When I read the headlines about the apparent suicide of David Kellermann, Freddie Mac's acting CFO, it confirmed something I'd been feeling for a long time, a reality that we all share: the current financial crisis has deeply personal implications that we are not talking about nearly enough.
I don't pretend to know what went on in the Kellermann household. I don't know if Mr. Kellermann had some kind of mental illness, or if he was so torn apart by the mortgage crisis and the enormous scrutiny he was under that he couldn't take it anymore. But I just can't shake the heartbreaking image of his wife finding him hanging in the basement by a piece of exercise equipment. Perhaps only she knew the kind of turmoil going on in her husband's life. And now a very public crisis has become the unimaginable tragedy of an individual and his family.
Conversations about the impact the economy and unemployment, or the threat of it, are having on relationships are glaringly absent in the media, and it's high time we started a dialogue. Financial pressures wreak havoc on even the best of marriages. Divorce rates hover around 50% and money issues are among the top causes, so we're facing a tsunami of marital crises in this country. We have been enjoying years of prosperity and this is the first time in a long time many of us have had to do without. It's come at us like a body blow, and now we're facing a whole new reality. But we don't have to do it alone. We're all going through it.
As a husband and father I always prided myself on being a good provider to my family. A great deal of my identity was tied up with my jobs, and being able to pay for the best "things" in life for my wife and three beautiful daughters. I came up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit in the 70's and I was determined that my own children would grow up with all the safety and security I never had.
But at the end of last year I hit a career wall. As an executive vice president of marketing, I enjoyed a comfortable salary and all the perks and prestige of being a top entertainment executive. My long term career goal was to be at the helm of an international multimedia entertainment company and I had been elegantly building my career towards that destination. Unfortunately, like so many of us now, I was affected by a change made at my company. I had a choice - to either stay on in a reduced capacity, leaving myself exposed as an extra wheel, or leave and be in control of my own destiny. I chose the latter.
It was a tough decision. It was the first time in my career I was ever in a situation where I had to make a choice to stay or go because of a job reduction. My wife has been a stay-at-home mother for 10 years, so I have been the sole breadwinner, and now we no longer have the long term certainty of a weekly paycheck delivered by a company. I'm working to find another fulltime corporate position. But something inside is telling me never to put all my eggs in one basket again. I don't want someone else deciding the financial future for me and my family, so I've started my own marketing firm to help companies develop a laser sharp branding position and make better use of tight marketing budgets. I've done this internally for companies large and small with great success. I've decided that now is the right time to start a new business for myself. Entrepreneurs are born out of times of chaos. Some of the best businesses in America got started during the Great Depression.
So why am I sharing all of this with you? Because I know thousands of you are going through similar challenges, and we need to acknowledge that we're not alone in this, no matter how isolated we sometimes feel. I'm a fiercely private person, and I've never even shared my story with friends and neighbors, let alone over the Internet! I know a lot of other men like this. We're proud, and we identify with our jobs, and when things aren't going well we try to protect our families from the pressure and fear by staying silent. But now is not the time to keep it to yourself.
Feeling like you can no longer provide at the same level is hard. But what keeps me moving forward is understanding that it's not about me, it's about my wife and children. Seeing the situation from their eyes helped me get my priorities right. As husbands and fathers, you have to ask yourselves, "What kind of man do I want my children to see through their eyes now?"
You also have to remember that when your kids greet you as you walk through the door at the end of a day of work, they don't care about your title or paycheck. They love you because you are you. My girls have really inspired me through this whole period because they love me no less than they did before. Remind yourself of this fact every day.
What really helped me was being able to talk it all through with Valerie, my wife. I learned a long time ago that in order for a marriage to stay solid it's important to make financial decisions together. As I mentioned, money issues can be deal breakers (I even wrote a book about this). But when I told my wife the situation, she was totally supportive. She thought of many smart ways we can cut costs while we're in this transition phase. For example, instead of going away on vacation this spring break, we had a staycation, and invited my mother-in-law to spend time with the kids. My girls are into several after-school activities, but we decided to take a season off from all the extra-curricular past times.
I've been pleasantly surprised by the benefits of this stripped down lifestyle. As a family unit, we are closer. In the past, I was so busy with work stuff, and my children were always out at this practice or that practice. We rarely had "family time." But now I'll actually sit down and watch a DVD with my kids -- something I never did before. I'm even driving my 'tween daughter to school in the morning. The other day she started telling me about some friends in her class, and how they were already interested in boys, and it led to "the talk." When she got home that afternoon we continued our conversation, and I got to give her my male perspective on boys , hormones and relationships. It happened organically. We could both enjoy the conversation because it didn't feel forced. But had I been working at my old job, I'd have had to appoint a time for my daughter and I to discuss the birds and bees. Not quite the same thing!
Of course, I'm still concerned about the economy. Yet I realize that the best things in life are not things at all. If anything, I'm enjoying getting back to some basics, and I hope you've found similar opportunities in this turmoil. If not, please talk about it, even if it's just here in this blog forum. I plan to continue writing about my own balancing act between career, financial pressures and family. I'm still a work in process and I'm bound to make mistakes. But I think we as husbands and dads can help each other and grow, if we engage more with each other.
This is the first of a four-part series on this topic, because there's a lot to say about it that hasn't been said. I await your feedback. Like I said, this kind of disclosure is unusual for me, and it's probably unusual for you. But these are unusual times.
Darryl Cobbin is a veteran marketing executive, serving in senior marketing positions at The Coca-Cola Company, Boost Mobile and Twentieth Century Fox Films. His self-published book on marriage and family is due for release later this year.