“Growing up, you just had these visions of your grown-up life mirroring what your life had been as a kid.”
Karen’s career has included almost 20 years of working in a variety of educational settings. Five years ago, she switched careers and became director of partnerships at a large business. She was laid off six months before this interview when the company downsized by some 80 employees. She is now trying to establish a consulting career. She is married to Michael, an attorney. They have one daughter, Kelley, 6.
We talk in the kitchen of her home. It is a small duplex (“we share a wall with our neighbor”) but neatly and attractively furnished. She talks, here, about adjusting to suddenly being unemployed.
My dad was an advertiser, had always made a nice chunk of money. Six kids. All of us went to Catholic grade school, all went to college, didn’t have to pay for college.Dad paid.
We had a nice house. It wasn’t fancy, but it was nice. I knew we were lucky back then.
What did I learn from my parents about money? Nothing. Nothing about managing money, nothing about planning ahead. I mean, I learned other things, but not like that practical stuff. My dad is creative. My dad is a risk-taker, or was a risk-taker. I don’t think he’s so much of a risk taker now, because he’s had some real failures, financially. He’s 72 and he can’t not work; he has to keep working.
Their life took a big turn for what, if I had been ten years older at the time, I could have helped them to avoid. But they made a really bad decision. My dad was unhappy in advertising, so he chose to leave that career behind, and they chose to open up a retail operation in Evanston. An environmentally-focused kind of thing like a Nature Conservancy, but on the local level. They sunk all their money into it, and it did okay at first, and then they tried a new venture, and that didn’t work, and then they were stuck. They were in this cycle where they were just throwing their money into this project, and it was not succeeding, and their retirement was dwindling, but they didn’t know how to get out of it. Finally, the business died, thankfully, but they were left with no retirement, nothing. So my dad started working at Home Depot.
Oh boy, that’s a tough one. How do I self-identify professionally? It’s funny that you ask that question, because I feel so much anxiety. A lot. I think as you get older, you keep thinking, “When am I going to be in a place where I’m satisfied professionally, where things are not so stressful, so full of anxiety all the time?” And it always comes down to money. It’s not about the work; it’s always about money.But what really, I think, feeds that anxiety is my own expectations of where I thought I would be at this age, and I’m not there. Not even close. Growing up, you just had these visions of your grown-up life mirroring what your life had been as a kid. We are among the first generation to not do better than our parents did. I definitely feel that.
[Last] Sunday morning, I was watching the news and not really watching it, kind of staring off. And I remember thinking to myself, I feel so insecure, like financially insecure. And the phone rings, and it’s my brother to tell me that my dad might be having a stroke, and I need to get to the hospital right now. And then I thought immediately of my parents. They have no security, nothing. If something were to happen to my dad, I don’t know what we would do. I don’t know what my parents would do. Someone would have to take them in, and who could do that? Certainly not me. And so the burden falls to the other siblings who can afford it, and then you feel like a failure. You can see the spiral, right?
I was sitting with him at the hospital two days ago. He was kind of staring off. I said, “You all right?” He’s like, “I just feel so stuck.”
I don’t know if I feel stuck. I feel like I’d love to be in a place where what I bring is allowed to flourish. Where I can be so creative and innovative and be in a place that draws upon all of my strengths, to take something really complex and make something happen. I would love to be able to make a difference. Be part of a place that has an identity, that’s doing good work, and that has a path upon which I can navigate to something and see myself there for a long time, you know? I’m too old to be thinking, “Okay, I’ll try this for five years and then I’ll do something else.” I think I’m past that age where it’s safe. Especially because we have nothing to fall back on. There’s no nest egg. It’s just been paycheck to paycheck
After I got my doctorate, I had thought, Okay, I have a doctorate now; I’m valuable. The rest of the world can see my value. But then I was one of the many who got laid off [from the business]. That was the moment where I realized, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel completely insecure. Even now, when I’m working on several consulting projects –all of the work is great, but I don’t know that I could continue as a consultant and feel secure. We’re still paycheck to paycheck around here. We’re not any better off than we were ten years ago.
I was saying to Michael, I feel like in order for us to see something change, we need to do something drastic, like really drastic. I really think we should sell the house. Plan a lifestyle where we live off of your income, solely on your income, and everything I do will be first to save for Kelley’s college and concurrently to pay down our debt, and we do that for three years. We could live in an apartment somewhere. And he just crumbled at the idea. Because it would be so devastating. I think he said, “I would just feel like such a failure. I wouldn’t know how to face people.” It’s a pride thing. And I understand it. But I’m much more optimistic than he is about it. I’m like, there are some really great places we can go and find that don’t need any work. Look around this house; everything here needs work.
It’s hard for Michael. It’s really hard for Micheal. Because the finance side of it is so unpredictable, he’s terrified about how to pay bills if the money isn’t a set amount every single month. How do you manage that? I haven’t paid the taxes yet; taxes are due at the end of the month. I haven’t paid those yet. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to be yet, so it’s going to be scary. We have this pot of money that will go away, bing. It’ll just go away. I think he’s terrified about what’s next.
I think it means failure to him. Absolute failure. Like going backwards again, continuing to go backwards and never moving forward, and he would be so embarrassed at the thought of going to live in some crappy apartment somewhere. But the reality is, right now there are lots of new condo constructions that are just sitting there, and nobody’s buying them because we’re not in a place in this country where people are doing that. You can go live in a brand new condo for two or three years, and it actually would be a nicer place than this. But he doesn’t see that, he just doesn’t see it. So I don’t know what to think about that.
What does Kelley understand of what’s going on?
Well. (Laughs) She said, “Mom, do you have your own company?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Are you the president of your own company?” I said, “Yes.” She went, “Whoa! Are we going to go to Hawaii?” I’m like, “No, we’re not going to go to Hawaii.”
The word president. Being the president of a company, she thinks, equals you must make a lot of money, and so we can go to Hawaii. Right. I feel bad about it. She is aware that we struggle financially. She’s not fearful. I don’t think we’ve gone that far with her. But I think she knows that I want to move, but we can’t afford it. She knows I want to sell this house; she knows I hate this house. We will be up in the bathroom trying to blow dry my hair, and the fuse will blow. Or there’s another leak over here that we can’t fix right now because it costs too much money. The central air is out.
Last summer we had no air conditioning. It was 100 degrees with a humidity index of whatever for a long time and we just had to suck it up. I said, “Kelley, it’s old school. Just like when I was a kid. We didn’t have central air ‘til we lived in this house.” She’s totally fine with that, because she doesn’t want to move. She likes this house.
We got this house for a really great price. Then we said, “Okay. We’ll be here for five years.” That was 14 years ago. Every so often we’ll say, “Okay, just another five more years, it’s just five more years.” We just keep rolling that five years over. And we laugh about it. We’re like, We don’t want much. We just don’t want to have to share a wall with somebody, and we’d like a backyard.
It would be a really nice teachable moment to be able to talk to her about how to weather it, but you feel so fragile, you know? You want everything to be fine. I don’t want her to have to worry. I’ve got three brothers who are all wealthy; they go on multiple trips every year. And every year the three of them go with my sister-in-law’s family to Aspen to ski. And every year, they always say, “Hey, would you like to come?” And every year we say no. We don’t have that kind of cash lying around. And so she always asks, “When are we going to get to go skiing?”
On what do you hang your hopes right now?
Well, I don’t know what to say about that. I keep saying this every year. I keep saying, this one thing is going to break or that one thing is going to go my way, and then it doesn’t. So rather than what I’m hopeful about, I think it’s really more, what am I thankful about right now?
I’m totally reenergized by people who are passionate about making the world a better place, and that gives me hope. But it doesn’t take away the fear or the insecurity. That’s ever-present. It’s always, always there. So I’m hopeful that I’ll be in an organization that I admire, doing work that is meaningful. And using my skills, my best strengths to do that work, and being recognized for it. That’s what I’m hopeful for. Will I find it? I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Is anger any part of how I feel about all this? Oh, sure. Absolutely. Being bitter about it because you make choices. You go to Catholic grade school and you say you want to make the world a better place, right? So you think that the value in somebody is placed in the good work, in helping others, in making the world a better place, leaving the world a better place than when you found it.
There’s value in it, but there’s no monetary value in that, and I think that was for me one of the biggest disappointments. You want to do good work and be creative and help people and help yourself. Just angry about where we place our value in this country. It really pisses me off that people who are just trying to do good work, people who are trying to help make our community better, they’re the first to be demonized and they’re the first to get cut, and they don’t get paid much. I just think that’s so wrong. I don’t understand how we can foster that in this country, but that’s what we do.
I think the anger comes, too, when I think of the lack of guidance that I got from my parents, partly because my mom never went to college. They never had to worry about money, because we always made money. My dad always made money. So nobody ever sat me down and said, “Here’s how it works.” Never. I’ve had to figure out how it works, and I figured it out way too late. I’m making up my own path, and it’s way, way harder like that.
But really? I think it’s really more me just not having a clue. It’s real easy to get angry at my parents. But the reality is, honestly? I can’t just say, you know, it’s my mom’s fault. (Laughs) I don’t think that’s fair. I think I just didn’t grow up for a long time, I just didn’t.
I’m just angry because I didn’t want to be the first generation that didn’t do as well as my parents. You know? What happened was totally out of my control, but now I’m stuck here. Still stuck.
So Michael comes down this morning. He sits right where you’re sitting, and I’m sitting here. He said, “God, I love watching Kelley wake up.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because she’ll wake up, her hair is all over the place and her eyes are little slits, and I’ll say, ‘How are your sleeps?’ And she always says, ‘Good.’”
She’s always got a little smile on her face. And she sleeps like a rock, this kid. She puts her thumb in her mouth, that’s it. For ten hours she’ll be completely out. And when she wakes up she’s like, bing! “It was good. Okay, what’s next?” Tail is wagging.
Michael said, “She doesn’t wake up and say, ‘I worried about money all night.’ She wakes up and says, ‘Good!’ I would love to be able to sleep like that. I would just love it.”
And I said, “I know. Can you imagine?”