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Unexpected layoff fallout – your kid disses you30 Dec 2008 07:58 pm

angry-teen.jpgWhen you lose your job there’s a lot you have to deal with. Panic over finances, loss of self-esteem, and the difficult task of finding a new gig.

But who would have thought your own kids would make things even harder.

For my New Year’s Eve post I’ve decided to let you hear from a recently laid off colleague who faced the unexpected wrath of his teenager when he lost his job after more than two decades.

Al Kemp is a great writer who has spent the bulk of his career writing for a newspaper. That life is now behind him.

He’ll be writing for this blog from time to time to update us all on where his new career path takes him.

Here’s his first blog post ever:

Tears pooled in my daughter’s blue eyes as the anger rose in her face.

“Are you even trying to get another job?,” she asked in the sort of petulant tone only heard among 16-year-old girls. “Why don’t you try to find a job in fast food? Something’s better than nothing.”

This was not a conversation I ever thought I’d be having with my youngest child, and it reminded me of how we seemed to have grown apart in recent years. Now that she was 16, our talks usually centered around telephone use and allowance and getting her learner’s license.

Two weeks earlier I had been laid off from the state’s largest newspaper, where I was a writer and editor for 23 years. For some reason – maybe denial – I hadn’t discussed it with her yet, and now she sat in the passenger seat of our battered minivan, venting her anger, hurt and fear.

So much she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why I wasn’t working in “fast food.” (Her choice of words, “fast food.” Not “McDonald’s.”) She didn’t understand why I could not travel the world finding jobs like her stepfather, who works in IT for automakers.

I felt bitter, defensive and a little dissed. But apparently she needed to hear more from me now than “it’s not for you to worry about.” She wasn’t a little girl anymore, but a young lady who needed to understand reality, not be protected from it.

Yet here I was at age 47, not even understanding it myself.

* * *

Everyone knew the layoffs were coming. There had already been a preliminary round of layoffs at the paper in August, and now the company had orders to trim its work force another 10 percent by mid-December.

The weeks leading up to “Bloody Tuesday” (as the day of destiny came to be known) were bristling with tension, paranoia, fear, rampant speculation and a curious unwillingness among the rank and file to make eye contact.

 (You think scuttlebutt travels fast in your office? Imagine working in a newsroom, where the staff is trained to disseminate information after ferreting it out by any means necessary. The smallest secret in a newsroom is like a mighty cypress tree standing in the path of an expressway. It won’t last long.)

I arrived at my desk and had just removed my coat when a manager buttonholed me and suggested we take a walk. I still didn’t put two and two together. I thought we were going to talk about added responsibilities. Or maybe he wanted to show me a cloud that looked like Santa Claus.

Down in personnel I figured it out. I was handed severance papers along with phone numbers for counselors and therapists. They gave me a handy card that told me I should get plenty of sleep, and avoid excess sweets. And a cheerful smiley face.

I was numb. I was dreaming. 

”I was the company’s employee of the year two years ago … ” I managed to say.

”This is not personal, Al.”

”Umm, do yall know we have four teenage children, two already in college … ? ”

Little did I know that it was the youngest of those children who would remind me that losing a job has effects that reach far past the employee.

I told them I’d return to clear out my desk in a day or two, thank you very much, then drove home distraught, defeated, doomed, despairing and dammit dammit dammit why did they sink all my battleships?

* * *

I can’t say I didn’t cry. I had always imagined I’d spend my career at the same newspaper, a loyal, devoted employee who can do anything.

I didn’t waste any time rounding up freelance assignments from the weekly papers in the area. During that first week I hustled harder than I ever hustled in my life. Stories just rose up in front of me or fell in my lap. A video store closes, the last in a family-run chain. Sold. Surely a profile is needed of a legendary band director. Sold. What about a roundup of community figures saying what they want for Christmas? Sold. 

Still, I felt like a farmer who sees storm clouds approaching, and I needed to harvest all my grain before it got ruined by forces beyond my control.

Two days after the job loss, my therapist told me I was positively beaming, as if a weight had been lifted off me. My wife knew better: I was faking it the best I could. She knew as well as I that the little freelance gigs were just a Band Aid. The long-term problem was still there: I had no more career.

At my next therapist appointment, the glow was much dimmer. I tried to explain it was realism she was seeing, not defeatism.

I have resumes out there, and I’ve applied for jobs, but is anything going to happen before 2009? Highly unlikely. 

But my daughter’s reaction is probably the memory I’ll carry with me the longest. It reminded me it’s not just me at a turning point.

Cassidy was angry because she feared we wouldn’t be able to keep the house, and she’d be forced to switch schools.

I could have spared us all lots of stress if I had only been open with my daughter, and told her right away – like a grownup – that we plan to stay here.

The reason my wife and I moved our blended family to this house is because it feeds the best public high school in the state. I wanted Cassidy to have a chance to be a part of that school - and its world famous marching band.

On Christmas Day, over a game of Uno, I talked to my kids about what the layoff meant. I showed them clippings of my freelance work, and explained that I would not have time to rebuild my career if I were working in fast food. I told them about the long-term prospects. I told them that newspapers seem to be dying, and now I must find a new career.

Until that moment, I had always been “Dad the reporter.” Now I was about to become something else.

Why didn’t I level with them from the get-go? Maybe because I didn’t really want to face the man in the mirror. Now I’ve begun to do that, with help from Cassidy.

For now, the freelance work continues. After Jan. 1, we’ll see what the market will bear. 

Al and his daughter

I asked an expert, Gail Golden, a psychologist with corporate consulting firm RHR International, about what’s the best way to approach your child when you lose your job.

“The most important thing in communicating with your children is to tell the truth. The language you use and the amount of detail you share will vary with the age of the child, but being honest about what happened and what it means for you and the family is the most reassuring way to help your children deal with the situation. Let them know how they can help, whether by being gentle and understanding with you, or by cutting back on their requests for gifts and spending money.”

Great advice, but I also think Al had the right idea.

Happy New Years everyone!

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