She Works, He Doesn't

Since the beginning of time, anthropologists believe, women have been programmed to seek a mate who can provide for a family--whether that means dragging the mastodon back to the cave or making the payments on the Volvo. So when Laurie Earp walked down the aisle, she joined hands with a man most brides would consider a good catch: a lawyer. "By marrying a lawyer," she says, "I thought he'd be able to bring in money." Freed from the need to earn a big paycheck, Laurie imagined herself in a part-time job, one that allowed her to spend long afternoons with their children.

For a time the Earps realized that vision. Jonathan earned a six-figure salary as a lawyer at Napster, while Laurie worked leisurely hours as a fund-raising consultant. But last May Jonathan was laid off; he still can't find work. So, reluctantly, Laurie has become the breadwinner. On a recent evening their son, Dylan, 5, skipped through their home in Oakland, Calif., praising how well his stay-at-home dad cares for him. But Dylan is the only one pleased with the turnabout. "This is not the life I wanted," says Laurie, who's heading off to an after-dinner meeting with clients. Meanwhile, Jonathan spends his days doing housework and preparing badly cooked dinners. "I hate it all," he says.

Like several million American families, the Earps are experiencing the quiet, often painful transformation that takes place when Dad comes home with a severance package. The unemployment rate hit 6 percent last month, and while that's low by historical standards, some economists say it underestimates the difficulties facing laid-off workers--especially white-collar men who've been victimized by corporate downsizings. Despite Alan Greenspan's predictions of rosier times on the horizon, some experts talk of a growing problem of "underemployment" that goes beyond the nation's 8.8 million jobless. Their numbers include people forced to accept part-time work, all those newfound "consultants" who are playing computer solitaire but producing little income, and "discouraged workers" who've given up job hunting altogether.

The good news, at least for the 1.7 million unemployed men who are married, is that their wives are better equipped than any generation in history to pick up the financial slack. Women are currently earning more college degrees and M.B.A.s than men. In 1983, women made up 34 percent of high-paying "executive, administrative and managerial" occupations; in 2001 they were nearly half of that category. They've also weathered the recession better than men, because traditionally female industries like health care and education have suffered less than male-dominated businesses like manufacturing. Although the average woman's wage still trails a man's (78 cents to the dollar), enough women are breaking into better-paying professions that in 30.7 percent of married households with a working wife, the wife's earnings exceeded the husband's in 2001. Many of these women were born and bred for the office; they wouldn't want it any other way.

Within these homes, some of the husbands have voluntarily dialed back their careers (or quit work entirely) to care for kids and live off their wives' income. Some experts use a new phrase to describe high- income female providers: Alpha Earners. For some families, this shift works wonderfully; for others (especially those forced into it by layoffs), it creates tensions. Regardless, it's a trend we'd better get used to. Like runners passing the baton in a track event, many 21st-century couples will take turns being the primary breadwinner and the domestic god or goddess as their careers ebb and flow. Says marriage historian Stephanie Coontz: "These couples are doing, in a more extreme form, what most couples will have to do in the course of their working lives."

Most experts believe the number of families converting to the "Mr. Mom" lifestyle remains quite small. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 5.6 percent of married couples feature a wife who works and a husband who doesn't. But that information is misleading: most of those nonworking husbands are retired, disabled or full-time students, not househusbands who care for the kids. On the other hand, many of the men who have put their careers on the back burner to watch the kids still have part-time or entrepreneurial gigs of some sort, so they don't show up in that number. So to better understand the Alpha Earner phenomenon, some researchers focus instead on those households where the wife outearns the husband. They're crunching the data to eliminate men who are retirees or students, and to seek families where the wife's career appears dominant (by finding, say, households where the wife earns 60 percent or more of the family income). Until the 1990s these numbers were tiny. But University of Maryland demographer Suzanne Bianchi recently began analyzing new 2001 data. Her initial results suggest that 11 percent of marriages feature an Alpha Earner wife. There's probably one in your neighborhood: in the news-week Poll, 54 percent of Americans said they "personally know a couple where the woman is clearly the major wage earner and the man's career is secondary."

The shift is showing up more frequently in pop culture, too. "Friends" fans spent much of this season watching Monica support her unemployed husband, Chandler. (To recycle an old Thursday-night catchphrase: "Not that there's anything wrong with that.") Eddie Murphy hits theaters this week in "Daddy Day Care," in which he plays a laid-off dad whose wife becomes the primary breadwinner. In bookstores, Alpha Earners are at the heart of Allison Pearson's novel "I Don't Know How She Does It" and "The Bitch in the House," a collection of feminist essays. "There are few things that make a man less attractive to women than financial instability," writes one contributor. "We can deal with men in therapy, we can deal with men crying, but I don't think gender equality will ever reach the point where we can deal with men broke."

Fathers who voluntarily choose the househusband role are challenging that sensibility. Last month three Chicago men gathered for breakfast at a suburban strip mall. Each has a wife with a lucrative job--two in finance, one in market research--and each man had achieved enough workplace success that he felt able to ease off the throttle. Ron Susser, 43, was chief financial officer for a consulting firm; today he practices the 4 O'Clock Shuffle, his name for his frantic afternoon cleaning binge. "When my wife comes home, she expects the pantry to be stocked, the house to be in order and dinner cooked--I consider that my job," Susser says. David Burns, 49, was a computer consultant; today he's a Brownie leader. Scott Keeve, 52, oversaw 150 employees for a food distributor. When the nanny told his two kids she'd quit if they didn't behave, Keeve took the job himself. Like so many women before them, these guys are learning to adapt to a job without paychecks, business lunches or "attaboys." You get the sense that if the Lifetime cable channel installed cameras in their homes, there's a ready-made reality show to be found in their bouts of ambivalence.

For Bill Laut, a former real-estate appraiser, those moments come frequently. While his wife, Sheila, racks up frequent-flier miles as a business-development executive, Bill hauls their 6-year-old triplets to the grocery store, where strangers gawk. "Your poor wife," they say, to which Laut has a standard reply: "I look around very dramatically and then ask them, 'Do you see her here?' " When his kids were younger, he'd be watching football with --friends, and talk would inevitably turn to work. "I changed 27 diapers today," Bill would interject, only to be heckled: "Get a job!" "At parties I feel like an outcast," Bill says. "I tell people what I do and some of them are thinking, 'What a freeloader.' Everyone pats you on the back, but I wonder, are they patronizing me or being sincere?"

But on good days, many househusband-by-choice families are so jubilant about their lifestyle they sound like the "after" example in an ad for antidepressants. Dan and Lynn Murray were both Chicago lawyers when Lynn became pregnant with their triplets. Assessing their lives, they decided Lynn was happier in the office. "I'm sort of a type-A personality who likes to control my environment, and there's more of that at work than at home," she says. Today Dan cares for their five children; Lynn hopes he never returns to work. Brian and Maria Sullivan of Highland Park, Ill., saw their income drop 40 percent when Brian quit his sales job to care for their two kids, now 5 and 3 (Maria's a VP with a big computer company). Brian had resisted quitting, but now he sees the upside. "How many dads get to potty-train their kids?" he says. When they're teenagers, Brian would like to spend some afternoons on the golf course. "That's fine as long as he's chaperoning every field trip and is there at every sports practice," Maria says.

Many such couples have simply decided that no matter how much lip service companies pay to "family friendly" policies, it's simply not possible to integrate two fast-track careers and kids without huge sacrifices. So they do a cold-eyed calculation, measuring the size and upside potential of each parent's paycheck, and opting to keep whoever's is larger. For the highest-achieving women, the trend is striking. Last fall Fortune reported that more than one third of its "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" have a stay-at-home man (it dubbed them "trophy husbands"). But this trend reaches women far below the executive-vice-president rank. Patty Lewis, 42, is a video producer and meeting planner in east Dallas; her husband, Spencer Prokop, 45, is an actor. When son Chase arrived, her income was steadier, so Prokop stayed home. Dad feels isolated, and he's given up on lugging Chase along to occasional auditions. "This notion that I would have this time to work on myself--well, that goes right out the window," says Prokop, who misses the luxury of uninterrupted bathroom time. After Lewis's 12-hour workdays, she's often too beat for spousal conversation. Sometimes Prokop thinks he's nagging his wife the same way his stay-at-home mom nagged his father. While they've no regrets that Chase enjoyed a full-time dad for 3i years, Prokop is ready for a change. Their son started day care two weeks ago.

The wives of these househusbands have one universal regret: they spend --too little time with their children. Of course, two-career couples with kids in day care express similar sentiments. Still, becoming the family's only revenue stream can add a dose of anxiety, even to a job you love. "I feel an intense pressure being the sole wage earner," says Sally Williams, 28, a Philadelphia lawyer with a 4-year-old daughter and a stay-at-home husband. "The house, the car--everything is riding on my shoulders." Some Alpha Earners say colleagues assume that their husbands are deadbeats who can't hold jobs. They also complain about the other extreme: how the novelty of Dad's dialing back can lead people to lavish him with too much praise. Says Beth Burkstrand-Reid, a lawyer in Washington, D.C.: "I'm doing a good job of supporting the family, [but] no one is giving me a pat on the back."

Feminists see the emerging era--when it's no longer the default choice that the kids will be watched by Mom, the nanny or a day-care center--as a necessary evolution. "The first half [of the feminist vision] was to liberate women from domestic servitude," says Suzanne Levine, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine and author of "Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First." "The second half was to integrate the men back into the family." But while many dads now help with 3 a.m. feedings, it hasn't led to wholesale acceptance of wives as breadwinners. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 41 percent of Americans agreed that "it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family." One in four said it was "generally not acceptable" for a woman to be the major wage earner in a marriage.

While those attitudes may fester, the data suggest women's economic power will only grow. And as you plot out those trend lines a few --decades, it's easy to imagine more-dramatic implications. For example, conventional wisdom is that once a man earns a certain income, whether his wife works becomes optional. Does that mean work will become equally optional for men whose wives bring home big paychecks? For many families, it appears so: in the NEWSWEEK Poll, 34 percent of men said that in their relationship, if the wife landed a big pay raise, the husband would consider not working or reducing his hours.

Here's a related twist: we know many women consider a man's earning potential when choosing spouses. (Why do you think they're hiding the bachelors' occupations on "Mr. Personality"?) But as women's earnings rise, are more men paying attention to women's earning potential when they choose a mate? Yes, says University of Wisconsin economist Maria Cancian, who believes high-earning women are starting to be seen by men as a "good catch." As for high-powered women, Cancian wonders if their view may be changing, too. "Are we now in a situation where very career-oriented women might look for husbands that are less career oriented" and better equipped to nurture the kids full time?

Those questions will take years to answer. In the short term, there are aspects of this role reversal that are less cheery. By all accounts, the shift to wife as breadwinner is far more difficult when it's forced on couples because of Hubby's layoff. Predicting --which families will suffer most is largely intuitive. Men who identify closely with their jobs or believe in traditional gender roles are hit hardest. Younger couples--the ones who grew up listening to "Free to Be... You and Me" while their moms were at work--tend to take the turnabout more in stride (sidebar, below).

But there are also wrinkles that aren't obvious. Working-class families may suffer less psychic whiplash because lesser-skilled workers have always been more susceptible to layoffs. As layoffs have crept up into white-collar ranks, they've taken more families by surprise. "When transitions are unexpected, then people are more likely to think it's somehow your fault, and that compounds the problems," says University of California, Berkeley, marriage researcher Philip Cowan.

Sherie Zebrowski was so unprepared for her husband Sean's layoff that she thought he was kidding when he came home with the news. The $80,000-plus-commissions he'd earned as an Austin, Texas, software salesman had allowed Sherie to care for their two children, train for triathlons and teach Sunday school. After his layoff two years ago, Sean spent months unsuccessfully looking for a similar job. For a while, the couple just hung on. "I tried not to fault him--he was good at what he did," Sherie says. "But after a while, you can't help but question: Is he looking in the right places? Could he be doing more?" To pay the bills, Sherie began turning her hobby--decorative painting--into a business. Soon she was working 10-hour days--and doing most of the housework while Sean surfed the Web. When their parish priest asked how they were doing, Sherie burst into tears. She told the priest: "I understand how the stress of being unemployed can break up a marriage."

So the Zebrowskis sat down for what they recall as The Talk. "I said, 'Either get a job at a checkout counter or you have to help me'," Sherie says. So Sean created a marketing plan for her painting business. He began estimating jobs and boosting prices. They began hiring subcontractors. They're surviving, but it's far from ideal. "I'm still looking for a job," Sean says. "When I get it, Sherie can go back to sleeping in. This is not what I want to do, but I like to eat. I will get back to selling software. It's just a matter of when."

One element of the Zebrowskis' experience is near universal: among these couples, who does the housework becomes a battlefield. Some men claim wives develop bionic eyesight once the husband is home all day. "I don't tend to see dirt, but she can spot a single molecule," says Brian Reid, a former reporter who now cares for daughter Clio while his wife practices law. Sociologists speculate that some men actually do less housework when they stop working. Why? Being out of work already threatens their manhood, and taking on "feminine" tasks like cleaning the toilet might only make them feel worse.

For families of laid-off househusbands, there's a more obvious source of marital tension: money. During the Internet boom, Gregg Wetterman prospered by organizing networking parties for Dallas techies. His wife, Jennie, remembers those days fondly. "The summer of 2001, I was at the pool every day," Jennie says. "I went scuba diving, sky diving--I must have read 30 books that summer." But when the tech bubble burst, Gregg bounced through a series of unstable jobs. As his career outlook became bleaker, an old boss of Jennie's called and asked if she wanted a management job at Old Navy. Says Gregg: "When she got the opportunity, I said, 'You don't have to,' but inside I was saying, 'Please, please, please...' "

While Jennie works 50 hours a week, Gregg carts their kids to school and works on documentary films (he hasn't sold anything yet). Their two cars have a combined 286,000 miles; they've ditched their cell phones to cut expenses. At the kitchen table, the tension is palpable. Gregg argues it's smarter for him to keep pursuing nonpaying opportunities related to his aspirations--filmmaking and technology marketing--than to take an unpleasant job just to pay the bills. When the economy picks up, he figures he'll find something that pays well in his field. But he realizes the family can't wait forever. "I'm not pulling my weight financially," he says. Jennie is sometimes resentful. "I would just like for everybody to do their part," she says. "I don't want to be in this situation two years down the road. I'll have to put my foot down." Gregg says it may not come to that. "There's no telling," he says. "Jennie could get a better job."

For many couples, switching in and out of roles may become a routine part of life. Counselors say that 21st-century careers will involve more jumps between industries and more time out of work for retraining or as a result of downsizing. Ted and Jenny Cater, 40 and 43, already have that routine down pat. In 1999 Ted, a salesman, relocated to San Francisco with his company. When his employer went bankrupt, Jenny, who works in marketing, immediately received a call about a $100,000-a-year job in Atlanta. So they moved her career to the front burner; Ted stayed home with daughter Megan. Then two months ago Jenny was laid off. They're expecting a baby next month, but by July they'll both be job hunting. "Whoever wins the best position wins a ticket back to coffee breaks and time to check e-mail," Jenny says. "Not that we don't want to stay at home with the kids, but we are both geared for working."

Some younger couples are talking about these issues long before kids or job-lessness enters their lives. Jennifer McCaskill is a 33-year-old Washington, D.C., lawyer; Ryan Schock, 28, is an accountant. As they look ahead to their September wedding, they're already talking about who might care for their future children. "Quite honestly, I don't want to stay at home," McCaskill says. "I won't make partner if I'm not working full time--and my earnings potential is higher." Schock's response: he'd love to be a full-time father. "He has a lot more patience than I do," McCaskill says. "I think he would be a better parent for our kids." With his master's degree and experience, Schock doesn't think a few years off would kill his career. "She would lose more than I would," Schock says. As more Alpha Earners roam the earth, that kind of outlook may be worth a premium. Forget doctors or lawyers. For a certain kind of woman, a laid-back guy like Ryan Schock may become the ultimate good catch.