Marriage: Surviving Unemployment Together

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The author on her wedding day, August, 1987 Courtesy of Lisen Stromberg

Nearly 24 years ago, I married my college sweetheart. I didn’t realize then that the thing I loved most about Bill, his entrepreneurial spirit, would be an ongoing source of both tremendous excitement and deep anxiety. It took the Great Recession for me to understand that while all good plans and dreams can be altered by forces far greater than our singular selves, it is what we do in these times of disruption that marks who we are. My husband? During the months he was between jobs, I discovered this: he likes to clean out the garage.

After getting our master’s degrees in business, Bill and I landed in Silicon Valley during the first wave of the technology boom. I worked in marketing and advertising. He found a job at a startup that was soon bought by Cisco Systems. He stayed on and helped Cisco build its wireless-networking business. Then, finally, he left to go to another startup, this time as CEO. He managed to sell that company and take some time off.

We had three young children, a nice house in Palo Alto, and a sense that it was all still ahead of us. We were living the American Dream. We traveled. We volunteered. We bought art. We were so busy accumulating, we didn’t notice that even our garage was filled to overflowing. That, it seemed, was how life was supposed to be.

Bill soon joined Google to help it build a new business. He wouldn’t have the rush of working at a startup, but that was OK; stability had its upside. He’d be home for dinner and could even coach the kids’ sports teams. Plus, he loved the energy and intelligence of his often much younger co-workers.

And then the Great Recession hit.

We watched as friends, family, and the country as a whole lost their jobs, their homes, their entire sense of stability. We thought we were immune. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: wasn’t Silicon Valley on fire again? But the downturn hurt everyone, including high-flying technology companies. Google reorganized, and soon the job Bill was hired to do became less than exciting. He decided to take a risk and leave with no job in hand.

I was anxious. Was he crazy? The world was imploding. And he wasn’t getting any younger. Sure, if you were a 20-something wunderkind who’d invented the next great social-media company, the world was your oyster; they might even make a movie about your life. But this town loves its youth. What if he couldn’t find something suitable?

For months he didn’t. We were eating into our depleted savings. I worried about college, the mortgage, our retirement. Suddenly I regretted leaving my full-time job to focus on our family. I had dreamed of a writing career, but maybe I should have been job hunting instead. Our future didn’t seem as glittering anymore.

But my intrepid husband didn’t buckle under the strain. Instead, he decided it was a great time to do a little spring cleaning. “Hey, honey,” he said one morning after we’d gotten the kids to school. “We’ve got too much stuff. Let’s have a yard sale.”

Now, there are many things I want to do with my time, but spending it picking through my children’s old videos, outgrown clothes, and little used toys is not one of them. But he was restless. He needed something to keep him busy. I was beginning to get an inkling of what retirement would be like.

“Come on,” he urged. “It’ll be fun.”

And so we spent the next few days sorting, organizing, purging. I couldn’t believe the things I found that once had been lost: letters from long-ago friends, my oldest child’s favorite stuffed bear, a picture of an angel that had hung above my childhood bed. It was cathartic. It began a process of letting go that allowed old baggage—literally and figuratively—to be weeded from our lives. Soon we found we had changed to match the world around us. We needed less and, better still, wanted less. We actually liked this “new normal.”

After a search that took nearly six months, Bill found his dream job at a green-technology startup. Meanwhile, I have committed to my writing career. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the company Bill joined is located two hours away, and we, like many couples across this country, are making the best we can out of a nonoptimal situation. I have learned that in marriage, as in life, you can’t take anything for granted. When we finally cleared out all the stuff, what was left was simply one man and one woman, together. Now we are beginning to plan for retirement again. When it finally happens, I think we’ll be ready.