When my husband lost his job, it wasn’t easy to find the words to tell my kids that would make everything seem all right. Yet there was a valuable takeaway I almost missed during our family struggle.

By Liz Alterman
Illustration by Melissa Lee Johnson

When my son Ben, then 12, spotted a layer cake in our fridge, he ran to me and asked, “Did Dad get a new job? Are we celebrating?” Sadly, I had to tell him his brother was taking it to school for a teacher-appreciation lunch, and no, Dad didn’t get a new job. Double whammy.

An ache filled my chest as I realized, yet again, that instead of subjects like sports or video games, unemployment hovered at the forefront of Ben’s mind.

Initially, when my husband, Rich, was laid off in 2013 after almost two decades at a financial news organization, our sons—ages 11, 8, and 6—were delighted to have their favorite pitcher and quarterback around for random after-school fun. From our makeshift baseball diamond to the well-loved trampoline, giggles erupted as the boys recouped the time they’d lost while their dad worked long hours in Manhattan.

When I lost my job six weeks later, that easy laughter was tempered by an undercurrent of concern. Not wanting to alarm them, my husband and I assured the boys that we’d soon find new jobs and our lives would return to the way they’d always been. Our oldest son was thrilled to have two drivers available to ferry him to his friends’ homes and his extracurriculars. Our youngest? As long as chocolate ice cream appeared in the freezer, his world remained unchanged. It was Ben, our middle son—a sensitive soul and consummate team player—who shouldered the burden of worry on his brothers’ behalf.

Some mornings he’d drift down to breakfast having forgotten our new circumstances. “Why is Dad still here?” he’d ask, rubbing his eyes. In our own sad version of Groundhog Day, I’d remind him why and watch the knowledge wash over him, tension settling in his tiny jaw. Before I was laid off, I had been working remotely four days a week, so seeing me at home wasn’t the same kind of shock for him.

Despite concerns about paying the bills and competing against tech-savvy go-getters half our age, Rich and I tried to keep our growing panic to ourselves, exchanging whispers about finances and rejection emails while washing and drying the dinner dishes. But there is only so long that you can pretend “everything’s going to be fine” and get away with it. As months skidded from one to the next, it became harder to hide the anxiety that lurked like an unwanted guest in every corner of our home.

We were fortunate that between our severance and savings, we could still maintain our middle-class lifestyle. But the constant thought of “What happens if those run out before we get new jobs?” loomed, as ominous as tornado rumblings in the distance. We tried to embrace the new gig economy and picked up part-time jobs. Rich got an editing job in the evenings, which left him free to job hunt during the day, and I took any freelance writing opportunity I could find. “Will they be enough?” asked Ben, our sweatpants-wearing, one-man Greek chorus, watching us come and go at odd intervals as we attempted to cobble together one decent paycheck.

As we went on dead-end interviews, networked, and hoped that this was merely a detour along our career paths and not the end of the line, I foisted clichés on our kids whenever possible. “Study hard!” “Live simply!” “Save for emergencies!” I told them amid low moans and irritated sighs. “We know! We know!” they insisted. But did they? Could I turn our misfortune into a teachable moment that would spare them from experiencing the same fate someday?

When Rich received a full-time job offer 17 months after he’d first been let go, no one was more thrilled than Ben, who asked, “Does this mean we don’t have to move? Can we go on vacation again?”

Our happiness was undercut by his relief, as it confirmed just how fearful our son had been. And because of his keen sensitivity, it was devastating when our respite proved short-lived: One year after Rich started that job, he was downsized in an arbitrary restructuring. We felt the ground shift beneath us again. Like a miserable case of déjà vu, unease reappeared on our doorstep, back for another stay.

During his second lengthy job hunt, Rich returned from an interview that he believed had gone well. “Now we wait,” he said, heading upstairs to shed his suit. Ben, who was curled up on a chair in the living room, looked away from the television.

“Do you think he’s gonna get this one?” he asked in his best stage whisper.

“Oh, honey, I hope so,” I said.

“Mom, is Dad not good at what he does? Why does nobody want to hire him?” His small forehead puckered into a mountain range of inverted Vs.

As I watched fear envelop his once-carefree face, my worry shifted. Would believing that his parents were unemployable, even temporarily, erode his confidence? I reassured him that we were doing everything we could to get back to “normal,” but no matter what, we were a family, and he’d be cared for and loved. As he nodded and turned back to the TV, I wondered if my words would have any impact.

After six months, Rich accepted a tenuous-at-best consulting role. We rejoiced that he’d receive a paycheck, but the ongoing uncertainty still made Ben anxious. Each time he spotted Rich’s car in the driveway earlier than expected, he’d charge through the door, breathlessly asking, “Why is Dad here? Does he still have a job?”

His lingering concerns led me to reach out to Gail Melson, Ph.D., a researcher and professor emerita of human development and family studies at Purdue University. I asked her how I could help my son.

“It’s natural for children to pick up on anxiety,” she told me. “While you continue to reassure him, don’t be afraid to explore the worst-case scenario. Try asking him, ‘What if Dad came home one day and he had lost his job again? What do you think we’re going to do?’ Then you can tell him, ‘Here’s how we would handle that,’ and be concrete about the plan. For a child to really get his head around it, it’s very helpful for him to hear you say, ‘We’re not going to have a meltdown; we’re not going to go to pieces. Here’s what we’re going to do.’”

After speaking with Dr. Melson, I realized that I’d been attempting to instill the wrong lessons. Instead of my trite admonitions—“Save your pennies!” “Be indispensable!”—the most valuable takeaway from this stressful period in our life was the importance and beauty of resilience.

I want my sons to learn that unexpected and unpleasant events will happen, and they’ll have no choice but to stare them down and rise up in spite of them. Those are the moments when their character will be defined.

If there was an upside to Rich’s recurring unemployment, it lay in discovering that when the unthinkable occurred, our family could survive it. These days, he has a steady full-time job. And we are grateful—not just for the stability but for the way our family has matured and banded together. That alone is worth celebrating, preferably with a homemade layer cake.

This article originally appeared in Parents Magazine's November 2019 issue as 'Why Is Dad Still Here?'

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