Unemployment Lines, Part III: Your Baby or Your Benefits
Recently, I was kicked out of the Career Center in Rockland. It was such a stinging, embarrassing shock I nearly choked on my beard.
The Career Center is a state-run service with a mission to provide job-hunting resources to out-of-work Mainers. Office branches in 21 Maine towns freely offer computers, copiers, and fax machines to jobseekers. These sites also provide jobless Mainers with feedback on resumes, information on government programs, and workshops to develop skills in networking and interviewing. Perhaps most importantly, the Career Center is a meeting point for the recipients of unemployment benefits and their state-appointed benefactors; an opportunity for the government to grip the hand of the beneficiary, gaze probingly into his eyes, and confirm or disprove the deeply held assumption he’s brazenly defrauding the system.
A week before the day in question, I received a tersely worded invitation to a job seekers’ workshop at the Career Center. The form letter stated that failure to attend could result in termination of my jobless benefits.
To me, the subtext seemed clear: “We, the government, don’t trust you.”
On the morning of the workshop, I was wary I’d be put under a microscope, so, for the first time in many months, I took great pains to coordinate my appearance—to look unquestionably upstanding and employable. I trimmed my beard, dragged a comb through my tangled hair, and put on a crisp, white dress shirt. Next, I turned my attention to Otis, the towheaded toddler who accompanies my every move during this current state of joblessness. I tricked him out in some nice threads and parted his wispy hair. He looked good.
Fifteen months ago, Otis was born into near-perfect circumstances. His was a carefully planned pregnancy. It was an emotional decision, to be sure, but it was a decision that was nonetheless bolstered by cold, businesslike scrutiny. Our planning took into account his mother’s semester break at USM and the enlightened work/life programs offered by my employer: full medical coverage, five weeks of paternity leave, flex time, telecommuting, and a pre-tax FSA for daycare.
Upon birth, Otis was a happy and healthy baby. In those first few days, however, Otis was prone to frequent and sudden outbursts. For this reason, the shift nurses at the hospital dubbed him “Zero-to-Sixty Man”—meaning that his mood often shifted from cooing delight to raving terror in a matter of seconds. Despite this, Otis was well liked in the nursery, and his likeability has only increased since then.
I was banking on his likeability on the day of the workshop. Otis was my ace in the hole, I thought. The good people at the State of Maine might be culturally disposed to distrust me, but Otis’s presence would create a far different narrative. Dressed as he was, Otis evoked the raw charm of the Gerber baby combined with the bright-eyed innocence of a pre-verbal Opie. Hearts would melt, I figured. We’d be above suspicion.
At the Career Center, things got off to a rocky start. When we checked in at the front desk, I was told I’d received the wrong form letter. Today’s workshop was Session 2 of a two-part series; I should have been invited to Session 1. Luckily, in a rare example of bureaucratic flexibility, I was permitted to attend the series non-sequentially.
When I carried Otis into the conference room, however, we were greeted by a surprised look. The middle-aged woman who was running the workshop gasped, “A baby? We’ve never had one of those in here before.”
I took a seat at the back of the room among the other attendees, jounced the boy on my knee, and tried to reconcile what I’d just heard. Surely a place that caters to the economically downtrodden — a place that grants destitute jobseekers free long-distance phone calls to potential employers — would’ve encountered a few parents who couldn’t afford daycare or a babysitter, right? It honestly never occurred to me that bringing a baby to the Career Center would be the least bit unordinary.
When the workshop began, however, it was clear why babies and two-hour discussions on resume formatting, online job searches, etc., might be a poor match. Almost immediately, Otis began fussing. I did my best to keep him occupied, to focus his attention on the objects I procured from his diaper bag, but it was a losing battle. About an hour into the meeting, Otis grew inconsolable, so I rose to my feet to rock him.
“OK,” sighed the workshop leader. “Why don’t you just go home? You can come back next week for the first session.”
“All right,” I said, “but I’ll have to bring Otis back, if that’s OK.”
“No,” she said. “You can’t bring him.”
“But I don’t have anywhere to leave him.”
“This is a mandatory workshop, and you’ll be denied benefits if you do not attend.”
The tone shift was brusque and unmistakable — a zero-to-sixty moment in its own right — and it confirmed my suspicion that a deep sense of distrust lingers just below the surface of the otherwise smiling faces at the Career Center.
Dejected, I retreated to the car, strapped the boy into his seat, and returned home for another long afternoon of sitting beside my son while we sift through the wood blocks, board books, and Tonka trucks that obscure the livingroom floor like demolition debris.
On the face of it, this daily routine sounds pretty damned nice. If, for instance, you’d told me 15 months ago that I’d soon be collecting unemployment and building block towers with my son every day, I probably would’ve kissed you on the mouth. I would have thought, “What could be better than government-subsidized downtime with my son?”
The truth is — like all of life’s pleasures — a little goes a long way. This sudden trove of father-son time, which at first sounded as fortuitous as a backyard oil strike, has quickly become fool’s gold.
I realize this is unpopular sentiment. I’m culturally obligated to say, “I cherish every moment I spend with the boy,” but — as much as it pains me to admit — that would be a falsehood. First, our time together is besmirched by the irrepressible feeling I’m setting a bad example. Despite my omnipresence in Otis’s life, I’m still a deadbeat dad. I’m the guy who doesn’t shave, who rarely leaves the house, who shuffles from room to room in the same clothes he wore to bed the night before. (I realize he’s too young to recognize these signifiers, but I’m convinced I’m somehow laying the irreversible groundwork for a lil’ underachiever.)
Second, I know the quality of my presence improves with the quality of my output. If I’m productive and satisfied with my station in life, I’m infinitely happier and, thus, much easier to be around (even if it’s only for a few stolen moments after a day’s work).
Third, is the fact that I’m not the only one who feels this way. The boy, too, needs a little space. In the days when I was working, I’d take Otis to daycare twice a week, and he was thrilled each time we entered its cacophonous and otherworldly sphere. Nowadays, he spends each waking hour with me, and he’s clearly had enough. Like a projectionist at a single-screen theater, he’s grown tired of this long-running show. He knows my full repertoire of silly sounds, the calculated rhythms of my peek-a-boos, and the rehearsed manner of my picture-book readings. At a time when Otis’s developing mind is like a sponge, I’m providing stale mop water.
Last, and most important, is the nature of stay-at-home parenting itself. Whoever it was at the Peace Corps who coined the slogan “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” was clearly childless. Raising this boy is hard work.
This sounds selfish, but hear me out; I’m not trying to shirk my parenting responsibilities or whine about the difficulties therein. I’m simply saying that stay-at-home parenting is much more intense than any job I’ve ever held. So, to those who assume jobless parents are somehow milking the unemployment system for their own leisure, you’re absolutely wrong.
I will concede, however, that a stay-at-home parent is less likely to have the time and energy to mount a truly effective job search. Whenever I open the laptop to retool my resume, for instance, the boy pummels the keyboard like a rhinoceros on a brush fire.
In that respect, the folks at the Career Center have every right to question my diligence. However, if the Career Centers were truly geared toward getting people back to work, surely a few hours of in-house childcare would go a long way toward that admirable goal.
Ben McCanna is a father, writer, and currently unemployed editor who lives in Rockland's South End.