Sunday, January 30, 2011

On the Eve of Unemployment

On Tuesday, I will file for unemployment. It is a situation that I never saw myself in, admittedly. This is the first time in my life, having been in the workforce since 1994ish, that I have left a job involuntarily. I am a bag of mixed emotions on the subject and about life in general really. But let me start from the beginning.

My last job was located nearly 3 hours from home. For a long time, I didn't have a car so I couldn't go home very often. When I did finally get a car, my job still prevented me from going home for visits except like 3 times a year. But then my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. My mom would give me regular updates about how he was doing, but nothing prepared me for the first time I saw him after a dramatic weightloss. It was 2006, a few months after his diagnosis, and I brought a student and community member up to NKY to see how our nonprofit cable group operated. I hadn't seen dad in probably 6 months. He stepped off the bus and I teared up. He was just so thin, so frail. I turned my head to collect myself so he wouldn't see me cry. In that moment, I knew I had to find a way to get home to be closer to him.

For some reading this, it may sound odd. We seem to live in a society now where we are all so mobile and it is quite common to live far away from family. And when that family gets sick or old, we rely on others - sometimes even pay them - to take care of them for us. For the 7 years I lived away, I relied on my brother for this. But, I realized that simply wasn't fair anymore....for him or for me. I come from a family tradition, really more of a value system, where we take care of each other - especially in the older years. After my paternal grandmother broke her hip, we went over every Sunday and did her laundry and grocery shopping. During the week, my aunt and uncle helped her with any daily needs. We split the responsibilities. With my maternal grandparents, Mom and I did everything that we could to take care of them and their estate. Unfortunately, my mom was the only child nearby and responsible for taking care of them and I saw the toll this took on her. I don't want to see that happen to my brother. He deserves a life as much as I do and he shouldn't have to do all the lifting alone. So, I saw it as my responsibility to come home. But, I also saw it as a chance to make things right in my own life. I didn't want something to happen to Dad and to be left with "I wish I had spent more time with him." That was NOT okay with me. No job, no career, is more important than my family and the peace of mind that I have adequately loved and shown that love. So, the decision was made in my mind that I needed to find a way home.

In 2007, a friend and former colleague who was living in Greater Cincinnati emailed me that he found a job posting I might be interested in. He knew I wanted to be home and this job was in my career field. I saw it, career-wise, as a way to impact a greater amount of people and to be a part of a statewide effort rather than just one community as I had been. I was excited to have found something that seemed to be a good fit for me that took me, geographically, to where I wanted to be.

I knew within the first two weeks that I was in a difficult situation. I realized that my needs as an employee were not going to be met and that I was in for a full ride of personality collision. My new supervisor had never supervised someone full-time before. Having supervised an office by myself with a number of part-time student workers, a full-time volunteer, and a half-time graduate assistant, I had a pretty established understanding of what I needed from a supervisor and a work atmosphere. It became pretty clear from the start that I was not going to get that in this job. It was 90% administrative, which was counter to what had been presented to me in my interviews. This was mostly dictated by our budget. I was supposed to do site visits across the state, but had no money to do so. In addition, the atmosphere of the office I was in was not exactly socially-oriented. So I found myself solely in communication with people via phone or email. This is definitely not conducive to my needs. And yet, I kept trying to make it work because, quite frankly, I've never encountered a working relationship situation that I couldn't make work eventually.

These tensions, combined with personality and leadership style clashes, gave way to a couple of head-to-head conversations between my supervisor and I. These usually ended with one of us tearing up and both apologizing and promising to compromise more. By mid-2009, however, I had reached my limit. For the majority of 2009, I was in a major depression. This is something I hid from the majority of my friends and aquaintances. But those closest to me, and especially my family, knew that I was severely depressed. The situation at work had taken its toll, along with my dad's illness and having to work a part-time retail job just to make ends meet and have some spending money. The poor girl who worked for me, and who I am now thankful to call a friend, saw me break down more than once in the office. My mom expressed genuine concern about my well-being a number of times. I honestly think that the situation scared her. Everyone who saw me on a daily basis knew what was going on. My boss, however, was oblivious. Now, before I proceed, I do want to say that I agree that we should all predominantly work to keep our personal issues out of work. However, when you are working in a social services field, your mental well-being is incredibly important to ensuring you can perform your job well. And when there are 3 employees in an organization, I think that there should be enough exposure to each other and enough communication that you can at least acknowledge when one person is not doing well. Yet, my boss simply did not see nor acknowledge that I was struggling to just stay above water.

During the summer, things came to a head. I was placed in a difficult and embarrassing situation with a colleague that I did not appreciate. And then, in July, my boss and I had our final "battle." I won't go into everything that happened. But, it pissed me off enough that I was snapped out of my depression by a drive to get out of the organization. I was forced to sit with her, in the guise of "feedback" and "evaluation," to hear things that simply were not true about myself. I know, I know...that's something that people may commonly say after receiving feedback. But, I generally take feedback, acknowledge the truth in it and genuinely strive to do better. This, however, was not that kind of situation. This was an attempt to break me through desperate insults of me personally. It was someone saying things so outrageous and untrue that colleagues laughed at a majority of it...and not that uncomfortable laughter of being presented with truth you don't want to acknowledge...real laughter of "seriously? WTF?" I was so mad after that meeting that I crafted a new set of "rules" for myself, as I realized that my boss found me "threatening", not physically, but professionally. I also emailed my boss and told her that I would begin a job search immediately. I did not want to stay in a toxic atmosphere any longer. And I don't want to work in an organization where my boss finds everything I do or say as a threat against her job. I want to be partners toward a greater goal with those I work with. I will push and expect to be pushed toward that goal. I wasn't finding that to be wanted there.

And that is where I put the nail in my own coffin. I have been laid off. The particulars of my situation are a little complicated to explain. Our organization is funded solely by dues and federal grants. My program is a federal grant, supplemented by fees paid by universities. To put it as simply as possible: the federal government promised so many volunteer positions but didn't allocate enough money to fund those positions. When 4 universities failed to recruit for their allotted positions by August, they were forfeited due to the lack of federal funding. That left us $20,000 short in our budget. Then, we got word that our grant for the new year was going to be cut by 3 positions, leaving us $15,000 short. Simply, there was no longer enough money to keep me employed there. But, I do feel like my boss would have tried harder to find alternative funding to keep me on if we hadn't had so many issues in the past and if I hadn't have declared that I was searching for other positions.

So now I face Tuesday with a variety of emotions. Part of me is still really mad about the past 3 years - about how I was treated, about the hollow promises given when I was recruited, about all the things I feel like we could have accomplished if our leadership styles weren't so drastically different. Part of me is terrified because, quite frankly, I was struggling before and now I'm going to be pulling in about what I did in 2000 as a brand new professional. Part of me is anxious - I have no idea what I'm going to be doing next and I have great ideas and energy, but no where to put it. And part of me is relieved - to not have to deal with a sour situation anymore, to not have to walk on eggshells everyday, to not (as I have been doing since July) put on an act of being someone I'm not everyday just to keep the peace and my job.

Part of me is still broken from that meeting over the summer. And I have become a little disillusioned by this whole situation. But, part of me is more invigorated than ever. I am an excellent professional in my field. I know what I'm talking about. I have a great passion for the work that I do. I would be an excellent assistant director for a nonprofit....passionate, eager to learn, and ready to work. I just need the opportunity. I know this, despite that broken feeling I have and the doubt that creeps in with every week that goes by without a call for an interview.

And so here I am...on the eve of unemployment, wondering how making a decision to be close to my family led me to this day. I still don't regret that decision, though. I will take the lessons I've learned from these past 3 years and use them to make me stronger and better at what I do. That, as a Twitter-friend says, is "what you do." I hope to find a position that I can be happy in soon. In the meantime, I will take care of myself and my family. And I'll be thankful for having the time to do so.