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Sometimes a Sucker

"Plans were hatched and fantasies formed"

Published onAug 30, 2023
Sometimes a Sucker

Photo by Anna Shvets:

If I had to list the seven stages of unemployment, it would look something like this:






Malaise and


I’ve been through unemployment three times in my working life, but it wasn’t until the third go ‘round that I was able to define the above stages. Because the second and third stints were so close together -- only one year apart -- it was almost as if I had taken a one-year vacation (if you can call a job in hell a vacation) from unemployment by working. By the time I got back to my third time on unemployment, not only was I overjoyed but I was so well acquainted with unemployment that I could foresee my future: I was looking forward to Stage One: elation.

Like everything else in life, unemployment is best seen through the lens of experience, a sense that you’ve done this before, and you know what to expect. You might even think that you know what you’re doing, and you will do things better this time. For those less fortunate, first-time unemployment can be a shock to the system; the feelings of rejection and outsider-ness can simply overwhelm.

To say nothing about the experience of unstructured time. From the time we are small, our days are defined. We go to school, we eventually work. For the privileged, even summers at camp are scheduled. As a former actor and writer, I’ve had long experience with structuring my adult days without a job. Perhaps it is the curse of a mother who once told me never to waste time. Or the eye-opening sight of someone squandering their time. I once met up with a woman, a crafter, who had recently retired. Since I was employed, I was envious of her spare time to craft, one of my multiple myriad hobbies. I pictured her rising, making her coffee, and settling down to knit. The reality was not what I expected: she rose, made her coffee, read the paper, the phone would ring, and before she knew it half her day was done.

For the unemployed, whether newly or not, the need to structure the day is paramount because writing cover letters and, God-help-you, redoing your resume is such a deeply unpleasant experience that you have to attack it when you have the most energy. So, here we are, already at Stage Four: reality, when I haven’t even touched upon the honeymoon Stages, One, Two, and Three: elation, joy, and fun. So, permit me to backtrack to my second experience with unemployment.

I worked for 13 years as a preschool teacher while my children were growing up. In that time, I also earned a master’s degree in early childhood education in order to become a head teacher. I loved the children and liked their parents, but after 12 years I got the sense that I had stayed at the party too long. So, when, at the end of the 13th year, the head of school told me she wasn’t renewing my contract I had the absolute pleasure of uttering the following words:

            “Oh, thank God.”

            “You’re not angry?” she asked.

            “Why would I be angry? I’ve been trying to get out of this job for years,” I said.

Welcome to Stage One: elation. Plans were hatched and fantasies formed: coffees with friends, trips to museums, long afternoons reading and writing. Of course, I started to look for work, as I was immediately eligible for unemployment, but there was time for lots of coffees with friends, trips to museums, and long afternoons reading and writing. In fact, I was now able to work on the novel I had begun several years before.

In Stage Two: joy, there was a sense that I had somehow inherited a new life, that I was no longer a teacher, that this was all in the past. Each day brought a new adventure, or small house project; there was time to do it all, and do it all I did. Perhaps the joy came out of the delusion that I would never have to work again, put up with difficult colleagues, or rise at dawn.

Joy managed to morph into Stage Three: fun, and the sense that each day could be both productive and adventurous at the same time. Something could get done at home and I could visit a new neighborhood, find another great cup of coffee, or discover a street I’d never walked.

Eventually, however, the summer ended, and I knew I was in Stage Four: reality. In addition to job hunting, I started my own tutoring business and began working with former students who were now in elementary school, while taking on new students, as well. The days became fuller, as I prepared lessons, and looked for new students, at the same time. And yes, I was still looking for full-time work.

But a creeping feeling started to seep in: I was no longer sure what I was looking for. Was I looking for a classroom job? Hadn’t I told myself I was done teaching? And what was I looking for if I didn’t want to be a school administrator?

Add to this mix what I refer to as “foot soldier” scenario, and I was really in a bind. A classic example of this is that both my late father and myself – my father, a retired librarian, and his teacher daughter – prefered not to advance within their careers but to stay within the confines of their comfort zones. But there is more to it than that. Both my father and I knew that you need to do what you love. My father loved books and I loved supporting children. My father had no interest in overseeing employees and I was miserable when I had to manage difficult teachers – to say nothing of privileged parents. My father turned down offers to move to management and I never even applied for these jobs. These feelings were confirmed when heads of school would come into my classroom and mention how much they missed working with children. All I could think at the time was “higher paycheck, more misery.”

On the good days, which were clearly over, and bad days, which I had officially entered, of unemployment, I was now experiencing more of the latter. No one was calling, no interviews were happening, and a kind of angst started to set in, a feeling that maybe I was lost, that I was starting to lose my footing. This, unlike Stage Two, did not feel good. In fact, thoughts started to swirl in my head, of ageism, and the wrong kind of experience, and questions about whether I should have become a librarian instead of a teacher. Somehow something I had done wrong was contributing to the fact that no one was calling.

This angst, Stage Five, rapidly turned into a kind of malaise, Stage Six, which gave me a pervasive feeling of unease, that in fact, I was to blame for being unemployed, and that indeed unemployment is the problem of the unemployed, not the other way around. The days went on, the phone never rang, and I rapidly entered a kind of existential despondency: welcome to Stage Seven.

One of the primordial challenges of unemployment is that your newfound time can work against you because you start to think. And when you think, in Stage Seven, you are taking on the big questions: What is it all about? Why do we work? What if I never work again? This is not about “What job will I apply for today?” This is about “What is a job?” Then, when you’ve entered this rabbit hole, you begin to plummet. You have lost hope.

The loss of hope is the deadliest aspect of unemployment because where there’s no hope there is no self-confidence. You begin to hear the stories that make the most sense: I haven’t worked for this long, clearly no one wants to hire me, so therefore this is the end of my work life. Worst of all, you begin to self-implode. It’s no wonder that involuntary job loss, especially for older adults with limited income, is a factor in increased depression.

If you are, like me -- changing fields -- things get even more complicated. Not impossible, mind you, because people change careers all the time. The complexity comes in when you realize our culture boxes us into categories. If you’re a plumber, you’re a plumber. If you’re in food service – a notoriously challenging field to break out of – you’re in food service. And it you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher.

Witness how easy it was for me, a preschool teacher, to get a middle school writing position at the end of the pandemic, when even though I had told myself I was done with the classroom, I felt compelled to return in this historic educational moment. The reality, as I quickly discovered, was that I never understood and did not like the way we educate children in the U.S., and that poverty plus a pandemic equals an education disaster. I lasted one year, and the jury is out on whether I would have come back last September, then fate stepped in: the school closed due to lack of enrollment. Which is how I ended up on my third ‘go round with unemployment.

A bad day of unemployment is when you are lost, you are at sea, and you have no idea where your horizon is. However, sometimes, on a bad day, a realization might strike you. Such a realization, if you can harness it, might even provide you with some relief. I don’t remember whether the following two thoughts came on two bad days or whether they were piled into one, but they were invaluable, nonetheless. The first realization was this: I tend to settle. I don’t know why but I take the first job that comes along, thinking that it's going to be great because I was offered a job, not because it is going to be a good match for my skill set, and I dive in. I can think of multiple instances, which I will not elaborate on, when I have settled. The second realization was that I lose sight, which, on some levels, may be more damaging than the first, because when you lose sight, you do not realize how unfulfilled you are. You’re just simply showing up each day. You’re on auto pilot.

At some point in the process, these two realizations were confirmed, as well. I was at Grand Central terminal, lamenting the demise of Posman’s Books and wandered into Hudson News, noting that they had a small paperback and hardcover section. While I wasn’t surprised to find that my book was not there, I did find myself eyeing a display of Harvard Business School volumes on career confidence and development. Sometimes a sucker for a self-help tome, I made a deal with myself: if I was engaged on the first page of either Your Professional Growth, or Emotional Intelligence: Confidence, I would purchase them.

Leaving the stand with both books, I dove in on the train home and took on the first exercise in Your Professional Growth: listing your strengths and weaknesses. It should, perhaps, tell you a lot about my personality that I began with my weaknesses. And although it may seem like I am being negative I believe that identifying these first has helped me tackle some of those bad day blues, those existential ones, the ones that don’t seem to have an answer.

Yet there is this: I am the only child of immigrant parents – well, my father was second generation -- who never knew a happy day at work. And there is this: a lot of guilt. Because my parents took their jobs to feed, clothe and educate me. I’m sure they thought they landed their perfect jobs: my dad at the library, and my mom, at the United Nations, arguing that she wanted to contribute to an organization whose mission was to make the world a better place. But the years turned into decades, and they were not happy, in fact, I am convinced that their “good, solid jobs” turned them into depressives with alcohol abuse, eating disorder, and spending issues. So, my model for work was two people who had “good” jobs that they hated. Add to this the fact that both my parents were creatives – my father was a pianist, and my mother sang – and it’s no wonder they were depressed. They were trapped.

On a good day, I tell myself I will not settle, and I will not lose sight. I am blessed with a family that supports me and the best of friends, who have told me not to take the first offer and not to settle. I am indebted to them. Because on a bad day, I can only think about the first thing that may come along.

In the end, unemployment challenges our identity, especially in a country that places a high value on what you “do.” In the film About a Boy, there is a dating scene between Hugh Grant and Rachel Weisz, in which he tells her he “does” nothing; he spends his days entertaining, grooming, and caffeinating himself because he does not have to work, as the result of a hit Christmas song his late father wrote. One could argue that he simply lives, but the reality is that his life is empty, and until a human connection presents itself, in the form of a boy in need of a father figure and stability, he is indeed not doing anything. He is shallow and self-absorbed.

Would that we could simply live and enjoy life, but we have not recovered as a culture from our obsession with the Puritan work ethic. If we do simply live, we risk, like Hugh Grant’s character, becoming self-centered in our own interior world. Indeed, connection is the key to not entering this place. One of the best jobs I ever had was working as a freelance editorial consultant for the Ford Foundation, working from home, and having enough time to take care of my children and run errands. I had an amazing supervisor, who gave me complete independence, and trusted that I was using my time productively. Yet, although I was supporting an organization that sought social justice and equality, there was something that scared me about this scenario, this time on my own, this ability to rule my own kingdom from my desk chair. My only childish-ness feared I would become egotistical and self-centered, in short, inflexible. 

But that was then. I now know that the perfect balance between “doing” satisfying work, whether it be writing, working, or volunteering, is also seeking joy: having hobbies, seeing friends, and remaining curious. Lose joy and you have truly lost hope.

I once wrote an essay called The Permission to Write, which was essentially about allowing yourself to do the thing you love: whether it be acting, or writing, without paying heed to the cultural forces that tell us we can’t do that thing.

I am now giving myself the permission to hope that one day, I will be once again employed, doing the thing that I love, having not settled, and not lost sight.

If as the Buddhists say we are always finding our bliss, then balance is the key to remaining sane during unemployment.

Anita Bushell is a freelance writer and native New Yorker who just finished her first novel, as well as published Object Essays. Her work has appeared in Apple in the Dark, Grande Dame Literary, and Motherwell Magazine.

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