Finding some pleasure in a furlough

MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA - There was a lot lost during the furloughs for many families — but also a lot gained.

The furlough was a surprising but welcome break for some parents, despite anxiety inherent in wondering how to make ends meet with no pay. Parents spent more time with kids and with each other. They found some joy in slowing down. And, in some instances, they perhaps found an appreciation for what the other spouse does.

Sandra DePaulis, an attorney at the Food and Drug Administration, spent much of her two-plus weeks off with her 22-month-old daughter, Gianna. “We had a really great time,” she sighed.

Contrails from jet planes passing overhead intersect the National Museum of Art in Washington, Thursday morning, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Even though her daughter is enrolled in daycare, DePaulis kept her home many days and they spent time at the park and engaged in other activities. She also spent some time volunteering at the daycare center, reading books to the kids. She said it was a taste of the life of a stay-at-home mom. “This morning was a bit of a rude awakening. Leaving before she gets up, it’s an awful feeling,” she said Thursday. “And we’re going to have some long hours” catching up on work.

But, really, heading back to work wasn’t all bad, DePaulis said. While she was furloughed, she caught herself lecturing shoppers at Costco. “I was talking to them about dog food” and where the ingredients are sourced, she chuckled. “I thought: Oh, I have to get back to work.”

In a way, the furlough demonstrated to the rest of us what it would be like to have a little break from work — maternity leave minus the newborn. It was the ultimate lesson in the topic of the moment: mindfulness. Living life more slowly, deliberately and, perhaps, without spending dinnertime looking at a phone screen. Of course, this break was not voluntary, and people still had rent, mortgages and bills to pay as their paychecks simply stopped arriving.

And so, for many, the time was spent well, but anxiety overshadowded the togetherness. “For us. . .it was terrible for our finances because we weren’t sure how long it was going to last,” said Sandie Angulo Chen, a freelance writer and film critic who, on occasion, writes reviews for the Going Out Guide.

Her husband, Hans Chen, is an attorney at the Department of Justice’s Office of Immigration Litigation. Although he is typically the more domestic one of the two, “he just took that role even more to heart,” she said. For instance, Sandie Chen was having a Girl Scout meeting, and he made a flan for it because it was Hispanic Heritage month.

He also spent a day at their son’s middle school, talking about immigration to the class. “He’s never been able to do that, ever,” she said.

All the while, he posted status updates on Facebook, saying things like: “Today, instead of defending immigration laws in federal court, I . . .matched 40 pairs of socks” and “Today, instead of defending immigration laws in federal court, I . . .made a chocolate flan for my wife’s girl scout troop.”

For Sandie, despite the tension, the mandatory down time offered some welcome relief. “It allowed me to not worry about filling in the childcare gap if I had to do something for work. . .and it gave him a chance to really see how difficult it is to work from home,” she said. “It gave him a new appreciation that I’m not sitting at home eating bon bons while occasionally writing a story.”

The furlough left Kathryn Ferguson and her husband, Jeff, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with “many worries.” She is a patient at the National Institutes of Health due to a rare, chronic disease, so some important testing and treatment was delayed.

Nonetheless, she said, “it seemed as though life were simpler.” The family, which includes 10-year-old Ian and 7-year-old Norah, were together more. Family dinners, breakfasts, and school drop-off included the three of them. “The slow cooker was retired. We had dinner earlier since we were all home and homework was so much easier. Someone cooked while the other worked with the kids. We just seemed to enjoy the family time.”

And there was that little added bonus that Jeff’s electronic devices were all turned off and locked up in his office.

 
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