Navigating Family Setbacks
by Carla Foote
The headline that morning read ďFed Chief Seeing Signs of Recovery,Ē but economic adversity became personal in our home on a Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. My husband called me to say that he was being escorted to the door of his office building by a security guard; he could return that evening with the guard to pick up his personal belongings. The high tech sector isnít particularly friendly in their layoff procedures, fearing angry ex-employees who could sabotage a computer system. Even though we had experienced a layoff earlier in my husbandís career as a software developer, this situation felt very different. With two preschoolers at home, my own career consisted of reading books to my kids, playing with blocks, and very occasional consulting jobs.
I wasnít sure how to navigate the financial, physical and emotional territory of Daveís unemployment. How much should I shield the children from the worry and stress? How much of that anxiety could I absorb without impairing my own well-being? And how could I encourage my husband in a discouraging situation? Who would encourage me as I faced the day-to-day demands of juggling bills, needs, wants and uncertainty?
The main difficulty with this experience was that there was no guidebook saying how long we would be in the tunnel. An unemployment period of two months was something we could easily manage with savings, scrimping and deferring as many expenses as possible. But we had no guarantee of the length of the ďadventure,Ē so it was difficult to know how to ration our gear along the way. If the length of the period of unemployment was specific and measurable, it might even be easier to understand how to ask for help. The nebulous long-term nature of the journey was troublesome.
While my husband was busy taking classes, working on his rťsumť, revving up his network of contacts, and signing up for unemployment compensation, I tried to figure out how to be a supportive partner in the process and a mother who didnít snap too often at her children. I vacillated between depression, optimism, rationalization, panic, planning, tradeoffs and penny-pinching ó my emotions and reactions were all over the map.
The Visa bill and the registration renewal for both cars came in the mail on the same day. I felt depressed. I had already bought plan tickets to go see my brotherís new baby, but this didnít seem like such a good time for a trip, even though I needed the break.
The next dayís mail brought a refund check from the insurance company that I didnít even know was coming. What a great provision! I was encouraged for a moment, but I figured the insurance company made a mistake and Iíd have to send the money back. I told my friends that we would be fine, since we didnít have an extravagant lifestyle, but I sighed at the cost of health insurance under COBRA. I had a routine doctorís appointment and worried about the referral to a specialist I was given. Could I schedule this before our regular insurance ran out? I got tired of the everyday decisions and tradeoffs. First I gave up going out for any restaurant meals, but I wanted to keep my health club membership. Maybe next month Iíd have to give up both.
And I wondered about my mothering style in this tunnel experience. Certainly I wanted to shield the kids from negative influences, but it wouldnít hurt them to know why we were always packing a snack in the in the car and never driving through Wendyís, even for the 99-cent menu. I wanted to model for them my faith that God would provide for us, but on the days when I had doubts, Iíd rather not approach theology with an inquisitive five-year-old.
My childhood provided a few markers and insights into dealing with my situation. What did my mother do during the ďbustĒ periods of the aerospace industry in the 1970s when my father went through several periods of layoffs? Since my mom had successfully shielded me from any worry over finances, I couldnít remember any great mothering insights for this part of my path.
My childhood memories were happy but didnít involve lots of stuff ó we played in the woods behind the house, wore clothes my mom sewed, ate tuna casseroles for dinner and went camping for vacations. That kind of frugal lifestyle apparently adapted well to lean periods, as I donít remember too many adjustments when dad was unemployed. The only cutback I can remember was that music lessons went away. That was a luxury my mom decided to trim. But my older sister started a job in a fast-food restaurant, and she found a teacher who could give us both lessons at a family discount. Even the music cutback didnít affect me deeply. It wasnít until my adult years that I realized what a generous act it was by my sister to pay for music lessons for her tagalong younger sister.
Childhood memories of these periods were simply of the oddity of having my dad at home during the day, rather than off at his office. Worry wasnít part of my vocabulary, so I guess my mom shielded me from that aspect of financial troubles. Certainly as a mom I wanted my children to have this same carefree, childlike trust that they didnít have to worry about housing, bills, food or clothing. This wasnít a problem in the first few months of my husbandís layoff, but the ongoing nature of the unemployment frayed my patience.
Christmas with preschoolers didnít have to be extravagant, so I scoured the thrift stores for new-looking toys to wrap up under the tree. I also took our collection of Christmas books, wrapped them up, and set them in a basket by the fireplace. We opened a book each night to read at bedtime. The kids didnít need to be aware of the fact that Christmas only cost twenty dollars.
The problem came when the unemployment period stretched from weeks into months. I could defer my own needs and focus energy on other family members for a time, but that effort wore thin after several months. It was hard to admit that I needed help and encouragement as much as my husband did, just in different areas.
As I increased my work schedule, I started to resent the fact that I was still doing all the work around the house, even though our roles had reversed, albeit temporarily. And well-meaning friends seemed to focus more on my husbandís needs than the fact that I also was in a situation where I needed help.
Help appeared not by magic but as a result of me learning to articulate needs. I needed a date with my husband, even if that date consisted of a walk around the park while our daughter was at parentsí day out. I needed help around the house to accommodate my increased work schedule. I needed help with the financial details in terms of sharing the stress, even though I was perfectly capable of balancing the checkbook or figuring out the bills all by myself. Most of all, I needed to be able to say that I had needs ó that it wasnít all about meeting the needs of my husband and children during this period.
The reality of the recession invaded my daily life, but I could choose each day not to judge my self-worth by the balance in my checkbook. I could choose to enjoy the blossoms of spring. I could choose to check out an interesting book from the library and take time by myself to read the book. I could choose to reach out to a friend and ask for help. I could choose to be a real woman who didnít have an answer for every question, rather than pretending that I was above the stress. As difficult as it was, I could even choose to accept a financial gift from friends.
Some days, I made positive choices and found hope even in a situation that went on for many months. Other days, it was easier to choose negativity and fear. But even in the midst of my needs and doubts, I still had the ability to choose. I could choose not to be in a recession of spirit and soul, even as I questioned the adequacy of my provisions for the journey.
Excerpted from The Mommy Diaries