I don’t want to be a cubicle slave forever. The economy has slowed down, and people are hiring more consultants. This is an ideal time to start something on my own.” These were my words last year, when I decided to take off from my 9-to-5 job and start consulting while the market spiraled down looking for a bottom. My supportive husband and I made a pact that I would take a quarter off from work, give my dream a try, and set a future course of action based on my experience.
Encouraged by the positive atmosphere, I quit my job and started off as an independent architecture consultant. Everything worked out wonderfully at first. I was making more money. I loved my work, being my own boss, and building my own schedule for the day. I couldn’t have been happier. Then the banks started failing, and so did the real estate investors. I would send invoices only to be told that the company was in process of filing bankruptcy. Some would request extra time to pay off their payables, or pay them in installments. I still managed.
Then everything came a screeching halt. Almost every project I was working on was either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. By now there was no option of going back to my old job. The company I had worked for was affected by the same conditions as my independent consultancy, but at an epic proportion, and had cut down more than 50 percent of their staff. Every company that could hire an architect was in a similar boat. Though friends and ex-colleagues were kind enough to forward my resume to potential clients, and promised to call as soon as something worked out, the news was always disappointing.
Eventually, I gave up the thought of going back to work full-time and started focusing on making my transition from career woman to homemaker easier.
The transition began with frugality and optimism. The axe first fell on the monthly thousand-dollar bill of the Montessori pre-school for my little one. Now that mommy dearest was going to be home, unemployed, there was no need to pay someone else to take care of her. I braced myself for Monday morning, when the little one was likely to throw a tantrum, ask to be taken to school to see her friends, and play with toys she was familiar with, hoping that eventually she would get used to her new life with me.
Staying home sounds like an easy decision, but it was the hardest I had to make. I have always been a career-oriented person who had balanced motherhood, work, and/or studies successfully all this while. Everyone told me to cherish these moments with my daughter, and enjoy seeing her grow up. But deep down I was not at peace, knowing that I didn’t take a break from my career to be a mother. The guilt of taking this step purely for financial reasons bothered me. I have always maintained that the quantity of time you spend with doesn’t matter as much as the quality. Suddenly to think otherwise was difficult.
Not wanting to be one of those mothers who let the television babysit her children, I made a trip to the Lakeshore Learning center and bought a lot of educational toys that my daughter would have been exposed to in her preschool. A few coloring books, a few classics from Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss, and we were in business. A stickler for routine, I prepared a schedule for my stay-at-home period that included dedicated pre-school time every morning, walks around the neighborhood, chess, and homework help with the older one. I didn’t sideline my job search or my other creative pursuits, but I decided not to get depressed about things that I didn’t have any control over.
My older daughter joked about “homeschooling” the younger one, and how homeschooling has increased her chances of higher education by 12 percent. She herself took a break from golf, chess, and ceramic classes. It was not an unreserved decision on her part but she understood that it was not mommy, it was the economy forcing those decisions.
It’s been six long months already, and I am still trying to get back into architecture full time, but I have started enjoying our new life as well. Suddenly we have more time for each other, which means more (modest) vacations, and more visits to the park. When summer began, we bought a map of nearby trails, and made it a point to hike or bike every trail suitable for families with small children. We bake cookies, and intricate cakes, and prepared a whole stack of snacks for Diwali.
It’s not that I am just biding time until I find an opportunity to reenter my field. I have given in to my creative cravings, and have stayed un-gainfully employed. I published my first book “Transition,” a saga of an arranged marriage that happened during the technology boom. I learnt to day-trade securities, and kept my side of the books in black even in this downturn. It does take up my early mornings, but by the time the wifely and motherly duties call, I am available. I have started volunteering virtually as a Managing Editor of an environmental organization’s newsletter and it gives me a sense of accomplishment to see my work and talent appreciated.
Still, there is no way you can prepare for the emotional toll that losing your job takes on you, no matter how well you may be insulated financially. It takes time and effort to come to terms with the fact that your job has vanished, and that your layoff was just a business deal. Only after you are past the denial phase can you start working on recovery plans. I still harbor a little anger and resentment towards the people who cashed out the equity that didn’t exist on their homes, or those who bought homes they didn’t deserve and contributed to this downturn.
Someone I admire and respect shared his forced career transitions during the last recession/stagflation in the 80s. “I made a lot of money, earned respect from the people I worked with, but I was not happy. Even if it meant less money, buying my own pencils and erasers till the economy picked up, I jumped back in to architecture at the first chance once the industry started hiring again.” He ended up coming back to his first love, architecture, after working in jewelry design for almost a decade. I heard him then, but I listen to him now.
These might be hard times to endure, but when I look back a few years from now, I want to remember a positive learning experience. And I don’t think I will be taking the good things in life for granted anymore.
Meghana Joshi is an architect and writer living in Irvine, CA.
I’ve been trying different things during this time, expanding my horizons, working in consulting projects for small and large corporations. Recently started my own company.
—Nitha Nagubadi, 36, Marketing Consultant
Downsizing everything possible, including cheap pet food for my dog. Sorry dude!
—Manas Banarjee, 28, Systems Analyst
I switched from vodka back to gin.
—Rajiv Satyal, Humorist
Sold my gas guzzling SUV. Drive a Honda Fit now.
—Upendra Nath, 30, Financial Analyst
I have had to do two people’s jobs at work and take a 10% pay cut.
—Ananth Srivatsav Halvi, 31, Mechanical Engineer
When money’s ruling your brain: In public bathrooms you try to cram fresh wrapped rolls of toilet paper into your handbag. Okay, so I didn’t actually do it. (They wouldn’t fit.) But they would have if I’d been able to shell out an extra ten bucks for the bag with the wide compartments.
—Cristina Chopalli, old-enough-to-know-better, Writer
Confronting reality, putting cash-flow centre stage and reframing mental models is the key. Reading our ancient Upanishads offers profound insights for these difficult times.
—Cheenu Srinivasan, Strategy Advisor
Canceled my trip to India. Can’t take the chance of getting laid off. Someone’s always looking over your shoulder. Jobs are hard to hold onto right now. Good luck everyone!
—Vikram Reddy, 27, IT Professional
Live on Taco Bell and carpool.
—Lalit Kumar, 32, Management Consultant
Not graduating with fear of no job! Gonna stay in school and do a Ph.D.
—Amit Bhargava, 25, Student
Our annual increment was reduced to 10% from the usual 30%. If I had got it, I would have spent more, of course. Who knows, I would have even bought a car! At one point, it looked like I would lose my job. The rumours really frightened me! A major contract was shelved by the company.However, we got a few smaller ones later and our jobs got saved.
—Name withheld, Financial Research
When you draw a short, black line on a brilliant white sheet, the black line is all you can see; when a longer, black line appears elsewhere on the sheet, this short black one is no longer apparent … That’s how we looked at the challenges of recession ’09 … with each longer black line, the one that was earlier there disappeared. Let’s be happy that the short black line is now no longer huge and looming before us.
—Prabha and Harsha Koda, Graphic Designers.