Recession has more moms entering workforce

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

At the start of the Great Recession, Lisa Blaker was a stay-at-home mom. Less than a year later, she wasn't. Instead, she became one of hundreds of thousands of women across the country who joined the workforce -- or added hours, or became a sole breadwinner -- amid the nation's most severe economic downturn in generations.

The mothers and wives of this recession have bought groceries, paid mortgages, kept away debt collectors -- stepping in as financial necessity has increasingly altered the eternal struggle between work and home.

Blaker went back to her career in information systems after eight years at home in Gaithersburg. In Silver Spring, musician Alison Crockett continues to work three part-time jobs, even though she had hoped to be with her infant daughter. In Takoma Park, Pamela Fields ratcheted up from part-time to full-time hours, forgoing afternoons with her school-age children.

Recent census data and other figures reflect this reordering of family life: As the recession set in, fewer married women stayed home to raise their children. Wives with jobs worked more. More wives were sole wage-earners. These changes came as men took a bigger hit in the employment market, experiencing three-quarters of all job losses in a gender gap that has led some observers to dub this downturn a "mancession."

"Families are reacting to the reality of economic hardship," said Kristin Smith, a University of New Hampshire family demographer who wrote a paper on the topic. In 2008, the first year of the recession, employed wives contributed 45 percent of household earnings, the high point of the decade, Smith found.

In Gaithersburg, Blaker, 49, had been a stay-at-home mom since her three sons were young, while her husband did well in commercial real estate. But in 2008, with his industry less lucrative, he floated the idea of Lisa returning to her field. One day she came home with a job interview, and their lives changed.

"It wasn't really that we needed the money that bad, but it's a lot more comforting to know there's a second income," said Rob Blaker, 48.

Lisa's job now provides 30 percent of the family's income, while Rob is contributing more on the home front: helping to get their sons to school, to orthodontist appointments and sports practices. "It's like a three-ring circus at all times," Rob said of juggling two work schedules and busy children ages 9, 12 and 13. But, he added, "no question, it's a good thing."

The recession has affected families in different ways.

Crockett, who recently gave birth to her second child, intended to scale back on her hours as a teacher and musician to be with her baby. But her husband's efforts to land a full-time music teaching job did not pan out, so she stayed put. The family needed her income, and she wondered: "In this recession, if I let any of them go, could I get them back?"

The family is making ends meet, but Crockett added, "I don't get a chance to do as much of the hands-on parenting with a newborn that I would like to do -- and that stuff is very important to me, as I think it would be to any mother."

The gender gap shows up in the unemployment rate, which is 10 percent for men and 7.9 percent for women. Experts say male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing have been severely affected by the recession, but several fields dominated by women, such as health care and education, have actually added jobs.

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