Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”: Life on the Dole Jolts the Rest of the Family

By Guest Blogger: Ariel's Mom

Parents fix things. It's what we do.

Remember when you were five and skinned your knee? Didn't you want Mom to make a big show of rustling up a truckload of antiseptics and bandages for your boo-boo? And, didn't you also want a tender kiss on your grimy little knee and the words, "Everything is going to be alright, Sweetie"? You didn't mind too much if Mom threw in a bear hug at no additional cost—as long as your friends weren't watching. And, thanks to Mom's "fixing" you soon ran back out to play happily, the injury totally forgotten.

Oh, if only the parental role could stay so simple. But, while children inevitably grow up, no parent ever gets old enough to give up the parental impulse to "make it all better" as my own father demonstrated to me some years ago.

When I was 35, I sprained an ankle. As I hobbled into the doctor's office, my ashen-faced, shaking father was already there, looking as if he were the accident victim. I was clearly old enough to manage my own sprained ankle, I thought. Why would my 65-year-old father leap into full parental mode, heeding his inner voice that said "Get there fast and do something, Dad!"?

Because, as parents, it's who we are, and it's what we do. We just can't help ourselves.
No matter how old the offspring, parents fix things—or at least attempt to do so. Still, I didn't really "get" my father's actions that day. Not until my daughter Ariel lost her job and put me in the same position he faced.

First, a little background: Ariel was a good kid. She made straight As, had great friends, never got into the usual teen vices, and she became self-supporting right out of college. Other than a few boyfriends I didn't like (and whom her own good judgment ultimately sent packing) and that garish purple eye shadow at age 15, her decisions have been sound and her achievements exemplary.

Actually it may even be that because Ariel never gave us any major worries as a child that I never got the experience I'd need at parenting-a-grown-daughter-through-big-scary-life-changes thing. I absolutely, positively do not know how to relate to a daughter experiencing a monstrous life challenge like job loss. The one thing I do know: no amount of hugs, kisses, antiseptics or bandages will fix this nasty old boo-boo.

From the moment, 11 months before it actually happened, when Ariel knew her job would be eliminated, she took the news well. She turned immediately to the job search, never slowing down to mourn or bewail her fate; seeing her "stiff upper lip", her father and I pretended to take it well, too. We said all the right things, but privately we were shaken. No doubt, all parents panic a little over an adult child's job loss, but with Ariel on her own, it's been especially scary.

Because, as Ariel calmly explained, "The national unemployment figures may look large, but at my house, it's an even higher number—it's 100%." That's right. No other salary to cushion the loss.

We were thankful she knew months ahead of time that her job might go away. It gave us time to accept the news, strategize, plan and organize.

It didn't help.

Because we are a close-knit family, the three of us spent hours on the phone, trying to accept this calamity and formulate a battle plan. But, it's been a long time since any of us had job searched. We had no clue where to start.

On-line applications? Are they different from paper ones?

Keyword searches? What's that?

LinkedIn? How's that supposed to help?

We soon realized we were total novices in the modern art of the job hunt. Ariel's father and I wanted to be understanding and supportive, but how did that translate into action when we had no clue how people find jobs these days?

Channeling my own father's actions from the day I sprained my ankle, my first impulse was to do something.

But what?

Offer encouragement? Of course.

Volunteer to proof-read the résumé? Absolutely.

Be a sounding board for Ariel's frustrations? Positively.

Tell her how to solve all her problems and point out her mistakes? Uh-oh.

For the first time in our parent-adult child relationship we were navigating uncharted territory. Nobody knew the contact protocol.

Sure, her father and I knew to offer the "good stuff": pep talks, sharing the emotional burden and listening to late-night worries. But, sometimes as worries creep into our own minds, our inner thoughts, when expressed, might come off sounding bossy, pushy or critical. No matter how well intentioned the remark, it has the potential to push the wrong button on the overly-exposed, frayed nerves of the on-the-dole jobseeker.

The problem? Just like the jobseeker, those of us who love them have ups and downs, good days and bad.

Some mornings I awaken full of optimism: the economy will pick up; the job market will rebound; Ariel will get a job even better than the last one. This may, in fact, be the best thing that ever happened to her.

But, on other days when Ariel phones to tell me of yet another rejection—this time from a company we thought would be a slam-dunk—I summon my energy and do the "rah-rah" cheerleader-mother thing once again. It works; by the time we hang up the phone, she feels better and returns optimistically to the job search, sending out more résumés.


Except I lie awake until 2 AM thinking, wondering, praying, worrying and trying to figure out if we're missing something.

Does her résumé need tweaking?

Does the cover letter say too much or too little?

Is her previous high salary a turn-off to potential employees?

Is this bad economy going to last forever?

Because we're a small family—Ariel's our only child—we're a close family. Sunday dinner is a family reunion for us. Which means that, Ariel's job search is about our lives, too. While she may be the one out of work, her father and I have also felt the impact and will continue to do so—maybe for the rest of our lives.

Wherever Ariel goes, we'll need to go as well. That's not clingy—it's realistic. We're not as young as we used to be. I was an only child too. And, when my parents in their declining years took a notion to move 300 miles away, I panicked, wondering how I'd care for them. When I finally dissuaded them, I vowed right then I would never do that to my only daughter. One day—hopefully many years from now—Ariel may need to oversee our care. But, I know that because she's on her own, she'll always have to work, no matter what goes on with her old Mum and Dad. As parents, the least we can do is put ourselves in a convenient location for her.

But, can we, as future retirees, afford to live where destiny leads Ariel? She's had to rule out some locales based on the potential cost of living for us. Los Angeles, Boston and New York City are not places where people of modest means can stretch a retirement dollar.

Well, that is, if we can retire. Her father and I expected to be retired by now, but with Ariel out of work, we hesitate. True, she's managing well on her tiny dole check, but what happens if (when?) it runs out? I'm convinced she'd deliver pizzas or newspapers, wait tables or be a street mime before she'd take money from us, but we feel more secure holding on to our present income "just in case."

Right now, my husband and I do what parents find most difficult: we wait, try to be patient and trust Ariel's judgment and her fierce commitment to the job search. We fully understand there's nothing we can do or say to change this situation, and we struggle to learn how to be supportive of our daughter who's living on the dole.

Yes, it is the nature of parents to worry and to try to fix things. But, unemployment is not a problem fixed with antiseptics, bandages, hugs or even tons of love. Of course, we still provide the love and hugs—it makes us all feel better. And, if I thought antiseptics and bandages would help, I'd pack a cargo truck full and deliver them to Ariel's door this minute. But, sadly, that won't help at all. It isn't like when she was five years old and I really could make things "all better".

Meanwhile . . . we wait. We hope. We pray. Most of all, we love and support our daughter through the most difficult challenge she's faced in her adult life and try to think before we speak. It's all we can do. We hope it is enough.

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Photos Courtesy of:

Moving Couple:


Tim said...

Great post. You make an excellent point that being jobless doesn't just affect the person without a job, but their family and friends too. It's an aspect of joblessness that I don't think gets enough consideration.

Since this is my first post here, I will add that this is a very interesting blog.

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