Saturday, November 14, 2009

You are What You Do... but not for a living.

This week the New York Times ran a front page story about the adverse effects on family life when a parent loses his job or remains unemployed for a substantial length of time. Several studies cited in the article found that in these cases the out of work parent takes a severe hit to his self-esteem, becomes emotionally remote from his family and his family relationships are strained to the breaking point. Children growing up in this environment, it seems, suffer from the stress over the course of their whole lives in both academic and professional performance. Significantly, it is the parent’s stress and emotional distance that affects the children in this way, not the financial impact. In short, we fail our children not when we unexpectedly lose our jobs but when we intentionally turn away from our families with a false smile and assurance.

The tragedy is that there is no reason to do that. Families existed long before job markets, depressions and unemployment. In fact, I would argue, families exist because of the stresses and demands of the world. And families are, at the end of the day, the only antidote, as well.

When we are stressed, when we are insecure or feel out of control of our environment, it is a basic human need to turn to a trusted friend or loved one for support. As children we climb into our parents’ laps when we are hurt. As adults we may get a hug from a friend or a lover. We shake hands and pat shoulders and say with a shake of our head, “That sucks.” We take comfort from these gestures, but we aren’t fixed. Our knee is still skinned, our heart is still broken or we are still out of a job. We are still loved, we are still valued. No part of who we are as people has been damaged beyond repair. But we feel better.

And there is something in it for the family member who consoles us as well. At a time when there is awfully, painfully and profoundly nothing to be done, they can take an action. They can say the words and make the gestures that help alleviate their own stress as well as ours. They get a chance to say aloud that these things don’t change how they feel about you; they don’t alter who you are in their eyes. And they are themselves comforted in knowing that if their positions were reversed, the same would be true of them.

It is when we internalize our stress that we damage ourselves and our families. We fear that they will think less of us for losing our position, while at the same time preventing them from allaying our insecurities. We fear that they think of us only or primarily as a breadwinner, but by closing them off from the realities of our lives, we give them very little more information to go on. When job loss makes it seem as though everything is crumbling down, the supportive arms of our families and friends can prevent us from being crushed.

The research cited in the New York Times piece indicated that children felt stress when their family dynamics were altered. They could plainly see their Dad at home and their Mom going off to work. They are not unaware of the cancelled family vacation. They feel, as do their parents, powerless and insecure. When we repress our stress and don’t talk about it with them, we deprive them of a chance to do something, even if it’s just giving a hug. When we withhold the truth from them, we deprive them of that little fraction of control that comes from being informed. We are telling them we have no faith in them; that they have failed in their jobs as our cheering section.

However, when we are honest about our feelings and our fears, we teach them something else entirely. We are telling them that we are not defined by our job or our income and we give them permission to be defined not by their test scores or the spiffiness of their cell phones. Most importantly, however, we are teaching them confidence. We trust them with our own insecurities; we cleave together when times are tough. Our membership in this family is more important, more resilient, and ultimately, more enduring than anything the outside world can bring on. We are telling them that love trumps fear.

All of the world’s great faiths are communal. We are not meant to bravely soldier on in isolation. Judaism and Islam originated in tribal families. Christ tells us that wherever two or more of us are gathered, there is love. And while we know what Christ, Moses, and Mohammed were trained to do for a living, it is for the way they loved their communities that we remember them.

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