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Opinion

October 11, 2013

Spouses of federal workers find furlough, well, weird

WASHINGTON — On Monday morning, Susie Krasnican of Silver Spring, Md. walked in on her husband, on the floor, goo-gooing at the cat. "He was using the new toy that our cat is completely fixated on" and making vacant cooing noises that she hadn't heard since their teenage children were infants.

"It's hard to be sure," Krasnican says, assessing her husband's sudden feline communing. "But I feel that the furlough had to have contributed in some way."

She told him — and here her husband, Jeff Gates, a Smithsonian employee, joyfully remembers the exact wording — she told him: Pre-shutdown, "you used to be so intellectual."

Nationwide, 800,000 federal employees were affected by the government shutdown, worrying about jobs, back pay, a sense of purpose. Consider the collateral damage: This means there are approximately 800,000 spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, roommates or otherwise affected parties who have spent the past week worrying about furloughed loved ones. Whether they're all right. Whether they're watching all of the TiVo'd "Homeland" alone, when they are supposed to wait until tonight. What, exactly, they're doing.

Congress, take my spouse back. Please.

"He's taken pretty much all of the CDs off of the shelves," E.L. Farris, an author in Northern Virginia, says of her husband, a lawyer who is among the shut down. She is chronicling the experience on her blog.

The moving of the CDs is part of a grand plot to arrange them by genre, then alphabetically, then by subgenre. "It's becoming a very complicated plan," Farris says. And it is accompanied by a parallel effort to organize their books according to the Dewey Decimal System.

Then there is "his whole escape plan," she continues. Which is: After nine years of meaning to, Farris's husband is compiling a first-class disaster preparedness kit. "He can finally find the time to get to Costco," she explains. And so water bottles are piled in the basement. "You know those crank-up radios? We apparently need to get another one of those. And batteries. We have enough of those to light up the whole town."

He is growing, she says, a furlough beard.

The furlough beard, that scourge of the furlough spouse. As the shutdown continues, the hair grows on the faces of housebound government employees around the country. It has become a movement, with a name: "Shaveless Shutdown continues to day 7," a furloughed employee writes on Twitter. "If this doesn't end soon, my wife may divorce me."

The furloughed, according to their spouses, are sometimes not changing out of their pajamas until noon. They are eating all of the cereal or buying weird things for the house.

Some also are becoming industrious: finally cleaning out the storage room, picking up the kids from school, baking furlough desserts. Were it not for the uncertainty of it — the vagueness of when this will end, and whether back pay will come through before the next mortgage payment is due — it could be a lovely thing to have a furloughed spouse at home.

"It feels like an endless weekend," says Krasnican, an artist who works from home. In good ways and bad. Her husband has been able to explore hobbies and pick up day-to-day slack around the house, but the ambiguity of the shutdown's duration prevents him from tackling longer-term projects.

And then, of course, he's talking to the cat.

"You're not normally together as a couple during the day," says Rob Maher, boyfriend to a furloughed government contractor. Romantic couples are typically sequestered away from each other for nine to 12 hours every day, locked in cubicles or home offices, free to engage in their daily routines without judgment.

Maher, for example, is a comedian; he works nights and then sleeps until 10 or 11 in the morning. His girlfriend, a government contractor, normally is out of the house by 6 a.m. Due to this schedule, their household has acquired a certain rhythm. Maher is typically in charge of housecleaning. But now that his girlfriend is home because of the shutdown, the natural order of the house has been disrupted. She also has begun cleaning. This is causing guilt and confusion. "If she's cleaning in front of me, wait, does this mean that I should also be cleaning?" Maher asks. "Or did I not do a good enough job cleaning?"

And when he's on Twitter, doing promotional stuff for his job, does she think he's slacking off? Does she realize this is part of his work? "She's at home, stressed about her future, and how am I helping? I'm making snarky comments online."

Re: the stress. On Tuesday afternoon, House Republican leaders began pushing for debt-limit negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his party would be open to negotiations if the House passed measures to reopen the government. President Barack Obama called on Congress to vote and end the shutdown "right now."

After eight full days of shutdown, is an end in sight?

"I definitely have the ideal furlough husband at home," says Amy Lupold Bair, a social media marketer whose policy-analyst husband has been dominating household chores for the entirety of the shutdown. He is picking out outfits for their fourth-grade daughter, preparing snacks, assisting with homework — tasks that usually fall to Bair, because she works from home. He is assembling items for Goodwill. The boxes of uncertain contents stacked in the garage? He is unpacking them.

The boxes have been there how long?

"Since always!" Bair says. Since the day they bought their house three years ago and stuck them there.

He is bringing coffee and doughnuts to the office staff at their church, for a midday pick-me-up. He has begun to eye the leaf-laden gutters.

"We've joked that I've needed staffing for a very long time," Bair says, so it's been nice to have him at home.

However, she admits. However. "I can sense that he's starting to get restless."

Maybe it is time to get back to work.

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