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When my husband was laid off, we tried to reassure our kids everything would be OK. Meanwhile, I wasn't so sure.

Liz Alterman   

When my husband was laid off, we tried to reassure our kids everything would be OK. Meanwhile, I wasn't so sure.
  • Liz Alterman is an author and journalist who lives in New Jersey.
  • This is an excerpt from her book "Sad Sacked," which is available for preorder (out June 11).

We decided to tell the boys after dinner. We had to approach this delicately. I feared if the mood were too solemn, they'd panic and think we were getting divorced. But I also didn't want to appear so carefree that they imagined we were finally getting a Labradoodle.

Unintentionally, they sat on the living room couch in order of age from left to right: Sam, Ben, Charlie. As I looked at them, I saw the human equivalent of an ice cream sandwich. Sam and Charlie both had chocolatey brown hair like Rich and chestnut eyes while Ben was all vanilla with blond hair and light blue eyes.

Using the tried-and-true ripping-off-a-Band-Aid method, Rich simply said, "Boys, I've been laid off."

Our kids had a hard time understanding what had happened

"So, wait, wait, Dad was fired?" Ben jumped off the couch. There it was. A one-kid game of telephone. A single sentence and a message badly boggled. Charlie giggled at his brother's dramatic outburst.

"No, my department is restructuring," Rich said calmly.

"Well, if it's your department, why aren't you still there? How can it be yours and then they kick you out? That's totally not fair," Ben shouted as he struggled to understand, his tiny body rigid with indignation.

"I just mean the group I was part of decided that they don't need as many people anymore," Rich said.

"Wait, Mom still has her job, right?" he asked. "That's good."

"Ben, are you crazy? Mom's job pays like no money. And it's part-time!" Sam rolled his eyes toward the ceiling in disgust. At 11, he'd already mastered the sarcastic tone of a grown man.

The idea that I worked part-time was a common misconception in our home. I worked at a startup company as a reporter and editor for several local news websites, and the job often demanded over 60 hours a week. But because I tried to do the bulk of my work while the boys were at school or in bed, they assumed it was a little hobby for me — as if anyone would voluntarily cover four-hour school board meetings or report on grisly drunk-driving accidents.

I'd started out freelancing before an editor at the company recommended me for a permanent role. After a grueling four-hour writing test and multiple phone and in-person interviews, I was offered a full-time position with benefits and a 401(k). I'd been in this job for more than two years. It was intense, but I was constantly learning and meeting interesting people. Yet the company had grown too big too fast and was struggling to turn profitable as quickly as it hoped. There seemed to be a new round of layoffs every few months. It caught those of us who remained off guard and weakened our morale. I'd somehow escaped a pink slip, but I feared my luck would eventually run out.

"Yes, I still have my job," I told the boys as I added a wistful "for now" under my breath.

"It's all going to be fine." Rich recited his new incantation once more.

Sam looked at me, doubt darkening his eyes. He wanted me to validate his father's "Nothing-to-see-here!" attitude. Even as a preteen, he seemed to possess enough sense to wonder, "Can a middle-aged man get another job that easily?" I wanted to reassure him but not misrepresent the situation.

I knew what it was like — my dad had been laid off, too

My own dad had been let go from his career in his mid-50s. It hadn't seemed scary to me at the time, maybe because I was away at college and didn't have to see him looking defeated when he'd been replaced by someone half his age who'd happily accepted a quarter of his salary. But I think my lack of alarm was mainly because I knew my dad had been investing since the moment he'd received his First Holy Communion money.

His own father had died from a heart condition when my dad was just 2 years old. He spent his early years riding shotgun in his grandfather's taxi so his mom could go to work as a beautician. They'd barely scraped by. Sometimes, they'd return home after a long day to find their electricity had been turned off because his mom had been forced to choose between rent or utilities. This constant financial stress made my dad hungry and ambitious.

He'd worked two jobs to put himself through college because he was determined to create a better life for his family. And while it had paid off, we lived modestly. My father had built a successful career heading up IT departments for various large insurance companies and saved every penny because he valued security more than a fancy house or luxury car.

My mother had a similar mentality. In her mind, couponing and hoarding sale items were elevated to extreme sports. So when my dad was laid off, I was certain they'd be fine. Here was the rainy day they'd been saving for. It had felt more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a cause for panic.

But as I looked back, it occurred to me that even with his vast experienc, my dad had never worked full-time again.

We tried to reassure them that everything would be fine

"It's all going to be fine!" Rich said again, reminding me of how he'd earned the nickname Deuces.

Though he'd been in the financial news business for two decades, I suddenly wondered if we were privy to the same economic information. I knew a lot of people who had been out of work and struggled to find new positions. Why wasn't he more concerned? Once the safety net of the severance package was gone, we'd face a shortfall of almost $8,000 a month. Yes, that was 13 months from now, but time seemed to speed up with each passing year. It felt like only yesterday that Sam was born. Now, at five feet, five inches, he and I were nearly the same height.

"Who wants ice cream?" asked Rich, knowing that would bring all questions to an abrupt halt.

Sam and Ben dashed to the kitchen with Charlie on their heels, ever the little brother. They elbowed one another to get through the narrow kitchen doorway first, each determined to out-scoop his brothers.

"See?" Rich said to me over the clatter of bowls and spoons, the slam of the freezer door, and Ben calling dibs on the Cool Whip. "Everything is going to be just fine."

More than the children wanted hot-fudge sundaes, I wanted to believe him. But I didn't.

Excerpted from "Sad Sacked" by Liz Alterman. Copyright © 2024 Liz Alterman. Published by Vine Leaves Press.

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