Peggy Treadwell remembers vividly that morning last June when she picked up the phone and heard her husband tell her he had just lost his job as a food service executive.
"I was shocked," says Treadwell, a clinical social worker who lives in Chevy Chase. "I was seeing my first client. I kept wondering all day if people could see how shocked I was."
Without warning, Treadwell, 41, and her husband Jay, 44, were forced--like many suddenly out-of-work Americans--to grapple with the emotional and financial ramifications: the anger ("Why us?"); the uncertainty ("Will we have to move?"); the necessary cutbacks in spending.
Through it all, she kept a professional eye on what was happening to her family--and to herself, thrust as she was into the role of primary breadwinner during the five months her husband was searching for a new job. Among her conclusions: A spouse can be equally devastated by a mate's job loss, but must play a crucial role in helping the family survive what is very much "a crisis."
Because the still-employed spouse of a two-career marriage is "the survivor," in Treadwell's terms, she has created a "Workshop for Survivors" to help others benefit from the lessons she learned "by trial and error."
"Job loss is a consuming and overwhelming time for a family," says Treadwell, who is on the staff of the Metropolitan Psychiatric Group, "but we learned that when the survivor makes a few strategized changes, this crisis time need not be devastating to a marriage . . . In fact, our marriage has been strengthened by both of us surviving in the end."
There were, she acknowledges, any number of "errors" in the way she dealt initially with her husband's job loss. Perhaps most surprising to her was that her skills as a professional family counselor were at first a hindrance. Wanting to help, she immediately began asking her husband, "Can you talk to your boss about it?" "Can I help you write a re'sume'?"
Her advice at that point only tended to "accentuate" her husband's feelings of ineffectiveness. "You really can't be a counselor," says Treadwell, "and also be the supportive spouse and a lover."
Meanwhile, Peggy Treadwell found herself getting angry, asking such questions as, "Why couldn't he have seen the handwriting on the wall?" "Why couldn't he have prepared us better?"
While her husband took the necessary, but time-consuming steps of sorting out the kind of new job he was after, she wanted him out searching. "He was sharing dreams. I got angry. I wanted something concrete. Dreams are what he needed, but I wasn't ready for it.
"Those were the days when I was so anxious. I had a real fear of losing everything we had. I was astounded at how much of my self-esteem was tied up in Jay's employment. It was really a scary time. I lost touch with many realities."
But then she began to realize that she, like her husband, was passing through the four recognized emotional stages that commonly affect people grieving over a death (and many who have lost a job): denial, then anger, a period of depression and ultimately acceptance.
"My personal experience is that the survivor also experiences a deep personal loss, and he or she must also work through the stages . . . My most important and difficult discovery is that this working through must be done separate from the job seeker."
For job counseling, Jay Treadwell turned to a career consultant, whose help they found beneficial.
This letting go "often feels like abandonment to the survivor," says Peggy Treadwell. But it is necessary, so the other person "can go through the growing process and get on with the action."
When she let go, she says, her husband was relieved. "What he really needed most was to tell me how he was feeling and let me just listen and hear. There was a period of time--when I was still asking, 'Have you talked to so and so?'--that he stopped letting me know."
The anger she had kept bottled up, she is convinced, resulted in stress-related physical pains, which told her she had to "take care of myself." With gradual acceptance of the job-loss reality, she began to practice the coping strategies she has often counseled others on. For her it meant meditation, other relaxation techniques and exercise--she's a swimmer--at least 20 minutes a day.
"My husband is a runner. He runs with a group. That was a place he could ventilate. It was good for his mental health."
Treadwell, as the income-producing spouse, also began to focus more attention on her own career, which meant another adjustment. "I had been the primary caretaker at home--Supermom. I'd been doing everything so he could have time for his career."
When she had to relinquish some of the home responsibility, she found herself reluctant, even though her husband readily accepted the new chores. There was, in a sense, an issue of control: the fear that she was losing her place in the family. "You can't imagine how difficult it was for me to let go."
Together, the Treadwells developed other strategies.
"Jay and I sat down and worked hard on budgeting. We were able to say, 'We can give the job search a year and be able to stay here,' " which eased much of the worry about having to move, even though there was still a feeling of financial stress.
They learned to set a specific time to talk about the job search. "We discovered that if we began talking about the subject at 6 p.m., we continued talking about it until midnight. Our best time was to postpone discussion until at least 9 p.m. and to limit it to 30 minutes daily."
They took time off to be away together--such as a day-long bicyling jaunt on the Eastern Shore--when they tried to avoid any job talk.
They decided it was best to be open about their family difficulties with their children--a son, 13, and a daughter, 10--and with their friends.
With more time at home, Jay Treadwell developed a closer bond with his children, who subsequently "shared his feelings. It let them see his sadness and his grief--and his sense of humor. They learned the realities of adults."
Their friends "really did want to hear where we were, but they didn't want to ask." Job loss "is such a threatening thing to others. They wonder, 'Could it happen to us?'
"Just to say Jay didn't have an interview or he did--that was all they wanted to hear. Not knowing is what caused the tension.
"To be open with our friends was difficult, but because we could be open, I think our children could be open with their friends."
Although they all went through a difficult time, "So much good has come out of this painful time," Peggy Treadwell can say now. "There's a lot of renewed strength."
And how did they celebrate the new job?
"We stayed at home with a bottle of champagne by the fire."
Clinical social worker Peggy Treadwell's free Workshop for Survivors: 7:30 to 9 p.m. April 13, Metropolitan Psychiatric Group, 4400 MacArthur Blvd. NW, Suite 203. For more information: 342-1344.