Across the country, a growing number of married women are becoming the primary breadwinners for their families as more husbands lose their jobs. • Over the past two years, federal labor figures show, the unemployment rate has risen much faster for men than for women — reaching 10.5 percent, compared with 7.9 percent among women. • The dynamic creates financial turmoil and emotional stress as wives and husbands cope with a reversal of traditional roles.
Laurie Flanagan of Clovis, Calif., knows that stress all too well. Flanagan, a respiratory therapist at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, Calif., has been supporting her family since her husband Michael's business selling embroidered promotional apparel went bust last December.
"I just thought, my gosh, what are we going to do?" Flanagan recalled after two of her husband's biggest clients went out of business and spending by other customers virtually dried up. "Thank goodness for my job . . . (but) we were still spiraling downward."
Her paychecks weren't enough to avoid losing their home to foreclosure and filing for bankruptcy. Now the couple and their two children — daughter Kelsey, 3 ½, and son Kade, 1 ½ — live in a rental home in a quiet neighborhood.
"I'm lucky because the medical field is one that's stable," Flanagan said.
But the strain isn't far below the surface. "It's hard for me," she said. If Kade is asleep when she goes to work or comes home from her 12- to 14-hour shifts, "sometimes I'm away 48 hours without holding him."
She also worries about her emotions rubbing off on the children. "They're smart kids," she said. "If you're under stress, they know it. . . . It tends to build up, so you have to make time to unwind and get away from it."
Financial stress is only one issue facing families in which the responsibilities have shifted, said Dr. Sue Kuba, a professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University in Fresno. Each family is different, Kuba said, and cultural differences can affect how a family deals with the upheaval.
In some families, "shame and doubt may keep a couple from talking about the changes in a conscious way," Kuba said. "There may not be clear communication about the need to shift those roles and responsibilities."
A wife who has to work more hours to make up for a husband's lost income "may feel guilty about not being able to be with the children and the other things that she finds emotionally rewarding, or feel that she needs to try to do everything," Kuba said. "He may try to make up for some of the things she's always done at home, and she feels intruded upon."
In the workplace, a woman whose husband has lost his job may become more afraid for her own job as well. "She may become less assertive and have more fear," Kuba said.
Women also may increasingly experience things that traditionally have been associated with men, she said, such as cardiac disease or ulcers. The stress can also express itself in alcohol or substance abuse, she said.
Communication is an important tool.
"They have to make a conscious decision that they need to solve these problems together," Kuba said.
That's how the Flanagans are approaching their situation. Michael Flanagan is launching a publishing company with a book inspired by complications the couple had when Laurie was pregnant with son Kade.
"I look at it like this: I supported her in college and early in our relationship," Michael Flanagan said. "This is just a downturn in which I can't contribute financially as much to the team — but we're still parents as a team."