The summer I finished my master’s degree in healthcare administration, I wasn’t looking all that hard for a job. Both Jay and I had become unemployed during the Great Recession. He first, calling me from his BlackBerry on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 as he drove across the bridge from Vancouver, Washington, into Portland. I could barely hear him. Naturally quiet, he also had his window open to the late August sun and freeway air.
“Well,” he said, his voice still melting me two years into our relationship. “I got laid off today.” I wanted to reach out and touch his face. I closed my eyes and opened them again, glancing at the four walls of my office and my inbox full of unread email.
Three weeks later I had convinced him to move his two children into my house with my own two children. I couldn’t see the sense in his continuing to pay rent on his set of rooms in the house off Vista Street, which clung to the side of the hill like a mountain climber taking a breath.
Only a few months later I was driving into work, when, stalled by traffic on Highway 217, I checked my own company-issued BlackBerry. The president’s administrative assistant had prematurely sent out a company-wide email intended for later that day. It read that we had all lost our jobs, in case we did not understand what was said to us when we were called into the only conference room that would accommodate everyone and received the message that first froze us, then sent us reeling. Except that we had not yet been called into that conference room; that meeting had been intended for later that day.
Fifteen years I had worked for Textron. It was my family, my identity, my haven. I had not been without work since I was hired by Systran Financial at the age of twenty-three, and when Systran was acquired by Textron Financial in 1998, it doubled in size, creating more opportunities for me every year. I was an institution there. No one questioned me, whether I was at my desk or downstairs having coffee. I was invited to most meetings, whether I needed to be there or not. The company had even been paying for my master’s degree, since I had convinced them that it would help me know my customer base better. We were lenders to healthcare entities—nursing homes, hospitals, endoscopy equipment manufacturers, and so on. I wanted to be able to dig into my customers’ industry so that when I was sharing a steak dinner with the CEO of a small hospital system, I could—in theory, at least—hear and respond to their challenges and their long-term strategy. I wanted to be that ideal lender who “gets it.”
In the end Textron gave me what the company thought was an ample severance package and a reluctant nod to work another six months, until March 2009. I appreciated the gesture. Although I tend to be calm in a storm, I knew I needed more time to accept my loss and adjust to the impact to my family. I needed time to come up with a plan. As the recession gained momentum, everything was crashing around us, and I watched my retirement fund shrink slowly, until it was devastatingly low. Gone, too, was the assurance that I’d always be moving forward, gaining in every respect, acquiring. That feeling seemed like a distant memory. I looked around and saw only what would have to wait: the beach house I wanted to own, the nicer car, the new front door, the backyard deck.
Still, Jay and I, both raised by parents of modest means, knew what it meant to buckle down. We sat together at the kitchen table and wrote down what we could reduce or eliminate. We moved our priorities around on a spreadsheet like chess pieces. Later we told the four children over dinner how certain things would change, that it would be tight for a while. We didn’t know how long. There were few questions. The kids trusted us, though this combined family thing was still new. We had ensured that every one of them had their own bedroom because we wanted them each to have a space to which they could escape and be uniquely themselves. Jay and I gave up our master bedroom to accomplish this and moved ourselves into the family room in the basement.
Jay found contract work with Portland Public Schools just as my extended time at Textron was ending. I knew his ego had been wounded by the layoff from the bank where he had worked. It seemed he was expendable and that others mattered more. I hugged him, and we talked about starting over, because that was how it was. Though we were both in our early forties, he had been set back a decade in terms of the level of job and salary he could find. We were humbled by the limited opportunities. I tried not to think about it.
We had agreed that I would finish my master’s program over the summer and we’d live cautiously off my severance package. Surely I would find work in the fall. Perhaps the recession would abate by then.
That summer there were so many adjustments that my heart began to fray at the edges. My two children, Camille and Gunnar, had entered an age where the tight mother-child bond had started to unravel. I felt their unfolding separation, their determination to become who they would be without me. It was no longer easy to get them to join me on mundane trips to the grocery store or to go on weekend family outings. They pouted and argued when we spent an afternoon at the Saturday Market. One wanted to take the MAX—the lightrail system—the other to go by car. They chose different food vendors two blocks apart. They were hungry at different times. Camille no longer found Gunnar’s antics funny and pretended to not know him. Neither wanted to hold my hand.
I was also becoming someone else: a stepmother. It was not a role I stepped into gracefully. I had private tantrums, petty anger at having to share with Jay and his children what I had built as a single mom with my two offspring. There were awkward attempts to understand my stepchildren, so different from my own two kids. Jay and I spent late nights in bed, especially on weekends after a few martinis or a bottle of wine, trying to figure out how to merge our families—what to allow, where to give or take back, and who could arbiter what with whom. Discipline was a big topic, as were expectations of mutual respect, family time, chores. It was like starting over after I had so finely honed my own motherhood. I wanted to scream and escape at once.
And I was pregnant.
When Jay and I first started dating, he had told me that if he met someone new after his divorce, and she did not have children and wanted to, he would certainly oblige. I remember looking at him over the dimly lit table at Caffe Mingo, a fresh charcuterie board between us, our glasses filled with Barolo. In those days, we were deep into exploring each other’s minds and bodies. We wanted to know each other completely, as if this might help us avoid the mistakes we made with our first spouses.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, because it would be something she had not experienced yet. I would not want to withhold that from her,” he said. His answer seemed well rehearsed.
“What if I wanted to have another child?” I looked at Jay coyly through the candles flickering over the coppa, pickles, and prosciutto. Since giving birth to my first child, I had wanted at least two more. To be honest I wanted five children. I had once wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, too, but I had long given up on that fantasy. I was not the type to seek out a man who would comfortably provide for me. It unnerved me to consider it. Would he want an impeccable house and banana bread in the oven when he came home at night? Would I feel compelled to make love with him even when I wasn’t in the mood? Would I hesitate to ask him for money so I could buy a new dress? I had taken too many college feminism courses to avoid these dark thoughts.
“Really?” Jay asked. I could see him adjusting internally, careful with each word, avoiding conflict at all costs. As I grew to know him better, I recognized this not as a weakness but as the sign of a person willing to see the other side and to get comfortable with it. This was how he loved.
“Well, if that’s what you want, sweetheart, then we could do that. We better get started, though.” He grinned. “For one thing, I need to reopen the swim lanes.”
I scoffed. A reverse vasectomy was a walk in the park compared to childbirth. To me the greater obstacle seemed our age. We were both thirty-nine. Yet our relationship was still too new to consider bringing a child into the world, despite my longings. This was a topic that would not be revisited for a couple of years.
I was forty-one before we both felt ready. Jay visited the doctor for some repairs and I had gone to see an acupuncturist because I had entered perimenopause. Two years into our relationship, I discovered I was pregnant. It was two years into our relationship. I was elated, but I think Jay was terrified. I reassured him that I had had two easy pregnancies. He seemed unconvinced but stalwart. We would do this: It would be yours, mine, and ours.
Toward the end of August, I was sitting at my makeshift desk in our living room. Space had become a premium as we now had six people living in 1,960 square feet. My cell phone rang, an unknown number. For several weeks I had been sending around my resume, asking for introductions, surfing Indeed, LinkedIn, and the websites of companies I was interested in. Positions in finance had completely disappeared; there was nothing at all. In that first year of the recession it was as if a plague had descended on finance and banking. I wondered who was still doing the work. Did they show up at the office each day, sick in the pit of their stomach, as they walked by empty cubicles to their own desks, the ghosts of laid-off co-workers raising coffee cups at them in a silent cheer?
I would receive my diploma in healthcare administration from Portland State that December. Why not utilize it? Still, the idea of changing from working in finance to working in healthcare was daunting. How would my resume be received? Would I have to start at the bottom? What if my master’s degree wasn’t enough for me to be successful? As it turned out, my resume made its way from my mentor at a Medicaid insurer in Portland to a contact of hers whom I had met for an informational interview to another friend who worked for a large hospital system in Oregon. And from there, it landed on Wendy Sullivan’s desk.
Wendy, as I could tell from our very first phone conversation, was a real “spark plug,” as my mother would say. She was passionate about a hundred thousand things, full of fire, loving and inclusive, smart as a whip, and had worked her whole life in healthcare. As I came to know her, I admired her grit, her seeming ability to put up mental walls so she could move on from the painful situations that presented themselves regularly in her industry, and be just as gay and serene the next day as she was five minutes before being faced with them.
“Erin!” Wendy practically yelled into the phone. “I’m sitting here with your amazing-looking resume, and I would love to talk to you about a position here at ElderHome in Stratford United Place.”
I glanced down at the evidence of my efforts to find a job on my desk, a stack of contacts and notes about people, positions, and places. ElderHome in Stratford United Place was not ringing any bells. Honesty seemed best while she was still going on about my “stellar” resume on the other end of the phone.
“Wendy, I am so glad you called and would very much like to speak to you about the position. I have sent out several queries. Could you possibly remind me of which position this is?” I bit my lip as I paused. Wendy laughed, her voice as delightful as birds chattering in a blossoming tree. “No worries. Let me go over this with you, and then we can see if you have any interest and possibly come in for an interview?”
I nodded, although she could not see me do so. I was grateful to hear the word “interview.” I had not managed to snag any interviews up to that point, and doom was lurking in the corners of my mind, like cobwebs multiplying on the ceiling. By my rough calculations my severance would last only until the end of November, and Jay’s contractor salary would barely cover the mortgage and groceries. I had pulled both my kids out of private school, but they were still playing club soccer and needed new school clothes. Their father’s child support check was infrequent and a small amount. For years I had supported us as a single mom on a salary I had come to take for granted. The fact of my unemployment had become a fragile cliff, threatening to break loose and obliterate the landscape of my life. I had to find a job.
Wendy’s call that day felt like a cup of water handed out by a friendly volunteer halfway through a 10k race. By the time I hung up, I had a piece of paper with the date, time, and address of the assisted living facility where my interview would take place the following week. My heart raced. The cliff was holding together with tangled vines, disaster receding