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Full-time Daddy: Big Changes in a Bad Economy

In April 2008, I was laid off from The Seattle Times, after working there my entire adult life. When I called my wife, Jane, and told her, she was silent for a moment. Then she became chipper and said, “Well, we can stop worrying about summer camps now!”

Dad's and kid's feetIt was our son Geoff’s first summer out of day care, and we had booked enough day camps to cover half of it. After adding baby-sitters and one week of family vacation, there were still about six weeks in which Geoffrey would be roaming the streets without parental supervision. Lucky for us, The Times gave us a bailout package.

With Jane’s blessing, I didn’t break a sweat looking for work. She liked that I could pick up Geoff at camp every afternoon, without him having to go to after-care. She liked that I was home with Geoff on those weeks in between camps. She liked that little brother Ben was now part-time at day care. She liked dinner on the table every weeknight when she walked in the door — creamy pastas, juicy roasted pork, refreshing salads. She even liked the dirt-stained clothes in the hamper: My daily dedication to mowing, weeding, pruning, threshing, paving and general yard maintenance rivaled that of the finest road gangs.

But there were tradeoffs. Those pork dinners came from Safeway bargain-bin meat instead of Painted Hill’s finest grass-fed. Forget organic pea shoots at $4.99 a pound — try 69 cents (with Advantage card) for a bag of Kroger frozen. We kiboshed a house remodel and cancelled our traditional spring getaway.

I received occasional questions about my job (“What do you do for a living?”), and my standard response was “I’m between jobs,” as if I could return to work at my fancy. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to say “sabbatical,” but I came close.)

As summer waned so did Jane’s patience — and mine. Unemployed, tanned and rested is a fine way to live (and save on child-care expenses), but we started to think my continued unemployment was no longer a choice but fate. I was getting out of my job search pretty much what I put into it: very little. Then I received a call from a recruiter; a week later, I had an interview and resumed work the week following Labor Day.

A growing trend
I left the unemployment pool early, but others aren’t so lucky. In March, the number of unemployed persons increased by 694,000 to 13.2 million, and the national unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has grown by about 5.3 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.4 percentage points.

And indeed, most of the job losses are in male-dominated industries. The unemployment rate for males jumped 1.4 percentage points from December to March, compared to 0.9 percentage points for women. Most of the job losses were in traditionally male industries such as machinery, construction and manufacturing, which lost 161,000 jobs in March.

This recession is marked by excessive job loss for men, and therefore dads. In talking to some of them, I found equal parts hope and dread, and for some, fulfillment of old promises made to their families.

A WaMu withdrawal
Colleen and Chris Mounsey of Seattle were both laid off in 2008. Colleen went first; July 30 was her last day at Washington Mutual. Despite receiving a job offer only a month later, she decided to postpone returning to work until January. She had some severance and wanted to be around to enjoy her son Matthew’s first few months of kindergarten. She figured she had time. “At first I wasn’t nervous about returning to work, because I thought the economic meltdown was WaMu-specific or just bank-specific. I didn’t foresee it becoming as bad as it was. Plus I was pretty burned out from the corporate world, so I spent the first two months off work just decompressing.”

Adding to her sense of security was her husband’s new job as a regional account manager with Anheuser-Busch, a company known for lavish benefits and “jobs for life.” They both thought Chris would retire there. “Shortly after I got hired, a guy who had been there eight years said the tough part is getting hired,” Chris says. “But once you’re in . . . you’re in. That was the mindset.”

But as the economy worsened, Colleen worried the offer she had accepted and postponed would be rescinded. Then, suddenly, Chris’ job security was in peril, following the sale of Anheuser-Busch to Belgian beer giant InBev. On December 18, he was out of a job. When he called Colleen, her immediate concern was losing the fringe benefits. “They gave us a company car, a great insurance package, in-house wireless Internet access — and since I wasn’t working when Chris got laid off, I was concerned about losing all that stuff, along with health benefits. Within 48 hours, all of those things went away. It felt like our hands were getting tied.”

The layoff was a turning point in several ways. “I was really bummed, because coming from what I know about companies, Anheuser-Busch took very good care of their employees and their families,” Colleen says. “I think I was more bummed [about the layoff] than Chris, because I knew companies with benefits like those are dinosaurs … they are a dying breed.”

Chris has had a few interviews since beginning his job search. When he’s not sending résumés, he walks Matthew to and from school, in addition to doing laundry, buying groceries and making dinner. Chris prizes the after-school time he shares with Matthew: “That’s the main benefit to being out of work.”

Speaking of benefits, Chris’ severance from Anheuser-Busch included one year of subsidized health benefits, and the couple pays only $160 per month on that plan. Still, that doesn’t compensate for their 66 percent drop in income. To make ends meet, they cancelled their health club memberships, stopped buying daily lattes and even reduced funding for Matthew’s college fund. “We rarely go out to dinner,” says Chris. “We cut coupons — I even cashed in my big jar of coins to the tune of $600.”

As for cars and houses, they lost the Anheuser-Busch company car and are now borrowing a friend’s car … and avoiding a $400 monthly car payment. In February, they refinanced their house, and now pay $235 less a month on their mortgage.

Despite all of that, Chris’ unemployment actually makes Colleen feel more secure in her new job. “I would have been extremely stressed out right now if Chris was still working,” she says. “I don’t know how we would get everything done and get Matthew to school and sports. I’m new to my company so I have to work longer hours. Companies have more work to be done with fewer people because they’ve laid off so many workers. With Chris home, I don’t have to think twice about working late and putting in lots of hours. So even though we took a big hit to our lifestyle, I have to look at our situation as a blessing in disguise.”

Chris, however, longs to resume working again. “I lied about my age when I was 14 so I could work,” he says. “I wanted to make money. I’m a worker.”

The Times, they are changing
When Diane Bryant first heard her husband, Bob, had been laid off from The Seattle Times, she reacted like they’d won the Powerball. “She said, ‘That’s great!’” recalls Bob, now a stay-at-home dad, student and full-time job seeker. “She was very excited. She knew the hours were hard on me and hard on our family.”

Indeed, for the past five years as a home delivery manager at The Times’ Eastside bureau, Bob’s shift started at 11 p.m. and ended seven hours later, returning home as his family was waking up. He would drop off his sons (6 and 10) at school, do a few more hours of work from home, nap for a spell and pick the kids up at the bell. Then he would make dinner, greet Diane when she came home from work and crash by 5:30 p.m. Five hours later, he would start all over again.

Despite five years as a night owl, Bob’s body never adjusted. “I’d go to bed at 5:30 in the afternoon, but it was hard to fall asleep,” he says, “and it never got easier.”

Nowadays, Bob does a lot of the same things he did when he was employed, and more. He still drops off his children at school and picks them up. “I’m doing the same things I used to do, but now I’m taking college classes during the day, looking for jobs. I have more energy; I’m no longer worrying about sleep. I do the laundry, I do the vacuuming, I do everything so Diane doesn’t have to do much when she gets home.”

You might think unemployment means lots of free time to reconnect with spouse and children. But the truth is that their busy lives continue, even as yours makes a pit stop. School, work, sports and hobbies sap their time, and you’re stuck with the leftovers. You sometimes find yourself watching them from the sidelines as they follow their established routines that for years went on just fine without you.

So it was with Bob. When he lost his 50-hour-a-week job, he gained only four hours a day with his family. That time was the 5–9 p.m. slot, prime time for many families, but foreign to him. He was a stranger to their routine, and found it difficult to fit in.

“For me, that’s been the real adjustment, that 5–9 p.m. period,” says Bob. “They have their regimen. They have the things they were doing, and I’ve had to kind of throw myself in and adjust to what they want to do.”

Still, he’s not complaining. “Since leaving The Times, my energy level is better, my tolerance is better, I have more patience and I have more energy.” Now he’s attending his sons’ afternoon baseball games and track meets, activities he used to sleep through.

It’s not just sleeping patterns that have changed in the Bryant household. “I guess we are down about 25 percent in income,” Bob says. To compensate, Diane reduced her 401K contributions at work from 15 percent to 5 percent of her paycheck. In addition, “we reduced our expenses dramatically,” says Bob, “probably by about $300 a month or more. We are taking fewer weekend trips, cutting back on going out to eat, and looking at each one of our bills and seeing if it’s a necessary expense. One example is the phone bill; we had a long distance monthly charge that we dropped.”

On the income side, they have a rental property that generates $1,200 a month. With that and the expense reductions (including a home refinance), Bob figures they’ve done a fair job of making up for his lost salary.

Sometimes, however, Bob worries about how long it’s taking to find work. He cranks out 10–12 résumés a week. “I don’t want to be out of work, and I thought I would get right back to work within a couple weeks. But it’s a lot harder than I thought.”

Building pressure
While the recession has newspapers tanking, the construction business is equally hammered. Craig Shockman, a fast-talking, whip-smart 38-year-old, had taken all he could when he shuttered his construction company in May 2008. After 12 years of self-employment and being a “24/7 baby-sitter” to his employees and his company, “quitting was a huge relief,” he says. “It was getting so stressful, I hated it. I became very introverted; I would come home at night and hide upstairs and not want to deal with anybody in the house.”

His anxiety stemmed from the economic forces shattering his industry, which lost 126,000 jobs in March and 1.3 million jobs in the last two years. General contractors were taking longer to pay him due to their financing drying up; he’s still waiting for payment on some jobs he completed more than a year ago.

Early last year, construction work slowed dramatically, which increased the number of companies bidding on jobs. “It got really brutal out there,” he says. “Instead of five people bidding on a job, you’d have 15–20, and the price got lower and lower.” Meanwhile, Craig’s expenses (labor, insurance, materials) continued to climb, forcing him to plunder his savings account to keep the business afloat.

Following a brief foray as project manager at another construction company, Craig returned to school after 18 years and in doing so, he “plugged back into” his family. Now, in addition to being a husband and father, he’s a full-time student at Green River Community College in Kent. He plans to get his associate of arts degree and then transfer to university for a degree in civil or environmental engineering.

Even as he devotes most evenings to homework, he’s in a better place, albeit with some regrets. “Life is better now; I’m more in tune with what my wife wants and what my children want. But there’s still resentment of the business, because I lost a lot of money. Construction is a hard business . . . it’s cutthroat, small margins, a lot of exposure.”

Nowadays, the starving-student lifestyle seems to suit him. “My wife and I micromanage our finances,” he says. “We try to run as lean as we can.”

What do his 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son think of their father trading in his impact drill for higher education? Says Craig: “It’s actually kind of cool. Every day I pick them up and ask, ‘How was your day at school?’ Now they ask me the same thing. I think it’s going to help them, because they see their dad doing homework and they figure they gotta do homework, too. Our children learn from us. Everything we do, our children are going to mimic.”

As for me, I landed my dream job as a knowledge analyst at a popular Web-based travel service provider. In my work, I analyze complex processes and document them for call-center agents. On paper, it doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s my niche, what I was born to do, at a company that seems to work for me instead of the other way around.

Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.

 

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