My question is sadly not about fun sexy things or friendships but about my parents! Sort of. It’s: How do I tell my parents I got laid off?
The story is this. Today, my company “reorganized” and lopped off a bunch of positions, including mine. This was my first job out of college. I moved to a new city, and basically my whole identity was what I do, and now I am completely devastated and humiliated and it is awful. I spent about two hours staring at, like, my carpet fibers, then four hours just walking around the city trying to get tired enough to sleep. Which I may never! Because I got fired. Not a state you want to call your parents halfway across the country in.
But the thing is. The thing is, my parents were so proud, Captain Awkward! Like I don’t think my dad has ever said that he was proud of me until I got this job, moved out here, and then he was like “I am so proud of you!” In light of this I don’t know if I am actually able to get on the phone and be like, “Hi Dad, guess what happened?” Because, although all I want right now is to get my ass on a plane and run home for a hug, I don’t want to make my parents as sad as I know they’ll be. Or disappointed that they raised a tragic failure kid who gets fired.
Is there like, a script for this?
Okay I have some staring at carpet fibers to do!
A Now Full-Time Reader
Dear Full-Time Reader:
Let’s get one thing straight off the bat: You didn’t fail.
Getting laid off obviously FEELS like failing. No one likes being told “We did some thinking and we’ve decided we’d be much better off without you!” So those feelings of rejection you’re having are very real. But what happened is that your company planned poorly and hired people it didn’t really need, and there were a lot of meetings and spreadsheets that had little or nothing to do with you.
The truth is that the skills and qualities that landed you this job are still just as much with you as ever, and they will help you land and succeed at your next job. You are right at the very beginning of your career(s) (you’re probably going to have more than one in your life, because you are young and smart and versatile and the workplace is in flux). This is a temporary setback.
Now, about your parents. Most people reading your letter are thinking “Jeez, your parents love you and are probably much cooler about this whole thing than you’re giving them credit for – the sooner you tell them, the sooner they can surround you with love and support.” But some people read your letter and thought “Wow, I understand why that’s a difficult conversation.”
Bear with me for a sec, okay? I’m going to Cary Tennis it up in here.
You know how little kids love to hear the same story over and over again? They take comfort in repetition, and in knowing that if the characters follow certain steps that they will achieve the same outcomes every time. They will wear a story into the ground to make sure that it ends the same way, and if you deviate even one word they will know and jump all over you.
Adults are the same way. We live and die by stories we tell ourselves, and we want desperately for them to unfold in a predictable fashion. We do it on the macro-level, as a society. For example, one story that we like to tell over and over again is that “America is the land of opportunity and if you just work hard you’ll be successful!” And we do it on a micro-level, within ourselves and within our relationships. Our relationships are shared stories that we tell each other, like “Let’s get married, because I will never ever leave you.” “We are good parents, and you show us that we are good parents by being so great at things and successful all the time!“
The stories aren’t necessarily un-true! It’s this weird thing where we make them true by believing in them so hard. We act as if they are true, so they become true. And it is more helpful than unhelpful to believe that your own hard work and talent can win a successful and comfortable life for yourself and that you are the captain of your fate and the master of your soul. Just, sometimes, shit happens, and sometimes the flip side of the American! Dream! Success! narrative is that if you aren’t successful or things don’t go your way, it’s all your fault, and that can be a very unhelpful message for people who are struggling.
In your case, it looks like the family story is: “You’ve always been such a good student and a hard worker, of course you’ll be a success, look at the long line of successful stuff you’ve done already!”
I don’t want to project too much, but that was the story my parents and I had going in my academic life and early career out of college, and if and when something bad happened to me (or I failed at something) I got some strange and not-supportive reactions from them, not because they didn’t love me and want to support me, but because by failing (or having something bad happen to me) I was ruining the story we all were committed to, the one where they are good parents and I reflect that back to them by always being happy and successful and great at everything. They’d ask questions like “Why were you laid off?” or “Why didn’t you get the job?” or “Why did he break up with you?” which are theoretically helpful questions in a “Is there a lesson to be learned that you could apply next time?” sense, but really unhelpful when what you need from people who love you is to just say “That sucks, I’m sorry, is there anything I can do to help?” They were offering analysis. What I needed was empathy.
Even worse, sometimes they’d say “But I thought that you were doing so well, there!” or “I thought you liked it!” or “I thought the two of you were going to get married!” (Insert your own nails-on-a-chalkboard statement here). YEAH I THOUGHT SO TOO, OBVIOUSLY. What they were saying, really, when you boil it down, was “But you’re ruining the story! That’s not how it goes!” like a 4 year old who wants to hear Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo for the 407th time.
Human beings get very invested in their stories, and we can fuck it up really badly when we put our need for the story to run in a predictable way in front of the actual things are actually happening to actual people. This is pretty much how I look at religious objections to civil gay marriage. “But it says right here in our book that you can’t marry the person you love! Your desire for human rights is totally messing with our story!” (Yay New York!)
Okay, okay, back on topic. I think you should take a few days, stare at the carpet fibres, hang out with your friends, go for a bike ride or a walk, and make a basic plan for what you’re going to do next. Then I think you should call or email* your parents and say “Hey, I have some sad news – I got laid off last week.” If you start to hear those unhelpful “But why are you ruining our story?” questions, STOP. Take a deep breath. See it for what it is – it’s NOT about their love for you or pride in you – it’s just this human thing we do where we need certain stories to be true and react badly when life flips the script on us.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need from them, and to change the conversation. You can say: “I know you’re worried -I’m scared, too.” You can say “I’m really sad right now, and I need to come home for a few days, is that okay?” You can ask them if they’ve ever been fired, and how they bounced back. You can say “I don’t know how to answer that question, it wasn’t my decision.”
I think they are going to be much cooler and more helpful than you think they are. Be vulnerable, ask for what you need, and give them the benefit of the doubt and hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised (and employed again very soon).
P.S. Penelope Trunk has a really great post about what not to say to unemployed friends. Maybe you can make yourself a bingo card and see how many of these things your parents say when you tell them?
*Email is sometimes easier – it lets them handle the surprise and have their initial reaction in private and then give you a better, more measured response.