The other day, Annie, my 4-year-old, created an original masterpiece in crayon and construction paper for my office. "Here, Mommy," she said brightly, "you can show your friends at work." I praised her effort and then explained gently -- as I had about 600 times over the past seven months -- that Mommy didn't go to her office anymore. Mommy had been laid off.
Most people assume that losing your job is a double whammy when you have children. Besides the obvious financial strain, there's the fact that you feel like a failure -- not just professionally but as a role model.
Earlier this year, however, I found just the reverse to be true: My daughters -- Annie and her sister, Charlotte, 2 -- were my salvation. Indeed, being a parent was the decisive factor in my ability to bounce back.
I had worked at CNN for my kids' entire lives -- five years minus a combined total of seven months' maternity leave. At first, I toiled on the night shift so I could spend most of the day with Annie. When Charlotte was born, my husband, Jim, agreed to take care of both kids and run his relocation consulting business from home. With Jim's support, I rose to an on-air position. The job was challenging and the hours long, but I took enormous satisfaction in finding a story and bringing it to life. I was so jazzed about my job that I brought Annie to Take Our Daughters to Work Day at the absurd age of 9 months.
Three days before I was fired, I told Jim I wished I had more time with the kids. (Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.) The company had been hinting about layoffs for months, but I'd thought that if I just continued to work hard, I might be spared. The tornado blew through on an otherwise unremarkable Monday, and when the dust settled, virtually everyone within shouting distance of my desk was history. As she handed me my walking papers, my boss was quick to point out that my dismissal had nothing to do with job performance. I was apparently supposed to be satisfied with the explanation that sometimes these things just happen.
And for a while, I was. I immediately accepted my fate and set out to show the world that I had the situation under control. Within hours of being fired, I was on the phone to potential new employers. For the big paper in town, I wrote a funny story about being fired, which led to a few television appearances. I became the George Bailey of white-collar layoffs -- hey, it's still a wonderful life!
But it was mostly a charade. I refused to acknowledge that I'd lost something deeply important to me, and subconsciously, I was seething. I'd rail at Jim for mixing whites and colors in the laundry (even though he was still graciously handling the housework and most of the child care). I shouted at the kids for minor transgressions -- taking out my jewelry, spilling bathwater on the floor. In the past, a bombardment of colorful foam balls at close range would have had me falling down like Buster Keaton, cracking up the kids. Now I'd explode. In the meantime, I suppressed my own feelings of failure -- the devil on my shoulder hissing, "Loser!"
It all came to a head one afternoon when I was on all fours under my husband's desk, faxing a resume (his fax machine is on the floor). Assuming this was the setup to some hilarious game, Annie jumped on my back and Charlotte snaked herself around my leg. Annoyed and frustrated, I shook my head and bellowed, "I can't believe I was fired!"
Annie climbed off my back, put her arm around me, and consoled, "Don't worry, Mama. You'll feel better soon."
I was stunned to receive permission from my 4-year-old to vent my true feelings. Even though a significant part of my life had shifted suddenly and dramatically, to Annie I was still Mom, the person she loved unconditionally. I didn't have to prove anything to her -- or pretend to have it all together. In her eyes, I wasn't a loser (at least for now -- it'll be ten years before she's a teenager).
As Jim took on more work and I spent more time with the girls, I began to appreciate their innately upbeat approach to life. Who but an intractable optimist would keep asking to watch The Little Mermaid after being refused 3,000 times? (I'd be disheartened the first time a potential employer failed to return my phone call.) Whenever I felt angry or discouraged, I'd look at Charlotte as she tried to master the stairs in our courtyard. She kept stumbling, over and over, and coming back for more -- with an unwavering conviction in her tiny head that eventually she'd make it. The same went for Annie, who was knocking herself out learning how to swim. She never thought about her previous failures; she couldn't wait to try again. I figured if they could keep getting up and starting over, so could I. That's when my children became my role models.
And I knew it was my responsibility to be theirs -- to show them how to bounce back when calamity strikes. My initial instincts were right: You can't give in to despair when you lose your job. But neither can you pretend that you haven't lost anything. The kids were an incredible boon on two fronts: They encouraged me to be optimistic but taught me to be honest as well. I began writing again (my first love) and developing an independent pilot for a television program about spirituality in the workplace -- undertakings that allow me more time with my girls. Whether my projects fly or flop, simply making the effort feels like a new adventure to me.
People always talk about the sacrifices that mothers make. But few mention what a profound blessing children can be when life pitches us a curveball. Annie and Charlotte have inspired me to be courageous and true to myself. They have given me a truly wonderful gift -- the perspective to define success on my own terms.
If I were childless, I'm convinced I would still be in bed with the covers pulled over my head.
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2001 issue of Parents magazine.