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I Am the Face of Unemployment

With the call for “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” at the center of political rhetoric and making headlines daily, it’s time for another glimpse on what it’s really like to live it—firsthand.

I’m more than a number, my family is greater than a statistic. We are the face of unemployment.

I  shortly after my husband was laid off. That was 14 months ago. Unfortunately, we’re still in the same boat.

Both of my Patch columns, “From the Driver’s Seat” and “Patch In,” are written from a very personal perspective. In writing about the layoff, I tried to give a glimpse of what it felt like and what we were going through. I couldn’t claim to be opining from my perspective each week if I didn’t really give readers an honest account and the true context of my life.

It also helped to share our story, both from a cathartic, therapeutic standpoint, and also from the belief that others in the same situation would feel some sort of comfort to know they weren’t alone.

This is only my story—I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, as if to say it’s the same for them, or even universal. But it’s a window, perhaps, onto something that often, in communities like ours, is faceless, anonymous and hidden.

I also know our experience is uniquely ours—it’s neither better nor worse than someone else’s misfortune, it just is what it is. It helps to write about it, and it helps for people to hear about it; perhaps it takes away some stigma from what unemployment has been thought of in the past, in what’s true when you shine a light on something historically shameful and concealed.

But in recent weeks, I’ve had more friends and acquaintances suddenly join me in what I call the “Hidden Wives Club.” Finding their families now part of the great unemployed, it’s all the more raw and real once again.

So I wanted to revisit the topic—sort of as a “check-in” on how we’re doing one-plus year later. But perhaps more importantly, I also wanted the column to stand as a prism through which you might think when you hear about “those unemployed people” in a debate, or “how we lost 8 million jobs” in the President’s State of the Union address.

Admittedly, I write mostly about my feelings, not my husband’s. To protect his privacy and his right to control what’s ‘out there’ about him, I only write this from my POV. He’s given me the okay to write this column but I try hard to maintain his boundaries, and I don’t presume to speak for him.

It takes so much energy to get through each day. Unemployment stress definitely takes a mental toll, and it’s easy to fall into a funk. I have to summon a strength to put on a positive face for the world—not to pretend or mask it, but because it’s ongoing for us, and I can’t be depressed every day.

I also have to dig deep to write my columns. I know I need to be entertaining and clear, and vary my subjects. I find sometimes that I’ve written three or four pieces in a row that are philosophically dreary or too introspective. I’m not surprised it shows in my writing, but I have to make a concerted effort to find the joy in the everyday too.

Somehow, even with the worries, and the various disappointments, I find some strength to put one foot in front of the other. It takes all my energy to get the kids to school and to their activities, pour out my feelings for a column and manage the household. Some days are better than others, and some are not so good. Some days are still stay-in-pajama-days, and some days I can conquer the world at meetings and school obligations and volunteering.

We are not needy, yet. We are fortunate to have the emotional and sometimes financial support of family, and savings to fall back on (thankfully, we were prepared). We are also lucky to have supportive friends.

I recognize that sometimes my friends don’t always know what to do—extend an invite for the weekend away or hope I don’t find out that they’ve planned it without us, so as not to make us feel bad if we can’t afford to go. I also recognize my instinct to sometimes pull away from them and cocoon with my sadness, and I don’t reach out as often as I should.

We try to handle it with grace and strength. We appreciate the support we’ve gotten from our synagogue community, and we look forward to the certainty that we will pay it forward when we can. We try to do that still, in ways that are manageable even with the stresses of ‘our situation.’

I often wonder how we’re thought of and what kind of reaction people have internally when they find out. “What does your husband do?” is always a tricky one to navigate. I wonder how my answer impacts whether they’ll be eager to set up play dates between my children and theirs, or if I’m ever a topic of conversation over someone else’s lunchtime chatter.

It’s been quite an experience for our kids too, of course, and one I wish they’d never had. At first we tried to shield them from it as much as possible, especially from the fear of the constant unknown that we now live with. But as weeks turned into months, it was harder and harder to hide it. For each child we’ve handled it differently depending on their age. My 9-year-old understands so much more than his 5 year old sister; of course, it carries a bigger burden for him.

Quite often, facing the strife of any life test like unemployment can take its toll on a marriage. I’ve seen friends in similar situations not be able to withstand the stress, and their marriages haven’t survived. In some ways I think our relationship has strengthened. I see the kind of pressures my husband has withstood in the last year. I see how hard he’s working to find work. I see how punishing it can be to come close (several times!) to a new position, only to be disappointed—but then he picks himself up again and faces the day anew.

I love him more now for his resilience and perseverance.

Resilience is what this is all about, after all. When I read headlines like this recent one, “Bernanke To The Unemployed: Don’t Get Your Hopes Up,” it’s tough to picture we might be in the same place this time next year. But we are withstanding it, so far, and getting by.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

William D'Avanzo January 31, 2012 at 07:41 AM
Elmer: That's close to true except American wages are not dropping they are rising, in real (inflation adjusted) $s, very, very slowly. Productivity is increasing at a much faster rate and this should imply that corporations should be able to increase wages at a faster rate. Instead corporate profits are increasing at a faster rate. And it is true that some jobs can be moved out of the country if the corp. thinks the wages here are too high.
William D'Avanzo January 31, 2012 at 07:54 AM
Mischa, thanks for you post. I think it helps people understand your situation a little better. If it is any consolation, the economic indicators are pointing toward growth, but slow growth, ahead. This could be derailed by a major financial problem in Europe or a financial stalemate in Congress. If you have any opportunity to improve your skill set, you should consider doing that.
John Anderson January 31, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Economic growth, are you kidding? Hate to rain on your parade, but until we start producing, there will be no "true" economic growth. I also don't trust any studies online that end with ".gov". The more .gov gets involved in our lives, the worse we will be. See that story above about China, you won't see that in this country will you.... The average chinese factory worker makes $200 USD per month.
Lauren Strongin February 01, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Heather - my family is in the same boat, with my husband being unemployed for 13 months and we have two small children. I know the struggles and challenges and it's not an easy road but one I hope we both can overcome soon! I try to stay optimistic and hope you can, too.
Walter Jones February 02, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Having been there, done that as far as being unemployed...... how about have the writer check out.....http://www.labor.ny.gov/jobs/regional.shtm. Currently lists around 40,000 jobs in NY. We often can't find the optimum job, but if one is "willing to work" to get back into the flow......there are jobs....

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