What would you do if your husband came home one rainy Friday and told you, after twenty years with a major company, that he was fired? Well, for me, it meant that I would be forced to take my ostrich head out of the sand when it came to financial matters and learn that it's your values and priorities that should drive all your decisions -- financial and otherwise.
I was over 40 years old and had gone from living with my parents to living with my husband. Although I went to Wake Forest University on a very generous scholarship, I took the path of stay-at-home mother. We traveled the world for his career, and I continued to lead a sheltered life -- someone else was always taking care of me. Until my husband got fired. And I had to finally face reality and take control of my life.
When I turned to my sister Mandy (aka "Black") -- a successful corporate businesswoman with an M.B.A. who had retired by the time she was 40 -- looking for answers, all I got was questions. It was extremely frustrating at first, but over time I came to appreciate her wisdom. She couldn't tell me what to do, as my decisions had to be based on my personal values and priorities. I have two daughters. She has two race cars. (Not your typical family tree!) And it didn't matter whether it was financial issues, such as balance sheets, credit cards or long-term planning, or more fundamental concepts such as relationships, time management, handling stress or even the piles of papers on my desk -- Black would never tell me what to do, but instead asked questions, helping me get information so I could make smart, conscious decisions.
When my husband wasn't able to find suitable "executive-level" employment and wouldn't consider lowering his standards, I had to make some very difficult decisions. I was a stay-at-home mom with no work experience and a never-been-used degree in theater arts, yet my husband was willing to let me carry the burden of our family. Over the next few years, our differences went to the core of who we were (I would do anything for our children, obviously he wouldn't) and I ultimately divorced him. And now, as a single mom, I've had to totally reinvent myself.
I would like to say that my divorce provided for a comfortable life style, with an ample living allowance for me and our daughters. I guess technically the decree did, however my ex hasn't paid child support or any other court-ordered payments and fled the country -- returning to Great Britain, where he was born. So, how am I surviving? When my husband got fired, Black turned my "crisis" into a book, business and brand ("Red & Black") which I must admit, I didn't appreciate at the time. I wish I could say that the company is profitable, but it currently seems to be a philanthropic endeavor as the book has detoured into the world of education. It was intended to be the basis of a sitcom, but after Neiman Marcus launched our book we were asked to develop and teach a personal finance program for KIPP Houston High School, which resulted in our book being approved as a personal financial literacy textbook by the Texas State Board of Education. Amazing, given the book's title "What I Learned About Life When My Husband Got Fired!"
I'm in a very fortunate position that Black was able to fund the start-up company because it's highly unlikely that I would be able to find a job that would provide sufficient income for me to support myself and my two daughters at a level anywhere close to what we had become accustomed to during my marriage. We certainly don't live anywhere near the lifestyle my ex-husband had established as our norm, although he was never really able to afford it even when he was employed. (I didn't know that then!) I also have a new respect for the challenges that single moms face, not only in terms of providing for children in terms of material things, but also giving them emotional support, encouragement and hope.
During my crisis, I put together a list I could review whenever I needed help remembering the glass is half-full. I used it when I made the decision to divorce my husband, I included it in our book, and it's as applicable today as it was when I first wrote it.
1. Take your head out of the sand
Whether financial or personal, avoiding the truth won't change the facts. It certainly will not make the situation better. Nor will it make the situation go away. Problems will lie dormant only until they're too big to continue ignoring. Acknowledging a problem (and the earlier, the better) is a huge first step towards doing something positive.
2. Eat the elephant one bite at a time
This applies to many large issues or projects. Situations become bigger the longer I delay addressing them. Which then can become another excuse for not dealing with them. A vicious circle! But I can tackle/deal with/solve anything; I can eat an elephant, just not all at one time. I initially applied this concept to our financial situation and later used it for less urgent projects, such as my daughter's scrapbooks. Now I find myself using this concept whenever I have large tasks to tackle that in the past I would have kept postponing.
3. Communication includes dialogue
My sister and I talk a lot about communication in our book, and there's no question that it's absolutely critical to any relationship. But I added the word "dialogue." A cooperative spouse is great, or a close friend, a sister -- anyone who will listen and be available to bounce ideas around. I'm lucky to have Black in my life, but if I didn't there are support groups. I would never try to get through a crisis alone.
4. Be honest with the mirror
I made a commitment that I'll try to be honest with myself about what's important to me, what will make me happy (I don't mean winning the lottery) and what I want from life. I need to be open to the thoughts of friends and family (not society at large) about what's important to them, but I treat them as a "menu of options" -- not definitive answers. And I remind myself that when I think the grass might be greener somewhere else, in reality I may be looking at Astroturf.
5. It's just stuff and fluff
Spending time and money chasing "things" is a waste of time and money. (Beyond basic needs, of course.) Besides, it isn't a good example to set for children. At the end of the day, the most important things are my beliefs, my values, my priorities, my loved ones, my memories. The things money can't buy. The rest is just fluff.
6. Slow down and enjoy
Life can change in an instant -- a spouse gets fired, a family member gets seriously ill, a loved one dies -- so I have to enjoy what I have and the people in my life. Spend less time "doing" and more time "enjoying." Read one less e-mail. Play a game with the girls. Shut off the TV at dinner and have a conversation. Have coffee with a friend. Make sure to take the time to unwind. And to dream.
7. Crisis = opportunity
Finally, I have given myself the gift of believing that everything happens for a reason, even if I can't understand why at the time. If I allow myself to treat a crisis as a potential opportunity, I might find myself one day in the future saying, "I'm so glad that happened because if it hadn't, I might not have learned something. Understood something. Gotten to the place where I am today."
When this crisis first happened, my sister told me it would be the best thing that ever happened to me. I thought a) she was crazy and b) I had no time for her sarcastic remarks. But now I admit she was right. Not only have I taken control of my life, but most importantly, I'm teaching my daughters invaluable life lessons. I may have been an ostrich with my head in the sand, but I'm determined my daughters won't be. And if, along the way, my story has somehow ended up helping or inspiring other people, then that's a truly amazing gift that I never could have imagined on that fateful day when my husband came home and told me that he had been fired.