On being unemployed

Before I moved to America I had been unemployed only once, for a couple of months between finishing my BA and getting a job in a London bookshop. It was 1996 and it felt like it was taking forever. This time around, things are more complicated.

First there’s the academic year problem. Most teaching work you can get starts in September – though you can occasionally pick up a semester starting in January. By the time I got my work permit, it was the end of November and too late to start looking for January teaching. But I emailed around and I had an interview and I found some work within my specialism, at a university that’s only 20 minutes away from our apartment.

Which brings me to the second complication: pregnancy. Americans don’t really do maternity leave, at least not in a way that is recognisable to Europeans. The standard leave here is three months, and employers who really want to make a claim for their family friendliness say things like: ‘We’ll give you a whole semester off teaching! Though of course you’ll still come in for meetings,’ and ‘As you continue to fly around the US on a gruelling schedule of consulting work despite having a 3-month old baby at home in a nursery, we will pay for your breastmilk to be FedExed home!’

Anyway, so the upshot was that Nameless University could not countenance any work-around I proposed to accommodate the fact that I was due to give birth mid-semester, such as, you know, someone else taking over and covering my classes in a concept that we might call ‘maternity cover’. Because this would be ‘too disruptive’ for their students. However, it was proposed in all seriousness that I could teach the courses in January instead, with no thought of whether this would be ‘too disruptive’ for my two month old child.  I declined, and Nameless University and I parted ways.

This left me visibly pregnant, looking for short-term work and pestering temp agencies who appear to have very little work to offer. Unemployment is 9.2% in Illinois currently and I am not the only person looking for an administrative job. Indeed, my British CV resume looks pretty eccentric, what with my lack of GPA (grade point average) for school and university, my weird career history involving five years working for the Government before starting graduate study, and the fact that I speak French and German in an environment where ‘bilingual secretary’ always means ‘must speak Spanish’.

So I’m out of work. This is meant to be OK for an academic, because you just get on with your research, which, since it is your life’s great vocation, you are supposed to burn to do at all hours whether you are being paid to do it or not. And I have done some: so far this year I’ve written two longish articles, given three conference papers, revised my book and researched another book chapter. But I could, to be honest, have done much more, if I didn’t find unemployment so demoralising.

In a strange way the problem is both that it’s so time-limited and that it’s open-ended. I have around 12 weeks to go now until I give birth, and at any time a temp agency could call me and offer me work for the next day – so it’s hard to make clear plans. But it’s also not like a sabbatical, or proper maternity leave, where I’d know what job I was going back to. I might never get an academic job again. So when I look into the future I can’t visualise a benevolent Head of Department inquiring about how I’ve been spending my time and patting me on the back for my good publications – all I can think of is an interviewing committee looking at a list of them and saying: ‘Well, she hasn’t written as much as Dr. Y. And anyway, have you seen what this research is supposed to be about? What an obscure topic/ what a hackneyed approach/ what a flimsy excuse for a research finding. Who cares?’ For much of the year it’s been hard to get any kind of response out of anyone to anything I’ve sent them: publishers, journal editors, former colleagues all have more pressing things to do than email an out-of-work researcher. It’s hard to escape the thought that you should stop bothering them, give up trying to progress your academic career by the force of will alone, and turn on Netflix instead.

The benefit of Netflix, you see, is that it’s cheap. And when you’re unemployed it is either impossible or reckless to spend money filling your unemployed time, even though this would be, otherwise, the perfect opportunity to go on endless shopping expeditions, take yourself out for lunch, go to theatre matinées and do an intensive German course (which you’d have to abandon if you got a temp job next week). It annoys me that nowhere now, either in Britain or the US, seems to offer discounted rates for unemployed people, though students get into cinemas and museums for half price.  But of course the biggest difference between being unemployed in Britain and being unemployed as an expat is that I’m a non-resident alien, entitled to no state support.

It’s a cliché but the worst thing about being out of work, at least for me, is that it’s hard to see the point in daily life. It makes no difference to anyone whether you get out of bed in the morning. You don’t have even the smallest satisfaction of helping people: at least in my very tedious temp jobs I was able to give out some information somebody wanted, or get them their coffee, or relieve them of the filing they didn’t want to do. Back when I was teaching I had genuine knowledge to communicate to students; I could help them to understand difficult ideas, give them confidence in their own contributions, and advise them on how to write a better essay next time. Without those motivations I feel aimless, of negligible value, barely a person. But I know I just have to be patient: in three months I won’t be unemployed, but the mother of a tiny baby who will definitely care, quite a lot, whether I get out of bed.

In the meantime, I need to get on with writing that book chapter.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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5 Responses to On being unemployed

  1. Expat Mum says:

    Hang in there! Pregnancy does suck in this country, as far as the work world is concerned. Just use the time to work on the book because believe me, when the little one comes along you’ll barely have time to brush your teeth!

    • Thanks! You are right, of course, that I should be making good use of the time I have, and I’ve been trying to use that thought to spur me on a bit today. Chapter plan duly written.

  2. AHLondon says:

    I’ve been this. I’ve seen this. It is tough, but mostly only in your head. Our generation is trained to think of doing things in the real world. Somehow, we are supposed to be connected to the rat race or ‘who cares if we get up in the morning?’ One of the hardest parts of early motherhood for us to accept is not doing real world stuff and significantly, not seeing the product of our work. As you’ve found, its a lot harder than it sounds–and you are only pregnant.
    What I was told, and what I passed on, is that early motherhood is great for planning. You can’t do much outside, but you can spend a lot of time thinking about your 5, 10, and 20 year horizon. You can do some foundation work. All sorts of things are possible, just not right now.

    As for right now, I’m pretty sure your husband cares whether you get up in the morning. He likes you. He doesn’t want to see you depressed. And I think you underestimate this blog. Many blogs by moms are mommy blogs, posts about product reviews and feeding schedules, and wasn’t that adorable stories. That is great and entertaining, but it is harder to write more abstract posts about, well this sort of stuff: pregnancy leaves you in limbo, uncertain. Actually, that is not precisely it. It is harder to reach beyond personal anecdote to the foundation theme. I think you can do that about expat life and motherhood. And that could help out loads of people.

    Oh, and keep writing ‘chapter plans’ for everything. Organization is your friend.

  3. jane says:

    i think getting up in the morning is way overrated

  4. I Am 40 Years Of Age, Here In North Eastern Texas, And I Am So Unemployed! As A Matter Of Fact, I Don’t Have ANY Sort Of A Job History At All! Not ANY Sort Of A Job History! I Have Lived Here In North Eastern Texas Two Different Times Now, And I Have Not Gotten ANY Job Yet! I Am From The Upper Mid West, Originally, And I Remain Unemployed!

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