I didn't want the job in the first place. For six years I was a stay-at-home mom, but after months of budget cuts and a lot of denial, my husband and I faced the inevitable: We needed a second income.
Even as I searched the classifieds, I prayed constantly for God to rescue me from having to return to work. I dreaded the hours I'd have to spend away from my kids. I cried nearly every night. But the growing stack of bills didn't go away. I finally prayed, "Fine, God. If this is what you want, I'll do it." It was nothing close to a peaceful acceptance of God's will.
I sunk into depression and felt like a failure. So many other mothers managed to stay at home. Why couldn't I? I was angry with myself for not pursuing the freelance writing career I'd always planned. Now it was too late. We needed the income immediately.
My husband, Brad*, called from work one day to give me a phone number. A coworker told him about a self-employed ordained minister who ran a national ministry from his home. He needed an administrative assistant. "He says Mr. Ray* is a great guy, and the hours are flexible. You may even work at home sometimes," Brad told me.
My spirits lifted as I called the number. When I arrived at Mr. Ray's home for an interview, he led me down a narrow stairway into the basement. There were two offices separated by a library. When I learned I'd be Mr. Ray's only employee, I felt discomfort at the thought of working with him in this isolated setting.
But my reservations were soon laid to rest. Mr. Ray traveled for weeks at a time. Plus he helped me set up my home office so I could work from there when possible. I set my own schedule. I thought I'd hit the jackpot when it came to family-friendly jobs! I thought, God must have led me to this job. He gave me what I neededan income without a lot of hours away from home.
Several weeks into my new job, Mr. Ray walked into my office and asked me a question. When I turned to him, he gave me an odd look, then stopped mid-sentence. "What?" I asked.
He explained reluctantly that my beautiful eyes were distracting. "They take my breath away," he said, "and I can't think."
That night I asked Brad what he thought of Mr. Ray's revelation. "That's kind of weird," he said. "It's not like he was hitting on you, right?"
"Right," I said with confidence. I believed Mr. Ray wasn't trying to "start something." He seemed happily married and was old enough to be my father.
But after a few months, he was complimenting me daily, saying things such as, "Oh, good, you're wearing your hair up the way I like it." Just when it started to bother me, he'd leave on a trip. I'd relax again, reminding myself how fortunate I was to have a job with such freedom. I tried to count my blessings. Every day I read letters from people thanking Mr. Ray for making a difference in their life. I was part of that.
When we started meeting some of Mr. Ray's associates for lunch, he and his colleagues seemed to appreciate my suggestions. When the others left, Mr. Ray and I would frequently stick around to review the notes I'd taken. This gradually turned into lunch meetings at which only Mr. Ray and I were present. Though it did feel odd to be in a restaurant alone with a man other than my husband, we did some of our best strategizing over steak and salad. Isn't this what business people do every day? I reasoned.
After a while, I realized I was increasingly self-conscious every time I walked in the office. The compliments didn't stop, whether they were about my work or my appearance. Without analyzing why, I stopped wearing mascara and perfume to work. I tried not to initiate conversation with Mr. Ray.
He began to tell me personal things. He once confided he'd met a young woman he'd encountered online. She'd been sexually abused, and he counseled her. He explained there was nowhere else to talk privately, so they ended up in her hotel room, stretched out on her bed. "Many pastors would say I shouldn't have done this," he said, "but it's important for this girl to see there are men she can trust. She told me it was the first time she'd been alone with a man, and he hadn't made a move on her."
Mr. Ray had many such stories, and I never knew what to say.
I didn't have the nerve to tell him my true opinion: He was playing with fire.
Then Mr. Ray took things further. Once, while preparing for a business trip, he joked, "I'll be sitting in a hot tub, thinking about you."
"Thanks," I said awkwardly.
"Actually, I'd better not think about you there, or I'll picture you in a bikini. I better not go there."
My only response was to leave the room. I hadn't been in the working world much before, so I told myself this went with the territory. I'm not going to be a prude and overreact to some innocent joking, I thought.
Even so, I got up the courage to confide in my neighbor, a Christian woman who'd been in the workforce for 20 years. She took a big-sister approach: "You get used to stuff like that when you've been out there as long as I have. If you want to keep a job in this world, you can't be so sensitive. Toughen up! It's not like you see him every day, like some women do. As long as you're not attracted to him, you'll be fine."
Knowing I wasn't attracted to Mr. Ray made me feel safe. Furthermore, the fact I was nearly 100 pounds overweight made me sure I was misreading his signals. I decided to "toughen up."
Nevertheless, every time Mr. Ray made me uncomfortable, I told my husband. Brad wasn't thrilled. "He dates my wife more than I do," he said once, referring to my lunch meetings with my boss.
"Do you want me to quit?" I asked.
"I can't afford to take you out like that, so it hurts me a little. But I don't want to be selfish, especially since your lunch dates for the last six years have been peanut butter and jelly with the kids. Besides, you're enjoying the work. Where else could you find a job with this kind of flexibility? It's your choice."
Finally, two things forced me to make a decision. One day Mr. Ray and I met with a woman who supported the ministry. Later, Mr. Ray told me that 20 years ago he almost married her. Because she was seriously ill, she broke off the engagement. He told me about her health problems and surgeries, finally relating to me her breast reduction surgery. I was stunned when he began commenting on her breast size. I held up a hand and said, "No. Don't tell me anymore. Please."
Saying no to Mr. Ray for the first time gave me a new feeling of strength. I realized then I'd put up with too much for too long. Today was a good start, I told myself. It's my own fault this has gone on so long.
I'd been at my job nearly eight months, and I now decided I wouldn't stay longer than a year. But since this was my first job in many years, I felt it was important to leave with a good referral. So, I forced myself to be okay with things, at least for a while longer.
Not long after that resolution, Mr. Ray brought up another red-flag subject. He explained he had a chat-room ministry. It was his "calling" to help insecure women feel beautiful, writing them daily and even meeting some of them. He found these women at chat rooms for large women. "Big is beautiful," he said, "and these women need to hear that." A light went on in my head, accompanied by a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Then he began talking about me, saying he enjoyed making me feel good about myself. He said, "Hey, if I can make you feel sexy, what's the harm in that? You have a husband at homeit's not like anything would ever come of it."
I felt ill. It sounded like the classic test-the-waters statement. Was he trying to get me to say something he wanted to hear? He was on dangerous ground; it took me a while to realize I was, too.
As the shock wore off, I gathered my things and said I had to leave. He acted confused, and asked me to stay and talk, but I already was walking up the stairs.
I felt strange, and I heard a voice in my head saying, Leave right now.
Later at home, I announced to my husband I wasn't going back. He hugged me tightly. His relief was obvious. "If you felt so strongly," I asked him, "why didn't you insist I leave?"
"I guess I never wanted you to say I made you quit," he said. "But I'm telling you, that man was on my last nerve!"
I wrote Mr. Ray a letter, telling him how uncomfortable I'd been with the way he'd conducted himself. I expressed regret that I hadn't said anything sooner. It was a difficult letter to write; I felt like a coward. Wasn't I two-faced, listening for months like a friend while keeping my true thoughts to myself? However, all confusion died the minute I signed my name. I was free!
I never spoke to Mr. Ray again, but he did write me a letter in reply. Part of it was whiny, asking me to remember all he'd done for me. I felt he was trying to make me feel guilty. The other part was an apology. "My conscience is clear," he said. "If I'm guilty of anything, it's of being unwise. I've learned a hard lesson."
I have, too. Several.
I'm not always as strong as I think.
I never thought I was naive, but even the most sensible woman can have a blind spot. My depression, undiagnosed until several weeks after I quit, made me even more vulnerable. Plus, I never confided in my pastor, sisters, or mother about my concerns. I feared they'd tell me to leave right away, and I didn't believe they could possibly understand my situation. After all, they were financially and emotionally stable. But those who care the most about us, especially if they're not close to the situation, are precisely the people to turn to. We need wise counsel in times of turmoil.
I'm quite often stronger than I think.
I felt I'd already failed at my job as a mother (I wasn't home), and as a writer (I didn't try hard enough). These insecurities left me susceptible to Mr. Ray's compliments. Afraid I might not find another job, or I might not be liked if I spoke up, I allowed myself to believe I was only successful because Mr. Ray believed in me. It wasn't true. I had it in me all along, but like many women, I felt trapped. I couldn't see all my options. Men who harass are master manipulators. Our strongest defense lies in these two areas: our God-given intuition, and faith in our value in Christ.
Honesty saves time and stress.
The biggest thing I did right was tell my husband absolutely everything. However, I should have been more honest in how I reacted to my boss' subtle advances. I should have asked him early on not to comment on my appearance or share such personal stories. Studies show that in a surprisingly high number of casesup to 90 percentthe harasser will stop when confronted directly. This is especially true if it's a fairly "mild" level of harassment, such as off-color jokes, excessive comments on appearance, or repeated requests for dates. It's not easy, but women need to be bold in drawing boundaries with men. It might be embarrassing, even scary, but we must remember we've done the right thing.
Having gained the perspective that comes with time and distance, I'm embarrassed I stayed in that job so long. After a crying jag that lasted two days, I sought help from a Christian counselor. Counseling and antidepressants cleared away the confusion and discouragement, allowing me to see life with hope. Most importantly, I was able to understand how close God really was at the time
I felt so alone. His protection and leading were always there, but profound self-doubt caused me to mistrust what I sensed.
The emotional strength I once lacked increases every day, but I guard it. Now that I know I'm prone to depression, I exercise, consistently study the Bible, pray, and seek counseling when needed. Knowing more about sexual harassment makes me stronger as well. I've learned my reactions were typical of most women in this situation.
I've been back home with my kids for several years now and have finally launched my writing career. The peace I have is my confirmation that, for now, I'm right where I should be. Should I ever choose to re-enter the workforce, I'll enter it a much wiser, bolder person.
G. L. Klienhardt is a pseudonym for a freelance writer living in Arizona.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.