By Caitlin Shetterly
He spends his days job hunting, fixing breakfast and watching the kids. But what's really going on in his head? Caitlin Shetterly explains what he won't tell you -- and why.
I remember it like this: It's January 2009 and our infant son is sleeping. We are sitting in our rented apartment in Los Angeles, one of the most expensive cities in America, where we had dreams of "making it" in Hollywood. My husband, Dan, a photographer, is out of work; every freelance job he had lined up through May has suddenly been canceled. We are in economic free fall. I turn to Dan and say, "I just want you to fix this."
His face crumples like a smashed pumpkin at Halloween. "I can't, Cait. This goes way beyond what I can do with my own two hands."
What has gone so wrong in our country, I wonder, that this man -- this can-do guy -- can't fix this? He repairs our broken chairs with dabs of Elmer's wood glue, and, when I was pregnant, he made and flipped the perfect high-protein pancake -- for breakfast, lunch and dinner because anything else made me nauseous. He's got a huge toolbox, for crying out loud! There must be some kind of wrench or pliers in there that will work for this problem. Over the next two months, he goes door-to-door looking for any kind of job. He applies for hundreds online. He is rejected time and time again with the words "No jobs available" or, worse, silence. Finally, we drive across the country and move in with my mother, in Maine.
Fast forward: It's the fall of 2011, over two years since that night Dan told me he wasn't Superman. We've moved out of Mom's, and Dan went back to school and received an MFA. I, miraculously, was able to sell a book I wrote and to secure a series of freelance writing and teaching gigs to support us. I've become, at a time when I least expected to do so, the primary breadwinner.
At night, as Dan undresses before bed, I can see, just in the way he hangs his jeans on the back of the door, that the recession has left its mark. And although he doesn't tell me half of what I wish he would, if he were to say anything, I think it might go like this:
"I can't fix this. I know you want me to. But I can't." So, right, my husband actually did say this one out loud, when confronted with the sheer panic of his hormonal, brand-new-mommy wife. But I know that this is something any man who's been out of work would want to tell his spouse. And he'd also want her to hear how hard it is to admit.
"I don't know what I'm worth if I don't have a job." When we meet someone new and they ask Dan what he does, he hesitates. He's not sure if, when he stacks up all the meals he cooks, the childcare he does (uncomplainingly, I might add), the cleaning he puts his elbow grease into and all the effort that goes into every single phone call or query letter -- if when he explains all this to a stranger, if these things he does, actually do add up to enough for himself, as a man.
"Hold me. I'm trying to hang tough over here, but I could use the basic warmth of you against me, shirt to shirt, skin to skin -- something, anything -- to let me know I'm not alone." I remember this one night, back when the final phone call came in that canceled that last job in May 2009. I had started making dinner and our new baby was gurgling in his bouncy seat. Dan got off the phone, came into the kitchen and said, "Give me the spoon, Cait. I'm making dinner." I said, "I can do it, honey." "Nope, I need to do something for us right now, and it's dinner." I can see now, as I remember the slope of his shoulders that night, that if he could've asked for it, what he needed more than that wooden spoon was the longest, gentlest hug I could give. I'm chagrined to tell you that I handed over the spoon but not the hug.
"At this point, I'm so terrified of rejection, I don't know how to go back out there and try again." As a multitasking, very verbal woman, I often inundate Dan with ideas of thisses or thats -- the things he could do to get a job. And I frequently get silence in return. I've come to realize, finally, that it's not that he doesn't want to try my ideas. Instead, the problem is that Dan's wound is deep enough that it might take awhile to heal.
"I love you; I just don't love myself that much right now." Your husband might be telling you this already. Only it might come out like, "May I make you a sandwich to take to work with you?"
"Thank you." As in "Thank you for being the amazing superwoman you are, who is somehow managing to keep us financially afloat. Thank you for teaching me how to cook boeuf bourguignon; for noticing when I put a candle on the table for our dinner of beans and rice; and, mostly, thank you for loving me enough to hang in here and get back into bed with me every night. I didn't know the 'poorer' part of our vows would be tested for this long, but I do know I'm lucky to have you."
Okay, maybe Dan would say this out loud only if he were being played by Jim Sturgess in a movie and someone had written this down and made him memorize it... and, to boot, if I were Anne Hathaway. But what I do know, without a doubt, is that even though he might not say all the words I'd love to hear, he does say thank you, a whole hell of a lot -- sometimes with real words and, often, with warm baths drawn and waiting when I come home from a long day.
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of "Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home" (Voice)