A Year After My Pandemic Furlough

A year ago today, my employer at the time furloughed me along with a nearly a quarter of their workforce. While we knew about the impending pandemic furlough, actually hearing my name called out on a group Zoom call felt surreal and quite cruel. I’d never lost a job, not to a firing and certainly not to a pandemic.

Day One of my Pandemic Furlough: A picture of Jenna lifting a glass of bourbon.
My husband poured me a drink on April 15, 2020. #ThisIsHowYouFurlough

Of course, by this time last year, my sons had been home for over a month. While their daily school schedule paled in comparison to those of some of my friends’ kids, it still felt difficult to manage their daily educational needs, my work schedule, and life in general. My anxiety hit an all time high as we waded into the beginnings of the lockdown. I watched entirely too much news and feared the absolute worst at every turn.

So, part of me felt relief when the final furlough verdict came down. That relief lasted all of one day when I realized that applying for unemployment would consume all of my energy. I had an issue with my PIN. There was another issue with my Social Security number. Nothing about applying for unemployment went smoothly.

A local business accused those of us on unemployment of getting rich. However, I knew we were in for a struggle almost immediately. My approval of funds came through at way below what it should have been based on my salary. Even with the extra $600 of relief from the federal government, I just barely made half of of what I normally made. I knew that finding a new job needed to be my primary concern.

However, I was in no way prepared for a job search during a pandemic. News stories kept touting that it would change the workforce forever, that companies would finally embrace remote work. In May, June, and into July, I can assure you that many companies dug their nails into the “culture” of in-person office spaces in a way I had never seen before, and I had been working from home since 2006. An HR rep invited me to a Zoom interview. The listing didn’t specify that they wanted an in-office employee. I brought up my location immediately, not wanting to waste anyone’s time. The HR rep basically told me that they would never hire a remote employee because their “culture is too important.” Then she all but hung up on me.

I only heard back from approximately 2% of the applications and resumes I sent out during that three month process. It felt incredibly discouraging. I spent those three months running, caring for my family, playing Animal Crossing, reading books, and feeling my anxiety continue to creep up to alarming levels. The employers that did reply to my applications split 50/50 between polite rejections and “we are unable to fill the position at this time.”

I applied for any and everything within my skill set. Following advice I learned from previous searches, I applied for jobs above and below my experience level. I fought imposter syndrome and wrote cover letter after cover letter. It felt absolutely exhausting. The free time—whether spent with my family, playing video games, cleaning (thanks, GoCleanCo), reading, or “relaxing”—felt exhausting as well. I didn’t know how to “relax.” I’m not a relaxing type of person; I don’t rest well.

By the middle of July, I thanked my lucky stars for old contacts and a job that fit my skill set. I realize how lucky I was to land a job within three months, but I have told everyone that it was the most difficult job search of my life. Listings disappeared, pulled off the web, as I was putting my application together. The absolute silence after applying was deafening. While everyone kept predicting that the pandemic would change remote work for the good, I was witnessing white-knuckling from employers who would write NO REMOTE in caps lock in their job listings. I’m thankful for my current job and would like to not look for one any time soon.

One year after the day of my pandemic furlough, I can say that I’m in a good place, work-wise. I miss some of my old coworkers, but I have remained close with a group of awesome people. They also seem happier. I’m good at what I do now, but I was also good at what I did then. It’s not my fault if an organization didn’t plan well enough and used a pandemic as an excuse to offload a quarter of the workforce.

If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s simply that our employers, even the best among them, will always work to save their own bottom line. I’ve heard it said that if you died today, your job would be listed by tomorrow. I will never again allow a job to take over my family time or life. They are my number one priority. Full stop.


Turning 40 and (The) Sunscreen (Song)

After a recent high school track meet, I tried to offer some advice to my 15-year-old son. I wanted to impart the knowledge I gained over the years, both in running and in life. I went with a tactic I use often when I can’t find the words myself: I quoted song lyrics.

“Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead. Sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

I often quote these specific lyrics along with the rest of the advice dispensed to the class of 1999 in Baz Luhrman’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” When I listened to it as a bright-eyed 18-year-old with the world in my hands, I found the clichés trite just the way my 15-year-old thinks he knows more than I do right now. In fact, he told me that the race was “literally with everybody else.” I smiled; it’s really a trip to parent yourself.

One bit of advice in the song that really made me laugh back then was age based.

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”

Jenna, age 17 in 1998 || Sunscreen and Turning 40
This is from my 17th birthday, but it suffices for this post. My shirt reads, “Perky,” and I was ready to take on the world.

I remember feeling buoyed by the fact that I didn’t have to know exactly everything about my life plan by the time I finished college. While I had a plan, but I didn’t know much beyond that I loved music and words. I majored in music and broadcast journalism. I wanted to do something big, but my (then undiagnosed) anxiety would flare in predictably unpredictable ways when I tried to nail down a specific path.

However, I laugh-scoffed at the idea that a 40-year-old wouldn’t know what they wanted to do with their life. While I didn’t quite know where I would be by the age of 40, I knew I would have it all figured out by then. What kind of aimless hap doesn’t know what they want to do by then?

Spoiler: Apparently, it’s this kind of aimless hap.

I’m turning 40 near the end of this month. While I have celebrated my birthday month in full joy for many years, fully aware of the privilege and joy of getting older, I’m having some kind of milestone birthday type of breakdown.

Maybe it’s losing a year to the pandemic. Perhaps it’s anxiety about things over which I have no control. Maybe it’s parenting teenagers and trying to help them shape their ideas for their future bringing to mind all of my previous choices, mistakes, and failures. Or maybe it’s a clearer view of mortality from a face that aged a lot in the past two-and-a-half year, repeated family losses, and again, half a million lives lost to a pandemic.

I don’t know exactly, but the truth is that I’ve been frequently awake in the middle of the night since the beginning of the year, thinking things like, “Shouldn’t I have done more by now?”

Which, by the way, is a ridiculous line of thinking. I am an everyday mom to two amazing teenage boys. I am thankful every single day for my husband and our marriage, something we’ve both worked hard to make a safe place to land. I’ve run marathons. I won awards for my writing, even though I’ve been silent for a number of years, working through things that weren’t able to be written. I’ve even created a beautiful, but more importantly, safe home for my family. All of these things make me happy and proud.

So what’s the problem?

I thought maybe by the time I was turning 40 that I would have a handle on the now-diagnosed anxiety. Instead, it’s still there. The pandemic, losing my job, and accompanying uncertainty only increased it over the past year. When my anxiety increases, my Treatment Resistant Depression tends to wake up, stretch its arms, and reach for any and everything. Thanks to therapy, I’m in a safe place and continue to work through it in healthy ways, but I know that 18-year-old Jenna would look at me with sad eyes and ask, “So, we never got better?”

What do you say to that? Yes, it got better. And then it got so much worse than a bushy-tailed, scared-but-excited barely adult could even imagine. As things do, it got better again. And then, well, worse again. The things that sidelined me on some idle Thursday weren’t even the things that caused my anxiety. The song says Tuesday, but ours was a Thursday, and we’ll never be the same.

Over the past year, things shook up my world as well. I’ve been forced to look at myself in new ways. Things that I thought to be true about myself were called into question, and I had to sit with some other truths that felt hard.

I’m not even dreading turning 40 due to some concept of fading youth. I mean, sure, I would love fewer grey hairs, but I got my first one way back in 1999. My greys don’t bother me too much. The wrinkles around my eyes, which weren’t so evident prior to 2018, don’t raise my hackles either. It’s not the aging part that’s bothering me, though I’m trying to be kind to my knees because the song told me I’ll “miss them when they’re gone.” Rather, it’s simply feeling like I could have and should have done more by now.

Sure, there’s still time to do the things on my list that remain unchecked. I can still write the book, break two hours in the half marathon, learn how to drive the boat onto the trailer, and maybe even forgive myself. I can still do basically anything. There’s not actually an expiration date on creativity, passion, or learning new things.

So, maybe what I need to learn as I approach turning 40 is that life is not tidy; it doesn’t fit easily into organized boxes that are conveniently shoved on shelves in the dark basement of my mind. Some days are hard. Some days are easy. “And in the end,” it’s who you spend those days with that matters most.

I’m so thankful to spend these days with my people. (And for sunscreen.)