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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Job Hunter’s Journey

Unemployment stories in the news are filled with numbers,

statistics, or tips on polishing your resume or improving your networking

skills. They tell you that the average job hunt is now over six months,

that we’ve got the highest unemployment in this country since the

Depression, that white collar workers are the fastest growing segment

at food pantries. They offer strategies for curbing expenses or working

out deals with your creditors. But they don’t tell you how the emotional

side effects of unemployment — anger and fear, anxiety and disappointment,

constant rejection and cold sweats in the middle of the night —

will affect the most important relationships in your life — your

relationship with your spouse and children.

Those articles don’t tell you how to recover from the sting of an

angry child’s words, "When are you going to get a job?" —

a sting sharper than any physical slap. Those articles don’t tell

you how to respond when your husband says, "I feel like I don’t

exist for you anymore," after you’ve been up all night wondering

where the $900 a month for COBRA family coverage will come from.

But of course it is about them — you and them. You’re a family,

not roommates. Anything that happens to one family member has a domino

effect on the others. There’s really no way around it. Trust me, I

tried to ignore every sign that my spouse and child were affected

by my job loss. I got pretty good at it, but then, the longer you’re

unemployed, the longer you have to experience the good, bad, and ugly.

I had seven months. On November 12, 2002, my former employer came

into my office and said, "I’m sorry. I’m going to have to let

you go. We just don’t have enough work to keep you on. " I call

him my former employer, like a lot of divorced people call their exes,

"Billy’s father." He no longer has a name.

As I sat at my desk watching his mouth move but not hearing the words,

I thought to myself, "Let’s see. I created the company’s first

four-color books, first books with New York Times bestselling authors

(one of which has been among the top three bestselling cookbooks on

Amazon for over a year), first book to win an international award,

and first books to earn advances over $175,000. And for this I get

laid off." (And three proposals I wrote sold after I was laid

off.)

Some people might think that as a woman, I would be thrilled to be

laid off and "not have to work." Well, it doesn’t work that

way in my family. Both my husband, who is a commercial photographer,

and I have always worked. We like it that way — we don’t feel

one of us should have to work 80 hours a week while the other putters

in the garden and arranges play dates. We both work, we both have

talents to contribute, we both spend equal valuable time with our

son and we share every responsibility from the mortgage to changing

the cat litter. The scales aren’t tipped and no one has "more

power." Moreover, I’m the kind of person who has so much going

on in her head that I’d shrivel up and die if I didn’t work.

November was a long time ago. In hindsight, and only in hindsight,

I consider being laid off "a gift," for it was a gift of time

that forever changed — and in many ways strengthened — my

relationship with my husband, David, and my seven-year-old son, Mackenzie.

Being unemployed forces you to live a life in which you have no money

or very little; you just have your family, and those people are both

your responsibility and your lifeline. When you’re unemployed, you

sink or swim based on how you deal with your family’s reactions to

your new situation. Their comments, whether well-meaning or designed

to hurt, give you choices. Those comments are pure opportunities for

growth. You can always get another job; it’s very difficult to repair

a shattered family.

Here’s how I know. That same angry child would, just hours later,

step off the bus and run towards me like he hadn’t seen me in months,

throw his arms around my neck, plant a big sloppy kiss on my face,

and exclaim, "You are the best and most beautiful mommy in the

whole world!" And that same husband who felt so estranged would,

after each rejection I got, take me in his arms, like Big Bear holding

Little Bear in one of my son’s favorite books, and say, "We’ll

get through this. That job wasn’t right for you. I’m not worried."

(What he didn’t tell me until many months later, after I did get a

job, was that on more than one occasion, as my unemployment benefits

began to trickle down like the Wicked Witch of the West’s hourglass,

he would be driving and become so overwhelmed with worry that he literally

had to pull over to the side of the road until, like a wave of nausea,

the feeling passed.)

<B>The Gathering Storm. The first lesson I learned

was about choices. Right after I got laid off, I mean the moment my

former employer left my office (to call my assistant into his office

to let her go, too), I left the building, got into my car, and through

a flood of tears, called my husband, who works out of our home, on

my cell phone. "I got laid off," I choked. "Wanna meet

at Small World for coffee?" he said rather matter-of-factly, betraying

no panic whatsoever, just good old reliable David. Exactly what I

needed.

You have to know that David grew up on a farm in Tennessee. When your

neighbor falls under his tractor and severs a limb, well, then you

spring into action. Getting laid off pales in comparison. When David

was living in New York years ago, his roommate, after much wringing

of his hands and with a voice full of emotion, confessed to David

that he had plans to commit suicide, David thought for a brief second,

then said, "Can I have your stereo?" Then the two went out

to dinner and had a great time.

David was an hour late, which infuriated me, but I needed my husband

more than an argument. He apologized and said, "Wanna have lunch?"

Over the top of a roast beef sandwich, David looked at me and said,

"You know. It’s all going to be alright." Yeah, right, I thought,

and men often confuse me with supermodel Christy Turlington.

When in Doubt, Go Shopping. The first six weeks were pretty

easy. That’s how long my severance was, and I thought, hey, this ain’t

bad — a full salary and I don’t have to go to work. I’ve got Thanksgiving

and Christmas and New Year’s. So I did what any logical person would

do; I went shopping. Bad idea. Swathed in denial and the absolute

confidence that I would get a new job immediately, I defiantly spent

my whole severance like a petulant teenager, even throwing a Martha-perfect

Christmas dinner party (the cheese man at Wegman’s loves me). And

I did get some very cool shoes. But when January rolled around and

my severance ran out and I still had no job, I got just a teeny weeny

bit cranky. And all of you know, when Mommy’s not happy, ain’t nobody

happy. I thought I was covering up beautifully, greeting my son every

day with a big smile and saying oh so positive things to my husband,

like this could be the best thing that ever happened to me.

I was a poster child of domestic prowess. I baked seven

flavors of biscotti for my husband’s clients’ holiday gifts and organized

a glitter paint activity for my son’s holiday class party. I finished

painting the dining room, which I had abandoned three years ago, the

perfect apple green with cream trim. One night, however, as my husband

and I toasted the poetic justice of our having been approved for a

home equity loan the very week before I got laid off, a nasty little

feeling of doom moved in, complete with toothbrush and several changes

of underwear.

The second lesson I learned was about communication. One of the hardest

things about being unemployed is not arguing with your spouse in front

of your kid. Kids may look like they’re not paying attention but they

absorb every argument you have. David and I kept saying we’ve got

to talk about this stuff when Mackenzie’s asleep. But then David would

come home and I’d say, "Did you get paper towels?" and he’d

say, "No, I forgot," and boom, Bush is in the situation room

raising the security code to red alert — at least on my street.

I’d mutter under my breath and David would slide into second base

with some comment about my job search, like, "Honey, maybe your

dream job isn’t out there. It’s been three months. Maybe you really

need to think about switching gears," or "You know, the economy’s

really bad. You really should think about accepting whatever your

first offer is." Through clenched teeth, I’d stuff "I’m doing

my best" into the dam, as if that would stop the torrent of emotion,

all the while cursing my former employer and the current administration

and bin Laden. All of this, because of forgotten paper towels.

It’s important to remember that some things can’t be taken back —

and those things are even worse if your kid hears them. Know that

you’re mad at the rat bastard who laid you off, not your spouse.

Then one day, I sat down with Mackenzie and said, "Mommy’s not

going to go to work at her old job. But she’s going to get a new job."

"OK," he said. "Can I go over to Lexi’s?" OK, I thought,

that went well. What I didn’t know is that his reaction would be delayed

and more subtle than even my sharp mom antennae were used to.

Chance Cards and 1,000 Paper Cranes. Being unemployed

for a long time is kind of like living in a life-sized board game.

Each day is a new roll of the dice: Get a call for an interview; buy

new suit for $200 and advance three spaces. Get rejection letter and

criticize the way your husband loads the dishwasher; go back five

spaces. Your car’s alternator dies; draw a chance card and decide

which is more important in your life — transportation or food.

David and I had to look at how we could shave some expenses. So we

decided to stop eating. No, actually, we decided to stop feeding Mackenzie.

We did take him out of karate and the after school program that he

loves because he gets to play with all his friends. He was disappointed

at first, but then he realized he and I would get to spend a lot more

time together in the afternoons and he seemed fine.

On a whim, David bought a book about origami. Mackenzie and I became

origami gurus. We would sit for hours and make cranes and crows and

frogs and little boxes with separate compartments. Mackenzie cranked

out praying nuns and tulips and water bombs with no help from me.

After he went to bed, I would tackle even harder things, like lizards

and sampan boats.

In the morning, I would show Mackenzie my creation, and he would hold

it as if it were made of glass and exclaim, "Mommy, you’re wonderful!"

And I would say, "Mackenzie, you’re wonderful!" Those were

the little triumphs that kept me going as winter wore on and I scoured

Monster and Flipdog and CareerBuilder and HotJobs and mediabistro.com,

as I called every single person I ever worked with, as I wrote and

refined my "30-second sell," as I planned answers to the 101

most difficult interview questions, as I went to job-hunting groups

and listened to an awkward circle of sad sack overachievers tell their

tale. "Hi, I’m John. I was senior VP of IT at Monolithic Bank.

I saved my company $40 million by designing a new telecommunications

system for divisions in London, Hong Kong, and Sydney." "Wow,"

I thought, as 20 more people told virtually the same story — in

every field from retail to architecture.

One afternoon my husband came home from a shoot in the oncology unit

at a medical center. He told me that he had struck up a conversation

with a chemo patient, a woman maybe in her fifties, who told him that

she had worked in HR for a pharmaceutical company, and it was her

job to lay off about 200 people. Then, two weeks after she was finished,

her boss laid her off. Then she got cancer. That shut me up for about

two days. Perspective really sucks.

It was February. It was cold. It was snowing. A lot. I was becoming

more and more discouraged. Here I was, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude

from Tufts, with an immaculate resume full of "active verbs"

and no typos showcasing 20 solid years of work experience in public

relations, writing, corporate communications, and book publishing.

I worked every connection I had to make sure I had a name to drop

in as many of my cover letters as possible. Did I mention the snow?

I was lucky enough to get interviews for senior editorial positions

at a major educational research company and a leading young adult

nonfiction publisher; public affairs positions at a world-renowned

foundation and a leading scholarly institute, a PR position at a private

school offering a salary $20,000 below what I was making at the time.

But none of the interviews led to an offer. I didn’t even get callbacks

for dozens more jobs I applied for at medical communications firms,

educational and healthcare publishers, parenting magazines, and marketing

agencies from New York to Philadelphia. The HR department at one Princeton

marketing communications firm told me they were getting 200 resumes

a week. OK, I’m doomed. And it’s snowing.

Eyes on the Bus and Milkshakes. The third lesson I learned

was about anger — and patience. I hadn’t a shred of self-confidence

left. I was moving over to the dark side, the place those unemployment

articles don’t tell you about (kind of like how they never tell you

about labor and delivery while you’re pregnant — they just figure

it’s best if you don’t know). Those little things, those things that

parents in better times shrug off as "boy things" or "seven-year-old

things," began to set my teeth on edge. Lost sneakers. Lost library

books. My son can make a B-52 bomber out of a three-inch square of

foil he finds in his lunchbox (maybe it’s the origami influence),

so he would pick up anything on the dining room table and start playing

with it, rather than move on to the next homework problem.

When he had to write a story from his spelling word

list and said he couldn’t, I said with exasperation, "Mackenzie!

Just pick anything and write about it!" "But, Mom, I can’t

think of anything!" "Just think of something!" "I

can’t!" "Well, geez, Mackenz, it’s not that hard!" And

the tears would spill out of his eyes, and there it’d be — that

look: "For crying out loud, lady, I’m seven!" In the late

winter, he just became a royal pain. He blew bubbles in his milk.

He threw fits when I picked him up from play dates, big fits. He actually

crushed a juice box on his head in the middle of a birthday party

and squirted the remainder over the table. (I thought of a line from

my favorite author, Anne Lamott. In an essay on anger, she talked

about how mad she could get at her son: "I gave birth to him.

So I figure if I kill him, it’s a wash.") Did I put two and two

together that just maybe my son was reacting to the tension in his

house? No! I just thought he’d gone off his meds.

One morning, I barked at him for something. As he stepped on the school

bus, he turned around and barked at me, "When are you going to

get a stinkin’ job?" The bus doors shut, and the bus drove away

while 10 pairs of elementary school eyes stared at me. I just stood

there. I felt morbidly alone, like I’d just been dumped on another

planet where they don’t have Bloomingdale’s. When Mackenzie got off

the bus that afternoon, the first words out of his mouth were, "Did

you get a job today?" "No, honey," I said, "But I’m

trying." I felt like I was reporting to Mini Me. And that little

creature of doom was making closet space for himself now.

One evening after giving up all hope of finding the real Mackenzie

inside the alien that now lived with us, I went up to my room and

lay on my bed with my back to the door. After a bit, I felt a little

hand on my back, a small finger tap-tapping. "Mama?" I turned

over and there he was, all ready for bed in his jammies with Big Dog

— his equivalent of a security blanket, a large stuffed puppy

he’d had since birth — in one arm and a really ugly stuffed bulldog

in the other, a toy he won when my husband took him to Great Adventure

last summer. "Hey, buddy," I said. He thrust the bulldog at

me. "Bulldog needs some loving, Mama. You need an animal to sleep

with. I have Big Dog and you don’t have one. You need Bulldog."

Well, damned if I haven’t slept with Bulldog every night since then.

They say unemployed people start to mimic the psychological symptoms

of abused children after so much constant rejection. A stuffed animal

feels remarkably good when you’re unemployed.

Sometimes it takes a total outsider to put you back on track. My mother

suggested that we put Mackenzie back in the after school program and

find a way to cut back elsewhere. She thought it would be better for

him to associate his being able to go back separately from my getting

a job; he probably felt our taking him out was a punishment because

I lost my job. Here’s the really good thing that came of that. We

told him that he could go back but he had to do all his homework while

he was there. And he did — every day.

After I had started working again, I asked him how he felt while I

was job-hunting. And he said, "Oh, you mean the day I said, ‘When

are you going to get a stinkin’ job?’" Yeah, that day, I said.

"I felt mad, aggressive, angry, like I was gonna do a kick or

a punch or a belly thing. But I held it back." "Why were you

mad?" I asked. "Because I couldn’t go to the after school

program. But then I got to go back, and I was happy." Bingo.

When you’re unemployed, your kid can drive you nuts, but he can also

be your savior. Late at night, I would tiptoe into his room and place

my cheek against his cheek. I would listen to the silence and the

deep slow pattern of his breathing. Like a blackboard eraser, watching

Mackenzie sleep would simply wipe away my anxiety.

A Dose of Jay Leno. The fourth lesson I learned is that

it’s important to keep job hunting tasks separate from family life

and that you have to make time for your spouse whether you feel like

it or not. I had a habit of surfing the job sites after my son went

to bed and then at 11 or 12, fall exhausted and frustrated into bed,

sort of waving at my husband as I went up the stairs. Most nights

he’d fall asleep on the couch, after watching the late night talk

shows and then the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC till the early hours

of the morning. For months this was the pattern, until one morning,

he said, rather out of the blue, "I feel like I don’t exist for

you anymore." Initially, I was mad, like why should I have to

take care of you, when I already have to take care of Mackenzie and

get a job and keep my head together and do my best to get over the

excruciating anger I have at my former employer? You mean I have to

pay attention to you, too?

As if all these thoughts were on my forehead, he said, "Yeah,

you do." I was dumbfounded. I realized I could try to have a conversation

with him, which might turn into an argument, or I could go to Pilates

class. I chose Pilates. After class, I went to my "mobile office,"

Panera in Nassau Park, and bought a really large cup of cappuccino

and whatever baked good looked like it had the most carbs.

I really tried to be a grown-up, you know, think about what this whole

job hunting thing must be like from my husband’s perspective. I figured

it must really suck to have your wife, who has worked every day since

you met her, wired out of her gourd 24/7 and so brain-dead that she

loses her cell phone in between the car in the driveway and the front

door, which I did, about two months after I got laid off. My son found

it on the floor of his closet on Father’s Day.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that David could

have been a real thorn in my side while I was job hunting, but the

thing is, except for some occasional comments, most of which were

justified under the circumstances, he wasn’t. I just made him out

to be. He did nothing but good things for me while I was unemployed.

He offered to drive me to Philadelphia when I had an interview there

in the middle of a snowstorm. After every job I didn’t get, he would

identify some totally logical reason why I would have hated working

there.

One morning I came downstairs and found a stunning flower

arrangement the size of Texas on the dining room table, which he had

snagged from some event. Another night he came home and tossed two

perfect pink roses on my lap. "Where’dya get these?" I asked.

"What do you mean where did I get them? I got them at the store!"

"Oh, I thought maybe you got them at a shoot." "No, I

actually bought them for you." He went upstairs to bed, exasperated.

By April, I had been unemployed five months and had 16.3 versions

of my resume on the computer. I had made myself crazy and exhausted

with job-hunting stuff. I didn’t have a whole lot to hang onto. And

the one person I could be hanging onto was right in front of me. So

I switched gears. David and I started going out for breakfast and

taking mini road trips while Mackenzie was at school and dreaming

about all the great things we were going to do to our house.

In fact it was my husband who jumpstarted the chain of events that

resulted in my getting a job: this newspaper had given me an open

invitation to freelance, something I had done for U.S. 1 15 years

ago. The standard job hunting advice of calling everyone you ever

worked with took on a new meaning, and I realized that job hunters

might do well to reconnect with contacts from the very early years

of their career. David kept encouraging me to do the freelance writing,

to keep my brain going. I thought no, I can’t do that, I have to keep

searching. David kept saying, quietly but persistently. "Make

the call. Do what you love. Make the call." One day, more to shut

him up than anything else, honestly, I made the call, which led to

assignments and eventually a fulltime job at the paper.

Tarzan on a Two-Wheeler. One of the networking calls I

made during my job search was to a former colleague. She said, "Don’t

rush your job hunt. Use this time to become human again." I like

to think that all the jobs I didn’t get meant that I just wasn’t human

again yet, that I needed more time. Time to learn that we are more

than our jobs. We are a best friend to somebody, a teacher to a child,

a partner to someone who needs us, a mother, a sister, a neighbor,

a citizen, a human being.

Two days before I got my job, I started to teach my son to ride a

bike. He and I took his bike down to the park. We practiced on the

evening of Memorial Day, then the next afternoon. Then on Wednesday,

we went to practice again. I told Mackenzie on the drive to the park

that I had gotten a job at this newspaper. I showed him one of my

articles in the paper. His face lit up like a Christmas tree. I showed

him my byline. It was easy to explain that that was "my new work."

It was dusk and we had the whole park to ourselves. After just a few

times with me holding onto the back of his bike and running alongside

of him, Mackenzie said, "OK, this time let go." "Are you

sure?" I asked. "I’m sure," he said. And I did, and he

flew down the path, leaning into the curves, sticking his feet straight

out like Pippi Longstocking’s pigtails, and building up speed down

to the end of the path. I watched him go, like a baby bird flying

out of the nest for the first time. He was screaming with joy. Way

at the other end of the path, he came to a rather abrupt stop, leapt

off the bike, turned towards me and yelled, circling his hips and

arms like a rapper, "Yeah baby, I rock. I rock! Who’s your Daddy?"

Coincidentally, or maybe not, David came home and guessed at where

we might be, and on our way out of the park, we saw him drive in.

We stopped and got Mackenzie’s bike out of the car so he could show

his dad his great accomplishment.

As Mackenzie flew down the path again, David put his arm around me

and said, "I’m really proud of you." "About the job or

about teaching Mackenzie to ride a bike?" I asked. "Both,"

he said. "But mostly about the bike. I knew you’d get your job."


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