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October 23, 2012

Honey, I'm Home!


Photo Credit: Scott Pommier/Gallerystock.com

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The larger toll for Sue has been on the relationship: "It's completely crushed our bond. While driving to a concert recently, I asked about his job search and he replied, 'I have no ideas. I got nothing.' Which is what he always says. Then he got silent and the trip was ruined. My friends send him leads on jobs that he doesn't follow up on, and that burns bridges and embarrasses me," she says. (And when he tells her, "You don't know what it's like to look for a job," she actually does. She lost a publishing position in 2010 and had a new job within six weeks.) "I have rage because he won't activate himself, that he's putting his pride over his family."

Attendant to her anger, though, comes sympathy. It's frustrating to watch your partner's feckless job hunt when you have utter faith in his talent and sleep next to him at night. As Sue puts it, "I either want to kick him or hug him." Which is similar to the "I have to laugh or I'll cry" situation that Beth, a teacher from Virginia, finds herself in: "My husband has been unemployed for two years. He has a master's degree — and delivers pizza three nights a week." Their fights are over how he spends his days. How many hours can a man realistically be expected to sit at a computer, waiting for a receipt-of-résumé e-mail from some phantom HR department? "In the winter, he might go snowboarding midweek," Beth says. "In the summer, he'll sit outside at a bar and post photos of beer on Facebook."

To avoid that argument, she says, "I leave him 'honey-do' lists, and he usually fulfills them." (Sue, for her part, sets e-mail networking goals for her husband and asks to be BCC'd on each one.) These lists serve a higher purpose than nagging: It seems men are hardwired to provide for women, and if they're not producing a paycheck, let them at least restock the dwindling Diet Coke supply and do the laundry.

"The thing we kept hearing in our study was that these men like helping their wives," says Myers. "A truck driver said he was excited to get up each morning to make his wife coffee because she likes it, but also because she supports the family. Or guys were dropping their kids off at school. Many jobs don't allow men to do that. If they had to take their kids to dance class, their bosses would laugh at them."

The transformation is akin to "accidental feminism," Myers says. "Men would never choose this situation; it was put on them. But instead of saying, 'I'm a great man because I'm a breadwinner,' they think, I'm still a great man because I'm putting my family first. They have changed what 'providing for your family' means."

And that can work for women, too: Before her husband lost his advertising job, Monica, a business strategist in Wichita, would spend up to half an hour per day job-hunting for him. They bickered about how much sports he watched, how late he slept, how much the lawn needed mowing. But since he was laid off two years ago, he does housework, tends to the pets, drives their daughter to school, and helps Monica with her expanding consulting business. "I decided to take our life to the next stage," she recalls. "And as soon as I started working more and expecting him to deal with things at home, I stopped resenting him." Plus, they argued more about money when he was actually making some: After his layoff, they instituted weekly "status reports" on their finances. (She manages on a macro level with investments, and he manages on a micro level paying the bills.) "Now I'd be heartbroken if he got a job," she says. "I feel like I'm being spoiled."

Which Joyce could say, too, despite her initial panic. "Mike does everything — makes sure I'm eating, sleeping, not stressing out. I think he doesn't allow himself to wallow in self-pity as a protective measure," she says. "He drives me to work just to spend time with me and reminds me to take my vitamins. He shows me that there's more to 'being taken care of' than money."

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