A recent study of how people spend their time showed unemployed fathers devote significantly less time to household chores than even mothers who are employed full-time, and do not work as hard in caring for children.

Paul Bachmuth’s 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, began pulling out strands of her hair over the summer. His older child, Hannah, 12, has become noticeably angrier, more prone to throwing tantrums.

Initially, Bachmuth, 45, did not think his children were terribly affected when he lost his job nearly a year ago. But now he cannot ignore the mounting evidence.

“I’m starting to think it’s all my fault,” Bachmuth said.

As the months have worn on, his job search travails have consumed the family, even though the Bachmuths were outwardly holding up on unemployment benefits, their savings and the income from the part-time job held by Bachmuth’s wife, Amanda. But beneath the surface, they have been a family on the brink. They have watched their children struggle with behavioural issues and a stress-induced disorder. He finally got a job offer last week, but not before the couple began seeing a therapist to save their marriage.

For many families across the country, the greatest damage inflicted by this recession has not necessarily been financial but emotional and psychological. Children, especially, have become hidden casualties, often absorbing more than their parents are fully aware of. Several academic studies have linked parental job loss — especially that of fathers — to adverse impacts on everything from school performance to self-esteem.

“I’ve heard a lot of people who are out of work say it’s kind of been a blessing, that you have more time to spend with your family,” Bachmuth said. “I love my family and my family comes first, and my family means more than anything to me, but it hasn’t been that way for me.”

A recent study at the University of California, Davis, found that children in families where the head of the household had lost a job were 15 per cent more likely to repeat a grade. Ariel Kalil, a University of Chicago professor of public policy, and Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest, of the Institute for Children and Poverty in New York, found in an earlier study that adolescent children of low-income single mothers who endured unemployment had an increased chance of dropping out of school and showed declines in emotional well-being.

In the long term, children whose parents were laid off have been found to have lower annual earnings as adults than those whose parents remained employed, a phenomenon Peter R. Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, mentioned in a speech last week at New York University.

A variety of studies have tied drops in family income to negative effects on children’s development. But Kalil, a developmental psychologist and director of the university’s Centre for Human Potential and Public Policy, said the more important factor, especially in middleclass households, appears to be changes in family dynamics from job loss.

“The extent that job losers are stressed and emotionally disengaged or withdrawn, this really matters for kids,” she said. “The other thing that matters is parental conflict. That has been shown repeatedly in psychological studies to be a bad family dynamic.”

Kalil said her research indicated that the repercussions were more pronounced in children when fathers experience unemployment, rather than mothers. She theorised that the reasons have to do with the importance of working to the male self-image, or the extra time that unemployed female breadwinners seem to spend with their children, mitigating the impact on them.

Helpful for some families

Certainly, some of the more than a dozen families interviewed that were dealing with long-term unemployment said the period had been helpful in certain ways for their families.

Denise Stoll, 39, and her husband, Larry, 47, both lost their positions at a bank in San Antonio in October 2008 when it changed hands. Stoll, a vice-president who managed a technology group, earned significantly more than her husband, who worked as a district loan origination manager.

Nevertheless, Stoll took unemployment much harder than she did and struggled to keep his spirits up, before he landed a new job within several months in the Kansas City area, where the family had moved to be closer to relatives. He had to take a sizable pay cut but was grateful to be working again.

Denise Stoll is still looking but has also tried to make the most of the additional time with the couple’s 5-year-old triplets, seeking to instil new lessons on the importance of thrift.

“Being a corporate mom, you work a lot of hours, you feed them dinner — maybe,” she said. “This morning, we baked cookies together. I have time to help them with homework. I’m attending church. The house is managed by me. Just a lot more homemaker-type stuff, which I think is more nurturing to them.”

Other families, however, reported unmistakable ill-effects.

Robert Syck, 42, of Fishers, Ind., lost his job as a call-centre manager in March. He has been around his 11-year-old stepson, Kody, more than ever before. Lately, however, their relationship has become increasingly strained, he said, with even little incidents setting off blowups. His stepson’s grades have slipped and the boy has been talking back to his parents more.

“It’s only been particularly in the last few months that it’s gotten really bad, to where we’re verbally chewing each other out,” said Syck, who admitted he has been more irritable around the house. “A lot of that is due to the pressures of unemployment.”

When Paul Bachmuth was first laid off in December from his $120,000 job at an energy consulting firm, he could not even bring himself to tell his family. For several days, he got dressed in the morning and left the house as usual at 6 a.m., but spent the day in coffee shops, the library or just walking around.

Bachmuth had started the job, working on finance and business development for electric utilities, eight months earlier, moving his family from Austin. They bought something of a dream home, complete with a backyard pool and spa.

Although she knew the economy was ultimately to blame, Amanda Bachmuth could not help but feel angry at her husband, both said later in interviews.

“She kind of had something in the back of her mind that it was partly my fault I was laid off,” Paul Bachmuth said. “Maybe you’re not a good enough worker.”

Counselling improved matters significantly, but Amanda Bachmuth still occasionally dissolved into tears at home.

Besides quarrels over money, the reversal in the couple’s roles also produced friction. Amanda Bachmuth took on a part-time job at a preschool to earn extra money. But she still did most, if not all, of the cooking, cleaning and laundry.

Kalil, of the University of Chicago, said a recent study of how people spend their time showed unemployed fathers devote significantly less time to household chores than even mothers who are employed full-time, and do not work as hard in caring for children.

Paul Bachmuth’s time with his girls, however, did increase. He was the one dropping off Rebecca at school and usually the one who picked her up. He began helping her more with homework. He and Hannah played soccer and chatted more.

Opportunities for squabbling

But the additional time brought more opportunities for squabbling. The rest of the family had to get used to him being around, sometimes focussed on his job search but other times lounging around depressed, watching television or surfing soccer sites on the Internet.

“My dad’s around a lot more, so it’s a little strange because he gets frustrated he’s not at work, and he’s not being challenged,” Hannah said. “So I think me and my dad are a lot closer now because we can spend a lot more time together, but we fight a lot more maybe because he’s around 24-7.”

When Rebecca began pulling her hair out in late summer in what was diagnosed as a stress-induced disorder, she insisted it was because she was bored. But her parents and her therapist — the same one seeing her parents — believed it was clearly related to the job situation.

The hair pulling has since stopped, but she continues to fidget with her brown locks. The other day, she suddenly asked her mother whether she thought she would be able to find a “good job” when she grew up.

Hannah said her father’s unemployment has made it harder for her to focus on schoolwork. She also conceded she has been more easily aggravated with her parents and her sister. At night, she said, she has taken to stowing her worries away in an imaginary box.

“I take all the stress and bad things that happen over the day, and I lock them in a box,” she said.

Then, she tries to sleep. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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