By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; B01
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.
Shoshana Magazine, 41, had been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years when she and her husband received bad news about his job as a construction project manager. They both scrambled to get work.
Magazine took a job as a legal assistant in a firm owned by her in-laws, even though her doctoral degree is in human resources. After four months, her husband found a new position in his field, but it paid less than his old job. She kept working.
Magazine became part of the decline in the ranks of stay-at-home moms, whose numbers have fallen from 5.3 million in 2007 to 5.1 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There was no statistically significant difference in the number of stay-at-home dads.
Although Magazine is glad she has a job, she says she misses the extra time she had with her children, ages 2, 7 and 14. Now the family's evenings are jammed with day-care pickup, homework, dinner and bedtime, though she knows this is nothing new for many families.
The upside: Her older children are more independent and pitch in with chores. And maybe they will benefit from seeing a family pull together in hard times, she said.
"I have really mixed feelings about the whole thing," she said. "But right now, I don't have a choice."
Nationally, Kuae Kelch Mattox, 44, hears an increasing number of stories about the economy's toll on stay-at-home moms, whom her organization, Mocha Moms, brings together in chapters nationwide. In her own case, she said, her husband owns a small business that has been affected by the economy, so "we're feeling the squeeze," which has her looking for a job in journalism after 10 years at home. "I have to do what I can on my end to pitch in more," she said.
Census data show that the number of married, working couples with children younger than 18 declined from 63 percent in 2007 to 59 percent in 2009. Those with only a wife employed edged up from 5 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2009.
For Fields, 51, change has meant tradeoffs.
When her husband lost his position as a lawyer at a small communications law firm, she immediately asked for full-time hours. Still, "we lost more than half of our income," she said. And for her, it was hard to give up her after-school time with her children.
"That's what I really miss, those few hours in the afternoon," she said. "I feel when I get home at 6 p.m., there's no room to breathe." Still, Fields appreciates "the silver linings," she said, which include her husband's increased presence at home; there are more family dinners together, and they've decided to adopt a dog.
Tough times can bring families together -- or severely stress them, experts say. Scores of studies have shown that unemployment and economic instability can lead to feelings of depression and undermine marital satisfaction, said Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan.
In the District, Stephanie Johnson Hunt, 33, said economic turmoil had a role in her marital problems. An engineer who stayed home when her children were born and then started a small business, Hunt and her husband clashed about whether she should return to a job in her field as the recession set in. In fall 2008, she began looking for a full-time position but ultimately separated from her husband and now raises her two children, ages 4 and 7, on her own.
"The financial strain on the marriage definitely played a part," said Hunt, who went in a relatively short period from a stay-at-home mom to a working mom to a single mom. "I don't have another option now. I have to work."
Sometimes rejoining the working world is not easy. Work has been hard to replace in this downturn, with recent figures showing that 41 percent of job-seekers have been unemployed for at least six months.
Doda Johnson, 43, a mother of two in Rockville, has been looking for a job since April, when she and her family returned from her husband's job assignment overseas. "With the economy right now," she said, "I feel like I have to go back to work." But with mostly volunteer work and consultant positions on her résumé, she has had little luck in the nonprofit sector. "I feel frustrated, and I feel kind of hopeless at this point," she said.
Johnson finally took a job caring for a neighbor's child. It generates a small income, which helps but "is not what I aspired for," she said. "I have a master's degree, and I'm babysitting."