Navigating the Sandwich
From High-Powered Lawyer to Healthcare Advocate
I did everything right -- including saving for the layoff I saw coming. But it took three years and a new business idea to get back in
I am an unemployed, highly skilled professional of the Gen X era, rapidly approaching (but not yet) 50.
I grew up with parents who told me I could have it all if I worked hard. I went to college and law school, graduated with honors, worked on Capitol Hill, at a Fortune 100 company, and at several prestigious law firms. I thought I had done it all right.
Then suddenly, at 47, I found myself out of work when my law firm closed down. Thankfully, I kind of saw this coming and saved a lot. But I had no idea it would take me almost three years to get back into the workforce.
Shortly after my layoff, as I explored other career options, my dad was abruptly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Obviously, I did not expect this at all. And soon after, in my prime earning years, I became a caregiver.
My journey lasted three months — navigating myself and my father through the byzantine US healthcare system. I moved into a hotel across the street from the hospital (there were many complications with his disease) and spent about 12-14 hours a day with him and his caregiving team. Due to my unemployed status, I had the time and flexibility to be there with him. It was a full-time job, and I will be forever grateful that I could participate during his time of need.
Had I been employed at a law firm or position such as my previous pressure-cooker DC lobbying job, I would have had to avail myself of the Family Medical Leave Act and take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. For some, this is enough time to make other arrangements and sort out longer-term care needs; for others with more limited resources, the amount of leave time may not be the most worrying factor, as they face the realities of going without a paycheck, lacking a close family network for support, and more.
What I learned during my time at the hospital, and at a skilled nursing facility, is that there is very little support out there for caregivers. The time, additional resources, and pressures associated with caregiving were unfathomable to me prior to this experience. I do not have children, but many my age (my siblings included) are in the growing “sandwich generation,” balancing work, child rearing, and elder care. I met many of these folks in the hospital as they rushed in after work to take care of their parent in the evenings, then hurried home to be sure their kids’ homework was done and that they were ready for school the next day. I have no idea how they managed it all.
As my dad was dying, I wrote an article for my local newspaper about my personal journey and the challenges I encountered navigating the healthcare system. Ironically, the article was published the day my father died, so he never got to read it. But we had talked about it, and I know he supported my vision to create a business focused on helping guide caregivers through periods of health-care crises.
With that my start-up business, Guide4care, was born. I gathered a team of business, caregiving, and nonprofit experts to help me build a model of service that would support others during similar times of need. I spent a year or so pounding the pavement to get clients. I pitched to magazines and radio and television stations to get the word out. I had some success, primarily due to tenacity and perseverance.
During this time, I also continued to network and apply for government relations jobs (full time, part time, contract), but was unable to secure anything permanent or promising. I then hired a professional writer to polish up my resume, reached out to my Senate contacts, and beefed up my LinkedIn profile — still nothing. Recruiters informed me I was “expensive” and “older” now. I certainly knew ageism was out there, but what could I do about that? So I continued to build my business, refining and shaping the service delivery model for prospective 2020 clients. I also wrote and published a novel.
I think it’s really true in life that you have to follow your passion — and oftentimes in my career, I did not. I knew health policy and writing were areas of professional strength, but I have come to believe that I was working for the wrong clients (most of the time), which kept me from honoring my own passions and strong drive to help people. After all, that is why I got into politics in the first place. It was time for me, in midlife, to return to the idealistic person I was right out of college on Capitol Hill trying to make a difference.
Entrepreneurship is a struggle fraught with high highs and low lows, but if you have an idea you believe in and the perseverance to weather the storm, you can do it. As I write this, we just launched with our first client. And have meetings with three more prospective ones. I do not have to go back to working in an office getting tortured by insecure colleagues nor sexually harassed by powerful men. I have flexibility to take some time off in case my mother becomes ill.
This time, I can do it my own way. To pay the bills, I’m doing some freelance work as a writer and writing federal grants for hospitals, universities, and nonprofits — some of which I have actually won.
Although I had a total meltdown when I turned 40 and fled to Italy for a bit to recover, I honestly can say I am not dreading turning 50. It’s possible that I am happier than I have ever been, because I am helping others and doing what I love each day. My father’s death was the worst event of my life, and I still struggle with the grief, but I tried to turn this awful experience into something positive and helpful to others. If I can do it, surely you can too.