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Photo of Denise Frame Harlan

Unemployed, underemployed and overemployed

Although she is officially unemployed, Denise Frame Harlan juggles work as a writer, teacher, tour guide, nanny, fiber artist -- and a mother. Each of her jobs brings her joy, but not much money.

June 22, 2010

I was a professor on Monday. I greeted students with copies of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Seated around the seminar table, we marked our texts. Then we packed into a van to visit the town where Eliot summered as a child. We drove to see the Dry Salvages -- the rocks off the coast of Massachusetts to which one of the four poems refers. The marine biology majors gave their own tours of the tide pools, describing for me each urchin and crab where the sea “tosses up our losses.” It was a beautiful workday as a guest lecturer.

I was a nanny on Tuesday. My favorite 3-year-old, Lily, and I explored the beach in the morning. Lily and I picked up three older children after school and returned to the beach for the hot, hot afternoon. My husband brought pizza for dinner. We swam and collected sand dollars until sunset.

On Wednesday, I revised a chapter of a book while Lily took a three-hour nap.

I volleyed notes to three editors of different publications on Thursday, then checked in with my new employer at the travel agency to see if she needs me while she’s in France. And I double-checked with the woman who hired me to spin yarn for her to make a sweater.

I also called my student loan company to make sure my application for an “unemployment deferment” had arrived at her office. The loan agency defines unemployment as less than 30 hours of work each week. Every few months I report back: I am seeking employment, yes. I have registered with an employment agency, as required.

On Friday, I was at home all day with my kids. They settled into a quiet home morning, reading and coloring. I could’ve spun yarn, but instead I crafted a wool farm, a little decorative rug with plowed fields and a duck pond, for a fundraiser at my kids’ school. I planted small lettuce starts in my window boxes, along with the peas and the herbs, and picked strawberries from my backyard. I rustled up snacks and planned dinner. Another good day.

Professor, nanny, writer, tour guide, fiber artist. Some weeks I get paid for 30 hours of work, but not most weeks. This week, for example, I will make $400, with the possibility of more if my writing prospects pan out.

Each of my callings brings joy, whether I’m parenting or crafting a story or offering hospitality or teaching. If sometimes I find myself tired, and even nearing despair, it’s because I can’t pay off my student loans until my salary is steadier, and we don’t have enough money to purchase the home we need.

We live on the New England coast, where we settled for my husband’s job long before we understood the high cost of living in this area. At ages 10 and 12, my boy and girl share a bedroom. Their adolescence weighs on me. The tightness of our small condo weighs on me. I need a writing desk and space for my spinning wheel. Now is the time to buy, people say. We’ve been offered a small grant to help with home buying, if we can figure out how to afford the rest of the mortgage.

My husband teaches at a prestigious school for students with dyslexia. He tutors after hours, and he coaches baseball. He teaches summer school. He is doing everything he can for the salary and the benefits we need.

I assumed I would work fulltime, too, once our children were ready. They are not yet ready. One child is struggling with school, and teachers asked us to be particularly attentive to the upcoming summer. I can do that. I am the protector of their quiet life. They thrive during these lazy months of reading and crafting and kitchen experiments. I will remain the at-home parent for as long as they need me, with my work outside the home crammed in between family quiet and family urgencies.

My mother worked collections of jobs, too. She waited tables at the diner down the street, and she worked at the library. At home, she upholstered furniture in the garage. The desperation ate away at her, though she endured it because she loved those after-school hours, sitting down with snacks together and catching up.

I thought my college degree would help me escape this scraping-by. I finished a master’s degree in creative writing last summer and started teaching as an adjunct professor, two courses, fall semester only. So I have a terrific half-time job for four months of the year and have built other small jobs around it.

I find myself asking if I’m doing this life all wrong, but it comes down to this: when I can stop thinking of my debt and the house I want to buy, I marvel at how lucky I am! I am a writer, a teacher, a tour guide, a nanny, a fiber artist -- and a parent. All of these jobs have something to do with hospitality, making the world warmer and kinder and more fun. I believe that Christ is working to redeem all things in God’s creation, and I believe the Spirit works through us in all that we touch. I recently heard the Dalai Lama say warmheartedness would solve so much of our unhappiness, and whether or not he is right, I think warmheartedness would go a long way.

I also know I could be taking on too much. We sin, even in our best efforts. We are broken. Even the best work is sometimes hell. But I would suffer much more if I worked at a higher-paying job I hated, or one that prevented me from tending my children as well as I can.

So, I like my work. I like the days with my children. I just need more money. I need a house. I need freedom from debt. I’d like more sleep and a little more downtime. I’d like more time to write.

I know I am not alone in this. In our recession-bitten town, we see people in much worse situations, unable to find work: we are not the poor. Several of our friends lost enormous salaries, and some are still trying to regain employment. We are not them, either. We are the people in the middle. “Recession” just means we are not the only ones. We scramble to keep our cars from falling apart for another year. So does everyone else, the formerly rich, the ever-present poor.

Newsweek said a year ago that in the future we may all become freelancers. Will all of us freelancers feel this strapped for cash?

And how about my family? Will we find a house? Can we keep it? Will we be in the same situation next January, filling out deferral forms and trying to make ends meet? I can’t say. Yet I can say that for now each job feels like the right fit for my family and my life. I’m grateful to be an unemployed person with five jobs -- five blessed jobs.