Battling Despair: One Mother's Search For A Job

Sylvia Martinez sits outside her apartment building. i

Before she lost her job, Sylvia Martinez worked as a human resources manager. Now she struggles to remember how to act in an interview and, most importantly, how not to convey her desperation. Jessica Goldstein/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein/NPR
Sylvia Martinez sits outside her apartment building.

Before she lost her job, Sylvia Martinez worked as a human resources manager. Now she struggles to remember how to act in an interview and, most importantly, how not to convey her desperation.

Jessica Goldstein/NPR

For the past eight months, Sylvia Martinez has worn the wardrobe of the unemployed. Every morning, she has paired bulky sweat pants with shapeless T-shirts and declared herself dressed.

But on a recent Wednesday, Martinez slips on a long black skirt and slicks her hair into a ponytail. This small act of dressing is, very clearly, an incredible psychological boost.

Since Martinez, 38, lost her job as a human resources manager at a medium-sized company in November, she has been applying to more than 35 jobs a week. But her diligence has yielded only a handful of phone conversations and five or six interviews. This utter lack of prospects and complete reversal of her fortunes has been demoralizing. So demoralizing that on one desperate late night, Martinez ended up doing something she never imagined she would do: She swallowed a handful of pills. She woke up the next morning and went to church. Sitting in the pews, she asked for forgiveness.

"Just asked God to help me," she says. "I didn't want to let my children down any more than I already did."

Then, a few weeks ago, a small printing company called. It was impressed with her resume and wanted to see her in person.

Finally, a reason to break out her office-wear. Martinez was ecstatic.

One Of Millions

Martinez is, of course, not alone in her quest for work and her struggle to maintain her spirits. This month, the Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent. According to its numbers, 345,000 people lost their jobs in May. It was the highest unemployment rate in 26 years, but many news headlines emphasized the good news in the statistics: The rate of job losses is slowing; things are looking up.

Get Ready

On the day of the interview, Martinez works hard all morning to not get too carried away. She has had high hopes before. The last employer to invite her for an interview actually called her back for a second. She had walked the office and met the employees. One even pulled her aside and told her that he knew she had gotten the job. Martinez went home and told her children that their long nightmare was over.

But it wasn't over. Five days later, the company called back. They had given the job to someone else. Martinez couldn't believe it.

So much of the morning of this recent interview is spent trying to wrestle down her hopes, reduce their power to something more manageable. This is difficult because her conversation with the printing company's hiring manager earlier in the week was distinctly promising.

"She sounded just as eager as I was to meet with me as I was to meet with her," Martinez says.

Since that conversation, Martinez has been devoting a lot of time to figuring out "what not to do." She knows she has to focus on that so that another job prospect doesn't slip through her fingers.

After careful review of that last experience, she came to the following conclusion: The main problem was that she seemed too eager. But she's going to fix that.

"I don't want to seem desperate," she says. "I know that the last interview, I know that I seemed desperate. And although I am by all means, I don't want to seem that way. I don't want to come across to them that way."

There is only one problem with that strategy. Martinez has been desperate for so long that it's hard for her to remember what it feels like to not be desperate. It's ironic, she says, that for 10 years her job was to hire people, and now it's hard for her to remember anything about her former life, including how to behave in an interview.

"So I found myself calling someone that I used to work with at the last company I worked for," Martinez says. "And you know, just telling them, 'What was it that I asked you?' You know, 'How was I?' Just because I have forgotten that."

After that reconnaissance mission, Martinez says, she came up with a mental checklist.

She is not going to explain, as she did at her last interview, that if they offer her a penny more than unemployment she will gladly take the job. Or talk in any way about the financial difficulties that wake her every morning at 3. In fact, she says, she is not even going to mention being unemployed — even privately, to herself.

"I'm not even going to think about being unemployed at this point," she says with determined conviction.

The Day Of The Interview

It's with this stern optimism that Martinez climbs into her Saturn Vue and sets off for her interview.

Once she hits Interstate 95, Martinez seems to relax. For her last job, she drove this road every morning. But unlike other commuters stuck battling traffic in Northern Virginia, Martinez actually liked it. It was her time by herself, and now she's back in her element. She is someone with somewhere to go.

But 40 minutes later, when the office park comes into view, her confidence begins to evaporate.

"I'm getting a little anxious now," she says, jiggling her knee. Then, without realizing it, she begins to mutter under her breath. A single word, repeated over and over.

"Goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness."

Martinez parks the car in a space to the right of the door and sits for a while with her hands on the wheel.

"Now it's just a matter of going in there," she says, looking at the wall of brown brick in front of her.

She gets out of the car and disappears into the building, a rectangle with darkly tinted glass. Thirty minutes later, she appears again, and there is a slight fall in her face. The interview didn't go as planned.

"I think they're looking for someone who has really strong accounting experience, which I don't," she says grimly. "As soon as I heard 'strong accounting,' I was like, uh!"

Martinez says she was honest with them about her limitations, and the mood in the room cooled. They didn't even have a conversation about salary.

Sitting in the car, her thoughts turn to her children — 19-year-old twin girls and a son. They had all intended to go to community college in January, but after losing her job, Martinez told them college had to be put on hold.

"I've always told my children how a college education is necessary," she says with tears in her eyes. "I have to get a job now so that they can at least go in August. How can I take that from them? I can't. I can't."

Martinez feels certain that when she gets home, they won't press her too much to give them the interview play-by-play. "I don't think so," she said. "Just because the last interview was such a disappointment for all of us that ... I don't think they will."

Just like her kids don't ask for details, Martinez says recently that she has been avoiding the news reports. The stories about job losses — even job numbers that are declining more slowly than before — just kill her, she says. She knows too well exactly what all those people will go through.

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