Picking up the pieces: I quit my job to save my family, but lost both

Isaac Mugo

Isaac Mugo during the interview at Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi on January 18, 2023.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

When I resigned from my job over a personal issue at home, I never imagined it would take me seven years to get another job. I am saying seven because I am tired of counting my years of unemployment. I won’t say seven years and counting.  

I remember that fateful evening in September, 2015 like it was yesterday. I sat at my desk waiting for my boss to return to the office so I could hand her my resignation letter. She had been a great boss, and I didn’t want her to learn about my resignation from HR. I wanted to give her the courtesy of hearing the news from me.

When she came and I told her about my decision, she didn't have much to say to me. The only question she asked before saying goodnight was whether I had mailed the notice to HR in which case I said I hadn't. She signed her section and gave me the green light to take it higher.

I had struggled a lot with my decision to quit work. It had taken me weeks to craft the letter that I now held limply in my hands. My trash can have got fed numerous torn drafts every day. I kept changing the dates on the letter, my anxiety heightening because my employment contract required me to serve a 30 days’ notice before resigning.

I must confess, those weeks were tough. I continued reporting to work, travelled widely on assignments and tried to do my job well all the while being weighed down by the decision I was about to make. My mind was disturbed, it had been for a while, and this affected my ability to perform. Perhaps this is why my boss never asked me why I was resigning. It had been a slow fade, and my boss must have seen it coming.

I had joined the company in March, 2010 after successfully interviewing for the assistant manager's position. I had negotiated a good pay with staff benefits. I had assured the panel that I wouldn't have issues resigning from my previous office without notice.

In fact, I had told them that I was currently on paternity leave as my wife and I had just welcomed our first-born daughter. I was excited when I was invited to interview because passing this interview meant that I would have better income to raise my young family. I mean this was a good company and they paid well. So it was good news to me when I was shortlisted for a second interview and later informed that I had passed. I signed my employment contract the afternoon after that second interview.

Now, resigning from my job had come with a cost. I would forfeit my salary for resigning without notice. I didn't care much though. My new job contract guaranteed me of a 50% more salary, medical insurance cover for me and my family and access to financing for my personal projects; a car loan and mortgage when I wanted to. But having no pay for the month also meant no rent, no food for my breastfeeding wife and no bus fare to my new office until end of March.

One week into the new job, I was totally dry. I explained my predicament to my new boss and she was very compassionate. One evening after work, she asked me to follow her to an ATM on the ground floor. There, she withdrew some money and gave it to me without any record or witness. I thanked her and promised to refund once I got my pay that month.

About three years into the job, my salary had almost doubled. My colleagues and I worked hard and we were rewarded handsomely for our effort. My performance appraisal was always on the green and it came with a salary bump each year. Life was fantastic. My family was doing well, and seeing them happy energised me to show up at work and do my best. By now, my family had grown and I was now a dad of two amazing children.

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Then one day, in 2014, it all came tumbling down…gradually but painfully.

It was a sunny afternoon and I was walking back to the office after lunch break. The security guard stopped me and I excused myself from the colleagues whom we had gone for lunch with.

“There are two ladies at the reception who are demanding to see HR,” he started.

I began explaining to him that I was in no position to book an appointment with HR as I worked in a different department but he interjected.

“Boss, one of them says she is your wife.”

My mouth went dry. I gulped for air as wild thoughts rushed through my mind, “What might have happened to cause my wife to come to the office in the middle of the day?”

The guard went on to inform me that the two ladies insisted to speak to HR and that one of them was holding a small baby. From his description, I realised it was my wife and her sister. My mind raced as I thought about the tension we had been having over the past few days. Different scenarios played in my mind, all of them scandalous. I decided the safest thing to do would be to avoid them completely and address the issue once I got home. So I quietly made my way to the desk as a cocktail of anger, anxiety and other unpalatable emotions brewed within me.

Hardly had I settled at my desk than my boss summoned me to her office. She went straight to the point.

“Isaac, how are things at home?”

I didn’t know where to begin but she handed me a lifeline by asking about my performance at work. Let’s backtrack, before my wife showed up at my workplace, we had had a couple of disagreements over the past few months. This had thrown me off my game and affected my efficiency at work. I was glad she was asking about my dismal performance and not the drama I had dealt with a few minutes ago.

The next performance appraisal was approaching and she worried that I might fall below average. Things had spiralled so quickly that I was on the verge of being put on a performance improvement programme pending suspension from office.

I admitted to having some trouble at home which was no excuse for how badly I was doing at work really, but I put it out there.

My boss listened patiently and gave me the afternoon off to go home and talk things over with my wife. Again, you see why she was a great person to work with?

I dreaded going home so I bought some time and got to the house in the evening. For some strange reason, I couldn’t gather the courage to broach the subject. I studied her for any signs of remorse, an outburst or even an explainer of why she showed up at the office but there was none. Her nonchalance was like gasoline, fuelling my anger and fanning it to wild flames. It took a lot of willpower to stay calm and sleep that night. But sleep I did, and the net morning I left for work.

When HR called me the following morning I wasn't surprised. But nothing had prepared me for the shock of receiving a call from the Director of HR himself and directly from his office line. A mid-level officer like myself shouldn't be summoned by the director. No! The director shouldn't even know my name. I couldn’t help but wonder what my wife told HR to earn the director's audience.

The director is a busy person so he wasted no time beating around the bush or mincing his words. The accusations levelled against me came tumbling out of his mouth. I had been accused of neglecting the family and having sexual affairs at the office. I was also faulted for failing to collect medical insurance ecard for one of our kids. Lastly, I was accused of going home late in the pretence of working long hours. Surprisingly, the accusations didn’t bother me at all. May be I was still mesmerised by the presence of the man sitting before me. His eyes were fixed on me and he studied me as he spoke. "Isaac! Are you listening?"

"Sorry Sir. Please come again... I wasn’t...I didn't hear you well."

"You have a beautiful family."

"Thank you sir."

"Your baby looks exactly like you. Is she your first child?"

"No Sir. Our second."

"Your wife wants us to be channelling your monthly pay to her account." I stood up. I realised my clenched palms were sweating and I was shaking in my seat. Then I remembered I was in the director's office and he was still talking. I sat down.

He informed me that the company’s policy couldn’t allow my wife’s demands to be met. However, I was encouraged to resolve the matter and get help. That was probably a diplomatic way of him telling me to man up and handle my affair.

I must confess the walk back to my work station was dreadfully long. I could feel the eyes of my colleagues as I walked past them. I imagined them pitying me and discussing juicy gossip about my wife and I in hushed tones. I was drowning in embarrassment and couldn’t get to my seat fast enough.

When I got home that day, I wanted to confront my wife and ask her why she had exposed me in such a brutal manner. Instead, I went straight to bed. In the morning I woke up, prepared for work as if nothing had happened and left.

The next few days were torture and one of my bosses who noticed my inability to concentrate in meetings referred me to a counsellor. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that everyone was talking about me. Security guards knew me by name because all of a sudden, after working quietly in the same company for six years, everyone knew my story. And not the good kind of story, not being known because of a promotion or an award but for scandal.

Resignation letter.
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Towards the end of that week, I began toying with the idea of resigning. On Saturday, I composed myself and decided to face my wife. I thought if I made her understand the pain she had put me through, it would somehow make things better. I was wrong. She cut me short, retorting, "Why can't you be a man enough and..." I raised my hand and almost hit her. She had the baby in her arms, and that snapped me out of my rage. What kind of man was I turning into?

For one and a half years after the office incident, I continued to work. I don’t know if I can accurately describe it as work because my performance had totally deteriorated. I was a man who took pleasure in doing my job well, meeting targets and surpassing them. I enjoyed being in the office and interacting with my colleagues. I had thrived in the work environment. But all that changed drastically. I was irritable, I think it was my defence mechanism to shield myself from perceived rumours and office gossip. Being in the office became a torture. Things were not any better at home. All this turmoil, most of which I kept bottled within me, is what spurred the decision to resign.

I thought to myself, this career is what led to quarrels at home so I will quit and get a less demanding job. I will spend more time at home, and there will be peace. So, unlike many professionals who quit jobs for greener pastures or to start businesses, I quit to restore peace in our home.

Three months down the line, I was slapped with the reality that I couldn’t afford our lifestyle anymore. Not without the pay check. My efforts to look for a job proved futile. We had to move to a cheaper house and transfer the kids to a more pocket-friendly school.

About a year and a half later, we had a candid conversation with my wife. Truth was, we couldn’t even afford the cheaper house anymore. There was only one option left and we welcomed it albeit reluctantly. We moved back to my rural home. Little did I know I was about to lose my dear family.

It didn’t take long for the marriage to end. Things were hard, and one day I came home to an empty house. What hit me most was that I had lost my family, after giving up my job. I was now back to square one.

The last seven years have been tough. I keep replaying the events in my head, trying to see what I would have done differently. I have tried my best to be a good father, I continue to show up for my children the best way I can.

I also underestimated the unemployment crisis in Kenya, finding a job or even regular income has not been an easy task. But I am here, still standing strong. I have learnt many lessons. If I was to go back in time, I would have done a better job in helping my ex-wife understand the demands of my job. Perhaps, after the office incident, I would have talked to a counsellor instead of making rush decisions of quitting a good job.

I had honestly thought that I was strong enough weather the instability of a broken home, the feeling that people gossiped me and the embarrassment of having my domestic affairs with HR. Did I want to resign? No. Was I prepared to leave employment voluntarily? No. My dismal performance pushed me because I didn't want to have to suffer a bad appraisal or even a demotion. Did I want to have a wonderful family? Yes, but things didn’t work out that way.

Anyway, I am wiser now. I am hopeful and I look forward to better days.