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That Jobless Claims Report? I’m In It. Do I Have to Tell My Kids I Don’t Have a Job?

A dad who doesn't want to add to the stress wonders how honest he needs to be about his current unemployed state.

fatherly logo Ask the Goodfather

Goodfather,

I lost my job. Me and millions of other Americans during this pandemic, I know, but I’m still taking it super personally. My job in many ways showed my kids that I was worthy. I provided. I made things. I had an office that they could come to and see that I was part of the world outside the house. So I don’t know what to say. I haven’t told them. I don’t want to tell them. They’d get it — they’re in third and fifth grade — but I hesitate. Still, they have to know something is up.

I’m retreating. I’m spending time alone refreshing Linkedin over and over again. I’m making sure the finances will help us last — and I’m lucky that they will, for a few months. I’m not spending time playing with my kids because it has to come up at some point. Why isn’t daddy on the computer in his room anymore? Why is he playing with us? To the latter, I don’t feel like it. The firing made me feel pretty worthless and I don’t want to pass that on.

I’m tempted to blame the pandemic and not tell my kids. Pick life back up after we all pick our lives back up and pretend this didn’t happen. Any harm there?

Fatherly IQ
  1. What do you want the president to prioritize in the next four years?
    Coronavirus
    Paid leave and child care
    Healthcare
    Climate change and the environment
    Jobs and the economy
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It’s true that you are just one of nearly 17 million Americans that have lost their jobs during the Coronavirus outbreak (as of the morning I write this). So, you’re right in that your situation isn’t unique in the broad sense. But that doesn’t make your specific loss any less personal or any less painful. And regardless of whether you liked your employment or saw it as a drudging necessity, losing a job can be as emotional as the loss of a relationship. It’s appropriate to mourn that loss. It’s totally okay to feel your feelings. 

This mourning will take as long as it takes. And if there’s an upside to any of this it’s that you have some time to process your emotions and work through the grief. Because, importantly, you’re not just dealing with the loss of a wage. As you so aptly pointed out, you’re also struggling with your identity being destabilized. Whatever your family saw in your employment, it’s clear that you felt it allowed you to be a provider and, therefore an important part of your family. Losing your job has caused that identity to crack. So as much as you need to process being unemployed, you also need to process your perceived change in identity.

Now, I say “perceived” because unless your children and partner specifically told you that they view you as a provider, their sense of who you are is likely more complex. Most likely, your family views you more than a dude who sat in front of a computer, spent most of the day outside of the house building things and helped keep a roof over everyone’s heads. Is that part of being a dad? Absolutely. But there’s far more to it than that. 

Your kids and your partner also look to you for emotional support, guidance, and security. They need more than a paycheck from you. They also need love and attention. This is all to say that while you’re between jobs, there’s plenty for you to offer your family as a dad. As you process being between gigs, consider the other ways that you offer your family stability. 

One important way to do that is to model resilience. Right now that’s one of the greatest opportunities of this moment. You’re correct in thinking your kids probably know what’s up without you having to be explicit about the circumstances. Kids are, after all, far more perceptive than we give them credit for. And it’s important to acknowledge how keen kids are. In understanding somethings up, they’re also taking in however you happen to be dealing with the situation.

So far, it sounds as if you haven’t been taking it out on anybody at home. It sounds like you’re dealing in the best way you can. But at some point, you may want to make your job loss and your response to it more explicit. There is a chance that if you keep it to yourself, your children’s rich imaginations could fill in the gaps with a story that’s much worse than reality.

Kids don’t do particularly well with ambiguity. Seeing a parent act differently for no discernable reason can be frightening. Fear leads to stress. Stress can be toxic. So while you might think you’re saving them, keeping your job loss from them might actually make things worse. 

Consider this, too: At some point in the future (whatever it happens to look like), your children may find themselves suddenly unemployed. How they react, may be built in part by the skills they learned watching your own reaction. Bizarre as it sounds, you have an excellent opportunity to teach your children something real and important. 

So, when you’re able to think of being between gigs without panic, anger, or overwhelming sadness, I’d like you to consider talking to your kids about what’s going on. This doesn’t have to be a weighty and serious talk. In fact, all the better if it has an air of lightness. Maybe talk over pizza one night at the dinner table. Maybe bring it up while building LEGOs. No matter when the discussion happens just remember to keep it as simple as possible.

There is no need to get wildly specific about why you lost the job or how it will affect your finances. Instead, you can tell your children that sometimes companies need to make decisions that will require people to find new jobs with other companies. You can even tell them that having to find a new job made you sad and angry for a little while and that it’s okay to feel those things. Then, express to them that that the family is fine and safe; that you’re looking for work, and that above all, no matter what happens, you are their father and you love them. 

Finally, ask if they have any questions. Whatever those questions are answer them honestly, simply and directly. There is no need to feel shame. You’ve done nothing wrong. None of us has done anything wrong. We just happen to be living in some pretty shitty times. The more direct, honest, calm and compassionate you can be with your kids the better you’re setting them up their own shitty times. 

I have every bit of faith that you will get through this. And I have every bit of faith that this will be a mere blip in your work history. But until that next job comes, take time to hold your kids close, because more than any other identity you might have, you’re their father and they need you.