This week, Jennifer posted some challenging thoughts on homeschooling…with interstitial puppy pictures. As it happens, I also have a challenging topic for today, and will leaven it with some pictures of my kids playing with bubbles. Bubbles and puppies are basically photography cheats–is it possible to take a bad picture where either is involved? I would take the bubble machine over to the puppies’ home and have some sort of maximum allowable cuteness event, but the bubble machine died. However, I can buy a new one without guilt–and probably will, later this week. Thus, the post.
As many of you know, last March was a time of serious upheaval and turmoil for our family. Short version: I found out that I didn’t get a job that I’d been working toward for about five years, JC got laid off a week later, and around the same time, my friend and creative partner announced that she was moving to Massachusetts (which is less financially serious, but felt like a door slamming shut, as well, in its own way). At the time, I was sure things would settle out pretty soon. JC would find a job or I would find a clue, and we’d know what to do next.
I’ve drafted this post in my head pretty much weekly since the cataclysm, sure that I would be able to write it soon. Soon, right? And then once we were again gainfully employed, I put off writing it out of a certain superstition. But I think it’s okay now.
So here we go–the take-away from 13 months of unemployment and searching.
At the time, I felt sure that we were going to get some hint about our next direction in life. That all those doors slamming at once had to mean something. I scanned the listings on international service websites, sure that something would leap out and say, “This is you! This is where you’re supposed to be! The starving people of Ethiopia desperately need someone to teach the history of Western theater and no one can do it but you!”
You’ll be surprised (as I was) to learn that this did not happen.
Even though I didn’t find my next Big Thing (and, let’s be clear, I have two very small children, which is its own kind of Big Thing), we, as a collective, found some things.
One major one is that we realized, in the aftermath, how very committed we are to our community. We love this city. This is our home. We do hope to leave someday, for a term of service–those starving children aren’t going to learn Western theater history all on their own!–but with the intention of coming back. Always returning.
Our church chose a “theme text” for the year, Jeremiah 29:7: Seek the SHALOM of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its SHALOM, you shall find your SHALOM.
That felt like my calling. Seeking the SHALOM of the city. Putting my roots and my love and my care here. Creating something good in the middle of a difficult world.
We learned a lot, career-wise, too. I, for one, discovered that I can make enough money writing for various websites and curriculum companies to feed my family. We didn’t live well, but we lived. We even ended the year with more money in our emergency fund than when it started. The work pays well, when I can get it. It’s not super hard for me, and I can fit it in around my life. Making money this way allows me to do the things I love–teaching and directing–without them having to be especially well-paying (although I wouldn’t complain if they were). About 25% of my income this past year was for making theater, which is not too shabby, all things considered.
I’ve learned that maybe I don’t actually want to be a professor after all. I love being a guest artist at the local colleges and universities, and I’d like to expand that work. I enjoy the flexibility it gives me. I love getting to be on different campuses, work in different spaces, meet a variety of students. It’s most of the fun parts of professoring, without the politics. It doesn’t pay well, but if I’m not doing it for the money, that stops mattering quite so much.
I also kind of like adjuncting. Last year, I taught theater history, which was awesome. This year, I taught speech, which was alright. There’s a certain hostility in a class that everyone has to take, and I wasn’t especially good at managing that. I’m teaching speech again in the fall. I think I’ve learned some things, and it will go better.
Like many people (especially artists) of my generation, I’m learning to think of my career as a pile of things I piece together, rather than a straight trajectory.
Among other things, I now have a gig writing for Upworthy. Check out my curator page, and share things from it! (please) Also, if you find things that are Upworthy-ish, I’d appreciate it if you could send those my way.
The layoff was good for JC. He was stressed and demoralized at the job he had, and the situation was one of waiting to get laid off. When it happened, there was some relief in not having to wonder any more if today was the last day. He hadn’t looked for a job at all in years. The hunt, although discouraging at times, was incredibly educational. Just seeing the salary ranges of the jobs that he got interviewed for was a shock. He hadn’t realized how wildly underpaid he was at his old job. His skills had developed a lot faster than his salary. He learned a lot from interviewing various places (and a three-week stint that didn’t work out at a tech security company) about what kind of company and work environment are the best for him. He learned about what he wants from a job–not just money, but training, socialization, and challenges.
We also learned that we can make the amount of money we’d like to have to live on with one of us working full-time and the other freelancing. We learned that I love freelance work–and I’m good at juggling lots of projects and clients–but he wants to work in a real job. Not a start-up, either; real, solid corporations with structure and HR departments (much as he maligns the people who work in HR) are his speed.
In April, he started working as a network security engineer for a regional ISP. So far, he seems to like it. His manager is sending him through various certification programs that will make him more marketable in the future–something his old employer always promised, but never put the resources into. That should position him to be more marketable in the future. It’s also keeping him busy and interested in the work. All good things.
Things I want other people going through a time of unemployment to know include:
- Have an emergency fund. This is literally the ONE financially smart thing we ever do, and it seriously saved our bacon this time. There’s some debate about how much you need. We had about 6 months’ expenses saved. There was one point when my contract work dried up and we had a number of unexpected expenses, and our emergency fund dropped to almost nothing, but we prioritized rebuilding it.
- Cut out everything. This isn’t the “latte factor.” We never spent much money, really…but we cut our expenses even more dramatically last year. We didn’t go out. We ate meat maybe once or twice a month–and always as a small piece of a mostly-grains meal. We became a little neurotic about spending any money at all.
- Try not to drive much. Gas is expensive, but that’s the least of your problems. Unemployment and worrying about money literally makes you dumber than you ever were before. This shows up while driving. I got in my first fender-bender in 10 years shortly after the layoff. JC got his first speeding ticket since we got married. Stay off the road!
- Conversely, try to see other people. Not, um, romantically, but in general. We learned a lot about having too much family togetherness. Frankly, we got a little bored with each other. I would say, “I heard this great thing on NPR–” and JC would be like “Yeah, I was sitting right next to you when you heard that.” One of the immediate effects of JC’s new job is that we started to find each other’s jokes funny again.
- Get comfortable with uncertainty. We all have only the illusion of stability anyway, but it sure is a nice illusion. If my family had a theme verse for the past year, it would be James 4:13-15: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
- Rely on your community. I led a group experience/Sunday school class at church on “finding your calling.” Hearing other people’s stories of how they were struggling to figure out what was next, supporting each other, and praying for each other, grounded me. We also met regularly with a group of people who were all laid off at the same time as JC. We shared resources, job leads, and general commiseration.
- Don’t be afraid to use our social safety net. I would never have thought to apply for Medicaid if another mom hadn’t told me that her kids were on it, but without it, my kids probably would have gone uninsured. I knew it existed, but I always thought of it as something that I contributed to because I wanted to help other people, not something I would ever need or use myself. Our church offered to help us if we needed it, and we took that offer seriously. We ended up not requesting that help, but knowing that it was available relieved some of the stress that we were under.
- Attempt to create a routine. One thing that was hard was that we felt seriously adrift. Our days had no rhythm. Sunday was the only day that we could count on. People asked us if we were able to do such-and-such in a few months, and we had no idea. Time was like an ocean and we were just flotsam wandering aimlessly across it. The best weeks were ones when JC and I worked out a deal–I would work half of the day on my various freelance projects and looking for more of them, while he watched the children. We’d switch at lunch time. This made the days seem more manageable.
- Try to make yourself go to networking events, even if it feels slimy and weird. Get some business cards printed for cheap and find a graceful way to get them into as many hands as you can. Someone you meet face-to-face will remember you more than someone who just gets a random email with your CV.
- Keep an open heart and an open mind. Keep listening for God’s call. Unemployment is a chance to radically change your life–the patterns in your family, the way you think about your role in the world. Don’t pass it up.
If you know someone who is going through a time of unemployment, you might want to do some of the following things to support them:
- Reach out. We received notes or emails from friends on four continents. That meant a lot to us, and made us feel less alone.
- Keep a look out for job possibilities. To do this in any kind of helpful way, you need to really ask your job-seeking friend about his/her skills, experience, and long-term goals. A jillion people in this country “work with computers,” but they don’t all have the same skill set. Working in network administration is completely different from doing front-end design.
- Help your friend make connections. Some insane number (80% or so) of new jobs are filled through a person-to-personrecommendation, not the resumes thrown over the transom.
- Find things to do together that don’t cost much of anything. A potluck meal. A free concert. A hike.
- Ask about progress, but not every time you see them. If they didn’t have any leads last week, it’s unlikely the answer has changed.
So, in short, it’s been a rough year. Really two years, because the previous year, JC wasn’t making much money at his job, and my freelance work all dried up, and we were saving every extra penny for Petra’s birth (which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and absolutely worth it, but still…).
I feel good that we’ve managed to keep going, despite all of the difficulty and craziness.
I’m also totally glad things seem to be calming down a bit. We all grew and learned a lot this year, but I felt, by the end of it, like I needed a break from spiritual growth and development. Can’t I just chill for a while?
And now it’s summer, and we have routine, and we’re able to sit back and count our blessings. It’s about time.