COVID-19 related layoffs have impacted millions of American workers — and their kids.
“Mama, are you retired now?” my 5-year-old son asked as he climbed into my lap one day.
It wasn’t long after I was laid off from my job amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For a moment, I didn’t know how to respond. His only experience with an adult in his life not having a job was his retired grandparents.
I didn’t want to confuse or frighten him, but I also didn’t want to lie.
“No, I lost my job,” I replied, wrapping an arm around his small shoulders as tears filled his eyes and his bottom lip quivered.
Though he didn’t totally understand the concept of being laid off, he knew that losing something was bad. “But it’s okay! I’ll find another job, and in the meantime, I get to spend more time with you,” I reassured him as brightly as possible.
Like millions of Americans who’ve been laid off in recent months, I got the call from my supervisor and the head of human resources one morning in March, just after firing up my computer.
I’d been working from home for a couple of weeks, and was finally settling into a routine of trying to parent a small child while juggling Zoom meetings, editing stories, and planning future issues of the trade magazine I worked for.
I’d seen news of layoffs, particularly in the media sector, for weeks. My sister was temporarily laid off from her entertainment industry job, and I knew several other folks who’d either been let go or were enduring furloughs and pay cuts.
According to Pew Research Center, unemployment rates grew from 6.2 million in February 2020 to 20.5 million in May 2020.
These historic job loss numbers — unequaled since the Great Depression — have left many parents not only struggling to pay the bills, but also with how to make their children understand a loss of employment without frightening them.
While I’m certainly one of the lucky ones (I received a modest severance, I’m able to freelance, and I have a spouse who’s still employed full-time) there’s still a level of uncertainty and fear that comes with a job loss. And while I was processing those feelings, my child was experiencing his own version of these same worries.
One of the most important ways I have helped my son understand is by being honest with him.
While I don’t divulge my fears or concerns about losing my job, I’ve made it clear to him that I will not be returning to my previous employer, and that sometimes people are let go from their jobs through no fault of their own.
The key is to be open in an age-appropriate way — for my son, a simple explanation sufficed, but for older children, parents may need to provide additional details, such as explaining how cost-cutting measures lead to layoffs.
I immediately followed that honesty with plenty of reassurance, letting my son know there’s nothing to worry about. We will still live in the same house, he’ll still go to the same school, and we will be fine.
But at the same time, I wanted to remain realistic, telling him it was important that we’re careful with our money — a lesson I want to impart on him regardless of my employment status.
While it was tempting to spend our days playing and watching television, I knew maintaining a routine was critical to demonstrate to my son that this job loss didn’t change our family’s life.
Just as we had before, we maintained our usual schedule: wake-up time, meals, bedtime.
I kept my same daytime work hours, for the most part, using the time at my designated home workspace to write freelance pieces, apply for jobs, and fill out unemployment paperwork. And my son sits nearby, playing with toys or working on preschool projects.
Sure, we take more breaks than I would on the clock in a regular office, but that’s one of the perks of no longer having a boss.
This brings me to my final strategy for helping my son through this transition in our family’s life: seeing the upside to being downsized.
In my previous job, I often had to travel out of state for conferences and trade shows, and I sometimes had to work weekends and evenings for special events. Those days and hours away from home were always tough for my son, who struggled with my absence, often crying for me to come home during our daily FaceTime sessions.
Now, I explained, mom no longer has to go on work trips. When I travel, it’s most likely going to be with him and his dad.
And unlike with my previous job, I’m more able to turn off my work mode at the end of each day and week. Sure, I still check my email after hours, but not with the same compulsion fueled by fear of being out of the loop with my colleagues.
Losing my job wasn’t something I expected to face, and unemployment certainly wasn’t an issue I imagined I’d have to help my small child understand.
But helping him comprehend my layoff has allowed me to process the loss of my job, too.
As I offer him reassurance that we’ll be okay and point out the silver linings of this situation, I’m reminding myself of these truths, too.