Judging from conversations I’m having these days with loved ones of those who have suddenly found themselves unemployed, or fear that they might be, there are a lot of people entering 2009 with concerns about another person’s employment status.
While we all recognize that it’s difficult being the one out there looking for work, we sometimes forget that it is also emotionally challenging for the spouse or the parent of that person.
You want very much to be supportive, to be wholeheartedly there for your husband, wife or child, but at the same time you are grappling with your own fears. Keeping your anxiety from overcoming the goal of providing support and encouragement to the work-seeker is a tricky business.
Perhaps the greatest service a family member can offer the person who is experiencing employment loss or stress is normalcy.
Some years ago when my husband lost his job, I was as caring and kind as I knew how to be, but at the same time I was also doing hand-to-hand combat with all the things we worry about when our financial security is threatened.
What about after the severance ran out? Would we be able to get by on unemployment plus the income from my business, which was just then getting started? What about health insurance? Should we cancel our travel plans for the summer?
All of a sudden everything that came up, whether it was to drop Netflix or put off replacing the kitchen countertop, was about money. And anything having to do with money flipped my fear switch.
I began to observe that whenever the switch was on, the content of my conversations with my husband shifted. I became his problem solver, a fountain of helpful suggestions. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with this, except that because of my fear, these suggestions were offered with a prodding urgency. I needed him to take action so that I would feel better.
Yet by inflicting my help on him out of my need to feel in control, I was taking from him what he needed most, confidence in his own ability to get through this event. When I realized this, I started to take long walks to keep my fear in check. After that, I became much more genuinely supportive.
WHAT IF YOU’RE THE PARENT
There are, of course, many things I would do differently if I could go back and raise my children all over again, and I would start with allowing them to make their beds in their own way.
What I did was assign it as a chore, and, when they did it, even as I was praising them in my most cheerful mother voice, I would be making adjustments, tucking in the end of a sheet or fluffing a pillow. I was giving them verbal approval, but my actions were telling them they hadn’t done it right. This hurt both of us. It eroded their sense of competence and undermined the behavior I was trying to reinforce.
I try to keep this in mind whenever I get calls from parents who are watching with increasing trepidation their adult children try to manage their professional lives in these unprecedented times and want to offer them my services as a solution.
I remember the client in his early thirties who said to me at the beginning of our first session, “I would have done this years ago, but my mom wanted me to.”
What I say to parents is, it has to be their idea. No matter how certain you are that your child needs my help, it’s not going to work unless they want it too. I tell them I can only work with their son or daughter if they call me directly.
I recommend that they simply provide information about me as a resource in the same way they would for a friend or colleague. This means they can’t check up to see if they’ve followed through. In other words, they’re not allowed to “tuck in the sheets or fluff the pillow,” only express faith in their child’s own ability to decide what’s best.
WAYS TO BE HELPFUL
Just listen. Naturally the first thing on the list is the most difficult. It’s very hard to sit quietly and really take in what’s being said when every other sentence sets off an alarm in you. Pretending you are a reporter whose job is to discover the facts can be very helpful when someone is sharing information that is emotionally charged. Take notes and focus on getting what is being said down on paper. It will keep you from writing a scary story line in your head.
Release time pressure. Allow time and space to grieve the loss. Accept that the ending of your loved one’s job has propelled them into an internal transition that is non-linear and has no definite timeline. The expectation that after three, six or ten weeks, or some other benchmark, the person will be sailing along toward a new future is as unrealistic as thinking that housing prices will be back to 2008 levels by June 30th of this year. The search for work is a like a battle, and even the most heroic warriors have to regroup periodically.
Put support in place for yourself. Cultivate at least one person with whom you can share the what-if scenarios that keep you awake at night. This will make you less likely to project them onto the person in your life who is on the front lines of employment insecurity. Use these friends to cross-check your motives before you ask questions you already know the answer to (e.g. “Did you call about that ad in the paper?” ) or try to carry out a hidden agenda (e.g. making dinner plans with Joe and Mary because you know that the company Joe works for is hiring).
Express confidence. Celebrate small victories, particularly when they involve something that you know is difficult for the person out of work. After an interview trust that you will hear what’s important when the person is ready to share it. Avoid the third degree (“How did it go? Do you think you have a chance? What will you do if they turn you down?”). Instead ask questions which focus on the value of the experience as a step toward a successful outcome (“What did you feel good about ? What did you learn for next time?”).
Enjoy life. When I took those long walks to get myself grounded so I could better support my husband, I would not come back until I was pretty sure I could walk into the house and comfortably do regular life. Perhaps the greatest service a family member can offer the person who is experiencing employment loss or stress is normalcy. Try not to let the heaviness of unemployment contaminate every interaction. Contain it. If you are out to eat, drop the topic when the meal is served and talk about all the things you used to talk about before the job loss. Set up a regular time and place to discuss work-search or financial concerns and in between enjoy the respite of ordinary life.