Yeah, we're touching," Eleanor said.

As the couple opened up about the issues they're facing, Rick said he feels underappreciated.

"A simple 'thank you' would go a long way," he said. "She doesn't think she has to do that."

Eleanor also said she feels like she doesn't get the thanks she deserves.

"I don't think he understands at all. I don't get the 'I really appreciate you working 14 hours today,'" she said.

Couples Struggle With Layoffs

Eleanor said she wishes Rick would take a more dominant role, get a job of any kind and treat her like a woman. Rick, on the other hand, said he wishes Eleanor would appreciate him for what he does and help boost his confidence.

"When there's a job loss, communication needs to be respectful, responsible and sensitive," Gregory said. "It requires not only some trust, but some faith that things are going to work out."

Several steps might help the Hemmerts in the coming months. First and foremost, if communicating is too tough or too fraught, then it would be helpful for them to work with a counselor or couples' therapist.

Most couples therapy is relatively brief and can make a huge difference not only in the short term, but in the future when other challenges arise.

Also, the Hemmerts need to recognize their strengths, not focus on their weaknesses. When a family experiences a major change — whether it's a job loss, role reversal or the arrival of a new sibling — the balance in the family gets thrown off, and the result can be very destabilizing and painful.

But if you've weathered a major change -- for example, the adjustment to parenthood -- then you have tools in your "arsenal" to use when other crises occur.

Eleanor and Rick will benefit if they find outlets for themselves — for example, regular exercise, lunch with a friend and couple time.

The Hemmerts have not taken a vacation without their daughter since she was born, and now they're experiencing increased tension and disconnection. They must build in time together.

And finally, it's critical to remember that the children are listening and watching. Even if you don't think the tension in the marriage is spilling over into your role as a parent, it probably is.

If the kids sense that you are unhappy and you don't talk to them about it, they may incorrectly blame themselves.

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