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Unemployed dads work to find their place at home

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By GreatDad Writers   Print
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This article appeared in Seattle Post on January 22, 2009.

Working Dad may soon become Non-Working Dad.

Two weeks ago, the Seattle P-I's owner decided to pull the plug on the print newspaper, and that likely means I'll join the growing ranks of stay-at-home dads -- at least until I find work.

After two decades of making deadlines, the idea of making lunches and more time for my family -- especially my 3-month-old son -- is appealing.

My looming unemployment also got me thinking about the true power of the U.S. economy. When it comes to forcing cultural change, economic shifts eclipse governments, popular movements, even a new president.

Now our relentless recession threatens to reshape American families. Every month it drives more dads out of the work force, forcing parents to hammer out new roles and let go of old ones.

It's a development often lost amid screaming headlines about a collapsing economy. It occurs quietly as newly laid-off dads spend more time scheduling play dates and parents review expectations built over generations.

Yet it's a potentially fundamental shift, because the contraction could accelerate a change already under way within families: the growing role of dads in child-rearing.

"Regardless of how modern or liberal women are, I think there is something deep inside; they have a deep expectation that if push comes to shove it is really the man's responsibility to be the breadwinner," said Pamela Jordan, head of the Seattle-based Becoming Parents program, which helps couples strengthen their relationships and parenting skills.

The problem is, expectations are hard to change.

When Dino Piscione left his job at a major California-based shoe company two years ago, it was supposed to be a short and voluntary break, but it lasted nearly a year.

It didn't take long before friends started asking his wife blunt and rude questions: How long are you going to put up with this? Doesn't he want to take care of his family and be a man?

"I would defend my husband, and then we would come home behind closed doors and (I'd ask), 'How could you do this to me?' " recalled Deborah Perry Piscione, co-founder of Betty Confidential, an advice Web site for women.

For her, the leave produced emotional highs and lows. At the start, she was delighted her husband embraced his new roles as school chauffeur and grocery shopper.

But there were darker turns, when she was angry and he felt emasculated.

"Not only did I lose sleep," Perry Piscione said, "it impacts every aspect of your life."

The roller coaster finally stopped when her husband landed another good-paying job.

More families will take that ride this year because some suggest the U.S. unemployment rate could hit double digits.

They will navigate a minefield of expectation, tradition and necessity that a newly jobless dad can create. Further complicating a new family order is that Dad sometimes does things differently from Mom.

Dad may dodge the school fundraiser, but coach T-ball. He may not always finish the laundry, but the kitchen may sparkle. Or he may not vacuum with Mom's intensity, but he'll fix the garage door.

"Guys just aren't as focused on the cleanliness-is-next-to-

godliness thing," said Paul Banas, who runs the San Francisco-based Web site

"That doesn't mean we are bad at running the household."

It does mean some households will run differently and the growing role of dads in child rearing -- not equal but expanding -- could pick up speed.

It also means more stress.

In her parenting classes, Jordan sees more anxious couples who are trying to deal with the financial strain.

It may sound corny, but Jordan urges those couples to start talking about how they feel, who is going to do what and what parenting standards they will follow.

If a new family order is going to work, experts say parents often must relinquish long-held views and rely on two critical skills of a happy marriage: flexibility and communication.

"Instead of having roles, let's talk about what does it take to make the family work," said Pepper Schwartz, a relationship expert and sociology professor at the University of Washington.

But flexibility is easier to talk about than develop, especially for married parents saddled with generations of ideas about what Mom and Dad should do.

Many moms, for example, are the family gatekeepers, setting play dates, remembering practice schedules and reminding everyone of special school nights.

If Dad is home, "They are going to have to let go of that and learn there are different ways to skin a cat," said Stephanie Coontz, research director for the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families.

Amid the greatest economic uncertainty of a generation, one thing is clear: Whenever and however we emerge from this recession, the American family will look a little different.

"It is a giant, fascinating social experiment," said Coontz. "We have never walked into an economic depression with this kind of gender arrangements and this kind of attachment to family life."
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