Monday, December 7, 2009

Unemployment Diary: The Upside Of Unemployment

I just laid Stella girl to bed, she had put her head on my shoulder, like she does many nights. I had sung to her, the same songs I sing on many nights ("Golden Slumbers," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "You Are My Sunshine" are some faves), right after I had given her her bath, which, again, I do on many nights. And after I fed her her dinner, which I also do on many nights.

Randi, of course, also does all these things on many nights. Which is to say we do them together.

The past month, though, has seen a very special, and wondrous bond develop between father and daughter that I am so happy about. I talk to her, she understands, she walks over, sometimes gives me a hug. I ask her to hand me something she shouldn't have, she does, no drama. At least if I do it right. In the car when we pick her up from daycare (which I also drop her off at two mornings a week) we all sing to one another, and it is sweet.

I might start it.

"Stella," I'll sing.

She pause for a moment and then answer, "Dada."

We'll go back and forth this way, and then she'll say "Momma." Or it might be reversed with "Momma" first. The way she says it is so nice, so sweet, so gentle. It melts my heart, even more than fourteen bears.

All of this is a long way of saying that being unemployed for the last month and change really hasn't been all bad.

I know, I know. I'm not supposed to admit this. It's taboo. I'm supposed to be worried sick all the time. Someone somewhere will pull my guy card. Because we Americans are supposed to work hard and play hard, and when we get sick, presumably die hard if we don't have health coverage.

I think about an episode of "Man Men" where they had to let fun lovin' Freddie Rumson go, because he drank too much on the job. But first Don and Roger took him out for a night on the town. Finally when it was at the end they said he could come back in six months after drying out, but he demurred.

"If I don't go to work in the morning who am I?" Freddie asked, a former military guy, reduced to this, not feeling like he had any real identity outside of his work. Freddie turned down their offer, and immediately found a worse job somewhere else, just to have somewhere to go.

I don't feel this same lack of identity as Freddie. In fact, unemployment has been a really nice, cool experience in many ways. True, we've had to fight hard to even get the semblance of affordable health care through COBRA (and I have more to say on that issue, but maybe for another entry), and the money this, and the money that, and all that stuff. Yes, it's true. We know money is a scary topic.

And it's also true that at the start of this little process I complained, in this blog, about Stella bothering me while I was trying to dig up leads.

But somewhere in the past few weeks my attitude started to shift. I'd drop her off at daycare on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I would enjoy our time alone in the car. Sometimes I would put on the radio, and she liked it, other times not. I became better about remembering to pack her water and snack for when we pick her up. I got really good at getting her coat and shoes on. (One tip for getting on the coat: put the hood on her head first, then it's easier to put her arms through the arm holes.)

Then Randi and I worked out a system where during the mornings when Stella was with us, she would have her. And I would take her in the afternoons. Of course there was overlap and the lines blurred, but it's mostly worked out. If I had an interview or anything important that took precedent, but mostly we agreed to let it go this way. If I was wiped out Randi let me sleep in a little, and I did the same for her.

And just being around Stella so much has kind of brought out this really cool, semi-telepathic bond. Like, for example, I was playing guitar today for her. She walked over and strummed it hard, really hard, and tried to get me to stop playing so she could basically smack the guitar. I thought maybe this wasn't a great idea, so I told her not to, and she walked away in a very huffy mood. She picked up two sealed paint containers (kids' paint, btw) and kind of stamped her little foot while holding the paints. This is just what she does.

Then I started to talk to her. I told her it's okay, we can try again, come on over. From halfway across the room she walked to me, dropped her paints on the floor (again, the containers, not the paints themselves, no mess) and, as I spoke to her, started to strum the strings, much more gently.

Readers, she's 19 months old! I don't know if this is unusual, but I was shocked by how much she could understand of what I said, and how she had become so receptive to me. We have a very clear and direct connection now, and it was only possible because I've been given the rarest luxury of all: time.

Of course this stage is also fraught with some stress. For most of it I networked and hit up my contacts as well as I knew how, and thought, as much as I could, about how I should conduct the rest of my working life. I came up with some answers, and still have some questions. And I am very lucky to have been laid off when I was because even if I complained about how expensive COBRA still is I can't fathom how to pay for it if we had to pay the full price. Right now my unemployment checks total $810 a month, and it would have cost $1100. Randi works two days a week and that more or less covers daycare. This country, I hate to say it, is not geared to help those who need it the most. I can't call this anything but shortsighted. And I'm being nice.

Believe you me, I've also hustled for jobs, busting my ass. I've gone on quite a few interviews within just the past few weeks, and when I'm not preparing for them, I worked to make them happen. But there's another side to this time.

Because overall, I can't say I am all that sorry with how things have worked out so far. I am not bitter about being laid off, I don't feel like a failure for being in a profession that basically collapsed. I only feel like a failure when I've ignored the voice inside me that tells me the truth. That points me to the things that matter to me. One thing unemployment does for you is allow you to once again connect with your priorities, and, yes, principles. Hopefully those two things can meet in the middle.

I also don't feel like less of a man without an identity now that I'm not going to the office every day. Like how we all heard those stories about how Japanese businessmen were so ashamed of getting laid off that they rented empty offices, right? And then they killed themselves.

Well, I don't feel like those guys, because I know who I am. I am Randi's husband and Stella's dad. Or dada, I guess, but, really I think it's better if that's just between me and her.