Thursday, April 25, 2013

What Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day Means When You're Unemployed

Exactly nine years ago this week, I was in Toronto's Pearson International Airport sitting next to the co-creator of Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

We were returning from the same global women's conference, one that would change how I viewed myself, my profession, and the world. At 35, I had just been appointed the first-ever executive director (and first and only paid staff member) of a women and girls foundation. A part-time position, my new job was the perfect balance for my desire (and, yes, need) to work and the need to be Mom to our then-2 year old twins. I remember feeling intoxicated with this work and in love with this fundraising career of mine.

As we waited to board our planes, the energy of the conference remained. I complimented Marie on her keynote speech. We talked politics, about Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day, about my toddlers. To her, I was probably just another person in an airport but I remember feeling heady, proud, and professional.

Nine years later, Toronto seems like a lifetime ago.

Something that happened to a different person.

I was different then.

I am even more changed now.

* * *
At least once a week, my 11 year old daughter asks about Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

(In her world, her brother is left at the door.)

She talks about this incessantly. About the projects she'll be working on. About the people she'll be meeting with. About what desk she'll sit at and of course, where she'll go for lunch.

I used to be part of these conversations.

I'm not anymore.

* * *
It has been almost a year since I was laid off.

After the foundation job that took me to Toronto, I took a position as a fundraiser for a domestic violence organization. Stayed there five years. We moved for my husband's job during that time, which increased my commute by 2 hours a day. I stayed, mainly because I loved the work and the people and because I was fortunate to have a supportive boss who allowed me to create a flexible schedule and work one day a week at home. I will always, always be grateful for that.

But at some point, dumping $125 down your car's gas tank each week isn't sustainable (public transit and car pooling wasn't an option) and I took a nonprofit job with a child abuse agency much closer to home. My role was to write grants and to increase awareness for the organization, and the result was the best fundraising year they'd ever had.

And a year later my husband was tapped for a better position - six hours away. Here in Pittsburgh. Where we knew nobody and the job hunt would start again. From scratch.

During a recession.

* * *
I didn't mind the $20,000 pay cut.

It was a job when hundreds of thousands of people didn't have one.

It wasn't perfect, but I was going to do my best at this, and I truly believed I did.

But sometimes your best isn't good enough for people who want the impossible.

And sometimes you aren't the right fit for people who expect perfection.

And sometimes you don't ask the right questions when you don't realize you're being lied to.

Regrets? Yeah, you could say I have more than a few.

But I also have some words of advice from a mentor from a long-ago internship, someone who believed in me and who still does, who once told me for very different reasons that we make the best choices we can based on the information we have at the time. That's the best we can do.

It has become my mantra.

* * *
At dinner the other night, the kids announced they had to interview someone in their family about their job.

What if nobody in their family has a job, I thought.

They both called dibs on Daddy. The assignment was "Math in the Real World" and how that grown-up used math in his or her every day job. They started peppering The Husband with questions while I silently cleared the table.

"You're not angry that we picked Dad, are you, Mom?" Boo said. "Because, you know, you kind of don't have a job."

"I'm not angry, baby," I said. "Not about that."

* * *
We live in a country of haves and have-nots.

Those who have dealt with long-term unemployment and those who have not.

Those who have not known this life leave know-it-all comments on blog posts like this and tell people like me to stop mooching off of the taxpayers and to just go get a job already at Wal-Mart and that I really must not be trying hard enough and that there's no excuse and maybe I'd have a job if I didn't blog so damn much and have I thought about going back to school to learn a trade and have I tried nonprofit XYZ because you know, those nonprofits they are ALWAYS looking for fundraisers, they're always hitting people up for money, ha, ha, ha, and there are so many of them here in Pittsburgh (I know, I've either sent my resume to or interviewed personally with 27 of them) and oh, by the way, congratulations because this is what you voted for when you cast your ballot for Obama because Romney would have fixed this mess and given you a job by now.

Or they'll say that it is just a matter of time, that I'll find something, that I need to meet more people here, that  it's all about personal connections. And then the personal connections really do make that call or send an email and the result is the same because a dozen other personal connections have pulled the same strings, with bigger favors attached.

Those who have known what long-term unemployment is like or who are living this life with me, well, you understand that I am lying when I say that it doesn't matter whether I can Take My Daughter or Son to Work today, right?

That it doesn't hurt when your child comes off the bus and tells you that half her class was at their parents' workplace today?

You understand what I mean when I say that this fear goes deep, that you worry at what point does a parent's long-term unemployment become something imprinted on their psyche, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe you see the anger, too, from your child who calls your former employer names and tells you that you were too good for them anyway.

And that you swear you can see yourself diminish more every day in your child's eyes and that even though you know they will understand when they get older, that seems like such a long, long time from now and you would do anything in the world to stop that from happening.

* * *
My daughter is still talking about how many of her friends weren't in school today because of Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day. ("A lot of people were absent," she reported.)

(The Husband was home sick so he was out of commission.)

I tell her again about how I met the woman who co-created Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day. How we sat together in the Toronto airport. I sound like an aging football jock, talking about my glory days when I used to raise thousands of dollars for women and families.

It's not much, but it's all I have this year. I see the disappointment and I tell myself that Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day doesn't matter, but it does because so many kids are in the same situation of having a parent caught up in long-term unemployment. So many, many families are like ours, or worse.

And that disappointment is what gives you the motivation to continue on, to slam refresh again on the job search board; to contact yet another colleague from 1995 on LinkedIn; to go to that networking event and the one next week and the one the week after that; to not take it personally when the place that you had two interviews with never calls you back; to pitch that editor with your freelance article; to cold-email that guy on LinkedIn who said he needed a content writer in hopes that maybe he'll be the first client for your freelance business; to ask that friend if they know anyone at a nonprofit who might need a grantwriter; to downsize and dumb down your 20 years of experience on your resume, removing anything that makes you look overqualified; to try and do whatever it takes to keep your head above water and to keep going on.

It's what fuels your belief in this city of steel that has reinvented itself time and time and still time again, that makes you inspired by its bridges, and that makes you hold on to the hope that while this may be just one day, better days will come shining through.

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Elizabeth said...

I am struck by the necessity of you writing this, Melissa -- sharing your experiences and agonies and all of this intense emotional and intellectual stuff about long term unemployment. I have seen countless articles about it and have even read long articles featuring families, but I don't think I've ever read anything as deep and clear as this. I hope you'll submit it so that it can have even wider readership.

And I hope that employment will come your way soon.

Melissa Sarno said...

This is such a beautiful post, Melissa. I've been following your journey through the blog and facebook and have so enjoyed getting to know you. Your writing and your spirit are so full of passion and heart, I'll be celebrating with you when the right work finds you. And it will. I have tremendous faith.

Melissa said...


Melinda said...

Such an excellent post, and very well-written.

Ali said...

Not working has a choice for me for the past 16 years, so I'm in a totally different situation than you are. That said, I've never felt for a minute that the fact that I didn't have a job diminished me in my kids' eyes. Your kids love you for who the person that they see every day, not the person who you are at work.
I hope this frustrating time ends for you sounds really discouraging and depressing, especially given how satisfied you were with your career before the move. But I also hope that you're able to see how much you've accomplished during that time.