When the Fantasy of Not Working Becomes an Uneasy Reality

What Women Really Think
July 28 2009 12:00 PM

When the Fantasy of Not Working Becomes an Uneasy Reality

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We all know that the magazine and newspaper industry has been hit hard by the recession. Cut backs and lay-offs happen regularly and some titles have closed down completely. Portfolio magazine was one such victim this spring. Former senior editor, Hilary Stout describes being laid off.

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It’s 7:17 on a Monday morning and I am standing in the shower fantasizing. Not about sex or real estate or shoes, but about what sheer bliss it must be to be one of those mothers who drop their children at school and then walk out into a day unencumbered by bosses, deadlines or office politics. I am one of those other mothers-the ones dressed in "work" clothes, not gym clothes, the ones who can't meet at Starbucks because we have to get to the office, the ones who look overwhelmed before the day begins.

Less than three hours later, my fantasy comes true.

It is 9:45 and I have been summoned to a conference room along with my colleagues. We are being told that the magazine we have poured our hearts and brains into for the past two years is being closed down, effective immediately, due to deteriorating business conditions. "We stop work today," says the senior human resources exec. And there it is: in one split second on a gorgeous April day, my identity is completely transformed-from an editor at a glitzy media company, a journalist who has traveled the world and interviewed presidents, into an unemployed middle-aged mother of three.

Aside from three six-month maternity leaves and two months beach-hopping in Rhode Island immediately after college graduation, I have always worked. I’ve had four employers in my 25-year professional life and each time I left one it was for a better opportunity. The notion of not working was at times the subject of fantasy but always, to my mind, a matter of choice. It never occurred to me that I could become jobless by decree.

Still, here was a chance to rethink the whole plan. I had severance. I had small children. Maybe it was time to reassess my priorities. At the very least, I would take the summer off.

As the gods would have it, less than two weeks into my unemployment, most of our household appliances started to break down. An odd satisfaction accompanies this. I can be home to wait for for the washer repair guy, the refrigerator repair guy, the mold removal guy without having to reschedule three meetings! The ailing hamster needs to go to the vet for injections three Thursdays in a row? No problem, I'm on it!

Funny, no one seems to notice the effort. "What did you do today?" my husband asks in a tone that seems to drip why-haven’t-you-done-more-today. (Is that really his tone or is it my own insecurity that hears it that way?) The biggest surprise has been the reaction of my children. They are stunned when I tell them I’ve lost my job but I assure them this means we’ll get to spend more time together. They seem happy. But several weeks into our new togetherness, I am startled to hear my eight year old ask: "When are you going to get another job?"

My six-year-old offers some unsolicited career advice at the bus stop on the way to school: "Mommy, I think for your next job you should drive a taxi."

My 11-year-old starts acting as my agent. A kind woman offers us a ride as we walk out of the pediatrician’s office one afternoon into a rain storm, and during chit-chat mentions that she works at the Columbia University Business School. "My mom should get a job at the journalism school," my daughter declares. "She used to travel around with Bill Clinton."

"I used to be a journalist," I say by way of meek explanation-startling myself with my use of the past tense but not sure how to correct it without a rambling explanation.

I take some quiet pride in the realization that my children, especially my daughter, view their mother's natural role as in the office. Surely this must bode well for womankind. But I can't help feeling that it signals some inadequacy as a mother. I try to remind myself that I'm not playing a zero-sum game. You can be a good professional and a good mother. One doesn't have to take away from the other. But still.

The more troubling development is what seems to have happened to my personal view of myself. "Used to be a journalist"? Why did that come out of my mouth? I'm beginning to realize that as with most everything else in life, unemployment is a more complex experience for women than men. For the men I know who are out of work, the focus is all about job and money. For the women I know-and believe me we have spent lots of time discussing this-it brings up complex questions about the essence of our lives, our relationships with everyone from our spouses to our babysitters, even the meaning of friendships with each other as we will ultimately all compete for the same miniscule pool of media jobs.

So here I am. With just over one month left of my summer off, I now know that I want to-and financial necessity dictates that I probably need to-work. I also know that I need to, if possible, find some way to find a way to work that allows more balance in my life. I've loved being able to see the kids after school, to cook dinner leisurely instead of frantically with one eye always on the Blackberry. I honestly don't know, as the industry i worked in my entire career shrinks and changes, what my professsional future holds. But I do realize now that being one of those other mothers is not sheer bliss.

Hilary Stout has worked at the Vineyard Gazette, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Portfolio magazine. She looks forward to her comeback.

If you have lost your job and want to share your experience, email me at emma@thecomebackbook.com.

Photograph by Getty Images.