Note: This piece was originally published on Open Salon on Oct. 19, 2009. In light of the rebirth of LivingstonTalk.com, it seemed fitting to reprint it here.
I found myself having to explain to my son the difference between being “fired” and being “laid off” after I lost my job on April Fools Day. (Some corporate overlord has an ironic sense of humor, eh?)
“You get fired for doing a bad job,” I told him. “Don’t ever say I got fired, because I didn’t. I got laid off. I lost my job because of the economy, not because I wasn’t doing a good job.”
But the kid didn’t much care how it happened, or why it happened. A lesson in semantics or economics wasn’t what was on his mind.
“So you’ll be here when I get home from school today, right,” he asked.
“Cool,” he said, running out of the door.
For the first time in my life, I was a woman without a job.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I can usually find a bright spot inside any black hole. And the one bright spot I clung to in the first days after my job loss was that I would be off the entire summer.
Since I was 15, I worked jobs that issued official paychecks, and I’ve not had a whole summer off. If you knew how old I am, you’d know that we’re talking about a LOT of summers.
My silver lining-seeking soul thought it would be wonderful. There would be no scrambling around for kid care on the days my husband and I both worked. I’d be able to be home every day for breakfast, something I wasn’t able to do while working. And I’d be able to spend a lot of quality time doing quality things.
What those things were was never quite clear to me.
Someone told me that losing a job – especially one in which you’re a minor celebrity around town – is a lot like losing a loved one, and the grieving process is much the same.
While I don’t think that’s entirely true – I’d trade my kingdom to have my dad back, but I wouldn’t give my kingdom’s trash for my old job – there is a bit of truth in what that person said.
In the week after my position was “eliminated” (a nice way of saying I was shot out of the corporate poop-chute), I rearranged all the furniture on the first floor of my house. I cleaned the refrigerator, took a toothbrush to the shower, and emptied every drawer and closet. For weeks we lived in a house that looked like its inhabitants were kidnapped after a very brief, very fierce struggle. As I tore through the house I found recipes I wanted to try, long tucked away in drawers meant for other things; books I bought and intended to read. I finally found the title to my car. There were birthday cards from years ago, Valentines from my husband, and a couple Christmas gifts I bought on sale and hid.
I’d take breaks with a cup of coffee, and survey the chaos I had created all about me. While I am sure someone else would come inside my house and deduce that losing my job had pushed me over the brink into a swirling sea of madness, the chaos was what kept me sane.
I didn’t know it then, but I know the truth now: In those first few weeks, I began to remake my life. I was born again, a new soul from the chaos, this time to a life lived differently.
For some, working at a mad pace at jobs we profess to love is a way to keep our distance from our hearts and homes. For me, my job loss booted my butt down the path of a different, better way of life.
But it wasn’t all wonderfulness, and we walk a financial tightrope every day. The financial body blow my real family suffered in the few minutes it took to sever me from my work “family” left us gasping for breath. But we remade our financial life; it is, after all, just money. We got a new 30-year mortgage on the house that would have been paid off in seven years. Heck, we couldn’t rent a one-bedroom apartment for what we’re paying each month to keep our sweet little bungalow. My husband is working a bit more and I give thanks daily that we have health insurance. I’ve also embarked on an exciting new venture to change the face of community news with a new work family – one of my choosing that includes some of the people who were shoved through the corporate poop-chute right after me on April Fools Day.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never have a lot of money. But I can’t put a price on the sense of freedom I feel after being chained to a job I thought I couldn’t do without for so many years. I think about all those times I took work calls at home during dinner, all the after-hours events I went to while farming my kid out to his grandmother, the times I let him watch extra TV so I could finish writing or editing something, or the weekends I slipped into the office for an hour or two. For what? Seriously. For what?
In the end, despite the awards and the accolades, the extra hours and the effort, the creativity and the loyalty, it all came down to money. And someone decided that it wasn’t worth the price to keep me around.
The realization, while heartbreaking, is absolutely liberating. I feel a sense of creativity and freedom that I’ve never experienced before. It is as though I should be kneeling before my former corporate overlords and giving thanks. But I can’t. Despite the upside of my job loss, it is still a job loss. And until you go back to your office after you’ve been told your position is eliminated and find that someone put a big cardboard box in it – that someone knew before you did that you were “eliminated” — you don’t know how it feels.
I didn’t know just how badly I felt about it until I was speaking before a group last week about the new website. The group was part of a leadership boot-camp program in the community, and the day’s topic, I think, was communications. I was pinch-hitting for my partner in the project who had a personal thing crop up.
My heart, it seemed, staged a coup on my brain and I stood before the group of about 15 and started talking about how it felt to be laid off. As I talked, my voice betrayed my emotions, and I struggled not to burst into tears as I talked about finding that damn cardboard box in my office. It was then that I finally understood: to me, that box symbolized the heartlessness of much of corporate America. It wasn’t getting the news from my old boss, who I’m sure wasn’t pleased to be delivering it. It was that box someone put into my office during the few minutes it took for him to slice ties with me in another room; it was the coordinated, institutional way in which I was let go. It was sterile, unfeeling, “just business”; a message delivered straight from the corporate human resources handbook.
So, I cooked dinner for some friends last night — something I finally have a chance to do more of — and as they were leaving, one told me that she was pleased to see that my job loss agrees with me.
“I’ve not seen you this relaxed and happy in so long,” she said. “It’s great.”
I can’t argue that.
But not everyone in my household is always so thrilled.
“I thought it would be fun having you home every day,” my 10-year-old said in frustration a few weeks ago. I was ticking down the list of things he had to do before I got him to his baseball game. “I just didn’t know you’d be on my butt all the time.”
“Hey, that’s my job, kid,” I told him. “And don’t ever forget it.”
He laughed, and all was right with the world.