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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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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