Image: Dina Schipper
Mike Derer  /  AP
"Everyone says to me, 'This is the best thing that's ever happened to you,'" says Dina Schipper, who sees her children more after being laid off. "But what about on Monday morning, when I wake up and say, 'OK, now what do I do?'"
updated 4/1/2009 5:53:58 PM ET 2009-04-01T21:53:58

A few days after she was laid off last month, Dina Schipper's husband asked if she could make sure the dry cleaners came to pick up his shirts.

It was a perfectly routine domestic request, something she'd have done without thinking twice while she was working. But now it sent Schipper, who'd been media relations director at a New Jersey science museum for a decade, into a tailspin of self-doubt. "I was thinking, 'Oh no, is this what I have become?'" she says.

The recession claimed more than 650,000 jobs for a record third straight month in February, and similar painful losses are expected when the government releases March figures on Friday. Unemployment, already at a 25-year peak at 8.1 percent, is expected to rise to 8.5 percent. More than 4 million have lost jobs during the downturn.

For all but the very luckiest ones, the overriding question is, "How will I support myself and my family?" But along with that comes another immediate question, more mundane but vexing nonetheless: "How do I spend my time?"

"Losing your job is akin to identity theft," says Nancy Collamer, a career counselor in Connecticut and author of "You're robbed not only of a sense of who you are, but of what you were supposed to be doing on a daily basis."

That's something Joe Urbanski has struggled with every day for the two months since he lost his job as a computer programmer for a security company in O'Fallon, Mo. He had no severance payment, and is now trying to live on $135 a week in unemployment benefits.

To make things worse, three days after he was laid off, Urbanski's girlfriend of three years ended the relationship. Now Urbanski, 54, needs to find both a job and a new apartment.

He spends about three hours a day online, searching job sites. Beyond that, there's little to do. "I feel aimless, empty ... worthless is also a good word to describe it," Urbanski says. "I've had jobs for 30 years. It's devastating."

Urbanski says he spends some time reading science fiction books, and some time watching TV. "But honestly, sometimes I just sit and stare out the window," he says.

Andrew Lisy, laid off from a Wall Street job two months ago, counts himself among the luckier ones. At 24 and with nobody to support, the Manhattan bond trader was just beginning his post-college career. He figures he has the savings and severance pay to tide him over for six months.

His approach has been to immerse himself in new projects as he ponders the next step. He spends many hours each day on a social networking site he's created, The Free Agents (, where members can meet others recently unemployed, and swap tips on life between jobs.

Image: Andrew Lisy
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Since being laid off Andrew Lisy has started a Web site for those in a similar situation, and polished his cooking skills.
He's working out more, and has thrown his energy into becoming a better cook. "The other day I bought a vegan cookbook," he says. "I'm not a vegan, but I'm trying to cook all vegan to challenge myself. It's easier than you might think." The one luxury he allows himself: More sleep. He used to get up at 5 a.m for work. Now he sleeps 'til 9 or 10.

That's a luxury parents of young children don't have, of course. So Schipper, the former public relations executive, still gets up between 6:30 and 7 to get her 7-year-old off to school and her 3-year-old to daycare.

It's a similar story elsewhere: data from the government's American Time Use Survey show that when women are unemployed and looking for a job, the time they spend on child care and housework is far greater than that of unemployed men. (Not surprising, since employed women spend more time on child care and housework than employed men do.)

Schipper spends more time now at her daughter's school. She carpools kids to rehearsals. She recently attended her first Brownie meeting. Those are the positives. The negative is the continuing struggle to maintain a sense of purpose and structure to those hours between 9 and 3.

"Everyone says to me, 'This is the best thing that's ever happened to you,'" says Schipper, who's working on forming her own PR business. "But what about on Monday morning, when I wake up and say, 'OK, now what do I do?' It's been a mixed experience."

Mixed for her, but a boon to the household: "I feel like I always need to be doing something," she says. "So I'll vacuum. I'll mop the floor. What next? OK, I'll polish the silver!"

Peter Sterling has also found an outlet for his energies in both child care and household work. The 43-year-old advertising executive was living and working in Los Angeles when news of his layoff came in a call from the New York office. The very next day, he gave notice on his rented condo and planned a move to Phoenix, where his young children were living with his ex-wife and where he owned a house.

"That was the best therapy, to take definitive action right away," Sterling says. After the move, he focused on renovating his house by day and spending time with his kids, ages seven and 12, in the evening. "I guess I didn't realize how miserable I was not seeing my kids every day," he says.

Sterling is also actively seeking work, and he's learned that spending the day online is a temptation to be avoided. "It's tough to stay away from that computer," he says. "You can end up reading blogs all day. Suddenly it's time to pick up the kids." Soon, he found ways to get out of the house for in-person networking, such as attending meetings of local job networks.

And there's always Starbucks with the laptop. "It's really just like being home on the Internet, but at least you get to see different neighborhoods," he says.

Where Sterling found fulfillment with family, other find it with volunteer efforts.

Eric Shutt, 23, was recently laid off from a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. He's getting by on unemployment benefits, which cover his rent, and some family help. While he looks for a job in communications, he's volunteering for Artomatic, which stages free art displays and other cultural events in unfinished indoor spaces.

Shutt says he took the news of his layoff "as a good thing, which is partly a defense mechanism and partly real." Mostly, he says, "I wasn't going to let this thing take me down." He hopes his volunteer experience will spark new opportunities as he gets his career going.

On the other side of his career arc, retiree Lou Kramberg, 60, isn't looking for full-time work anymore.

But neither was he ready to stop working entirely when he was downsized out of his part-time consulting work doing training at New York City hospitals, a skill he honed over a 35-year career.

And so he decided to do the same thing for free, teaching computer literacy and job-seeking skills at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in Manhattan. His students include Holocaust survivors, new immigrants, and the newly unemployed.

"It's such a pleasure being able to give back," says Kramberg, living now on his pension. Besides, he says, the alternative was not ideal.

"I could have stayed home and driven my wife crazy," he says.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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