My husband works for the federal government. When mention of a government shutdown due to the inability of Congress to agree on a budget starts circulating, we pay close attention. News related to this event becomes monumentally important. We start planning together for the impact on our family.
Ironically, our relationship began shortly after the government shutdown of October 2013. We met for the second time at a party during his furlough and started dating ten days later.
At the time, as a single guy with few responsibilities, he viewed the furlough as a brief unpaid break, something he experienced previously on occasion. I remember how laid back and relaxed he seemed. We got married in 2016, and he became a stepfather to my 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Times have changed.
Even though the news mentioned a possible government shutdown in passing immediately prior to Christmas 2017, we barely noticed. No one believed Congress actually intended to go through with a government shutdown days before the holiday season. Sure enough, they “punted” the decision until January 19, 2018.
After enduring and enjoying the blur, the bliss, and the busyness of the holidays, a creeping cloud of low-level dread cast its greyness over our home. We started to worry.
Scheduled for a three-week work trip that spanned the looming January 19 deadline, my husband and I discussed what might happen if the government shutdown occurred during his trip. With no small amount of trepidation and uncertainty, I drove him to the airport, and then, hundreds of miles apart, we waited.
On Friday, January 19, I woke up to news of an expected government shutdown. I texted my husband, “It’s sounding like you might be coming home.” He asked to call me. He expressed his concern about this situation happening to our family. It felt a lot different than when I met that carefree single guy enjoying a week off in October 2013. He worried about the impact on our family. I reassured him that we would be okay.
We talked through the coming sequence of events, which involved waiting out the Congressional votes until midnight and waiting for a call with instructions from his direct leadership. His main job that day involved keeping the students in his class calm and focused, especially those near the beginning of their careers with limited financial resources.
At 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, January 20, the government shutdown began after Congressional attempts at compromise on a spending bill broke down.
I woke up early on that day to take my kids on an outing to see their grandparents and decided not to wake my husband in his peaceful hotel room with bad news. He called at 10 a.m. to let me know his leadership told him to come home. It took three hours on hold for him to get through to the government travel agency, which managed to book him on decent flights the following day.
The kids and I met him at the airport Sunday afternoon and welcomed him home one week earlier than expected. On Monday morning, he left for work to complete his furlough paperwork. Those in leadership read a letter to their direct reports stating the terms of the shutdown and that those affected are considered “non-essential” to the operations of the federal government. He then drove home and waited. My daughter asked how many pages of paperwork he needed to fill out. He responded, “About 6.”
Up until a year ago, I shared equal breadwinner status. Last January, I took a pay cut to move to a lower stress position working 30 hours per week. This career choice allows me to meet my kids off the bus, spend more time attending to the logistics of caring for a family and managing a home, and go to graduate school on a part-time basis. It also means that my husband primarily supports us financially.
The impact of a government shutdown (or two or three shutdowns) on his job means financial stress for us since my salary no longer makes up half of our household income.
While we hope to take the kids to Washington, D.C., for the first time in April, I delayed booking our travel. Frugal by nature, I also stopped spending money on anything unnecessary. I avoided eating out, shopping for clothes, and going to the movie theater. When the shutdown happened on January 20, I felt grateful for this foresight and my conservative spending habits. My husband and I feel lucky to have money in savings during times like these.
We do feel like pawns though. While Congress and the President continue to receive paychecks during a government shutdown, our livelihood hangs in the balance while they politically maneuver.
After doing our best to enjoy a date night together the evening of Monday, January 22, my husband’s cell phone rang around 8 p.m. after Congress passed and the President signed a continuing budget resolution. His leadership informed him of the reinstatement of his position and directed him to come to work the next day. As it turned out, he came home from a work trip a week early and filled out furlough paperwork for a few hours all for half a day of unemployment. Better safe than sorry, but it was a lot of effort for not much change.
Of course, the continuing resolution that passed on January 22 only got us through February 8. Once again, the government shutdown at 12:01 a.m. on February 9, only to reopen before his morning commute. This time, the continuing resolution takes us through March 23. Needless to say, I continue to delay booking our spring break trip to Washington, D.C. As much as we want to share the monuments and the history with the children, it just doesn’t feel like a good time for our family to be spending.
So, what happens to our family now? Once again, we wait, with uncertainty and financial insecurity weaving its way into the undercurrent of our lives. What will March 23 hold for us? We will wait and see.