Unemployment and Identity: who even am I without a (paid) job?

At some point in adulthood, our jobs come to define us. Random example: watch a reality TV programme featuring members of the public, and look at the way careers are used as a shorthand to explain to the viewer who somebody is: Police Officer Tom… Teacher Louise….Doctor Max…. 

We do it to ourselves too. If somebody pays us for a service, then by definition it’s given external worth. We assume that it must say something significant about who we are.  

I used to work in advertising, producing commercial after crappy commercial to try and persuade people to buy things they didn’t need. It was a job even those doing it thought was beneath them. Literally everybody there had their own creative aspirations. Nobody I worked with would have argued that we were occupied in bringing much of value into the world. 

And yet I miss the way strangers used to assess me when they discovered what I did for a living. As meaningless and soul-destroying as I considered it, to others I was a more interesting, more successful person than I am now, as a SAHM.  

If I sound defensive, it’s because I am.  I spent years working my way up in that industry, protesting inwardly as cocky male colleagues blagged their way into promotions over my head, celebrating outwardly when I got there myself.  I cried, a lot, after stressful days in the office. I worried endlessly about how many pixels to the left a logo was. I still can’t believe I’m done with all that. I hated it and yet maybe I loved it too. 

It’s been strange to be unemployed. It had been nearly eight years since I was last jobless. I came to London without a job and spent three months doing interviews and working unpaid as a runner. I didn’t feel unemployed though, perhaps because I was actually working and working hard, fourteen-hour days on my feet – I just wasn’t being paid for it. Two months in I got offered my first permanent, full-time role in production and that was that. I was on the treadmill. Prior to London, there was travelling, studying, school. I worked through the holidays and while travelling was, in essence, a massive skive, there was enough roughing it that it didn’t ever quite feel like a holiday. 

Being out of paid work with no prospect of earning my own money any time soon has been daunting. I miss feeling like I can splurge on a skirt I’ll wear once then shove to the back of my wardrobe. I worry that I’m a bad role model for my daughter. I wonder why I spent long hours, days, weeks, months, years, studying at school and university. I’m aware that I’m lucky to be able to be at home with my daughter, and at the same time I’ve never felt so lost. 

Now that I’ve packed her off to nursery part-time, I’ve got a new identity to negotiate: freelance writer. The only problem is that I just can’t take myself seriously yet. (Once again it comes down to that equation, money = worth.) I’m going to suppress my imposter syndrome for now and work on faking it until I make it. Failing that, I might just start lying to everybody new I meet from now on; I’ve always fancied myself as an undercover secret agent. 

Leaving London: a survival guide

Dear reader, I write from north of the wall, at great distance from the capital where I lived, loved and ate brunch for nine years. It may surprise you to learn that connection to the internet is even possible outside of London and yet I am here to report that life does indeed go on beyond zone six. Here’s a guide to help you weather the trauma of the transition.* 

  1. Fear not – hipsters exist beyond Shoreditch. Kombucha and kimchi are just as available where I now live as they were in London. I was relieved to find turmeric lattes on the menu of my local coffeeshop too – I never want to order one, but I like to know that I could. 
  2. Be prepared – your perception of distance has been irretrievably warped by London life. You consider two hours commuting a day perfectly normal. Most people you meet outside of London consider that akin to travelling to Mars. Try not to get frustrated when they won’t traipse across the country to visit you. Remember how much you grumbled when you had to go from North to South in one evening and learn to appreciate life in your immediate locality. 
  3. People will speak to you all the time. On the street, on the bus, in shops…They’ll make chit-chat about your baby, the weather, your shopping…It’s odd but really quite nice. 
  4. Related: you are no longer anonymous. Outside of London, if you leave the house with baby-sick-encrusted clothes and unbrushed hair, you will immediately bump into your ex-boyfriend’s mother, your former boss and five people you went to school with. When you discover a great new playgroup to go to with your baby, you’ll find out that everybody else you know who has ever had a child has been going there for years. 
  5. Do be warned that you will need to practise mnemonics to distinguish between your new friends. Outside of London, everybody looks the same. It’s a much more monocultural world out here in the provinces. That said, compared to my childhood, when virtually everyone I knew was a shade of mottled pink, it’s gradually getting more diverse.
  6. You’ll need to embrace your new community, because to everybody in London you’re effectively dead. They said they’ll come to visit you – they never will. 
  7. There’s a certain narrative everybody you meet expects you to follow. They want you to tell them how busy London was, and how relieved you are to have escaped. They will watch your face narrowly, on the alert for any signs that you are secretly longing to be eating overpriced bao on the Southbank. It’s easiest just to agree that London was dreadful and since leaving you have newly discovered the joy in living. 
  8. I left my job along with London, but I have it on good authority that jobs anywhere else are basically a piece of piss. Sometimes my husband actually finishes work at five, so essentially mid-morning. Can you imagine! Obviously in London we were all chained to our desks with unpaid interns standing to attention in front of us with carved wooden platters artfully dusted with organic cocaine for us to snort through rolled-up euro notes, so it’s quite the culture change. 
  9. Random observations for parents: fewer people sing along in baby classes outwith London; but go to a class with your child and they will invariably receive a sticker. Make of that what you will. Does class-going outside London require a reward system? Has the tube sucked all the embarrassment at public exhibitionism out of London parents? I need answers to these questions!
  10. You will slowly come to the realisation that even before leaving London, you weren’t really living in London at all. You lived in a village within London, a bubble which post-baby you didn’t leave much except to occasionally visit other bubbles. The London you once experienced was over for you. The good news is that it’s still there, just a train journey and a babysitter away. 

*Advice applies if you are a female, early thirties, ex-media-professional-turned-stay-at-home-parent-to-one, Ottolenghi apologist, brunette Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. Otherwise it probably won’t help.