Seeking Self-Worth in Unemployment

Watching something you created come off a giant printing press is pretty thrilling.

The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.

Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!

Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.

March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.

Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.

So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.

After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.

But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.

I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.

As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.

And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.

I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.

Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

My Fleeting Flirtation with TikTok

Like many people, I fell in love with comedian Sarah Cooper earlier this year. I wanted to easily find all her Donald Trump lip-syncing videos, and I heard she was posting them on TikTok, so I downloaded the app onto my phone.

Coincidentally, I had put myself in a social media “time-out” right before taking the plunge into TikTok. In quick succession, I had removed Facebook, then Instagram, and then Twitter from my phone. Each time I deleted an app, I found myself spending more time scrolling on whatever remained. I even took to scrolling on LinkedIn for a brief period! So, I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

First, when you download TikTok, the app asks you to check off what topics interest you. The subjects I selected seemed innocent enough, but the outcome was an endless stream of girls in bikinis doing identical dance routines.

This should have scared me off, and yet it didn’t. Fascinated, I scrolled and scrolled through videos of young women with seemingly perfect bodies, beautiful hair, and not half-bad dance moves. I started to feel bad about my own appearance, which is pretty stupid given the vast age difference between me and these video stars. Even the moms showing off their youthful good looks were at least a decade younger than me.

Disconcerting thoughts popped up: I’m pretty sure we didn’t have butts like that when I was a teenager! Was I ever that flexible or sexy? Could I get away with wearing an outfit like that at my age? And how come everyone lives in such a fancy, pristine house?

I had to remind myself that I was seeing these specific videos because they were among the most popular content on TikTok. Not everyone posting on the app looks or moves like that or has a closet full of trendy clothes.

The videos started playing in my head even when I wasn’t scrolling. Thus, after only a few weeks, I banished TikTok from my phone. Perhaps it was just a weird phase I went through in a relentlessly awful year.

Still, I’m mad at myself for falling prey once again to the idea that being “hot” is the ultimate achievement for women of all ages. For goodness’ sake, I worked at a feminist organization for 18 years and helped create content for a campaign promoting positive body images. Maybe that’s why I loved working on that project—because I was intimately familiar with the how the media exploit and even cultivate our personal insecurities.

Well into middle age, I haven’t really recovered from the sense that life would be better if I were more attractive. Instead, my fixations have simply shifted. Rather than hating on my big nose, my stubby legs, or my frizzy hair, now I’m more obsessed with my saggy neck, my stomach cellulite, or the gray in my hair.

As I try to escape this feeling of beauty inadequacy, the practices that work the best are spending less time looking in the mirror and waaaay less time scrolling through social media. When I’m moving my body as opposed to focusing on its reflection, I forget about my self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on social media—and Instagram is back on my phone. But these days I consciously concentrate on the accounts I have deemed worthy of my attention, and I do my best to avoid the content served up through ads or the search function.

My recommendation: Identify why and how you want to use social media and stay within those margins!