Unemployed But Not Unhappy

“I actually enjoyed unemployment.”

I don’t remember who said this to me, but I do remember agreeing. It seems strange to enjoy an unwanted thing, but I agreed because not every part of it was unwanted.

I came to Chicago in 2007, fresh out of college and brimming with idealism. I was going to save the world and do two years of a faith-based service program, teaching high school English on the south side of Chicago. Sure, it wasn’t the most financially sound decision ($100/month really does mean another day another dollar — or three), but what did that matter? All I needed was a noble cause to feed my praxis-hungry undergraduate mind.

2010: I am very much in love with these teenage girls, even if my classroom smells like Bath & Body Works. However, while battling statistics, I was becoming one myself.

I was a burned-out teacher.

I asked myself many times why I left. One selfish reason: myself. The social justice community never mentions burn out. It simply leads you to believe that as long as you are doing something to make the world a better place, you can continue on forever.

Sure, I was a bit crazy. I entered the job market when times were historically bad, this after leaving a job that would provide a salary and benefits well into the future. I knew I wanted to stay in the nonprofit sector, but my credentials didn’t make sense: bachelor degrees in theology and psychology with three years experience teaching English and not looking for anything having to do with education.

I put in 200 job applications in five months. I had 10 interviews. I was repeatedly told I was one of 150 applicants — for jobs paying just over $25K. Every now and again, my “dream job” would come…and go. Friends were encouraging me to get a job at Starbucks just to pay the bills. “Oh, no, I don’t have to do that yet,” I said. “I had three interviews last week. One of them is bound to work out.”

Depression set in. Sensing this, my boyfriend at the time made a suggestion: “You’re always talking about pregnancy. Why don’t you do that pregnancy thing?” He meant become a doula. When I saw an opening for a doula a few years back, I thought it had to be the best job in the world. Teaching would have never afforded me the flexibility or the time to pursue this goal, so why not now?

In short, it saved my sanity. I pursued my certification and cherished the human interaction my days at home on employment sites were missing. In the meantime, the job search was getting dire.

Life lessons

Two weeks later, I was offered the job. One catch: it was part time, with benefits. Five months of job searching, and I was what President Obama calls “underemployed.” I thought it would be mind-numbing busywork. My job title was Secretary IV, which made me wrinkle my nose. I pledged I would tell people I was an administrative assistant.

One bounced check and an unexpected hospitalization on temporary insurance (with a high deductible) later, I realized I was faced with a decision: get a job — any job — or move home. The time for ego was over. I threw myself at the mercy of God, apologizing along the way for not working at Starbucks.

God showed up.

They say the job you don’t think will call back is the one that actually does. An office assistant in the economics department at a university? What did I know about economics? Sure, I was in line with their mission to study poverty in developing countries, but I had not worked in an office since summers in high school.

Two weeks later, I was offered the job. One catch: it was part time, with benefits. Five months of job searching, and I was what President Obama calls “underemployed.”

I thought it would be mind-numbing busywork. My job title was Secretary IV, which made me wrinkle my nose. I pledged I would tell people I was an administrative assistant.

What I thought would be pushing a bunch of papers is actually a challenging job that allows me to use my writing skills. My coworkers are fun, and our office atmosphere is relaxed. A long-time love of learning allows me to know more about economics than I ever thought I’d know. What’s more, my work-life balance is in place. When I come home, I am actually, truly home.

I realize God was trying to teach me many lessons. One, our generation was repeatedly told that we can do anything we want. Ergo, we left undergrad expecting our dream jobs, positions our parents worked toward their entire lives. Really, we did. Before the recession, I had a giant ego I was partially aware of. I wondered how people would react to a 26-year-old college graduate working part time in a world where the first question you’re asked is, “So, what do you do?”

Two, I had to rethink the whole career idea. So many people my age believe that life is a linear trajectory. We know exactly what we want to do with our degree when we leave undergrad, we do it in a huge way, and we either make it or break it before the age of 39. You must have a “direction” in life, or you are somehow your cousin Steve, the pizza delivery guy, who lives in the basement. We have no idea what it means to “do what you gotta do to make ends meet.”

The recession taught me, yeah, you might have to deliver pizzas, and you might have to live in the basement, too. I no longer equate success with simply having a career. In fact, I have no idea what my career will be. I’ve simply gone year-to-year — figuring out my next move along the way. Maybe someday I will figure out what I want to dedicate my life to, like J.K. Rowling (she was a secretary, mind you).

The only thing I do pat myself on the back for in all of this was staying true to myself, no matter how scary it was. The reason I said I enjoyed (part of) my unemployment was because I was finally free from the unsustainable position I had put myself in for three years. Instead of asking what the world wanted of me, I asked what I want to get out of this world. I took care of myself. I found a new passion. Jean Chatzky might argue now is not the time to find yourself: get a job, keep it, and put six months of money in an emergency fund (that last part is a particularly good idea).

That is where faith came in. I really wanted to tell God that I would find myself after the recession was over, but God encouraged me to do it right now. In the end, God took care of me: a job with a work/life balance, a new passion, and even a hospital that wrote off my bills as charity.

So yes, I live paycheck to paycheck. Yes, I take up odd jobs (figuratively and literally). I don’t know how I managed to take a pay cut from a Catholic school teacher’s salary, but I did.

I survived. I’m humbled. But most of all, I’m happy.