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Sound advice from guys who've been there

By Kevin Nelson

Just a few weeks after Dave Richards was laid off as manager of a yacht harbor in a small California coastal community, he found himself driving through a poor section of town with his 11-year-old son, Sam. Sam knew that his father was unemployed and that money was a concern in their family. Stopped at a red light, they saw a homeless man pushing a shopping cart down the street. "Dad," Sam asked, "is that going to be us? Are we going to get a shopping cart?"
Many fathers (and mothers) around the country are facing similar questions or concerns from their worried children. Unemployment is rising. Big layoffs at major companies dominate the headlines and news broadcasts. Recession looms. Millions of people, even those with jobs, are being affected by the economic slowdown. spoke to several fathers (whose names have been changed for this article) about how losing a job can affect family life. All have lost jobs at one time or another. Two were self-employed and are currently experiencing a slow-down in their work due to the economic slump. They spoke to us about how they're weathering the hard times, what effect it has had on them and their families, how they're coping emotionally and financially, and what advice they have for other men who may be caught in a similar position.

Getting laid off is a shock to the system. All the men we spoke to talked about the emotional impact of being laid off or losing a job. Self-employed individuals or small business owners feel it too. Work is slow (or non-existent), and it hurts. It affects your self-esteem as a man and your position as a major (probably the major) bread-winner in the family.

The initial disappointment is hard and there is no sense pretending otherwise. There's no reason to sugarcoat what happens to a guy after losing a job: It is like being slugged in the stomach when you're not ready for it. You stagger and maybe even hit the ground. It's disappointing, hugely disappointing. It may have been unfair and you may have been humiliated in the process. You may not have seen it coming and now you feel like an idiot. You may have had high hopes that have now been dashed. You may have been told that your job was safe, and you now feel angry and betrayed. You may be feeling all these emotions, and more. The good news is that the men we spoke to universally said that these feelings eventually pass, and that you find ways to move ahead in your life.

If these feelings of failure persist, you may want to get some help. Lavon Hughes worked for an insurance group. After being laid off it took him nearly a year to find a new job. During this time he started smoking, which actually helped him cope with the emotional turmoil he was going through. But his sleep was affected. He could only sleep for two hours at a stretch before waking up to resume worrying. His doctor prescribed anti-depressants temporarily, which eased his mind, and he maintained a regular exercise routine, which helped him both mentally and physically. "None of this solved my job problem of course," says Hughes. "But you still have to take care of yourself."

Expect that you may not be at the top of your game emotionally during this time. How difficult the adjustment is depends a lot on who you are and the type of job you had prior to being laid off. It can also depend on how much money you have in the bank and the type of severance package you receive, if any. If you're a workaholic who put in eighteen hours a day at the office, and now you suddenly find yourself at home with time on your hands, the transition may be rockier than someone who wasn't married to the job. Money will obviously be a rising concern. Hughes remembers blowing up at his teenage daughter after she lost a brand new jacket due to carelessness. With his unemployment weighing heavily on his mind, he was worried about money and took it out on her.

How much you tell your children about your financial situation depends on their age, and even if they're older, you may want to keep the information very basic.
Even if you wanted to, it would be difficult to hide your situation from your children. They're going to know what's up simply because you're around the house more. But the fathers we spoke to said they didn't go into much detail with their kids. "I mean they're only young once," says Sal Campisi, the father of two who owns a small business. "I didn't want to worry them." Nevertheless, children will worry anyway. Change is scary for them too. If you're feeling sad, go ahead and share your emotions with them, within reason. But don't put them in a position of having to comfort you.
Children are curious about what their fathers do and this may be a chance to talk to them about what's going on in your lives. They may need reassurance. When Sam Richards asked if they were going to be homeless, it caught his father off guard. Dave wasn't sure what to say. But he reassured his son that no, that was not going to happen to them, they were going to be all right.

Your wife or partner can be your strongest ally in these times. If you're unemployed you may not feel like telling the whole story to your children-for good reason. But your wife or partner is a different story. You need to be able to talk to her about important things, and she needs to be able to do the same with you. Talking may make you both feel better, even if there are no immediate answers to your dilemma. "Guys like to give the impression that things are under control, the leads are there, and that the path is clear," says Zack Barnes, an unemployed technical writer. "But underneath it all we feel the pressure and worry about things a lot. There are times when it feels like the walls are really closing in on you." Your partner can provide emotional support when those walls start pressing in. In addition, since many women now have jobs outside the home, she may provide needed financial support to the household as well.
It's possible, however, that your partner won't be as supportive or understanding as she should be. Many women do not, in fact, understand how deeply work is connected to a man's sense of self worth. When a man isn't providing for his family and producing as he has in the past, he feels like, well, not a man.
Plagued by feelings of worthlessness, a jobless man may drink more. And since he's around the house more, there are more opportunities for friction-and escalating conflict-with his wife and children. If you feel your anger is out of control, get help. Many communities have support groups and emergency hotlines.

Doing with less is not the end of the world for you or your family. The obvious goal for men who have lost a job or who are experiencing a slow-down in their business is to have it affect the family as little as possible. This may not always be realistic. You and your family may indeed have to get by with less for a period of time, but there's a big difference between doing with less and doing without. And don't forget that there are unexpected benefits to being home at times of the day when you normally would be at work. One unemployed father told us about the time his daughter lost an election for secretary of her junior class in high school. When she burst through the front door in tears Dad was the one who was home to hold her and comfort her. He told her how he understood what it felt like to be rejected because he had been rejected by a number of potential employers himself. "You'll get a good job eventually," his daughter told him, and she was right.

Things are going to be okay if you can somehow get over the hump. Again, not to sound Pollyannish, because losing a job sucks, but if you can manage to steer through the rocky times, you and your family will be all right. Indeed, in the end you may actually be better off. Losing a job often causes a dislocation in a person's life. It can be painful. It can cause misery and hardship. But it can also represent an opportunity to reevaluate and ultimately renew your life. Your marriage, having been tested, may emerge stronger. When you find another job (and you will find one) and your life can become more balanced than before, perhaps with less of an all-out emphasis on career and more time for family. "The fear of not having an income wasn't good, but it forced me to change,"" says Dave Richards, who has now found a new job. "The change was good and it caused me to reevaluate everything. I was in a rut. But to be honest, losing that job was the best thing that could have happened to me."

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