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After Layoffs, Couples Wrestle With Role Reversal

Layoffs in male-dominated sectors are forcing some couples out of traditional gender roles.

Until last summer, Denalee Bell had always considered her Internet and Web site marketing hobby as a side hustle that helped the family living in the prosperous suburban town of Eagle, Idaho, live a little better.

But last summer, as the real estate market headed into the serious doldrums, Bell's contractor husband ran out of houses to build.

Now Bell, who used to "pick and choose her clients and the projects," is less finicky about project selection and she has upgraded to an additional full-time employee. Market Conversion, Bell's company, is not quite replacing her husband's salary as a custom home builder, but it's coming close, she says.

In short order, Bell morphed from homemaker mother of two boys -- 9 and 16 -- into the mother who works nearly 24-7 and barely has time to cook or attend church on Sunday, let alone take her kids to sporting events.

Along the way, her husband -- who has taken over caring for the kids full time and helping his wife's business when needed -- has commandeered the kitchen, preparing almost all of the family's dinners while also doing time-consuming housework such as grocery shopping. He's pushing the 16-year-old to help more around the house and he's also become quite adept at keeping the house clean, Bell says.

Primary female breadwinners have been steadily rising since the 1960s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2007 more than 4 million families looked to mom as the main breadwinner, double the number in 1990.

Home Role Reversals

In the current downturn, plenty of women have been losing jobs, but heavy job losses in certain male-dominated industries -- such as construction and financial services, perhaps most notably -- also means many households are undergoing role swaps that couples may never have expected.

"Particularly in the financial sector, there has been such huge downsizing that it's happening to a lot of families," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York agency that produced a 2008 study examining the habits and thoughts of working families. "Unexpectedly, because times were so good for so long, when the crash happened in September, it happened fast."

Galinsky said that compared to 2002, families today are psychologically better equipped to deal with a female moneymaker-in-chief as fewer men today are tied to the ideal of a wife who stays home to care for the family.

But as the Bells' experience shows, it can be tough for breadwinners to change roles.

"We really wanted and needed to put (my) business into high gear, but my husband has traditional values and was battling the feelings that come with being 'the man' and bringing home the money," says Bell.

She found herself taking some strong stands.

"Washing dishes? I just quit doing it," says Bell, 36. "I just don't have the time. I'm working 14-15 hours a day."

Understanding Mom's Sacrifice

Six months later, Bell says the couple has worked out a lot of their problems. "It's interesting to see him struggle with the things that I struggled with when the roles were reversed. I appreciate that he is sacrificing what he is sacrificing so we can have some stability."

For the Goddard family of Dallas, the demands of the transition have been intensified because their daughter is still an infant.

Abel Goddard, 34, a drafter who draws blueprints for construction companies, finished his last project last summer. One week before his wife, Stephanie, was due to come off maternity leave, Abel lost his job. He's been taking care of 8-month-old Annalise ever since.

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