My family and I began to experience a time of turbulence last March when I learned that my contract at the National Museum of Ireland wasn’t going to be renewed. On paper, it shouldn’t have come as a shock – five years ago I signed a contract that said I was being employed on a fixed-term basis, for five years. But in total I’d been there for almost eight years, working on the same project, and I’d been convinced for various reasons that the position should never have been for just five years and that it would be saved.
But it wasn’t and I got my perfunctory “thank you for your service” letter in the post to confirm.
That evening I sat on the stairs and cried my eyes out. At that point it wasn’t for the fear of unemployment, or worry about the mortgage, or even how we were going to feed and clothe kids (I was the breadwinner then).
It was the awful feeling of loss.
My poor little babies howled back at me from the other side of the sitting room door, wondering what on earth was happening to me, until my partner had to let them out to me on the stairs. I cuddled them in my lap and tried to react coherently to the confusion. My four-year-old asked if I was sad that I didn’t have a meeting, and tried to reassure me she and me could have a meeting instead.
Talking to my sister later about it, I said that the confirmation of the job loss felt almost like grief. She pointed it that it was indeed a little bereavement. This was the emotional side of redundancy, as outlined on the Surviving Redundancy website. I was losing part of me that for nearly eight years had got copious levels of my passion, energy, knowledge, belief and care bestowed in it.
I had loved my work.
It’s not that it hadn’t been beset with challenges. It kept me away from my kids when they came along. There were days where I felt overwhelmed at the enormity of the project. And there were days where time-honoured systems meant I felt like I was in that scene in Alice in Wonderland (the 1951 movie) where everyone tries to dry off after the flood of Alice’s tears by cheerfully running in a circle in the tide wash.
That is to say, it was often infuriatingly frustrating.
But at all times I was appreciative of the privilege at getting to work there. I was the archaeologist for the Dublin excavations, the resulting project of the Wood Quay and nearby excavations by the National Museum in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was mostly dug before I was even born, yet I’d grown up in the eighties knowing about it. It was the sort of archaeology I would never get to dig first hand myself, and here I was getting to re-excavate its collected evidence to write its stratigraphic reports. I was also getting to write a thesis on its woodturned artefacts. This was wonderful. Returning to Dublin on Sunday evenings after a weekend away, I never went by Collins Barracks on the quays without waving happily in at the darkened windows and whooping “see you tomorrow, museum!”
(I’m a whooping kind of person.)
The job was arguably a worthwhile one, and its purpose hasn’t gone away. Justine McCarthy even mentioned it in her Sunday Times article Barbarians at gate must guard our ivory towers on 3rd of June 2012.
I know there is great spirit to revitalise pursuit of the project’s objectives. Meanwhile my job is a casualty of the financial crisis, a convenient discardment by the state in a national endeavour to cut costs.
There I am, doing my patriotic bit.
I generally take a glass-half-full Pollyanna kind of view of things, and I knew, sort of distantly at first, that there was much to be positive about, not least the award of getting to be with my kids. I got to explain to people a lot that things were very discombobulated right now (I love to say the word discombobulated). It wasn’t as though I expected an eleventh hour memo to swoop in from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and save the day, but still I struggled hard at being thrown out of a bubble of security and into the maelstrom of redundancy. Colm Rapple has a lovely line in the 2011 edition of his book Family Finance (p144):
“[redundancy] can be a traumatic experience even for those who can convince themselves as they should that it’s the job that’s redundant, not they themselves”
My Dad had the book left open on the book shelf at that page one of the weekends I was home in the initial days of my discombobulation. [I should also point out here that one of the lowest points of my situation was the regression to child-like state while my parents anguished for my future all over again.] I spotted it and slammed the book shut, muttering something about it not applying to my situation – my job was not redundant: a faceless they just wouldn’t let me do it anymore. My partner gently tried to point out to me, that if there was no more funding to pay me to do the job, then the job was indeed redundant.
At the same time, perversely maybe, the matter was compounded by a need to wind things down on the job. In the finish it became impossible to do that satisfactorily, due to the nature of the project’s challenges and the relatively short notice regarding my contract’s demise. I had to let our volunteer team go, which was pretty miserable. Add to it all the sickness I went down with in my last week, caused in no doubt by a depressed immune system tanked up with stress. I got tonsilitis and impetigo. I’m not even prone to tonsilitis. It was rotten. The impetigo was worse. It made my toenail fall of! I muddled through, struggling and morose and distracted and for a time a shadow of anything useful to my family.
And then, relentlessly, redundancy was upon me. Then it was really time to worry about the mortgage, or even how we were going to feed and clothe kids. My staff badge expired and I was ejected fearfully into the unknown.
The day in May that I walked into the Navan Road social welfare office I felt nervous and sad, but purposeful. The porter at the reception desk was helpful, and positively bubbly, and I felt encouraged. They renamed the dole jobseekers benefit recently, and I focussed on that to remind myself that there should be no stigma associated with receiving it, that I should feel no shame in receiving what is my entitlement, my own money pooled as PRSI for this very eventuality while I was still working.
But then I sat at a service desk windowed with thick Perspex, for fear I’d assault the staff, the cubicle etched with unkind grafittied messages. The unsmiling office clerks seemed to interrupt me to ask for my PPS number anytime I tried to speak. The civil servant who dealt with my claim did seem to try to soften her chirrupy manner when she noticed me blinking profusely to keep back tears. Archaeologist she said! What an interesting job that must be. And the Museum? That must be a lovely place to work.
I found the social welfare aspect of redundancy decidedly contemptuous, even though I was claiming money that I felt was rightfully mine. I don’t think it needs to be that way. But I knew I needed to get away from it. Slowly but surely I tried to be more philosophical and proactive about things.
By now my toenail sacrificed to stress-impetigo is starting to grow back. Along with my ability to get on with things.
I got buckets of understanding and help from family, colleagues and friends right the way through. It was only when one of my kind supporters sat me down and said
“Adrienne, you have kids, a mortgage, and unemployment. Consider your priorities”
that acceptance finally began to set in.
Why is it that “reality” in these situations is always associated with starkness or difficulty? The real world is always the “harsh” or at the very least, the “uncertain” world”. Reality bites. Things just got real.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t aware of my priorities – but I think I just needed someone who wasn’t emotionally involved to help me see them in a detached, objective kind of way. The maelstrom began to slow down. I began to find hooks to grasp.
I made a resolutions chart, a la Gretchen Rubin‘s “The Happiness Project” which I started to read around the time my contract was finishing. It might seem random but it gave me focus. You’ll see that writing a blog is one of the resolutions. With this post, I consider it launched. TICK!
I withdrew from my PhD at UCD, which was intrinsic to the paid job and sponsored mainly by work. That was a very hard decision to face and I procrastinated about having to send back my student card, but it’s done now. UCD’s School of Archaeology were among those who were incredibly supportive and kind in the confusion.
My Museum colleagues gave me a lovely and generous send-off and I finally worked up the wherewithal to finish my project status documents and go back and clear out my office (resolution, finish up at the NMI. TICK!)
Together with my partner, I somehow managed to make the decision to enrol my daughter in a countryside school in Co Wexford and to dis-enrol her from the Dublin school she was listed to start in next September. (Resolution find a school, TICK!) My partner has already been working on a heritage project part-time there that he has to finish and maybe expand upon.
This decision was the clincher of all our decisions. It had to be made quicksmart, so that the school could put in its book list order. That book list forced us to resolve to officially leave Dublin, right now, and it has given us a fixed base from which to now look for new work. We have a place to stay in Wexford, if temporarily, on my partner’s family farm, as luck would have it a beautiful old cottage otherwise empty and forlorn. We spent my maternity leave last year there and a lot of weekends since while my partner worked on his project. My parents are grappling with the idea that we’re moving further away from them at home in Galway.
Here’s a thing, we had always said we’d leave Dublin for the countryside, somewhere, when our first child got to around school age. I had never considered my position a job-for-life, for three reasons:
- The job role had a start and finish programme (it just wasn’t finished yet)
- I didn’t want to live out the rest of my days in a city (even if it’s the best city in the world); I’m a country girl at heart
- I never really got into a being a working mother. I was fortunate that I got paid maternity leave and an hour breastfeeding break a day which meant I could leave at 4PM, but being away from my kids for any length of time was a wrench, especially when my babies were younger (I went back to work with both when they were ten months) and still nursing a lot. When I went back to work the second time, it was easier that they got to be at home with their Daddy, who himself had undergone redundancy in 2010. But I feel the whole family lost out on me not only the hours I was away, but even in the evening when I came home bedraggled with a head buzzing with duties from the day’s work along with tasks coming up for the day ahead
So here we are, reality lumping us to our own devices yet somehow at the same time cruising us along a not-quite-forgotten original plan.
Not so harsh after all, huh?
We’re almost relocated to Wexford now while we get our Dublin house ready for rental. I’m keeping my eye on my resolutions chart and expanding on it.
Turning “fear of the unknown” into “freedom of the unknown”.