Reflecting on post-employment life, one year later

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It’s official: gas station coffee makes me sad.

Not because of the taste. (Don’t judge me for confessing that 7-11 specialty drinks are actually pretty yummy.) It’s because, when I was running errands in single digit temperatures a couple of weeks ago, and a mocha from the nearby Mobil station suddenly sounded irresistible, I realized, as the first sip singed my tongue, that I hadn’t had one of these drinks since before my layoff nearly a year ago.

This immediate sensory memory stunned me into a dark mood, despite the drink’s sweetness. A taste from the past viscerally reminded me that, whenever I’d savored this hot drink in my car in the past – the cloud of my chilled breath mixing with a latte’s steam – I’d been rushing to or from work, my days filled-to-bursting with purpose. After more than a decade at the job, I’d still felt so proud that a company recognized and appreciated my talents and paid me to write. I’d still felt lucky that I got to talk to artists, and experience and think about their work daily. And I’d still felt thankful that my daughters got to see their mom working at a job about which she was passionate.

Because it was never just a paycheck for me. Being an arts reporter felt like a mission. I believed in the value of what I did, even though it could get objectively silly at times (looking at you, fairy doors and “Bachelor” recaps).

But on that day, sitting in my cold car, I decided that instead of pathetically crying onto the plastic cap of my 7-11 mocha, I needed to just, well, “shake it off” and turn the ignition.

No, I’m not the harried working mom I was a year ago, but somehow, I still have a full schedule most of the time. It’s an unassailable truth, especially when you have kids, that whatever time you might carve out for yourself mysteriously, consistently fills up. The key, though, is whether the things that are taking up space in your calendar make you feel fulfilled. For me, the answer to that is a firm “sometimes.”

Part of what’s going on, clearly, is that, even though we all like to think we’re not pigeon-hole-able stereotypes, I definitely seem to be working through all Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief: denial (I dug in and immediately applied for several journalism jobs last January, unable to absorb the hard truth that no digital newsroom outfit was going to hire a washed up, 45 year old woman); anger – both at me and the company that didn’t seem to recognize, or care, how much of my soul I’d poured into my “part-time” job; bargaining – thinking that if someone would just give me a chance, at pretty much anything, my happiness would return; depression, as I stared down middle age at the exact moment when the working world broke up with me, essentially saying, “It’s not me, it’s you”; and acceptance. Still working on that one, clearly.

For a long time, I thought my grief was for my work rather than for a person. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that the latter applies just as much: for I’m mourning the (at least semi-)accomplished, independent, regular paycheck-earning feminist I’d long thought myself to be. After spending years “finding myself,” I’d somehow lost myself again.

Who am I now? I don’t exactly know. It can shift from day-to-day, and that’s painful, and it’s stressful.

IMG_1063.JPGYes, in our particular circumstances, Joe, being a commercial litigator, always brought in the lion’s share of our family’s income, so I was never the primary breadwinner. But I nonetheless felt proud to be contributing a few more small loaves, anyhow. Years ago, I struggled with the idea that what had previously been my money and his money were suddenly pooled together, and that even though I brought in less income, we were a team, and so there was just “our money.” Over time, I finally absorbed this as a pragmatic reality.

But it’s far harder to rationalize that narrative when you’re out of work for an extended period of time. Though freelancing gigs have kept me fairly busy this past year, there have nonetheless been dry spells; and during those times, I’d fill my gas tank and feel a wave of guilt as I watched the numbers climb, thinking, “I’m spending money that I didn’t earn.” I’d buy Christmas and Hanukkah gifts and think, “This feels weird and wrong. This is Joe’s money.” And when a mechanic pointed out that my tires were nearly bald and needed to be replaced before the winter, I sheepishly wondered, “Am I technically a dependent at this point? Like one of our children?”

It’s not a fair assessment, I realize; but when the thought even crosses your mind, it’s a self-esteem/dignity killer, to say the least.

And all this was going on in my head when Joe came home from his annual holiday work party recently. Every December, Joe’s firm – lawyers and staff – goes out to a frou-frou lunch bacchanalia on a Friday. Over the course of a couple of hours, Joe joyously chats with his coworkers, eats everything that crosses his line of vision, has a few drinks, walks around what I call “the rich people mall” to sober up, and then drives home mid-afternoon. It’s one of his favorite days of the year.

When Joe’s holiday party happened a few weeks ago, I’d volunteered to help at a gingerbread house building party at Lily and Neve’s school. When I left, I ran through the cold to my car in the parking lot, and it wouldn’t turn over.

I knew I needed a jump, but I also knew that Joe was likely smack-dab in the midst of his annual daytime indulgence. Which I don’t begrudge him, of course. It was just really bad timing this year.

“Oh, Gorgeous,” he said when I called. “I can’t drive anywhere for at least an hour or two. I’m really sorry. You’re going to have to walk home for now.”

It was bitterly cold, and I had items I’d just bought and needed to gift-wrap in my trunk. So I took a deep breath, popped the trunk, grabbed as much of the stuff as I could, and started to walk the mile home, my gaze lowered against the freezing headwind.

So admittedly, this hadn’t been my best day to begin with.

But then late in the afternoon, Joe came home in a gleefully good mood. This was easily the happiest I’d seen him in ages. He talked about the fun he’d had getting to vote a deserving lawyer into a partnership, and how fun it was to announce the news, and the gifts he got from his secretary, and the food he’d eaten and the drinks he’d had, and the things he’d bought in the mall afterward.

He was singing.

He tried to dance with me.

I’m afraid that I shut that down, because I just wasn’t feeling it.

And though my car breakdown likely contributed to my mood, I also suddenly fixated on the fact that, for the first time in over a decade, I wouldn’t be part of a newsroom’s dorky workplace potluck. I wouldn’t be sitting on the newsroom’s curved couches, eating an odd assortment of foods on a paper plate while chatting and joking with coworkers. I wouldn’t feel that collegial companionship, that pride in what we did as a team, and that sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of another year of hard work.

So even though poor Joe rarely has the pleasure of being in such a good mood – so burdened is he by professional and personal obligations every day – I nonetheless shat on it. Hard.

I explained that hearing about his work party made me miss our stupid potlucks (starring what we all called “the company meat,” usually a ham that was the only item provided by the company); and that while I was glad he’d had such a great day, I was personally feeling a little down.

To his credit, Joe acknowledged my feelings, but wasn’t easily swayed from his positive outlook, either. During dinner, he was still flying high, bursting into song, until I told him what I sometimes tell Lily when she’s over-excited: “Could you take it down a notch?”

He chuckled and tried to rein himself in. But it wasn’t until Neve got upset about something – I can’t even remember what, but I’ll hazard a guess and say it was arbitrary and ridiculous, since she’s 5 – that Joe’s irrepressible good mood finally snapped and he said, “Apparently, I’m not allowed to be happy. Ever.”

Oof. What had I done?

I’d made him miserable like me. Which, paradoxically, I both wanted and didn’t want at all.

We were lying in bed that night, and I said, “I’m so sorry. You get one day a year to really enjoy yourself at work, and I just stomped all over your happiness. I shouldn’t have done that. It was selfish of me, and I’m really, really sorry.”

Joe grumbled something I don’t quite remember, rolled over, and went to sleep.

I did feel awful, and loaded down by guilt. When you’re grieving, you find that the grief inevitably takes up some space in your marriage, and your partner has to keep making room for it when it rears up – which gets annoying and trying, to say the least.

But grief stubbornly blazes its own erratic path, and you have no choice but to feel what you feel when unexpected triggers (like gas station coffee and your spouse’s holiday work party) suddenly catapult you into sadness.

And this shift in my life has been on my mind even more often lately. Why? Because it was one year ago today that I stood in front of my closet and asked Joe, “So what do you wear to get fired?” Frankly, I don’t know how to feel about this crap-ass kind of an anniversary.

Because you’re shocked by a layoff at first, you don’t know if or when you will land, so nothing is done with any sense of certainty or long-term plans. But in the end, I did a TON of freelance work of varying kinds this past year, working harder for less money (not ideal, but I’m still figuring this all out at this point); I’m still writing about the arts, which I love, while also getting to learn and do research in other areas of interest; I spent way too much time alone, but I also had the chance to meet several people I’d only previously known online for lunch or coffee; the kids seem to be thriving and happy, for the most part; our house is still a wreck, but who the hell cares; Joe’s had to travel more for work, but because I’m based at home now, we managed it; I’ve gotten to dip my toe in radio, with a short, monthly Art & Soul segment on WEMU; I volunteered time to help edit a literary magazine; I’ve launched a professional blog as a storehouse for my freelance projects; I’ve become another cliche mom who does workouts in her living room (but they work, people!); I got a few job interviews, after applying for tons of positions, and I was rejected each and every time; and I threw myself a birthday party, realizing that sometimes, you just have to take the reins and tell the world what you need from it.

So today, as I stare down the question, “What have you done in the year since being laid off?” I charitably, honestly answer, “I’ve done my best.”

And I have.

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