How would you and your family cope if the main breadwinner in the house was made redundant? Bestselling Irish author Cathy Kelly writes for Her.ie:
Ask any woman ‘who’ she is and she’s likely to have a list as long as your arm: mother, sister, friend, yoga fan, chocoholic, cancer survivor, best aunt in the world.
We define ourselves in so many ways and by what we mean to other people. What we do for a living, whether it’s bringing up the next generation at home or going out to work is a huge part of what we are – but it’s rarely how we define ourselves.
Except for men, their job often IS how they define themselves. And when they lose that job, their sense of self-worth takes an enormous beating.
In a time of recession when more and more people are being made redundant or when companies are simply folding, hundreds of thousands of men and women have lost their jobs.
It’s a nightmare scenario from the point of basic family survival – how can you put food on the table for your family or pay your rent or mortgage when you’ve no job?
But apart from all these massive considerations, losing your job has another enormous impact on your psyche: the who you are part of you.
And if that same who you are part has been largely defined by your job, without it, you can easily feel as if you are nothing.
Even without the trauma of financial problems, redundancy has an emasculating effect on many men – and can devastate home life because the once-happy and empowered man now feels he has lost everything. Throw in the anger a person feels at having lost their job, and perhaps their partner’s anger at feeling she now has to do everything – housework and being the only breadwinner – and you can have a recipe for disaster.
It’s this scenario that faces heroine Frankie from my latest novel, The Honey Queen. This is my fourteenth novel and I love exploring different aspects of human life. In a way, I like to think that being a novelist is like being a psychologist. You spend your life looking at people, seeing what makes them tick, understanding what has formed their choices and wondering ‘what if such and such happened…?’
A friend who is a psychologist says that people say anxiously to her at parties: ‘I suppose you’re analysing me now.’
Every writer is the same – but we try to be subtle about the analysing. And I never use real people in novels – I simply couldn’t. I can make characters I invent do what I want them to do in a way I could never do with real people.
So in order to work on a particular aspect of a story, I research. And what I found about male redundancy showed me how it can simply shatter families.
Frankie is a go-getting human resources director with an architect husband, Seth, who has been made redundant from the company he’s worked with for the past fifteen years. Apart from the feelings of betrayal he has about being let go in the first place, he is utterly emasculated. With their kids grown, he and Frankie had made a decision to buy an old, decrepit house to do up and they were counting on two salaries to do it. Unlike many other people, they will still manage to pay the mortgage but only just and the chance of spending money on their wreck of a house is now gone.
Losing his job means that Seth is at home all day while his wife works, she is the breadwinner and worse, he is no good at being handyman in their wreck of a home. They live in the basement and he daily looks at the dreadful rooms upstairs, feeling useless.
He is depressed because he feels he’s failing Frankie by not having a job and, being in his mid-fifties, he doesn’t think there’s ever going to be another job for him.
Meanwhile, Frankie can barely cope with having her once-vibrant husband turned into this depressed shell. She doesn’t mean to resent the fact that he’s lost his job but somehow, she does.
She also thinks of how she’d behave if she lost her job and she thinks she’d be far more resilient. She’d also do all the housework and somehow, Seth isn’t the best at that, either.
It’s a situation that many women are familiar with: both dealing with the pressure of being the family bread-winner, worrying over how they are going to keep paying mortgage/rent/bills and dealing with their own feelings in respect to having a redundant spouse.
As Frankie finds out, it’s hard to know what’s going on in her husband’s head. Seth was always so positive and energetic, but now, he’s changed utterly. And Frankie is shocked at her reaction to this change.
She always worked so it wasn’t as if Seth was ever the only breadwinner but when a man loses his job, his partner’s reaction to it is very complex.
Think of the Cinderella Complex – the notion that men can take care of us, and our children. Even the most un-Cinderella-like woman has a notion in the back of her head about her partner being able to make the money if she is going to leave work to bring up their children.
With him not working, this option suddenly disappears and sometimes, women feel a kind of shame that their man is no longer the hunter-gatherer evolution has programmed him to be. And he certainly feels that shame too.
So what do you do and what did Frankie do?
If I tell you what Frankie did, it will ruin the book for you! But the advice on redundancy is a lot like the advice for all of life’s problems: communication.
Don’t expect your redundant partner to leap into the housework instantly. Yes, that might be what YOU would do, but he’s just been battered by gale force winds.
Men are more likely to hide their feelings, so try to sit down and talk about it all. Talk to your own friends about how you feel because you can’t bottle up all this stress, either.
Try to remember that he may lose his confidence utterly and he may easily become depressed.
So talk. Don’t play the blame game. It’s nobody’s fault this has happened but if you want to keep happiness in your home, you need to talk – for your own sake, for your spouse’s sake and for the children’s sake. There are many storylines in The Honey Queen but for Frankie and Seth, it’s about surviving redundancy.
Cathy Kelly’s fourteenth novel ‘The Honey Queen’ is out now, and we’ve got five copies to give away. To win one, enter here. Good luck!