Why the Recession May Be Good for Families

Like many people who work in industries that have been battered by the recession, I am absolutely thrilled to have a job. And like many who fear the next round of layoffs, I am on my very best behavior at work. (Click here to follow Kathleen Deveny).

Which means that when I have to take my daughter to the pediatrician or cut out early to attend her school's winter concert, I will probably lie and say I have to go to my own doctor instead. I am lucky to have reasonably flexible work hours, and an extremely flexible boss. But in an era of rampant job insecurity, it seems indefensible to request time off to hear my kid sing an Italian folk song—or get her a flu shot. Wouldn't that time be better spent doubling my productivity or developing new revenue streams?

Other working mothers sometimes employ the same strategy. When I heard that a friend had gone home sick recently, I e-mailed her to make sure she was OK. "I just had to take [Junior] to the doctor," came the response. "What was I supposed to do?" she asked, when called on her deception. "I'm worried about my job, but my kid has had a cough for four weeks!"

With schools winding down for the holidays, the flu season picking up, and unemployment topping 10 percent, anxiety has never been more acute for many working parents. That is especially true of working mothers. America is approaching a milestone: women are about to hold more than 50 percent of jobs for the first time, in part because men have been hit harder by layoffs. And yet women still shoulder the bulk of child-care responsibilities because of retrograde family roles, school-event schedules, and employers' attitudes. All of which can force an otherwise honest woman to fib.

In part, the reaction is rational. Maternal profiling is real. When a working father takes time off to watch a ballet recital, he's seen as noble. When a working mother rushes out of the office to care for a case of head lice, she's more likely to be labeled undependable. Mothers looking for work are less likely to be hired, are offered lower salaries, and are perceived to be less committed than fathers or women without children, according to a 2005 report by Shelley Correll, now an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University. And according to a 2007 survey by Elle/MSNBC.com, female bosses are twice as likely than their male counterparts to be seen as having family obligations interfere with work.

Sure, working dads do more chores around the house than their fathers did. But the waiting room at my pediatrician's office is still invariably packed with women. Working mothers spend 60 percent more time each day on child care and household tasks than employed fathers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And when a father faces unemployment, he is likely to spend just one minute more per day—just one minute!—on child care. (He will, however, carve out 83 more minutes to watch TV.) Unemployed mothers, on the other hand, spend nearly twice as much time as working moms taking care of their kids, all while they too look for work.

I would like to believe that for families who can get through this economic slump in one piece—without losing jobs or health insurance or homes—these hard times might encourage a rebalancing of responsibilities. Women's salaries are now critical to the well-being of more than 40 percent of American families, and so men must do better on the home front, doing the dishes, yes, but also planning the dinner that precedes them. "I hope this will lead us past the mommy wars and to the parent wars," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "We need to get away from the idea that one person has to do all the parenting."

We might also want to abandon the notion that attending every single school event is pivotal to our children's happiness. What if I told my 9-year-old that, much as I would love to attend her class holiday party, I have to work instead? She would be upset—I would be upset—and then we would get over it. I can't imagine it would come up in future psychotherapy sessions.

Maybe the recession is good for more than just rebalancing family roles. Maybe it can bring a new level of sobriety to parenting itself. "I love this recession for families," says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author. "It's helping kids learn to tolerate disappointment and frustration." I'm not sure I love the recession. And I'll probably go to the class party anyway. But at least now I'll admit it to my boss. Maybe.

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