Fighting Unemployment Shame

Removing stigma around unemployment assistance and dealing with the anxiety and pressures of joblessness.

Unemployment rates. Whenever I hear those statistics rattled off along with other markers of the economy it’s hard to remember that there are people attached to that statistic. Unlike the stock market, oil prices, new home development, and a number of other industry based numbers driven by business, unemployment is a number that is directly tied to a living breathing person. Having been on the other side of an unemployment check, it’s also easy to forget that you yourself are also human and not experience a punch to the gut when that statistic is announced. No one wants to believe that “I am a statistic”, and a bad one at that.

While a graduate student, I moved back to my home state in an attempt to gain a footing for my professional career there. I was also pregnant, had no full time employment, and thus no benefits. My husband, who has a chronic medical condition, was far savvier about public assistance given his need to receive health insurance throughout his young adult life and thus signed us up for healthcare through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (Thank you President Obama for giving us prenatal care and a healthy and successful delivery of our beautiful son!). As a result of our consistent lack of stable funds, we qualified for Medicaid and thus were also eligible for food stamps and WIC. Initially my reaction to this fact was “woohoo! I have health insurance, and we can eat!” (Let me tell you, those stereotypes of pasta and peanut butter diets of struggling students are not a stereotype. They are fact.) But the first time I walked into the supermarket with my growing belly and looked down at those WIC checks I started to feel something I had not expected. Shame. Trying to pick out just the right cheese, figure out how to budget for a good variety of fruits and vegetables, disappointment at the type of milk I could get. It felt like a test to navigate the strict parameters of how I was able to spend government money on poor quality food and somehow manage to keep it together when I handed over the checks to a cashier without acting awkward and embarrassed. 

You see, I had worked at a supermarket in high school and I knew exactly how cashiers looked at moms with WIC checks. Like they’re sizing you up to figure out why you need them as if you are gaming the system or have some major problem with you that prevents you from taking care of your child “the right way.” But wasn’t I doing the right thing by finally being able to eat a “healthy” diet that would sustain myself through pregnancy and give my son the ability to develop properly (and eventually provide him with food throughout the first year of his life including the formula I needed but couldn’t afford)? I dropped to an unhealthy weight as a graduate student because before I met my husband and we could combine our “income” to eat more than milk fortified with carnation instant breakfast in the morning. I couldn’t do that to myself while pregnant. And I wouldn’t have qualified for those checks before this.

When I think about the struggle with shame parents go through, there always seems to be something to be embarrassed about. I act old, I hug too much, I am a bad singer (only one of these things is true for me though!). Providing for your family through a public support program should not be part of that shame. So how do we cope with the shame and better yet how do we get rid of it?

In psychotherapy we teach our patients to challenge thoughts that influence our mood and behaviors. In this case, the thought that I must be a bad mother for using the WIC program or that others are looking at me weird and judging me for using it. While that second thought may actually be true (we can’t control others unfortunately), the first one is DEFINITELY not. And I shouldn’t let either of those things prevent me from using the checks I am giving from taking care of myself and those I love. 

Thought reframing, in particular, is a useful tool to both look at situations differently to decrease stress and sometimes find positives about what we are upset about. So note, in this case we are NOT looking for a silver lining. There may not always be one and sometimes that can dismiss the stress we feel as not being valid. There is inherent pressure in looking for a positive in a negative situation, God’s meaning behind a stressful event, and so on. I’m not about that. Instead we are supposed to take a negative thought and shift it towards something more pragmatic that can help us to feel at ease, motivated, or —possibly— grateful for a situation. In the case of my first thought, there must be something wrong with me…that can be reframed into, “I am doing what needs to be done for myself, and for that I am actually sending a message to my son that family comes before everything else—including pride.” For others looking at me weird, I would also reframe that as a learning lesson for myself and my son around the importance of self and family care. Knowing me, I would probably add something about personal strength in overcoming an obstacle in my way because Damn, women are just SO STRONG.

Now that I am on the other side of school, both myself and my husband have jobs, and daycare bills are behind us I have to say I have gained weight. Being able to eat decent meals again instead of putting everything towards our son’s development for the first time in over 10 years is pretty amazing. Living below the poverty line, including living with my parents for 3 years due to lack of ability to pay for housing, was hard. The two years on WIC were filled with constant anxiety (what if someone I knew saw me?). And yet, it was temporary. Eventually we found ourselves—not back on our feet because I don’t want to add a negative here and act as if that was our fault—-through the storm having done what we need to do to weather it. My son may be too young to remember those times, but I won’t forget. Now it becomes an important reminder about why we do things like donate groceries for others as the supermarket, and other good deeds for those in need. The reframe here is we all have hard moments. Those moments are temporary and can be character making. No shame allowed.

Dr. Lila Pereira is a licensed Pediatric Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry. She works and sees patients with a history of cancer or blood disorders in the suburbs of New York City at a large Academic Medical Center. Her research explores the importance of different forms of peer support in families facing pediatric and young adult cancer. She is also a board member of Families in Psychology Project, a research and advocacy group supporting psychologists in their quest to become parents while progressing through the academic pipeline. She has conducted research examining the barriers trainees and early career psychologists face when starting a family of their own.


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