What happens when ongoing household relations break down? How do parents, children, siblings, and other household members realign their economic transactions? Two categories of disruption differ significantly in their impact on household relations: one breaks an existing connection between the household and the rest of the world, the other intervenes directly in household relations. In the first category, we find unemployment, bankruptcy, prison, natural disasters, and war; in the second category fall the arrival, departure, or death of a household member; severe illness; migration; retirement; and divorce. Of course the two types of disruption interact. Any household in which a crucial member, for instance, goes to prison, undergoes internal disruption as well, while internal struggles almost always translate into changed relations with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the two types of disruption differ in the way in which they affect household relations and in the interpretation people construct of what is happening.
In the first category, let us look at what happens with job loss and bankruptcy. As she interviewed downwardly mobile families, Katherine Newman observed radical changes in domestic economies after a father had lost his job. Most notably, the crisis reversed expected middle-class parent-child relations. As family funds dwin – died, adolescents and college-age children took on increasing financial responsibilities. Teenagers relied on part-time jobs to subsidize their expenses, while older children became the family’s indispensable “sub” parents or “junior breadwinners” (Newman 1988: 107, 111). Sometimes it meant combining college with work; other times it meant forgoing college altogether. In one case, a child took out multiple student loans only to subsidize family bills. John Steinberg, whom we met before, dropped out of college for one year to work in construction jobs. His earnings helped support his parents and younger sisters. Steinberg also recalled his embarrassment as his father took over domestic work from his mother, work that young Steinberg saw as demeaning (118).
As their economic relations shifted, parents frequently drew their children into the financial secrets of their households. This could be intimidating for children who previously lived affluent lives without worrying much about financial matters. Janet Wilson confided to Newman: “Maybe it was because I was the oldest child or because role reversals had already occurred, but my mother always used to say you should know about our finances, how much the mortgage is, where we keep our information on the bank account. … This was kind of scary sometimes. You wonder what’s so immediately dangerous” (107).
Unemployment similarly tested former managers’ husband-wife relations as well as their ties to other kin, including siblings, parents, and in-laws. Newman notes, for instance, the men’s reluctance to borrow money from family members. For many, accepting help or even asking for financial assistance threatened established patterns of relations. What exactly were they asking for posed dilemmas as well: Was it a gift or a loan? Should they repay it? If so, how soon? (124-28). At the extreme, loss of a job means loss of a home, which in turn may cause households to double up with their kin or to accept assistance in the form of subsidized housing. Margaret Nelson and Joan Smith’s study of rural Vermont working-class families demonstrates costs of such arrangements. Matt Dwire and his wife Patty moved into a house owned by her father at reduced rent but in exchange for Matt’s part-time work for his father-in-law. Matt’s work consisted of doing a demanding range of chores at the family’s exotic animal farm. Matt complained: “It was hard. They say never rent from a family member. They expected more than what they told us when we moved in as far as work that should have been done” (Nelson and Smith 1999: 115).
Bankruptcy produces parallel effects. According to Warren and Tyagi’s analysis in The Two-Income Trap, bankruptcy has become more common and painful for American middle-class households in recent years precisely because of some of the changes discussed earlier: the purchase of more expensive houses and the assumption of larger debt loads on the premise that both spouses’ wages will continue indefinitely. Bankruptcy strikes not only husbands and wives but also their children. Warren and Tyagi estimate that more children are involved in their parent’s bankruptcy than parental divorce. They predict that in the United States, by 2010 one out every seven children will live through their parent’s bankruptcy (Warren and Tyagi 2003: 177). Bankruptcy obviously disrupts the relationship of a household to the rest of the world, putting serious restrictions on people’s ability to use their household money to solve external problems. But it also requires adjustment within the household, not merely because of reduced income, but also because the new arrangements demand complicated management.
Deborah Thorne interviewed bankrupt couples, as well as bankruptcy lawyers, judges, and others to find out how households actually cope. She found family members on their way to bankruptcy trying a number of strategies: pawning jewels, borrowing from kin, drawing from children’s part-time wages, and more. As they slid into bankruptcy, a remarkable gender pattern emerged—husbands withdrew, while their wives assumed the household’s financial dirty work. Many husbands, for example, refused to answer the telephone as bill collectors started hounding them, kept themselves ignorant of current finances, and left all the legal work to their wives. One husband told Thorne: “I’m so bad, I mean, I love my wife, but I have to admit I was bad. They’d [bill collectors] call and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, he’s not here right now’ or, "she’s [his wife] right here’ ” (Thorne 2001: 178). Many wives, therefore, found themselves in
charge of keeping careful records, juggling bills, holding off hostile bill collectors, taking the initiative to file for bankruptcy, and then dealing with the arduous legal paperwork. Such tasks were often daunting. One woman, who took care of her three children during the day and waited tables at night, described her financial acrobatics. Thorne reports:
[the woman] allocates her tips, down to the dollar, to the most pressing bills. For example, the day we talked, she had received a call from the electric company: if she didn’t get them at least a partial payment, they were going to shut off her lights. She told me: “OK, I made $50 [in tips] last night. I can put it in the checking account and write them a check.” (173)
Bankrupt parents often try to shield their children from these difficulties. In the course of interviewing over two thousand families who had filed for bankruptcy, Warren and Tyagi heard about thirty – eight-year-old Sara Swerdling’s efforts to protect her eleven-year – old son from the family’s deteriorating finances: “She carefully hid the past-due notices, told him the telephone was shut off due to a ‘mechanical difficulty,’ and said the car was towed away because the transmission was broken” (Warren and Tyagi 2003: 177). The deception worked until her son’s orthodontist, informed of the bankruptcy, refused to continue caring for the boy’s braces. With great difficulty, Swerdling was able to finally locate a dentist willing to remove the braces, if paid cash in advance. Explaining what happened to her son was even harder. They report: “She had to explain to her eleven-year-old what had gone wrong in their lives, why a stranger would take off his braces while his teeth were still crooked, and how his life was about to change” (177). Thus, as households confront unemployment or bankruptcy, family members rework not only their finances but also their relationships. Children and parents, husbands and wives, as well as other family members, sometimes painfully, devise new ways of mingling their intimate relations and economic transactions.
This is even more obvious in the case of separation or divorce, when one member actually leaves the household. Any such depar
ture, among other things, alters the relationship not only between the spouses but also between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, as well as between the sundered spouses and their own families of origin. Two vignettes from Kathleen Gerson’s interviews with a varied group of fathers in the New York metropolitan area illustrate some of the changes. Considering the men’s financial contributions to their families and their participation in household work, Gerson classifies them into three main categories: primary breadwinners, autonomous fathers, and involved fathers. If, for example, a father ranked relatively low on economic contributions and on participation in household work, he qualified as autonomous. She found that with divorce, some of the traditional breadwinners became involved fathers. Those men soon discovered major relational changes.
Take the case of Roger, a businessman and father of three sons, who took over custody of the children after his wife left him for another man. He discovered how much work, including relational work, went into running a household: “I went from having to do almost nothing except playtime to having to do virtually everything. .. . You sit down, and where do you start? From scratch. You start by writing a list of everything that comes to your mind that you need to do. You realize the list goes from the floor to the ceiling a half-dozen times” (Gerson 1993: 239).
After divorce, some breadwinners took an opposite route, distancing themselves from their families. These newly autonomous fathers encountered a different set of substantial changes in their relationships with their children. Alan, a property assessor, whose wife had also left him for another man, reported his increasingly contentious exchanges with his son and stepdaughter: “They turned hostile, sent the money back, tearing it up. So I figured, ‘If that’s the way they want it to be. ..’ I could have forced the issue but who was going to suffer? I figured, ‘They’ll come back’ but it never materialized” (136).
Households disrupted by job loss, bankruptcy, separation, or divorce reveal the interdependence between household economic activity and intimate interpersonal relations. Crises that begin in one relationship, especially between spouses, ramify rapidly through all other household relations. Crises such as job loss and bankruptcy that radically and quickly reduce external sources of support for household activity immediately alter social relations in both areas: inside the household and in connections between household members and the rest of the social world. Financial flows often reverse, with children, siblings, or other relatives starting to aid newly beleaguered couples. Readjustments of this kind become even more visible when household transactions become matters of legal contestation.