Lily Pabian and her husband, Jeff, learned to tag-team household tasks when he lost his job and she went from stay-at-home mom to part-time consultant. But the give-and-take turned into a juggling act when Jeff found work again three months later.
Lily, a 37-year-old mother of three from Mapleton, Ga., kept working, but also kept most of the parenting responsibilities and housework. And experts say her experience will probably be typical as more women are finding themselves becoming primary breadwinners temporarily.
"I feel like there are days where I am drowning,'' Lily Pabian said. "We do fight about my overload, my work load, and he's willing to say 'What can I do to help?' My thing is 'Why do I have to think for you?' ''
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An estimated 2 million wives are now the sole breadwinners in families across America as more men than women have been laid off in this recession, according to the Center for American Progress.
Experts say that unemployed husbands are probably taking on more of the housework and childcare duties -- for now. But they don't expect that temporary change at home to create household habits that will stick around after men find work again.
"When men make more money they can buy out of housework in a way women cannot,'' said Constance Gager, a sociologist in the Department of Family and Child Studies at Montclair State University.
Gager has studied the division of labor in families and said that while men have taken on more housework and child-rearing over the years, women still do two-thirds of it, including day-to-day tasks like diaper-changing, bathing, preparing meals and shuttling the children to activities. Men, meanwhile, tend to play with children or participate in athletic games.
"It is very much the case that women tend to do urgent tasks that are repetitive,'' she said.
More than two-thirds of women said they are mostly responsible for taking care of their children, according to a recent poll by The Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with Time magazine for the Center for American Progress and Maria Shriver. Only 13 percent of men said the same thing.
"I think the complicated question is: Do women want men to take over these burdens? It's also the case that women feel a kind of propriety relationship to those tasks,'' said Katherine Newman, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
That's certainly not lost on Pabian, who describes the problem as twofold.
"I think men don't get it and women don't let go,'' she said. "I think it's in our nature to multitask. I think it's in our nature to please ... You keep doing it and it becomes routine and the routine becomes just norm. It doesn't upset me. It burns me out.''
Linda Stolberg, 46, describes a similar problem. Her husband remains employed, but she took on part-time work last year when his sales commissions dwindled. Although she's working 20 hours a week, she said she gets minimal help cleaning up and caring for her two school-age children.
"I have to ask him and so it's, you constantly feel like you are nagging. So you pick and choose your battles. Some things don't get done like they used to,'' said Stolberg, from Chicago.
Newman, the sociologist, notes that there had been a trend of men doing more housework and childcare even before the recession. And some families hope the change will stick.
Take Ann Worden. When her husband Peter lost his job in April at a global financial services firm, she took a full-time teaching position. Now, as a fifth-grade teacher, she often comes home tired and hungry to a dinner prepared by Peter and a kitchen table set by her teenage son.
"That to me was the biggest surprise of the whole experience,'' Worden, of Chatham, N.J., said of her husband's cooking. "It's made me fall in love with him all over again. I didn't expect that he would step up so much.''