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Reader question #66: How do I tell my parents I’ve been laid off?

Skywriting spells out "You Didn't Fail!"Captain Awkward!

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!

Thanks,
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.

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18 comments
  1. Shiyiya said:

    …I could have SWORN the kid’s name in that story was rikki tikki tembo no sa rembo chari bari buchi pip peri pembo. But perhaps this is understandable as I haven’t read it since elementary school.

    • JenniferP said:

      I think I knew it as Rikki-tikki, not Tikki-tikki also, but I trusted Wikipedia (perhaps incorrectly?)

      • Shiyiya said:

        The book on amazon appears to be Tikki tikki! I am bemused. It sounds better as rikki tikki, anyway :P

      • Noelle said:

        There’s a Jungle Books story called Rikki-Tikki-Tavi about a mongoose and a cobra. :)

        • JenniferP said:

          That was my favorite story as a kid, I swear. Even though cobras: terrifying.

  2. CommanderLogic said:

    The Captain delivers, as always, and I sincerely hope your parents are as sweet and supportive as you deserve, and that you bounce back from this layoff with a quickness.

    You know your parents and your family Stories better than we do, so while you may be bracing for “What did you/I/we do WRONG to bring this horror upon us!?!” you might also be bracing for “Oh, honey, sugar baby, you can move home if you need to! Why don’t we come up and fix everything?” Which is what tends to happen in LogicFamily if the FIX-IT! impulse is left unchecked.

    In which case, you may want to have at hand a list of things you actually want your parents to help you with so that they feel that they are helping. Not all monetary things, though of course you may want to ease the way for them by saying, “I don’t need any money, and I’m going to do my damnedest to get another job before I do.” But “Could you just send me a box of [favorite cookie or treat]?” makes everyone feel better. You get treats, parents get to feel like they’ve participated, everyone wins.

    True story, I have called my mom in times of trial and asked her to tell me that I am good and that she is proud of me. She always, ALWAYS tells me that I am great and she could not be prouder of me. Even when I got fired. Even when I bailed on a business plan.

    Commander: Mom? I don’t need advice, but could you please tell me that I’m good?
    MomLogic: You are SO good! You’re amazing!
    Commander: Is everything going to be okay?
    MomLogic: It will be great!
    Commander: Thank you! That makes me feel much better. *Feels better*
    MomLogic: *beams with the knowledge that she has Fixed It*

    We are a straightforward bunch, we Logics.

  3. denelian said:

    i now want to be a Logic…

    i… i do not have anything advice-wise. i’ve spent most of life trying to overcome anatomy and disease, so ANY minor accomplishment was met with giant cheers, and ANY set-back with a hail of “those dirty bastards” and “it’s not your fault you can’t do X, and the knew that when, so what’s the problem? we can sue!” [i don't sue. it's A Thing. but my family tells me to sue someone at LEAST once a month]. so i haven’t been in that particular permeation of the “i have job” dance. i can see how it would SUCK, and you have my empathy for that.

    but i HAVE to say – you DID NOT GET FIRED!!! there’s a WORLD of difference. getting fired usually stems from a problem one has created [or committed]; being laid off stems from SOMEONE ELSE’S problem. and that difference is something to, possibly, subtly point up when you *do* get around to telling your parents. in a “hey, so my company somehow screwed up so i got laid off” fashion, FIRMLY pinning the blame elsewhere.

    i mean, it’s a thing people do anyway [we all of us like to NOT blame ourselves, and it's damned hard to say "it's my fault" - but when it REALLY ISN'T our fault, we should celebrate that fact. if only to keep ourselves from killing the person whose fault it is, maybe]

    also: this is ok. it happens. i’ve been laid off [and fired. and other things] and it happens to EVERYONE. [except, apparantly, my dad, but he cheated by quiting as soon as he heard rumors of lay-offs.] and given that it WASN’T your fault, you can expect a glowing letter of recommendation, which will help you get a better job at a better place that understands how awesome you are and will treat you much better, although NO job will ever treat you as wonderfully as you deserve, because if they did they’d go broke just trying to approximate your worth every month in paycheck form, which is literally impossible to do because, as an Awesome Human, you are quite literally priceless and even Mastercard can’t pay for that!

    i don’t know your field, so i can’t give any specific ideas, but this may be a time when you take stock and ask yourself “do i REALLY need to work for someone else?” if you’re a lawyer, maybe you can take your own cases; if you’re an engineer, maybe you can take your own projects – etc etc. or maybe this is a time to go back to school and get even MORE degrees [let me tell you - if i can pull it off, i'm gonna die with at LEAST a dozen LEGITIMATE Ph.Ds. at LEAST. but i love school]. or maybe it’s time to look into a different application of what you do. go free-lance. go contractor. etc.

    if you’re in or near Columbus [Ohio], and need some small amounts of money to tide you over between now and when you get a new job, email me – i’m disabled, i’m FINALLY get SSDI, and so i can afford to pay for some help [erm. not to call you "hired help" - but i need help, so i'm looking for people who need help the other way. if that makes sense]. it’s long odds that you ARE in the area, but i thought i’d throw that out there :) it’s denelian1 at gmail dot com

    and i’m now going to hit post before this book turns into a trilogy…

    • denelian said:

      no edit function – that should read: ” so i haven’t been in that particular permeation of the “i have no job!” dance

  4. Emma said:

    Dear FullTime Reader — I thought a mom’s perspective might be helpful, while knowing full well that every relationship is different. My daughter is a recent law school graduate and I was SO proud of her for accomplishing this. She got an okay job shortly after passing the bar working in a field she was dedicated to — and it was awful. Really awful. It took her six months to deal with the awful and to finally leave the job. I was proud of her for leaving. It took another year and a half to get another full time job (with lots of cool, intense, projects in between). And each time — I was proud of her. Partly because of what she accomplished — and partly because of who she ‘be’. And even if she decided to leave the professional world, and her passionate work behind, and make cheese on a goat farm (like her mom did for a while) I’d still love her and be proud of her and I will always always want to be there for her, to listen, to advise, to laugh, etc etc etc.

    One thing she and I have had to learn is how to be adults together, while still being a mom and a daughter. Sometimes it works real well, sometimes not so much. But the foundation of love and respect (which it seems you have) makes it work over time. Sometimes we’re cranky, sometimes not. We teach each other what is/isn’t okay. Trust your parents, trust yourself — it won’t be perfect, but it’ll be good enough. And when you engage in whatever is next — they’ll still love and be proud of you and your new story, that is always changing, because you are too.

    Captain and Commander — I adore you both! Your posts make my day :-)

    • JenniferP said:

      You seem like such a great mom, thanks for your comforting words!

  5. Lo said:

    I went through something sort of similar recently. I’ve always been really focused on academic success (graduated valedictorian from high school and summa cum laude from a Prestigious University), but when I applied to grad school, I didn’t get in anywhere, not even my “safety schools.”

    The way I handled breaking the news to my parents, which turned out to be pretty decent, was to text them, “Hey, it’s not 100% certain yet, but it looks like I’m probably not going to get into any grad schools.” That let them get used to the idea that it might not happen. Then, a few days later, when the one rejection letter I hadn’t gotten yet really did arrive, I texted them again. By the time we had the actual phone conversation a few days after that, they weren’t totally freaked out anymore.

    Their reaction still wasn’t optimal, but it wasn’t awful either (analysis instead of empathy describes it well). If I had just called them up immediately, I would have had to hear their first reactions, which probably would have been less moderate. Plus I would have had to explain it over and over to my mom and then separately to my dad, and answer the same questions, and that would just have been too draining.

    So I guess my bit of practical advice would be to text or email them first before you actually talk to them on the phone. And if you feel you could tell a little white lie, maybe even say, “They’re starting to lay people off at my work, I might be next,” and then a few days later tell them you did get laid off.

    • I totally agree with this … a little white lie to plant the seeds of “this might happen” could go a long way.

      And as someone who was also recently downsized, you were NOT fired, and it is NOT your fault.

      Best wishes!

  6. nadyezhda said:

    Ok, first of all, stupid reply field ate my first awesome reply. In short though, you weren’t fired, you were laid off, and there’s an important distinction. Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Termination_of_employment IF we are the stories we tell, then practice saying to the next person that it’s relevant for, “Things changed, the company downsized, I got laid off.” Which is entirely true! I was laid off from my first Real Job after college which I had looked long and hard for, since it was in the Field I Cared About in a Region I Cared About, and then 9/11 happened, and everyone turned to terrorism, and the money went away and we all got laid off. It sucked. I remember being worried that i was going to prove my parents right that I couldn’t hack it in the Big City and and and…but I just worked hard to find the next thing and it worked out ok. These are good times to learn about yourself and to learn that you’re not going to crumble under pressure. Hang in there and good luck!

  7. I don’t disagree with those who said you didn’t really fail. But it’s also important to remember: it’s OK to fail. If you had gotten fired from your job for accidentally erasing some executive’s hard drive, well, you’d have failed, in a way. But you’d still be you, with all your skills and abilities and motivations.

    You can survive failure. Whether or not this qualifies is for you to decide. But failure can’t break you. The human condition is a bit brown in spots, but it’s better than THAT.

    • JenniferP said:

      Right – you didn’t fail this time, but guess what? YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL AT STUFF, AND IT’S OKAY.

  8. Kathryn Rebecca said:

    I would also like to put in that getting laid off is not failing. When I graduated college, I went to law school, and after a semester I realized a) I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer and b) I was probably going to fail out anyway because my first semester grades sucked. So I dropped out of law school. I quit, which is something you’re Not Supposed To Do in my family. I was terrified to tell my parents, because I thought they would be so disappointed in me, and because for years, everyone had been telling me what a great lawyer I’d be and how they couldn’t wait to see how I’d Change The World. But quitting turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in my life. It was liberating. I got out of doing something I didn’t want to do, and when it came down to it, everyone supported me in that. When I finally got the courage to tell my parents, they were happy that I was not going to stay in a field doing something I didn’t want to do. So after about a year, when I decided I wanted to go back to psychology, I applied to grad schools; I had a whole plan mapped out. And I didn’t get accepted to any schools. (And of course, felt like a failure again.) So I adjusted the plan again, and applied the following year. I got in this time, and I’ll be starting my new program in two months.

    I’m not suggesting you should completely change what you want to do- if you’re passionate about this field, I would imagine there would be other opportunities for you. You just need to tweak your plan a little. Be depressed, stare at the carpet fibers for a bit, and then regroup and make a new plan and work toward your next goal. And if that doesn’t work out, do it again. For me, I sometimes wish I’d just stuck with law school and toughed it out. Or that I would’ve gotten into a program last year. But I don’t think these intervening years have been a waste; they’ve helped me work through other issues and experience things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

    So in short, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming!

  9. wondering said:

    But does one have to inform one’s parents immediately? Maybe it was because I was the oldest child in a very large family (so there were still lots of littles and teens to distract from my adventures when I struck out on my own), but that really wouldn’t be my first reaction. I don’t call up to tell them that I’m ill, that I’m seeing someone, that I’m not seeing someone, or, for that matter, that I got laid off. That’s not to say that we don’t talk on the phone, but a month can easily go by without us actually speaking.

    When I got laid off from my first awesome job (as opposed to leaving the previous crappier jobs), I went through the same depression and doldrums as everyone does. But after a few days of pampering myself, I made a plan, got a list of ALL (and I do mean all, from start-up to ginormo corp) the companies in my field and started emailing inquiries. I had to send at least 5 emails a day. It made me feel like I was being productive and taking charge (and frankly, took about 20 mins out of the day – I made a form email that I changed up slightly for each company) and actually resulted in some contract work that lasted until I got re-hired to other awesome job at same company. It really wasn’t about me – they just hit a rough patch and did what they had to do to survive. When things got better and I inquired, there was a related opening. And eventually, when my first awesome job became something they could do again, I got my old job back! Aannnyyywaaay, what I mean to say is that a month after taking charge and sending emails and having conversations with HR folks, I got accustomed to not having a job, so when I did get around to telling mom on the phone, the shock value had worn off for me. So when parents went into *shock” mood, it didn’t distress me and I was able to soothe their concerns.

  10. Veronica said:

    From the tone of the letter, I’m going to guess you’re fairly young, Full-Time Reader? Early twenties to mid-twenties, maybe? My age. It’s a tough age. Your parents are still some of your most important influences at a time where you’re becoming increasingly aware of how much bigger the world is than the sphere they kept you in. And that’s some heavy shit for your parents to swallow, since they now have to watch you go off and make your own choices and tell themselves they’ve done their job (which is a bunch of drivel, since when did any parent ever stop feeling responsible once the kid turned eighteen?).

    It wasn’t until very recently that I realized I needed to stand up to my mother on certain issues and make it clear I had to make my own choices. In part because it took me years to realize that her pressuring me to go back to school and get a degree was intertwined with her desire to see her children succeed where she feels she did not. She feels she wound up repeating her mother’s mistakes (shouldn’t have married that man, shouldn’t have wound up a single mother, shouldn’t have gotten that degree, shouldn’t have lost that last job, etc, etc) and doesn’t want to think the mistakes she made have created a foregone conclusion for her own children. When I finally came to this realization, I found it a lot easier to talk to her – because I was coming from a place of compassion and understanding, rather than outright frustration.

    We have a bad tendency in American culture to want answers and assume there must be one (I’m assuming American because of the economic implications of lay-offs, sorry if you are not, letter writer). Why so-and-so didn’t go as far as we thought they would, why they failed where so many others succeeded, why, why, why. We spend a lot of time mulling about how this must have been a failure of the parents or some other envirnomental impact that got us to this place. We have very narrow definitions of success and if you don’t fit into them, you get written off, and your parents can sometimes be unintentional accessories to that because that’s how they’ve been raised to think and judge. What I’m trying to say is – when you feel your parents are judging or pressuring you, sometimes they are giving you a window into their own fears and insecurities as parents. Sometimes you have to remind them that there are some things beyond even their control, beyond yours, and it’s not so important that they raised a child who faithfully completed every step of the Standard Quota of Success as much as one who can fall on their face and still get back up. Some people get to where they’re going faster than others. That doesn’t mean they’re better or smarter or that you’re more or less qualified. And just because you got laid off (or even fired! I once got fired, Full-Time Reader!) doesn’t mean you OR your parents screwed up somewhere.

    Shit happens. Adulthood isn’t about being able to control the world around you so much as it is learning to control your reactions to the world. Your parents sometimes need to be reminded of this – so don’t be afraid to tell them that. Remind them that while you understand they may be upset, you need their disappoint to stand *with* you and not to be directed at you. Remind that sometimes NOBODY is to blame and this is just the way life is, and while they’re probably still feel guilty and blame-y, well, that really isn’t solving anything, right?

    Also, I have to say – take some time to get yourself together, but don’t beat yourself up at the thought that you might make them “sad” or “upset.” I mean, there’s a certain amount of discretion and consideration to be asked of each other, but really? Sometimes that’s part of the family care package. We feel each other’s victories and failures. That’s what family is. And, hey, maybe they’ll surprise you. Maybe the only thing they’ll want to do is hug you back.

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