Layoffs can strain or strengthen family bonds for workers

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The layoff doesn't end with the brushoff in HR. It drives away with you in the front seat. It settles in at home and rearranges the emotional furniture. It brings on grieving and picks at old marital wounds, even as it carves ...

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The layoff doesn't end with the brushoff in HR. It drives away with you in the front seat. It settles in at home and rearranges the emotional furniture. It brings on grieving and picks at old marital wounds, even as it carves out new room for love and laughter.

The end of a job is just as much a beginning. And as the three recently laid-off Silicon Valley employees chronicled in the Mercury News' Pink Slip 2.0 series have discovered, a layoff can impact you and those closest to you in profound and surprising ways.

"When you're laid off, you start to appreciate every single relationship you have," says Kris Rowberry, a 25-year-old San Jose aviation worker laid off in January.

The three job seekers describe a range of ripple effects on their relationships, from overwhelming stress to loving support that has set long-adrift family bonds back on course. And they're certainly not alone, with 5.7 million jobs lost in the United States since the recession began in December 2007.

Behind those numbers, say experts, are millions more family members and friends who must cope with the emotional whiplash triggered by their loved one's job loss.


"Sometimes, I feel like I'm going crazy," says software engineer Roopa Govindarajan, 33, of Fremont, prone to panic attacks as she juggles resumes and interviews with the duties that come with two small sons. "In my husband's mind, it's home and kids first, job search second. I'm trying to put both on the same level, and that's causing conflict between us. Sometimes I feel like a bad mom. But I don't want to sit at home forever.

"I'm getting kind of desperate here."

Elise Sandusky, let go from her bookkeeping job Feb. 2, takes comfort in a 16-year marriage that she describes as "our finely tuned machine," even as the 44-year-old San Jose resident fires off hundreds of applications without a firm offer. Despite the upheaval, husband Duane says Elise's layoff has deepened their bond: "Our relationship is more important than any job or this house or any material thing. I told Elise, 'I don't care if we lose everything, as long as I have you.' "

For Rowberry, the pink slip was a first-class ticket on a new life itinerary. He has grown closer to his aunt, Kerry Billings, the sister of Rowberry's mom who died suddenly of cancer in 2004. And he's finding strength by tapping into the Holy Grail of his extended family -- laughter, gentle sarcasm and bowling together on Tuesday nights.

"He really loved his job," says Billings, a 39-year-old office manager. "He had found his path, then suddenly it was gone. It impacted the whole family: 'How could they lay him off?' It wasn't right. I was angry like he was, but there wasn't much I could do except help him find another job."

After initially being shaken by the loss, she says, "He rebounded quickly and refused to feel sorry for himself." The same charisma that made him a central pillar for his extended family after his mom's death is as strong as ever: "Kris has always been the one who'd make sure everyone else was OK, and he's still that way, even after his job loss."

At the same time, Rowberry has seen his relationship deepen with his dad, moving from initial embarrassment over his job loss to a renewed appreciation for the man who "probably centers me more than anything else in my life right now."

They share the family home as a "bachelor pad." As Rowberry continues his job hunt, he also tries to savor the gift his unemployment has handed him: time with his dad.


"Eventually, I'll get a job, have a family of my own, maybe move away, and he'll be someone I might see every few months," says Rowberry, whose father declined to speak with the Mercury News. "But I also know that when I look back at these days and the two of us living together, these could be some of the greatest times I'll ever know."

Experts say the first person to feel the fallout of a job loss is the spouse.

"It's very hard, say, for a wife, wondering 'Is my husband trying hard enough to find a job?' or seeing him start to blame her for his own job loss," says Cupertino-based human-resources consultant Marcia Stein.

The layoff can breed resentment, creating a situation that author Dan Schawbel describes as "people losing hope -- and not just the people laid off but the parents or kids or siblings. There can be a lot of negative energy, and like a domino effect it moves throughout the family."

Yet that same viral dynamic can also work in positive ways. Sandusky and her husband have what she describes as a "'he mows the lawn, I pick the weeds' sort of unspoken communication" between them. It serves them well during a frustrating job hunt: They complete each others' sentences; she looks admiringly at him when he speaks.

And Duane Sandusky, a Ford technician, is also a realist: "You have to look at your options," he says, his tall frame folded into the living-room couch in their mobile home. "And it doesn't do any good to panic. If she gets depressed, I just talk her through it."

Govindarajan and husband Sridhar Panchapakesan, who recently celebrated their 10th anniversary, struggle at times with the new stress in their lives. They seek consensus on family decisions, yet bicker over that elusive and fragile balance Govindarajan tries to strike between job-hunter and at-home mom.

"I like the home to be in order when I come in," says Panchapakesan, a software engineer who met his wife through an India-Silicon Valley long-distance arranged marriage. "So we have some disconnects when things are put in different places. But we patch things up quickly, because we realize with the limited time we have to spend with our kids that it's not good to waste our time arguing.


"We haven't reached that blowup stage yet," he says, "but a few times I've felt that I need to be more sensitive and make sure she doesn't feel neglected or taken advantage of."

That's a tough place many couples find themselves in these days. Sunnyvale psychologist Francis Abueg, who specializes in work-related stress issues, says a layoff can throw an entire family into "a grieving process, where shock is the first order of business."

But he, too, points out the flip-side: "A lot of people laid off rediscover the precious rituals of family. It's as if they'd forgotten these things over the years of working so hard and now reawaken to the little blessings."

That's what Govindarajan keeps hoping for each morning, as she wakes up before the kids, puts on a CD of Hindu chants, then throws opens the curtains on a new day.

"The chants calm me down," she says. "I think, maybe if I listen to this each morning, some miracle will happen."

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