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Hard times bring families closer

| Monday, Feb. 15, 2010

While Theresa Stanek's job loss was upsetting, she says a lot of good came out of it in her family life.

Stanek, a mental-health therapist who lost her job a year and a half ago because of company cutbacks, has made serious reductions in household spending. The Evans City, Butler County, resident uses far more coupons for grocery shopping, and she and her family go out to eat much less often. Stanek and her husband, Michael, also skipped their usual expensive summer beach vacation with their kids -- Laina, 16, and Micah, 13 -- and extended family. Instead, the family opted last summer for a much cheaper house in the woods near the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon in Tioga County.

Throughout all of this, Theresa Stanek, 48, says she has discovered greater closeness with her husband and kids, because they are together at home more than before. On their less-expensive forest vacation, they enjoyed time together doing the simplest things, like hiking the trails and picking up newts.

"I don't want to be off work, but ... the time we spend together, I think, is much more quality time," she says. "Some good things do come out of a bad thing. ... It's good for the kids to see that, no matter what, we can bounce back."

During tough economic times, the financial worries and pressure can strain someone's wallet, emotions and relationships. Yet, a recession also can bring family members closer, experts say. If people lose jobs that kept them away from home so much, for instance, they now have more time for their spouses and kids. Or, cutting back on evenings out leads to time at home to enjoy simple things, like cooking together, and just hanging out.

"Families are able to knuckle down and spend more quality time together with one another," says DeMarquis Clarke. He is the director of clinical training for the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg. "If they cut out HBO, they spend more time playing board games with one another, something they haven't done in years. They can go outside and play more, and do more active things."

People who are facing a job loss, or other financial cutbacks, should try to embrace the opportunity wrapped inside the hardship, Clarke says.

"Ultimately, the opportunity for families to really spend time together is priceless," he says. "These hard economic times are really giving them an opportunity to do that in a way they hadn't really had before. This is a huge benefit. My hope is that they're taking advantage of it, and not spending too much time worrying about the financial stressors instead of valuing the time they spend with their family."

Surely, economic strain has its downside on family relations, too, Clarke adds. Financial cutbacks often mean that people can't get the things they were accustomed to getting, like regular new clothes and weeklong vacations in Florida. Someone who is unemployed also can become depressed, moody, anxious and worried, and a spouse may feel overwhelmed with pressure about being the lone provider.

For the kids who are struggling with having less materially, they gain something better: more time with their parent, if the parent is unemployed or working fewer hours, says Bob Brinker. He is a community educator for the Greensburg-based ParentWISE program of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania and a parent. Parents and kids can have simple, imaginative play time together, like making peanut butter play dough, he says.

Parents "can do daily, low-cost activities with children that are enjoyable and engaging," Brinker says. "Kids need presence more than presents."

Beth Zboran, 47, said that when her husband, Joe, was working, she often felt like a single mom. Joe Zboran's job in the electronics industry kept him traveling throughout the week, and he saw his wife and two kids -- Kyle, 16, and Kayla, 14 -- only on the weekends.

"That was just the life that we led," says Beth Zboran, of South Buffalo. "He was always gone and busy and working, and we were here."

When Joe Zboran lost his job in October because of company cutbacks, he was able to spend much more time with his wife and children, and help out a lot with household chores like cooking, doing the dishes and laundry, and grocery shopping, Beth Zboran says. He now says he never wants to take another job that involves travel.

"It feels much more like a full-time marriage than it ever did before," says Beth Zboran says. She is a teacher at Freeport Senior High School. "That was all we ever knew before. Monday through Friday, he was gone, and we were together on the weekends. I would say it's definitely made things better."

Joe Zboran, 55, says that while losing his job has been difficult, for his family it's been a "very good thing."

"My wife ... is glad to have me home," he says. "I think it's actually improved our relationship quite a bit, now that I can take over the chores I wasn't able to do before."

Dealing with belt-tightening

Have you faced a job loss, or other financial belt-tightening in your family• Consider these tips.

• Couples should sit down with each other and talk honestly about the struggles with not having a job, or otherwise being under financial pressure.

• Consider a few sessions of professional couples therapy.

• Even though the financial situation is difficult, try to seize the opportunity that you may never have again to spend more time with your family. Ask yourselves, "What can we do to make the most of this?"

• Look at free, fun things to do at home together, like playing board games and telling stories.

• Let your children talk about their feelings about the financial setback, and get them involved in helping to save money.

Sources: DeMarquis Clarke of Seton Hill University; Bob Brinker of ParentWISE

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