NEW YORK — Soon after New Yorker Geralyn Lucas was laid off from her television job in January, she took her 2-year-old son to the playroom of her apartment building. She realized she had never been there before.
Within minutes she had inadvertently broken all the cleanliness rules. "I wore shoes," confesses Lucas, 41. "I brought food. I changed his diaper. I didn't know those things weren't allowed."
When she took Hayden to his playgroup at a toddler center, she had to ask the little boy for directions to his class. And when she went to the pediatrician's office, the nurses were so used to seeing the nanny that they didn't recognize Lucas.
Lucas and other laid-off women like her are involuntarily experiencing the life of a stay-at-home mom, and they are getting to know a lot more about the details of their children's daily existence. They are also discovering some of the things they have been missing.
Happy balance to stress of joblessness
Though the mass layoffs of this recession have so far affected mostly men, more than 800,000 women have lost their jobs since the end of 2007. For the mothers among them, it means that, suddenly, Mommy's home, often for the first time in many years.
For many of these women, unemployment has no doubt been terrifying. But for some — particularly those who have the financial resources to ride out the storm — it has been a precious opportunity to get to know their children a little better.
Mary Quinn, a 48-year-old mother from Greenwich, Conn., was laid off in December after 18 years at a Manhattan investment company, but a severance package has bought her some time to find a new position. After years in which her husband was the main caregiver, she is finding the time off with her children to be an unexpected blessing.
She is savoring small pleasures such as picking up her 11-year-old daughter, Paulina, from school and having a little snowball fight on the way home, or trying out new recipes with Isabelle, 17.
"As a mom, it's been amazing," says Quinn, a former vice president and portfolio administrator at Oppenheimer Capital LLC. She notes with delight how, for the first time, she is the one who gets to hear the schoolday tales that Paulina comes home with.
"I'm getting the stories from her directly now, not secondhand from my husband like before," she says. "I used to be so envious."
But as she well knows, many laid-off mothers have no time to smell the roses.
"I can't say I've seen any mothers who see being laid off as a positive thing," says Jessica Polsky, a career counselor at New York's Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "Even if it's $10 an hour that they made, it's something, and they really needed it. They need to get out and get new jobs."
Even for women who may have a financial cushion for at least a few months, it is hard to focus on the joys of your family at a time of economic crisis, says Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Inc., which publishes Working Mother magazine.
"It's very difficult to juggle anxiety about the economy and pleasure with your kids," says Evans, who herself was laid off from a job 10 years ago and recalls feeling a combination of happiness — at the possibility of a summer with her kids — and panic. "And anxiety is at a fever pitch right now."
Special times, but they'd rather work
Milwaukee mother Shelley Ziech was laid off about a year ago, and her husband got the ax six months later. That has made Ziech's job search even more urgent, but she is still thrilled about the time she is getting to spend with Elizabeth, 12, and Martin, 19.
"It's been one of my greatest joys," says Ziech, 56, who as a sales manager was on the road several nights a week. "Before, I felt like the manager or director of a family. Now I get to do the Mom things — making the lunches, taking my daughter to school. It's been fabulous."
Editor Sasha Emmons, 34, was laid off in January while pregnant with her second child but found a new job a month later.
"It was a mixed bag for me," says Emmons, the Brooklyn mother of a 3-year-old daughter. "On the one hand it was definitely nice, especially pregnant, to have a bit of a rest. And my daughter loved me coming to pick her up from school. It was nice to do art projects and cooking, baking and yoga class together."
On the other hand, "I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I known that everything was going to be okay financially," says Emmons, now an editor at a parenting Web site.
She also learned something from her brief experience being laid off: Financial pressures aside, she prefers working.
"I just felt kind of lost without a job," Emmons says. "Everyone talks about the mommy wars, and you always have that question as a mother: Is the grass greener on the other side? For me, the question was answered."
Lucas, the Manhattan mom, has drawn a similar conclusion, though she is grateful for the chances she didn't ever expect to have — like the snow day she spent recently with her fourth-grade daughter and a school friend, taking them to a pizza lunch, listening to all the school gossip and spoiling them with a trip to buy candy.
As for Quinn, her younger daughter recently delighted her by announcing she had decided to forgo any summer activities — she just wants to hang with Mom.
Once her older daughter is ensconced at college in September, Quinn hopes things will begin moving on the job front. But until then, she plans to make the most of it.
"I want to be able to look back and say that I didn't squander this time," she says.