Eight months pregnant with our second kid, sweating day care costs for our first, and wondering, often aloud, whether our 6-year-old town house was an investment or a sinkhole, we got word of pending layoffs at my husband's company.
With national unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent, a record number of home foreclosures and a national landscape of pessimism, backup plans are a stark and prevailing reality. They're necessary and grown-up and fiscally responsible.
They're also a big fat distraction from the here and now. How much energy can we devote to our current careers when we're soul searching about our next? How invested do we get in our communities, knowing circumstances may require us to pull up roots in search of cheaper pastures? And how do we focus — just focus — on our kids, our friendships, our passions when we're mentally calculating our next move?
"Life isn't certain like it was before, and that causes anxiety," says Susan Kaiser Greenland, who runs Inner Kids children's program through the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. "You've got bills coming in that are greater than the revenue coming in, and no amount of mindfulness is going to change that."
But Kaiser Greenland and other experts in her field insist that cultivating a backup plan — in the form of aspirations, lofty pursuits, even outrageous dreams — leads us to richer, more authentic lives.
In many cases, backup planning introduces us to our real selves.
My husband was laid off that month. We delivered a baby with a distressing amount of uncertainty as to whether we actually had health insurance at the time. I returned to work earlier than I wanted to and more often than I wanted to, and we spent close to a year running through various scenarios from public school lotteries and ill-timed home sales to the heck with it all let's move in with my folks and cut all our costs and start our dream business.
We started asking ourselves questions, in other words, we hadn't bothered asking when things were running along smoothly.
"Life unfolds, and things happen," says psychotherapist Ronald Alexander, author of "Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss and Change" (New Harbinger Publications). "If you don't take time for mindful inquiry, for knowing yourself, things just happen, as opposed to them happening in a structured, guided way."
Planning ahead and switching gears is not a new phenomenon. The average baby boomer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, held 11 jobs from ages 18 to 44. The trick is to plan ahead while also tending to your present self.
"You're working on a dual track," says Alexander. "On track A you're taking care of the here and now and raising your children and paying your rent or mortgage and doing the best possible job you can do. But secondarily you're cultivating something that inspires you so you're not just going through every day and it's just drudgery."
Your inspiration may be building a dream home or publishing a novel or teaching literacy to impoverished youths. It may mean a smaller paycheck in exchange for work that feeds your soul. Or it could mean investing in a career that delivers a whole lot more cash at the end of the month. The point is you're envisioning your next move and embracing, not fearing, it.
Brooklyn-based artist Amy Stringer-Mowat was working as a merchandiser for Kiehl's skin care when she designed a series of state-shaped bamboo cutting boards for her 2010 wedding. In August of that year, she featured the cutting boards on her Etsy shop, Aheirloom. They captured the discerning eye of several holiday gift guide editors and she found herself filling orders for 5,000 cutting boards by December. She's since sold about 10,000 and signed a contract with Amazon.
"I think it's important to always be resourceful and keep your interests going," says Stringer-Mowat, 36. "When you're working for a large corporation it can feel redundant and never-ending, and I think that helped me think more about what I'd like to do in my free time and what I could learn from working for a corporation that would help me pursue those interests."
Ultimately, those interests can guide you toward a more fulfilling life — whether that means a career change that lets you use your current skills in a new way or learning to excel at a new pursuit. Stringer-Mowat no longer works in corporate America, devoting her time instead to Aheirloom and preparing for her first child, due in October.
"We're making a living, but we also have the flexibility to have a child and take time off for our family," she says. "And obviously we're getting to know ourselves through the process."