June 19, 2009
For laid-off dads, one size does not fit all
Convinced that not all laid-off dads become either the domestic divas or identity-stripped depressives the media makes them out to be, I spoke with more than a dozen unemployed fathers myself this month.
Sure, some were thrilled to be home cooking, cleaning, and slinging diapers. And a couple of "Leave It to Beaver" diehards felt that a man had no place rubbing elbows midmorning with the stay-at-home moms at the grocery store. Instead, they said, it was a man's job to provide for his family, period.
For most of the dads I spoke to, the reality was somewhere in between.
Take Mark Olson. The 52-year-old marketing executive from Henderson, Nev., was laid off and divorced almost two years ago (the two events were unrelated). Today he has primary physical custody of his 13-year-old autistic daughter.
On the one hand, Mark laments the loss of his professional identity.
"I like to work," he told me. "A lot of who I am, what I take pride in, and the reason I get up in the morning is because I like what I do. My preference would have been to work every day for the past two years."
On the other hand, he relishes the time he's had to help his daughter with her social skills, sign language training and schooling while he looks for work throughout the western U.S.
"When my ex and I split, my daughter suffered from a radical change of family structure, domicile and daily routine," Mark said. "The work break has been beneficial in giving me the time to spend with her to get her re-centered. I've seen huge growth in her that she might not have experienced if I was working and she was in the care of au pair."
As for mingling with the other stay-at-home parents, Mark's all for it.
"I'm a single man," he said. "I don't have a problem hanging out at the playground with the single moms."
Fortunately, Mark's had enough savings and landed enough consulting work to keep himself and his daughter afloat these past two years. But many of the dads I spoke too weren't as lucky. Some were accumulating debt or borrowing money from relatives. One single dad whose business went under was selling his house and renting a room from a friend.
In other words, we can't sum up what laid-off dads want and feel without factoring in their financial, marital and child care situation. There's not one nice, neat narrative to sum up what they're all experiencing.
The experts I spoke with concurred.
Over at the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank, senior economist Heather Boushey told me there isn't any hard data yet on how the recession is causing families to redistribute the household labor and what men have to say about all this.
Benjamin Alberti, an anthropologist at Massachusetts' Framingham State College who studies masculinity, agreed that it will be interesting to see what, if any, long-term effects this recession will have on gender roles at home.
"If you stop thinking about it as 'I'm an unemployed man' and instead think about it as 'I'm a man who's watching the kids -- I'm a father,' that would introduce some lasting change in terms of gender equality and undermining this male-provider thing," he said.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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