Daddy’s Home, and a Bit Lost

This article is from The New York Times
By: Peg Tyre
Published: January 9, 2009

SCOTT BERRY has always been a morning person. For years he would wake up at 5 a.m., shower, shave and, tamping down a twinge of regret, plant quiet kisses on his two sleeping children and his wife, before backing his BMW out of the driveway.

As the family breadwinner, he worked long hours at his job as a technology analyst for a boutique investment firm in Manhattan. The demands of his work and the substantial commute from his home in Darien meant he rarely saw Samantha, 8, and Max, 7, before his wife, Tracey, had them in their pajamas and ready for bed.

Then in December 2007, Mr. Berry, 49, lost his job. He immediately looked for a new position but found opportunities puzzlingly elusive. In mid-2008 came the rout on Wall Street. “The good news is, I don’t feel singled out for unemployment,” he said, running his hand through his light-brown hair.

But his plan for his next job — as an analyst in a venture capital firm or as an executive at a start-up — has been deferred. So Scott and Tracey Berry have faced a complex series of choices about work, money and the roles and responsibilities each would assume in the family. Their goals: to keep their domestic economy from mirroring the national one — and to stay married.

As unemployment has hit a 16-year high and Wall Street shakes off tens of thousands of jobs, affluent couples in the New York area find their families suddenly in flux. It’s not only the high-flying income and the attendant abundance that have evaporated. For many couples, it’s also the assumption of what their marriages would look like; the traditional model — executive husband and stay-at-home wife — may be a little dated, or unworkable.

One mother in TriBeCa, who is married, at least for now, to a Wall Street executive, put it rather bluntly: “My job was to run the household and the children’s lives,” she said. “His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle.” But his bonus has disappeared, and his annual pay has dropped to $150,000 from $800,000 a year. “Let me just say this,” she said, “I’m still doing my job.”

The Berrys’ marriage isn’t as fraught, and they were never the kind of couple who lived bonus to bonus — which may explain why they, unlike most newly unemployed Wall Street families, are willing to open their lives to a reporter. In good times, they saved, set up college funds for their children and paid off their mortgage. Aside from a modest car loan, they don’t carry any debt. Despite their year of little work, their 11-year marriage seems as solid as their spacious five-bedroom Colonial home.

It helps, too, that they are not the only ones making adjustments. They live in an affluent bedroom community of New York, one whose very name has become synonymous with wealth. The median income for Darien, a village of about 20,000 in Fairfield County, is $180,000. The median price for homes sold last year was well into seven figures. But when Scott Berry walks along Darien’s commercial strip on a weekday, he sees many middle-aged men like him: part of the growing corps of the newly unemployed. At his local Y.M.C.A., the out-of-work Masters of the Universe and the professionals who relied on those huge salaries — architects, landscape designers and high-end contractors — can be found pumping iron together at 10 a.m.

“A lot of them have a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look to them,” he said. “If you have a massive mortgage and your wife has been out of the work force for a decade or more, being laid off can seem crushing.”

But, he added, “If you can learn to roll with it a little bit, you’ll be fine — I mean, you know, probably.”

The couple’s first upheaval was Tracey Berry’s short-lived effort to join the opt-out revolution. Two years ago, she left a job in Manhattan negotiating contracts for Ralph Lauren to spend time with her aging parents and children. After her husband’s job search stalled, Tracey, 47, found a job at a local reinsurance firm. It doesn’t nearly make up for her husband’s salary, but she is home by 6 o’clock every night.

Scott’s response to her new job was pure relief.

“If she wanted to be home more and we could swing it financially, I was happy for her to be at home,” he said. “Now, things being what they are, I’m happy for her to work again. I always wanted a marriage of equals. And frankly, having a wife who works or can readily join the work force is a good risk-management strategy.”

Tracey was more ambivalent. “I’m pretty vocal in my marriage,” she said. “I said to him, ‘I thought this was my turn to be home with the kids.’ I wanted another summer with them, but what are you going to do? Beat him up for it? I assumed I’d re-enter the work force at some point, and right now, I’m proud to be able to go out there and earn money.”

Shortly after Scott lost his job, the couple replaced their full-time nanny with a more cost-effective au pair and began choosing long-weekend getaways instead of weeklong family vacations. Some expenses, though, haven’t changed: they still shell out for membership at a local country club (“the most modest one in town,” Tracey said); they rented a condo last summer on Block Island; and they continue to pay hundreds a month for soccer, skating, T-ball and karate lessons for the children. They afford these things by dipping into the savings Scott put away during the flush years.

How to spend is a continuing negotiation — one that sometimes devolves into heated discussions, outright arguments and bouts of sulking. Tracey is trying, often unsuccessfully, to spend less on clothing for herself and the children. “Don’t make me look like a jerk,” she told a reporter, “but I cannot bring myself to buy my children’s clothes at Wal-Mart.”

“But do you have to buy them at Ralph Lauren?” Scott shot back.

The Berrys have been at this long enough to make light of the well-worn nature of their disagreement. “It goes like this,” Scott said. “ ‘How can you complain about me not earning an adequate income, when you can’t control your spending?’ ”

On cue, Tracey chimed in. “And I say, ‘How can you complain about my spending when you don’t have an adequate income?’ ”

To try to keep their spending under control, Scott and Tracey collect their receipts each week. Every Sunday, Scott calculates their weekly expenses. Then he compares the balance in their savings account with the rising cost of college tuition. “There was a time when we had saved up enough to send both kids to Harvard,” he said. “Now I tell myself Harvard is not the only school.” Then he calculates how their dwindling savings will affect their annual retirement income.

“Right about then,” Tracey said, “he blows a gasket.”

At times like this, a big house helps. “We go to separate corners,” Scott said. “I have a big glass of wine and watch TV for couple of hours or do a sudoku puzzle to clear my head.”

Alone in another part of the house, Tracey decompresses by phoning girlfriends and makes a mental list of Scott’s virtues. “The danger is that we’ll have saved enough money for our retirement, but I won’t like him enough to want to spend it with him,” she said wryly, her affection for Scott clear.

IN many ways, couples today have better resources to weather the economic storm. This is the best-educated generation of women in history. If their husbands face a prolonged period of unemployment, women are more qualified than their mothers or grandmothers were to re-enter the work force or expand their jobs and make a significant contribution to the family’s bottom line. Gender roles have softened, too.

“In the past, working women were the target of great resentment,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who studies marriage. “Husbands felt emasculated when their wives went to work. All that has changed.”

And while gallons of ink have been spilled about men who don’t do enough housework or don’t do it well, men today are more likely to cook, clean, set up a play date, phone the pediatrician and wash a load of laundry than their fathers ever were.

Which is not to say that they are perfect.

Scott does the daddy stuff with enthusiasm. “I love that he’s a great father,” Tracey said. “He takes them on outings. He coaches soccer. He’s signed them up for a Y.M.C.A. program and they all get Indian names — Samantha is Smiling Fox and Max is Flaming Arrow. It’s so adorable.”

But the vacuuming? “When I come home at the end of the day, the house is cluttered,” Tracey said. “There are dishes in the sink and stuff underfoot. I leave the recycle at the top of the stairs. When I get home, the recycle is just where I left it. I don’t want to be critical, but it’s taken some getting used to.”

Amy Reiss, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, said that she had seen a spate of women seeking to end their marriages after they re-entered the work force or expanded their careers to replace their husbands’ income. The wives don’t resent working, she said. In fact, they’re pleased to contribute.

But “the husbands become what I call ‘clickers,’ ” Ms. Reiss said. “These are unemployed men who sit on the couch all day, holding the remote and watching TV, unable to step up and take over some of the household tasks and chores associated with raising the kids.”

Those women, she said, come to her looking for an exit strategy. The Berrys are not seeking Ms. Reiss’s services. For one, they are better at coping in lean times. Scott hopes he will be making money again soon: he is consulting on a start-up that may receive financing, which would generate a modest but regular paycheck.

He is still a morning person. The first out of bed, he wakes his wife and helps the children get ready for school. Once the school bus pulls away, he heads for his regular workout at the gym. By 11 a.m., he’s showered and dressed in a pressed oxford shirt and sitting at the computer in his home office. He writes a blog ( He handles phone calls stemming from his consulting work. He knocks off at about 5 for dinner.

“My job right now is looking for a job,” Scott said. “I may not be getting paid, but when I sit down at my computer I’m ready to work — physically, mentally and psychologically.”

Learning to roll with it? He has become something of an expert. “We’re making a lot of changes,” Scott added. “It isn’t always comfortable, but we’re doing it.”

Tracey sounded more tentative. She and Scott sat on either end of the couch during an interview not long ago as she used two hands to tick off the number of marriages that she knows are foundering or ending.

“Economics isn’t the only reason, of course, but it doesn’t help,” she said. She paused for a moment, considering the distance she and Scott have traveled. Then she shifted her seat to move closer to her husband.