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Separated by the Recession

The current recession is hitting Michigan with a triple whammy – a weak economy, high unemployment and a depressed real estate market. Some families have had to separate to get by – with one spouse leaving the state to find work and the other staying back with the kids and a home they can't sell. How are these families coping – and what can parents do if they find themselves in this unenviable position?

This story appeared in the September 2010 print edition of Metro Parent.
Photos by Shawn Connelly and Kristen Hines

On Feb. 24, Chris and Paul Smokovitz of Garden City welcomed their fourth child into the world. On a cold winter's morning two days later, Paul packed his car and drove away to take a new job in Virginia, leaving his home and family behind. He'll never forget how he felt.

"My wife was looking out the window and this was like, goodbye for us. It was really a surreal moment," Paul Smokovitz, 35, says. "I was in a daze thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm leaving Michigan. I'm leaving my family behind.' It was like jumping overboard and hoping there was a life preserver."

His wife, Chris, wanted nothing more than to keep her family together, but both were concerned that in Detroit's contracting ad agency market, her art director husband had little job security. She agreed that letting Paul go while she stayed in Michigan to sell the house was their best choice.

"It was a tough decision," says Chris Smokovitz, 35. "But with a fourth baby on the way, we knew we were struggling financially. This new job doubled his salary and would afford us the luxury of me being able to stay home in the future."

The decision came with a cost they hadn't predicted. Months later, their house was still up for sale. Chris was stressed and exhausted, caring for their newborn baby and three small children alone, while trying to keep their house in show-ready condition for Realtor showings. Down in Richmond, Virginia, Paul was doing well at his new job, but he was bored and lonely.

Living some 600 miles apart, the Smokovitz family was like a lot of Michigan families: Separated by some sobering financial realities and plagued by uncertainty about whether they'd be reunited to live – and love – under one roof any time soon.

Unexpected outcomes

Times have been particularly tough for American families over the past few years.

A Pew Research Center survey released in June 2010 reported that nearly half of all Americans – 48 percent – say that their household's financial situation has worsened since the recession began in 2007. Also in June, existing home sales fell for the third month in a row and first-time unemployment rates surged unexpectedly, signaling the possibility that the United States is headed into the second phase of a double-dip recession. As of July 2010, the average length of time it took to sell an American home was eight months.

"This literally is the worst recession since the Great Depression," says Elizabeth Faue, Ph.D., a history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Technically it is not a depression, but nationwide unemployment is around 10 percent. In specific regional areas like Michigan, it's as high as 15, and in specific urban areas like Detroit, it's probably as high as 30, 35 percent unemployment. You have to go back to the 1930s to find numbers like that."

But just five years ago, many Michigan families didn't realize that their plans and purchases would go so far off track.

In 1991, the Todd family built their dream home in Holly. "We built our house thinking I would work at Chrysler forever," Curtis Todd says. "My father had worked for American Motors until he retired. My father-in-law retired from Ford. That's how it worked."

Todd, now 50, was laid off from Chrysler following the Daimler merger. He worked locally as an IT consultant until the recession hit Michigan hard in 2007. Since then, he has worked in three different states, finally landing in Arkansas. All the while his wife Brigitte has cared for the couple's three daughters and tried to sell the home.

"Originally the intent was for us to move out of state," Todd says. "We put the house up for sale and never intended to be apart."

When Todd left, his daughters were 15, 12 and 5. "I think it was easier for the older two, because they could do texting and stuff like that," says Brigitte Todd, 48. "My youngest daughter missed the hugs and the kisses more."

In the three years that Todd has worked out of state, not one single buyer toured their Holly home.

Lori and Michael Mouranie did everything right when they bought their Troy house in 2004. After getting married, they sold their separate homes and made a huge down payment. They didn't know they were buying at the top of the market and that their home would lose a third of its value in six short years.

In March 2010, Michael started a job in Saranac Lake, NY. Back in Troy, his wife Lori is caring for their three children and hoping for good news. "We're flailing because you just can't sell your house," says Lori Mouranie. The Mouranies invested a good portion of their savings in the house. "When you do it the right way and you put down the money, you need to get that money back out. And that's our problem," she says. "I refuse to pay somebody to buy my home."

Making it work

There's a new term for women in this position. They're called "Recession Widows," and there's no question these separations are hard on them.

"It's like being a single mom without worrying about the paycheck," Brigitte Todd says. "You have to do everything by yourself, all the paperwork – but at least I don't have to worry about getting a job at the same time."

"We're a very close family and we did a lot of family things," Lori Mouranie says. "I still do the things with the kids, but they really miss their dad. I miss my time with him, too."

The separations are also hard on the kids. Troy-based marriage and family therapist Edith Marshall, LMSW, says that with careful planning, families can make it work. First, she recommends that parents explain their economic situation to the children, in age-appropriate language.

"It's important for children to know what is going on and to understand that the family needs to pull together to get us through this hard time. If the parents are very anxious and don't believe they are going to make it through this, then the kids will pick up on that," Marshall says.

Everyone needs to stay emotionally connected, too, Marshall says. As stressed and frustrated as these three couples are, they have learned how to keep their families together across the miles. Modern communication technologies have been especially useful.

"I took a little video on my cell phone when my daughter went horseback riding for the first time and sent it to my husband," Brigitte Todd says. "It's all the little stuff that you miss, so communicating and sending videos, that helps a lot."

Before he moved to New York, Michael Mouranie coached his son Jake's baseball games. This summer, he couldn't. "It's hard for me that my dad doesn't get to see my baseball games," says 8-year-old Jake. Now Lori texts play-by-play details of the game to Jake's dad and lets Jake call his dad afterward.

"Thank god for Skype!" says Michael Mouranie, of the online software that allows users to make free video calls. "It is wonderful helping me stay in touch. If one of the kids has a boo-boo or something they want to show me, I can see it. If I only had a phone, I think I'd go crazy."

All three dads have read books to their children via Skype. Curtis Todd plays online video games with his three girls. "There are some online cooperative games you can play, like Wizards 101 and Toontown," he says. "You can get on the computer and play them at the same time your kids are on. And you can set up the computer, so you can have a voice conversation while you're playing the game together."

But technology isn't a cure-all. Face-time is important, too. Marshall advises that families budget funds for dad to come home once or twice a month.

Over the Todd's three-year haul, getting dad home has required close attention to online travel prices.

"One weekend a month he'd fly home and then, if we had time, we would drive down for a week," Brigitte Todd says. "We kept watching for sales and using lastminute.com, and I'd tell him, 'Oh you're coming home this weekend! Someone's got a sale!'"

Michael Mouranie's new company pays for his home visits. "It's right back to normal for the kids when he comes home," Lori Mouranie says. "They're very connected to my husband. He's been a very active father their whole lives. I'm very blessed that they still feel as connected to him as they do."

While the reunions are great for the kids, they are not always stellar experiences for mom and dad.

"Interestingly enough, it's not the absence that can be the most difficult; sometimes it's the re-entry of the dad back into the home," Marshall says. "Mom is the chief commandant – and then she has to move over and be a joint parent."

"The visits were very stressful," Chris Smokovitz says. "Even though I knew in my heart he was making sacrifices too, I felt resentment toward him when he would come, because he didn't know our routine. The baby was only 2 days old when he left, so he didn't know the baby. He was fantastic and very understanding and he spent every waking second with the kids, so they would still know him, but there was a tension there."

The Mouranies have felt that tension, too. "The part I don't like is that it's not my house anymore, because I'm adjusting to where I live now – and with Lori keeping the house show-ready, I can't use my old shower because we're keeping that bathroom clean. Sometimes I'm just not very comfortable in my own home," Michael Mouranie says.

At the same time, these families often experience positive changes and individual growth that they hadn't expected.

"I learned my kids are resilient," Chris Smokovitz says. "Maybe sometimes I have over-mothered them. It amazed me that even at 7, 4 and 3, they could do things for themselves. Now they are so proud that they can help me. They're more into putting things in the dishwasher and helping feed the baby. They're operating as a family now, rather than just having me clean up after them."

Michael Mouranie is amazed at how well his wife has coped. "She's gone through a lot. I don't think a lot of people understand how hard it is to keep this house show-ready with three kids under 8," he says. "She's a godsend. I'm blessed to have her."

Happy endings?

Like a lot of Michigan families, the Mouranies, Smokovitzes and Todds have held out hope through the past few years that the economy – and life – will improve. For some, that hope is on the horizon.

After three years on the road, Curtis Todd landed a job back in Michigan, so they didn't have to sell their dream house after all. This summer, his family drove down to Arkansas, gathered all his belongings and brought dad back home.

"I'm ecstatic," he says. "Not having to uproot and move away is really exciting to all of us, especially when we thought we would have to leave Michigan."

Chris Smokovitz moved her kids and the baby down to Virginia after receiving a good offer on their house. Unfortunately, the buyer's mortgage fell through when her appraisal came up short. The Garden City house they bought in 2002 for $243,000 is appraising at less than half that today. The Smokovitzes have no intention of separating again, even if that means they'll have to walk away from their mortgage.

"There are worse things, and we'll get through it," Chris says. "We couldn't pass up a great job for a house. In the end, I think it'll all work out."

The couple is happy to be back together, while the kids are getting accustomed to their new routine.

The Mouranies received what they considered an acceptable offer on their house and in their fifth month apart are hoping for a fair appraisal. If the sale goes through, the kids will be able to start school in New York in October. If the sale falls through, they plan to tough it out.

"We refuse to walk away, bring a check to closing or rent out our house," says Michael.

"I see us together, in the future. Where we'll be, I'm not sure, though I definitely do not see us here in Michigan," Lisa says. "I'm just hoping that we can sell this house and create a similar life for ourselves out there. As long as my family is living under one roof and everyone is happy and healthy, I'm good with that."

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