Losing a job is hard on any family—but does it matter more whose job was lost?
I’ve been waiting for today for four years. Today I woke up and I knew my wife, Nicole, would be getting ready for work, and I knew she’d be leaving.
In late 2008, I had an opportunity to travel to Kenya for a wedding. I went. Nicole had expressed concern about losing her job, but despite the cost and in addition to the uniqueness of the opportunity to travel to Africa, I decided to go because I am the perpetual optimist. There was no way my wife would lose her job—how could that happen? Additionally, if she lost her job, she’d find another soon enough. After an unforgettable week in Kenya, Nicole picked me up at the airport. The first thing she told me was she got laid off.
I was in total shock, but I did do everything possible to assist her in finding her next position. I was demoralized, as I’ve never had a desire to be independent. My family—whether purposefully or not—instructed me to make a difference in the world. I’ve never been motivated by money. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to earn it. However, most occupations I’ve had since attending graduate school appear to prioritize improving world conditions. After college, I had a family business to go back to before going to graduate school; when it didn’t attain success long term, I began working part-time in retail before attaining a master’s degree in journalism.
Growing up I didn’t want much, but much was given to me without my asking for it. This may explain why I just expected my wife to keep her job. My parents also always had work whenever they wanted it, so why would I ever expect people to be unemployed for more than three years? You’ll judge this as either an excuse or an explanation, but the first time Nicole lost her job was in 2002, for six months. When she found work again, I thought there was no way it could happen twice. Don’t places want to hire people with degrees, especially unemployed people, who really need the work? Why don’t companies prioritize hiring the unemployed? Nicole even applied to fast food places, and nobody hired her.
During Nicole’s unemployment, we often would repeat the same conversation: Nicole would ask me why I went to Kenya when she kept telling me she would lose her job. In retrospect, I thought incorrectly that my presence in her life changes how she is viewed by society—too much of which is still sexist. It’s problematic being raised not to see bias when most of the world does see it, and still too many act on it, either overtly or covertly.
Over the past few years, I could’ve endeavored to attain a full-time position, but my vision for our future included my teaching, running my business, and completing my doctorate. I couldn’t see a future for me without her providing steady income for us. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the primary reason for this—the two are intertwined. First, without Nicole working, I felt I had to work as much as possible. Second, my doctorate doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing me a full-time position; while I knew that when I started the program, I began with the understanding that Nicole would always have steady full-time work. Without that, I felt both our lives disintegrate into a quest for survival.
We’d have arguments over who was affected more by her losing her job—I couldn’t win these because I’d have to talk about myself, which implied that I believed she wasn’t affected at all, or that I was more affected than she was. That was never my feeling, as I have different expectations about our future because I disregard patriarchy in my views on relationships.
Where are we now? Nicole is at work; our health insurance begins soon, so we will no longer have to pay for health insurance out-of-pocket. Nicole has always based a large part of her self-worth on her employment status.
Yes, the world is evolving to an extent regarding equality of gender and race, but I’ve learned to accept that structural sexism does affect people’s lives in ways which they can’t combat. And I can’t help but ask: Would people have reacted differently if I were a female and said my husband lost his job?
Keith Michaels is a native New Yorker who now teaches and tutors in New Jersey. He has become politically active on both facebook and twitter since his wife’s unemployment. This sense of protest for the unemployed and underprivileged may lose intensity, but it will forever live.