Families throughout the Washington area recently rode the emotional arc of a winter storm. Wonder at the accumulating snow. Elation over school and office closings. Sledding, shoveling, snowman-building. A cozy denouement featuring hot chocolate and movies.
Then: wet socks, crying kids, and a thousand prayers whispered in unison. Please let school and work be open tomorrow. I’ve got to get out of this place.
Many couples felt their cabin fever break when the snow began to melt. But for federal workers trapped in the void of the shutdown, there is no tomorrow. There is only one long today, with walls inching in around them and nothing to do but annoy the people they love most.
As furloughed government worker Jesse Wilinski sat feeding his son lunch at their Fredericksburg, Va., home on Monday and considering plans to fill the next day of nothingness, he admitted the obvious: “I’m very, very bored right now.”
“He needs to be at work!” his wife, Morane Chung-Wilinski, shouted over his shoulder. “He’s in my way!”
The pair have been married for 14 years. Throughout much of that time, Morane says, “I’ve seen him for one hour a day and it’s been great.” Now Jesse, an archives technician at the National Archives, is around, underfoot, all the time. If the prolonged exposure continues, she adds, “I’m afraid we might not be married for much longer.”
Jesse laughs, then mentions that Montpelier, James Madison’s historical home, is giving free tours to federal workers. He might take his family. “And then I have an opportunity to kill him in public,” Morane jokes.
Their humor is still intact, but their frustration is real. And the Wilinskis are not alone. The shutdown, which has dragged through a fourth week with no sign of a thaw between President Trump and Democratic leaders, has caused less-public standoffs between spouses who rely on the federal government not only for a paycheck but also much-needed time apart.
“When you said your vows, you had no idea what to expect,” says Jessica MacNair, a therapist who works with couples and owner of the Falls Church Wellness Center in Northern Virginia. “And this is one of those unexpected turns.”
This particular turn has led some couples to MacNair’s couch. “I can barely handle the volume of referrals I’ve gotten in the last two weeks,” she says. “They’re spending time together and fighting about finances. It’s adding stress on top of existing stressors.”
For example, therapy: nonessential or more essential than ever? (The counselor says she’s offered discounted sessions to furloughed workers.)
It’s not just that the couples are strapped financially, MacNair says, although that is a primary, existential source of anxiety. It’s also that their routines and roles have been upended. Is the furloughed partner suddenly responsible for all the housework? Additional parenting tasks?
“The kid’s day care that’s in the federal day-care center is closed,” says MacNair, sketching a familiar scenario, “and the husband is home with the kids, and he’s not used to dealing with that — isn’t really terribly familiar with the child care of a 2-year-old. Suddenly he’s thrust into that role, and he’s not doing it well, and his wife is like, ‘Why can’t you get it together? This is all you have to do right now!’ ”
A thousand whispered prayers: Please God, let the government reopen. I saw what this child ate today and I can’t face changing that diaper tomorrow.
Tonia Smith and her husband, who did not want to be named because he doesn’t have clearance to speak to the media, hardly ever fight. “We have one of the best marriages of anybody I know,” she says. But it’s been a rough stretch for the Colorado Spring, Colo., couple. Tonia had back surgery before Christmas and her husband, who works for the Department of Justice, had scheduled two weeks of leave to take care of her. But when the shutdown began he was deemed essential and called back to work — without pay.
It was a double-whammy for the Smiths, who are a one-income household. With no money coming in, and feeling alone during her recovery, Tonia felt on edge. When she suspected her husband was planning something for her 50th birthday last week, she began to interrogate him.
“I was crying. ‘I know it’s my birthday but I don’t want anything. We have a mortgage and cars and kids and volleyball and pets,’” she remembers saying, choking up again. “He was a little bit angry with me because I was trying to get information. Because I was going to ruin the surprise. Any other year I would be so touched. . . . I spent the next 12 hours apologizing.”
In the end, Tonia’s husband defied her orders and organized dinner at a local restaurant with close friends, who took care of the bill. “That was lovely, and I really appreciated the gesture. But then it was back to reality,” says Tonia. And reality, she says, is eating at both of them as they draw down the bit of savings they’d worked so hard to build. She worries about missing mortgage payments, even losing the house. “When one of us is down the other can usually pull them up. But what do you do when you both feel like your facing this really horrible end scenario?”
Stacy Notaras Murphy, a Washington psychotherapist, had just finished a session with a couple grappling with shutdown stress when she got a message asking for her insights on the topic. “I thought, ‘Is my office bugged?’ ” she recalled.
Notaras Murphy says the couple she’d just helped, and others like them, feel as if they’re under threat. “And when you’re under threat — financial, emotional, even just the cloud hanging over Washington the last couple years — most of us humans stumble into the pitfall of taking it out on others,” she says. “We choose the safest people to process our anxiety and most often those people are our significant other.”
Mekita Rivas’s significant other, who also didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t cleared to speak to the media, is processing a lot during his days away from the Department of Commerce. “I know he’s kind of questioned, ‘Does my work even matter? Is there a point to what I’m doing?’” Rivas says. “It’s just feeling not valued.”
Rivas and her fiance have been saving for a wedding but now have to figure out how they’ll manage more pressing financial concerns — college loans, credit card payments. “We’ve had several stressful discussions, laying it all out on the table,” says Rivas, who works as an editor and freelance writer.
During the shutdown, she has tried to help him schedule outings and time to think through his larger goals. “I’ve just been doing my best to encourage structure in his life, now that he has none,” she says.
And she’s tried to stay on his side, to be a source of support rather than stress.
“There has been additional tension,” Rivas says. “But I think we’re just trying to lean on each other to get through it.”
They do, after all, still want to get married.