Today my Mandarin tutor Flora jokingly called me a housewife. Upon hearing that label, I recoiled–visibly, as it turns out. My tutor realized she had hit a nerve and we had a brief but good conversation about the term housewife and employment opportunities in the non-profit sector in China.
Afterwards, I thought a little more about the label and my current unemployment. It was uncomfortable to be called a housewife, but the reality is that I currently am one: I am 24 years old, married, and sitting in front of the computer perched on our dining room table right now on a Tuesday afternoon, while my husband works 10 minutes down the road and our housecleaner washes dishes in the next room.
Please don’t throw up yet.
I wasn’t always this person and I hope that I will not be this person for much longer. I hope that the next time I find myself staying home regularly on week day afternoons I am either the mother of young children or a fabulously successful novelist with a home office and multiple books on the NYT bestsellers list-or both. Yes, I’d totally take my cake and eat it too if I could, that’s just who I am, and I really like cake. The reality is that might not be the way it turns out though.
I usually devote this blog to sharing the more trivial aspects of Chris and I’s lives together: the baking, the cooking, the hiking-with a few more serious bits and political commentary thrown in once in awhile. Maybe you secretly like my bad puns too, I don’t know, I won’t tell anybody.
My tutor’s comment this morning though led me to start thinking about my recent journey from a world filled with 80 hour work weeks and an inflated sense of self-importance, to a world filled with long, unemployed, walks through this new city and a whole new range of emotional experiences and revelations.
It also led me to think about how many other people there are in the world like me right now: desperate to work but unable to find a job, because of the recession, because of an illness, or maybe because their spouse’s job just up and took them across the world to a country with no bi-lateral work agreement.
All that led me to think that perhaps I should put aside the normal fodder for this blog for a few days to share some of the more interesting things I’ve learned and experienced on my recent transition from full-time breadwinner to full-time bread baker. Or, to be more clear, I want to talk about what it feels like to be unemployed when you really, really don’t want to be.
Chris and I are incredibly blessed in that the U.S. Foreign Service takes really good care of us. Though having two incomes again would be nice and would enable us to cut loose a little more, my unemployment does not have dire financial consequences on our bottom line. Let me repeat, we are insanely lucky in this regard, we can afford everything we need and then some. The vast majority of unemployed people around the world do not have this luxury.
But unemployment is not just about money, it’s also about your sense of self and purpose. It’s finding your place and your way in the world again. It’s about identity and confidence. Losing a job or leaving a job can change you in ways you don’t expect. My hunch is that some of the more seemingly bizarre phases and experiences I’ve gone through over the past 2 months are probably not all that uncommon-in fact, there might be lots of other people going through the exact same things whether its because their spouse joined the Foreign Service or their job was just eliminated in the recession.
Furthermore, while the Foreign Service is a very small community of people, increasingly its a community with more and more people like Chris and I in it: a career oriented couple, with or without kids, in which the non-officer spouse also hopes to have a fulfilling career while living abroad. We could all stand to share a few more stories about what the transition really feels like rather than simply settling for the overused line about how “the adjustment to life overseas may be difficult for spouses of foreign service officers.”
Which is why I’m writing about this, however embarrassing or totally ridiculous some of it might seem to the average reader who stumbles across this blog. My guess is that somewhere out there, maybe in Dushambe or Cairo or Chicago there are other people who want to work but are stuck at home going through the exact things I’ve gone through and continue to go through. Maybe they aren’t making bagels with all their new-found free-time, but instead are doing a lot of reading or a lot of gardening. Or maybe they’ve found work but it’s not as prestigious or fulfilling as their old job and that’s tough to deal with too.
Right now, I don’t know how this little series ends. I hope its got a seriously happy ending-complete with a full-time job, fulfilling work and a great salary. It might, it might not, we’ve got up to 1 year and 10 months to find out. No matter how things work out though, I hope if you are ever in my shoes, you can read this and take some comfort in knowing that at least there’s someone else out there who handled the transition in even more bizarre (but hopefully entertaining) ways than you did.
Tomorrow I’ll start with part one-how I ended up at my kitchen table at 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. Friday I’ll share a few of the funnier phases and changes and experiences I’ve gone through in the past few months and how I’ve learned to cope-in ways both good and just plain ridiculous. Finally, when it comes to stuff like this there is always some sort of freaking silver lining and I think it’s part of a sound coping strategy to really to dwell like hell on that lining (scratch my earlier remark-you don’t come for the bad puns, you come for the brilliant poetry). So Monday, whether this miniseries ends up with a happy ending or note, we are going to talk about silver linings and the perks of unemployment. (Hint, they involve lots of baked goods and some killer new bicep muscles).
And if all of this just bores you to tears or makes you want to gag a little, just sit tight. I promise we’ll be back to the recipes and the trivial and the fun in a couple days.