For Richer or Poorer: Commuting for Love in the Age of Recession
After the Great Recession cost them their jobs, many parents faced a heart-breaking reality: To feed their kids, they might need to leave them behind. The heart-warming story of how two loving families learned to cope with their long, long-distance commutes.
(Photos: Tamara Reynolds)
Daniel Butherus eases his black Dodge Ram pickup onto I-35, north out of Fort Worth, Texas, for the six-hour drive home. He’s tucked a small suitcase with a few changes of clothes into the backseat. A Bluetooth headset hangs from his right ear. He’s already called his wife, Kelli, to let her know he’ll be home by ten, and now he settles into the familiar rhythm of his weekly commute. Daydreaming, he calls it. As the miles pass, Daniel, 34, wonders when he’ll have time to finish the basement of his Wichita, Kansas, home, or help his kids with schoolwork, or coach their basketball teams again.
On his journey, he sees a dozen pickups loaded with couches and dressers and cars pulling little U-Haul trailers. He wonders if each one represents another lost job or another uprooted family. He considers himself lucky: He still has a job and a home, even if the two are 380 miles apart.
Over these many months, he’s also started spotting familiar faces, members of his tribe: the epic commuters. At a McDonald’s in Oklahoma, he met a software engineer who commutes from St. Louis to Dallas, 1,200 miles in a weekend. That makes Daniel’s drive seem swift, though it doesn’t blunt the loneliness of his bachelor-like existence.
Daniel Butherus says he will do what he must to take care of his family. Fifteen years ago, he started on the Wichita assembly line at Cessna, riveting airplane wing flaps. He went to school at night for manufacturing engineering, studied with his babies on his lap, stepped up to a promotion, and acquired an MBA in his off-hours. Since being laid off in June 2009, he’s been working on contract for Lockheed Martin in Texas, where he builds the F-35 fighter jet and dreams of the weekends. “It’s kind of like a country song,” he says, laughing. “I lost my wife, my kids, my house, and my dog.”
Just before 10 p.m., Daniel pulls into his driveway. Because he puts in ten-hour days, every other weekend is a three-day, a consolation for life away from home. He slips into his children’s rooms and kisses his daughter, Erin, seven years old, blonde ringlets splayed across the pillow, and Clay, nine, with his sandy-colored brush cut. Daniel is a family man again, Kelli is no longer a single mom, and all is right for a few days at least.
Photo: Chris Morgan packing up his Chicago-area rental home, on his way to a new job in St. Louis.
The recession may be ending on paper, but much of the country has yet to feel a reprieve. Unemployment hovers at 10 percent, savings have been ravaged, and housing markets, while no longer in free fall, have yet to rebound. And for a swelling sea of families like the Butheruses, avoiding financial calamity has meant living apart, with a week and sometimes months between visits home. Other families, like Chris and Lisa Morgan of Tyler, Texas, found the long-distance life so stressful that they’ve vowed to keep the family under one roof, even if it means moving cross-country to chase jobs.
“It’s kind of like immigrants who come to the United States and keep their families in Mexico,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who studies migration patterns of American workers. “They may bring the family eventually, or they may just keep sending the money back.” These are drastic steps for the middle class, adds Frey, “because people will try to figure out any other way to cope than to have to uproot themselves or their families.”
Like typical migrants, these workers belong to a shadow class that defies definition or documentation. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track temporary moves; the Labor Department doesn’t tally contract workers and freelancers – the so-called underemployed. White-, pink-, and blue-collar workers have all been conscripted into this mobile army of job seekers. With construction and housing at a standstill, Detroit has seen thousands of its workers hit the road in search of jobs. Of the 5,400 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58, for instance, more than half have lost full-time jobs. About 600 of them now roam the country, looking for temporary work, says Bob Hines, the union’s assistant business manager.
The economic landscape has shifted too. If Michigan has been the recession’s ground zero, the Lone Star State has been its bright spot. In Texas, the population has expanded since the recession began, and the state avoided the massive real estate bubble and bust that pummeled cities elsewhere. In a 2009 study of job growth, Texas cities grabbed seven of the top ten slots, aided by expansion in education, health care, energy, and defense. So migrant workers like Daniel Butherus have come to Texas, and like many of his tribe, he has come alone.
The Butherus family at home in Wichita. From left: Kelli, Clay, Daniel, Indy, and Erin.
On a Saturday morning in Wichita, Daniel and Kelli cheer for Clay as he blocks a pass during a basketball game at the local YMCA. They were courtside the previous night, rooting for Erin and her team, the Cheetahs. A year ago, Daniel coached both teams. Now he’s just a spectator, sitting in the stands with his father, Tom, who has come to watch his grandchildren. Tom retired from Cessna last December, after 26 years, among the last of a generation of American workers who could spend their entire careers at a single company.
Daniel had hoped the industry that was so good to his father would hold the same security for him. “I have no desire to move around and jump from job to job,” he says. “I want to find a place and work the rest of my life there. I want stability. People say you shouldn’t spend your career in one place, because if you jump around, you become more diverse in your skills. I just don’t want to do that.”
But Daniel had no choice. When auto executives flew to Washington on private jets for bailout talks in 2008, “Cessna’s orders just died,” he says. Layoffs followed close behind. “They thought the cuts would be 15 or 20 percent,” Tom Butherus says, still stunned at how bad it became.
From late 2008 to mid 2009, Cessna slashed its global workforce of 16,000 in half. Among Daniel’s colleagues – 250 manufacturing engineers – 70 percent were let go. “It was a miserable several months,” he says. By July, he had found a one-year contract job with Lockheed Martin, which means a paycheck but no health insurance or other benefits.
Daniel and Kelli know it could have been worse. His new consulting job, though far away, pays well, and Kelli, 41, still has steady work as a high school math teacher. Many of their friends haven’t been nearly as lucky. “In this area,” Kelli says, “I know a lot of people who are jobless.” On a recent weekend in Wichita, they went out to a fancy dinner with Daniel’s best friend and his wife. Such date nights are rare; they usually take the kids everywhere, and there hasn’t been much to celebrate. But Daniel’s friend had just found a job at an aircraft parts supplier, a year after being laid off from Cessna. His wife, who works at a desk job in the aircraft industry, was worried that the ice would break under her as well. For the moment, they’re fine.
On his tenth wedding anniversary, Daniel was moving into an apartment in Fort Worth. He and Kelli have adjusted to this taxing new routine. During the week, they both wake at 5 a.m. and text each other to make sure neither has overslept. Kelli dresses and feeds the kids, and by 6:45 she drops them at the home of a neighbor, whose children attend the same Catholic grade school. After teaching all day, Kelli comes home and helps Erin and Clay with their homework. She fixes dinner by five so they can be at practice – football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball and soccer in the spring and summer. Keeping a normal routine for the kids means little free time for her; to her regret, she has had to cut back on volunteer work with the church.
She’s in awe of the single moms who work with her at the high school. “I’d say, ‘How do you do it?’ ” Kelli says. “A lot of times, Daniel would call me at the worst possible time – we’ve just gotten home from practice, we’re doing spelling words, and I’m thinking about 20 other things I need to do.” But she knows her husband would rather be home, helping her with chores or the kids. She knows she herself couldn’t do it, being away from the kids for so long.
With Clay and Erin bathed and in bed, dishes and laundry done, Kelli flops on the couch by nine to grade algebra quizzes and work on lesson plans. Before the layoff and the move, Daniel would be right there on the couch, rubbing her feet.
On weekends, he tries to make up for that absence. After Clay’s basketball game, he corrals the family’s black Lab, Indy, into the tub for a bath. Then it’s off to Walmart for a week’s worth of groceries, including a 12-pack of Diet Dr Pepper, Kelli’s favorite. Back home, he kneels on the basement floor and digs a pile of laundry from the dryer. “This is kind of my penance for being gone,” he says as he folds a Notre Dame T-shirt. “When people come over on the weekends, it looks like I’m a domestic god, when the truth is really I’m just guilty.”
Photo: Daniel called his family twice a day when he was in Texas working for Lockheed Martin.
Chris and Lisa Morgan tried the long-commute lifestyle – twice. In early 2008, Chris, 42, was settled in a good job close to home in Tyler, Texas. Then things fell apart. Out of work for three months, Chris took a position in Dallas, managing the collections department for a large cardiology group. He lived in an apartment and drove home to Tyler, two hours away, on weekends. “You do what you have to do,” he says. The Morgans planned to sell their home and move to Dallas, but the housing market tanked. In May 2009, the doctors’ office cut back its staff, and Chris was again unemployed. Last September, he found a good job through a friend of a friend, managing a medical and commercial collections agency outside Chicago.
Chris lived in a hotel during the week and came home most weekends, but the time apart was affecting their two-year-old daughter, Grace. “She started to get very clingy, very anxious,” says Lisa, a labor and delivery nurse who had stopped working when Grace was born. Adds Chris, “I’d put on a jacket to go outside or just leave the room and she’d start crying. Where did Daddy go? That’s what hurt the most.”
“It was too much of a strain,” Lisa says. “We just knew we had to be together, and whatever sacrifices that meant, we had to make them so we could be together as a family.” The couple rented a small house in the western suburbs of Chicago, 950 miles from their family, friends, church, and Texas home, on which they were still paying a mortgage and utilities. But Lisa, 39, says they were happy to move. “We just tell everyone it’s an adventure,” she says.
Lisa and Grace joined Chris in their new place in December 2009, just in time for a white Christmas, a first for all three Morgans. Facebook and phone calls kept Lisa in touch with family and friends in Texas, but still she felt isolated. “You feel like you’re all by yourself with no one to reach out to,” she says. They started visiting churches on Sundays, hoping to settle on one and begin building a new support network in Chicago.
But then, in February, just two months after the family moved north, Chris was laid off again. He and Lisa loaded up their Ford Expedition and drove back to Texas. With his good reputation and experience, Chris was quickly offered a job at an established hospital in St. Louis, charged with starting up a collections department. So now the Morgans, confident that this will be a long-term position, will put their home on the market and follow their adventure to Missouri.
Despite the strain of constant moving, Lisa believes the past two years have made her marriage stronger. “It was easy before, when we didn’t have to worry about money,” she says. “But when you don’t know when the next check is going to come in, you really have to rely on each other. It’s going to make you or break you.”
Aaron Cooper, PhD, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says families like the Morgans who find a silver lining are lucky. “I counsel so many couples who have had it quite easy from the day they were married,” Cooper says. “There’s an inclination to jump ship when it gets rough. The financial potholes that many couples have hit over the past 18 months create added emotional stresses that they may never have had to deal with before.”
In a recent poll of unemployed adults conducted by the New York Times and CBS News, nearly half reported depression, anxiety, and more arguments with family members.
For families that do survive financial disasters, Cooper says, thrift and making do with less can be lasting positive lessons that kids will carry into their adult lives. “Less materialism is good for children,” he says. “The kids who have the most are the least grateful for what they have. And gratitude is an important element in happy lives.”
Photo: The Morgans – (from left) Grace, Chirs, and Lisa – reunited in Missouri.
As the New Year arrived, Daniel and Kelli Butherus found reason to hope.Before Christmas, Cessna called and said the company may be rehiring. Lockheed Martin had offered Daniel full-time work in Fort Worth, but that would mean selling the house, leaving friends and grandparents, a new school for the kids, and a job hunt and teacher recertification for Kelli.
“I’m thinking I’m better off doing the commute for as long as I can,” Daniel says, waiting for something permanent in Wichita. He sits with Kelli in the living room while the kids play on the backyard jungle gym and try to keep Indy, freshly bathed, out of the mud. He pauses and looks down. “What’s the right decision?”
Kelli shakes her head. “All I know is we’re not doing the apart thing for another year,” she says. “I’m not doing it, and I’m not making the kids do it. If we have to move, we have to move.” At church that morning, Kelli says she confessed to feeling jealous of families that are together all the time. By Sunday afternoon, the mood darkens in the Butherus house as the family readies for the weekly goodbye. Tears often accompany this moment.
“I don’t want you to leave,” Clay had said a few weeks earlier as he hugged his dad. “Can’t you wait a little bit?”
“I don’t like to go,” Daniel told him, “but one day, you’ll be a man, and you’ll have to take care of your family.”
Even if the kids don’t understand now, they will someday, Daniel figures. “I could have survived on unemployment. But I worked awfully hard to get done with school while having two kids. I have the ability to work; there’s no reason I shouldn’t. And so long as I can, I’m going to,” he says. “One day, our kids are going to go through the same things. There are going to be adversities. The only thing you can do is keep trying, keep fighting, keep pushing. You’ll make it.”
True to his word, Daniel Butherus keeps pushing, clocking nearly 800 miles a week, back and forth between two lives. But then, in late February, after eight months on the road, he receives the call he’s been waiting for. In early March, he returned to his old job in Wichita, ending his membership in the tribe of the long-distance commuters. “Being gone felt like living underwater,” he says, “and being home with the family just feels right. I don’t want it any other way. I would fight tooth and nail to ensure that we always stay together. Being on the road and seeing all those vehicles loaded up, it’s a picture of desperation.”