60: For Richer or Poorer

60: For Richer or Poorer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

For Richer or Poorer

You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.

~Vernon Howard

My husband lost his job on November 3, 2008. That was the day before the U.S. Presidential election and I was in France on business. The South of France. Cannes, to be exact. I work part-time for an IT research and consulting firm, and they flew me over there for a big event. I had been looking forward to the trip, and the election, for months. I didn’t plan on sobbing my way through the week after David lost his job.

I never would have pegged myself as reacting with such drama and desolation. But I was totally surprised. Totally. Sure, David had felt some concern in early October when his small marketing agency realized year-end results wouldn’t be what they had once expected. But he’d had the conversations with his boss, hypothesized with colleagues about who might get cut, and he kept coming back to a conviction that he was safe. I believed him because he believed himself.

When I called home that first night in France to say goodnight to the kids, my mother-in-law (who had flown in from Florida to watch them while I was out of town) broke the news.

I was speechless. And felt so unprepared. We hadn’t planned in any way for such an event. Our mortgage was high. Our bills were high. We lived comfortably in a beautiful colonial in Connecticut, but we both worked and needed both our incomes to survive.

Between the time difference, my work schedule, and a lurking mother-in-law, David and I found little space for the kind of quality conversation we needed. I asked him to call the housecleaner and tell her not to come Thursday or until further notice. He could tell her why. I hated to pass down the loss of income but that was the reality for all of us.

That week in France, it rained every day, the election came off great, the food was fabulous, and I was miserable. How would we get by? Would David find another job? I couldn’t get past my fears because I couldn’t talk to David and hash it all out, coming to some emotional and financial stability to get us by.

When I returned home that Friday, we were in a fog. The kids pounced and we circled the obvious, hoping to get back into our groove before tackling the tough stuff. Then David’s sister called.

“Listen, I know you just returned from your trip but I’m wondering if I can come down with Aliya tomorrow and spend the night. We’ll watch the kids and you two can go out.”

“Yes! Thank you,” was all I could manage in reply. Debra and her daughter were more than welcome. And a little time together was just what David and I needed.

When we finally arrived at a restaurant (our last hoorah) and sat down, everything seemed instantly better. As it turned out, David was doing just fine. He had immediately posted his resumé online and was working his network and social media sites to develop job leads.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“We can make it three months and then we’ll have to dip into savings,” I put forward.

Neither of us liked this prospect but all of a sudden, our focus had narrowed to a small core of priorities. After my solitary distress overseas, I had moved into a deep survival mode and my goals were simple:

1. Spare the children worry or distress over our circumstance.

2. Don’t let this beat us—not as a family, not as a couple.

My thinking was that as long as my family was safe and healthy, we’d be alright. I am not so attached to my house, my car (a minivan) or any material aspect of our lifestyle that I fear its loss more than the security of our foursome. Period.

This simple reality allowed me to keep my darkest fears in check. What was the worst that could happen? Foreclosure? Bankruptcy? These were a long way off and probably unlikely. But I knew that all the other little fears leading up to them (cleaning the house, no extra cash for babysitters and nights out, no vacations, perhaps even Spam) were what could cause levels of anxiety and stress that would take a toll on us.

I also found a freedom in my bare-bones mindset. I was accustomed to the constant pressure to upgrade everything. I had fallen into the mode of constantly assessing our décor, clothes, and lifestyle for what could be improved. Perusing the endless stream of incoming catalogs was a leisurely way to check up on what else we needed. And the endless needs and wants put pressure on our budget.

In truth, I felt poorer when we thought we were okay financially, because I always felt we needed more. When David lost his job and we cut all spending, I looked at everything we did have. Looking at what we might have to cut, I realized we had so much. More than enough. Believing that we could survive if it all was taken away, I discovered our bounty.

So I said to David and myself, “I’ll worry in March.” We spoke with our financial advisor and he moved some savings into easily accessible CDs. If David didn’t find a job by March, we’d start dipping in.

Until then, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy all this free time with my husband. We were used to the typical workweek schedule where we were both so exhausted by early evenings, after putting two preschoolers to bed, that we barely had time or energy for a conversation or, well, you know.

It took about three weeks for us to work out the kinks in his being home and tangling up my typical daily schedule with the kids. Then we found our balance, and our groove.

We had fun! We enjoyed a long lunch out or two, sang Christmas and Hanukkah songs for Charlie’s preschool class, and shopped for holiday presents in the middle of the day. David left most mornings to work at the library, and he scheduled lunches and coffees with people from his broad work and social network. But he was available if I needed him home to watch Sophie while I picked up Charlie, and this gave me a much needed break.

And by Christmas, David had a new job. A promotion! He would start January 5th. We popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate. We couldn’t believe his good fortune given the dire economy and job losses surrounding us. But David worked hard to find the job, and his skills and personality were a good match for the small, growing agency. All of a sudden, I wanted him home longer to play and help out. We hadn’t hit March yet, so we were still in the honeymoon stage we’d created out of his job loss.

As it stands, David has started his new job and he loves it. I miss him already. And I’m trying to keep the priorities I discovered last November.

Through all this, I learned that while I may not have control over whether either of us loses our job in these tough times, I have plenty of control over how we adapt to what life throws us. My family’s spirit and togetherness aren’t dependent on how much money we have. And those are riches I don’t want to lose.

~Heather Pemberton Levy
(originally published on www.EconoWhiner.com)

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