Silver linings and family values

[From an op-ed in progress...]

It’s a new media trend: Since 80 percent of people laid off in the recession have been guys, pundits and journalists are asking themselves if this will cause men to do more at home. More women as breadwinners and more men at home is “a thought to file under ‘let’s try to find a silver lining,’ ” writes Lisa Belkin at the New York Times Slate‘s Emily Bazelon takes a dimmer view, imagining “a family with a husband rattling around the house, unemployed and unsettled about it, while his wife keeps working but brings home a paycheck that’s less than half the income the two of them used to make together.”

Over in the United Kingdom–which is experiencing the same kind of downturn as we are here–Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg triggered a firestorm of criticism for suggesting that men losing jobs should “re-invent” themselves as stay-at-home dads, and “that unemployment could have a ‘liberating effect’ on outdated views about what was men’s work.” He’s been accused of emasculating British industrial workers.

Perhaps Clegg, a politician, might be criticized for having a politically tin ear, but he’s absolutely correct: economic downturns can open up new possibilities for men, and this recession is likely to have a huge effect on gender relations.

During the Great Depression, unemployment would utterly destroy men, because their entire identities were based on their jobs and their ability to support families. At the same time, however, widespread unemployment had the ironic effect of allowing more caring and cooperative conceptions of fatherhood to gain a hearing. According to a study by historian Ralph LaRossa and colleagues, more books and magazine articles in the Great Depression promoted the idea of the “New Father” than at any other time before or since. “Measuring virality and manliness in ways that were independent of whether one had a job [served] to counterbalance the emasculating effects of the Depression,” writes LaRossa.

And as more men were tossed out of work, more women found jobs. The number of married women working outside the home almost tripled from 1900 to the middle of the Depression; women zoomed from being less than 3 percent of clerical workers at the end of the 19th century to being more than half in the Depression. Incomes rose accordingly.

Women’s employment and incomes continued to grow throughout the 40s and, yes, even the 50s–and expanded straight through the 70s and 80s, when men’s economic prospects started to dim. It’s no accident that the hero of the 1982 film Mr. Mom–which marked the film debut of the stay-at-home dad–was a laid-off autoworker named Jack. Had Mr. Mom been made in the 1930s, it would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment.

But a lot had changed in America between the time of the Great Depression and Mr. Mom. Ultimately, Jack masters househusbandry while his wife becomes a successful ad executive. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic instability, argues Mr. Mom, men must do exactly what Nick Clegg suggests, and reinvent themselves as caregivers. Moreover, the film suggests that men ought to support their wives’ career aspirations, a startling departure from the past.

In the face of today’s financial disasters, women are economically stronger than ever and men’s identities are much more diverse. Since 1965, according to several empirical studies, men’s time with children has tripled. Since 1995, it has doubled. So has the number of stay-at-home dads. Researchers are finding that even low-income and chronically unemployed men are finding meaning and satisfaction in taking care of kids–whereas in the past, they would consciously reject those roles. As motherhood has shifted to include careers, the definition of fatherhood has shifted from pure breadwinning to one that encompasses both breadwinning and caregiving.

I call it “the daddy shift.” A bad economy is bad for mothers, fathers, and children–and, indeed, everyone. None of us can wave a magic wand and bring our jobs and a healthy economy back; for many of us, life is about to become very hard.

But the history of the American family teaches us that we can grow stronger in the places where we have been broken. The key, research reveals, is for mothers and fathers to cultivate loving relationships with each other, and to prize time with children. That can be hard to do when you don’t know how you’re going to pay the mortgage, and yet we are even worse off when we lose each other as well as the house.

When journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the remarkable memoir The Beautiful Struggle) was laid off from Time magazine in 2007, he became a stay-at-home dad. “You know, getting laid off is always a difficult thing, but it gave me back time with my son,” Ta-Nehisi told me in an interview for my forthcoming book, The Daddy Shift. “That’s absolutely huge. I guess not making much money would trouble me, if I felt I wasn’t a very good father. If you are a man who thinks that what you bring to a relationship is economic power and that’s it, then I guess that would trouble you.”

America can learn from Ta-Nehisi. Couples that can support each other and focus on care survive recessions; couples that don’t–who allow stress and despair to take over their family lives–break apart. I would argue that the role reversals American families are experiencing can be a source of strength, and an evolutionary adaptation to a global economy that is intrinsically unstable and technology-based. When the right values are in place, families can survive economic downturns intact, and sometimes even thrive.