Doubting the breadwinner

Today, I read this very honest essay from a woman whose live-in boyfriend has been laid off. He's pursuing his "big dreams" and living on his severance -- while she's wondering if he's ever going to bring in a paycheck again. She's trying not to be "ugly," while at the same time revisiting her hopes for a house and kids some day. The writer, Esther Martinez, concludes:

I hope our relationship makes it through this recession. I wonder how many won't. My boyfriend's layoff has stirred up scary notions about love - that it really might be conditional, and that the conditions are not always pretty.

My first reaction was admiration for Ms. Martinez for her courage in exposing her feelings like this. I remember being so ashamed about how much of my regard for my husband was tied to his bread-winning. Of course, we weren't just dreaming about kids when his joblessness started, we had a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, as well as a mortgage. So, perhaps I can be forgiven for my anxiety over how we were going to hold this house of cards together. I was freelancing at the time, and shortly went back to full-time work. But my salary didn't come close to covering our expenses.

My second reaction to the Martinez essay was how hard it is to convey these fears to people who have not been through it. I will sometimes tell people that many "social ills" can arise because of a layoff. But that's a euphemistic mask I'm placing over what we went through. Ms. Martinez says it better. By social ills, I mean to hint at domestic violence, divorce, substance abuse, depression, suicide, crime. Those things seemed a lot more possible during the layoffs. A middle-class, Catholic, law-abider, I had never expected the wings of those problems to brush me.

I wasn't the only one who assumed my husband's status as a spouse was diminished, though. I told one man that Dan had just been laid off for a second time, and this man seemed to view it as a come-on, and as an invitation to move in and pursue me. I guess he thought that if my husband wasn't fulfilling his bread-winner duties that we would soon be divorced. Those assumptions run deep in American culture.