Home for the Holidays

How do you stay up when one of you is down?

What happens when the notion of home for the holidays becomes something less than comforting? What if one partner in a two-income household is out of work? We all know couples who have been there, facing the stress of joblessness amid the usual chaos of the season. How do you stay up when one of you is down?

The experts tell you to "assess." But before that, most folks need to freak out a little. After Valerie Sessa lost her consulting job in May 2001, she felt as if her whole identity had gone crashing down the tubes. When the University of Pennsylvania laid off Patrick O'Rourke, he moped around the house crooning his version of "Unforgettable ("Unemployable"). He hadn't liked his job but was unnerved by the sudden loss of income.

The fiscal stress is, of course, real. Initially, Sessa and her husband cut back modestly--no more movies or leisure travel. This fall, Sessa started teaching at Montclair State University, but by then her husband had lost his chief technology officer job at a tech firm. Living on one third of their previous income, the couple cut deeper, getting rid of one of their two cars.

What's even tougher is negotiating a changed relationship. "It didn't feel as balanced anymore," Sessa recalls of her marriage, post layoff. "I was a full, equal partner, and then I lost my job and I didn't feel like I was carrying my end of the deal." Her husband told her that wasn't the case. But later "he assumed that I wasn't doing anything, so I should do all the chores around the house," Sessa recalls. "I felt like a housewife."

Now add the holiday stress. At family gatherings last year, Sessa's job status was a constant source of confusion ("Why don't you just get another job?" asked her parents) and comedy ("Rite-Aide is hiring," teased her brothers). "I felt embarrassed," Sessa recalls. "I'm the one in the family with the PhD." She offered polite, brief responses and laughed right along.

So hold on to your sense of humor--and then assess. What's the state of play for your careers, your lives, and your marriage? "Figure out what changes, what doesn't change, and what you want to change," says Anne Hartman at Essex Partners, a career management firm. Look to make changes in your daily expectations and negotiations. Jessica DeGroot, founder of Third Path Institute, a work-family advocacy group, encourages couples to seize the moment and experiment with their roles.

Losing his job left O'Rourke at an all-time low, he says. But it also left him taking care of his then 3-month-old daughter, Magdalene, and that became a formative experience. For 15 months, he was Magdalene's primary care-giver. Then, after landing a full-time editing gig last August, he switched roles again with his wife, Jeanine, who was in the early stages of starting a private social work practice.

They're happy, but the arrangement isn't easy. It's constantly changing, and one can get jealous of the other's role and criticize the other's performance, since each has been both caregiver and breadwinner. Still, that gives them common ground. "We've both changed diapers and gone days without showering," says Jeanine, "and we've both hired and fired."

They've come to terms, too, with a simpler lifestyle. Last Christmas, Jeanine and Patrick gave homemade biscotti instead of the usual big-deal gifts. And this holiday, Sessa and her husband will feel less pressure to bring presents to family gatherings. By then, though, they'll have had their first child. That's one stress they seem glad to take on.

What's testing your sanity? Tell me (ccanabou@fastcompany.com).

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