It’s been exactly four months since I was furloughed from my dream job.
If you had spoken to my colleagues and me earlier this year, before COVID-19, you would have thought we were on top of the world. Our phones were ringing off the hook, our schedules were filled to capacity, and we were even looking at expanding our team just to keep up with the demand. You see, for the last nine years, I have enjoyed a diverse creative leadership journey at one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. This industry is cutthroat, highly competitive and despite there being a plethora of highly skilled and talented people, there are not enough roles out there to employ every single person who has the skills and talent to do the job.
I always knew this, and was always up for the challenge. In fact, I’d been conditioned my whole life to be a workhorse — my family immigrated from Cuba with nothing, and I watched my parents work multiple jobs as a child: my mom graduating from ultrasound school when I was 13, etc. Hard work has never been a stranger to me. I was a straight-A student, have held multiple jobs since I was 18, conditioned to believe in the American Dream. Earlier this year, at 33 years old, I thought, wow, I’ve finally found it. I have a new house, a beautiful family, and a dream gig I worked so hard to land. I am finally living this American Dream!
That is, until COVID-19 shut my industry down.
When I first heard about the furlough in April, it was gut-wrenching, but also a necessary evil as “we were all in this together” to stop the spread of COVID. I knew that as a society we had to do our part, and sacrifice our jobs for the greater good of beating this pandemic. I was sad that I wasn’t deemed “essential,” but felt almost relieved at the temporary break that this time off would provide me. I was thankful that I could spend this extra time unpacking into our new home that we had just purchased in February, and relished the fact that I could spend this quality time with our two daughters.
I inhaled my girls with snuggles and cuddles while we played dolls and watched movies. I’d have Zoom chats with my friends at night, drinking cocktails and making fun of Tiger King. I shared and made funny quarantine memes on social media, and laughed at the fact that we were living in some sort of #coronapocalpyse. I set my out-of-office alert to expire in July and thought, how nice to have this #coronacation.
But then, slowly, in June and July, despite this pandemic not being over, the world started opening back up, and my friends started slowly being contacted one by one to report back to work. This gave me hope, as I thought, “Wow, I shouldn’t be that far behind.” I’d reach out to my other friends still on furlough almost daily, and we’d comfort each other and give each other advice as we tried to navigate this complicated puzzle of why some people were already back and some of us were still at home.
My husband, luckily, was deemed “essential” and has been working this whole time. I was able to qualify for unemployment benefits (thank GOD) and with the extra $600. Although it was a pay cut from my normal salary, we were able to continue to pay our bills and put food on the table. I thought how blessed I was to be able to get paid to stay at home with my children. I thought how lucky I was to have a job to come back to once this is over. I thought how lucky I am that I am not alone and that other people have it way, way worse than I do. Even in the midst of my worry, I found things to be grateful for.
Some days I’d have bursts of motivation and do arts and crafts with my daughters and organize closets, and some days all I could do was silently cry as I held my children, as we watched yet another cartoon or Disney movie on the couch. I even polished my resume and applied to several jobs, thinking maybe I could find something temporary.
Other days, I’d wake up with a sense of heaviness in my bones, feeling sad and bogged down by the negativity in the world. This heaviness would paralyze me and make any simple task like taking a shower seem too daunting to manage. Some days I’d obsess over why I hadn’t been called back yet — was it because I was late too many times? Was it because I was too loud in the office? Did I write a bad email? Was I not talented enough? Not liked? I’d obsess over my insecurities … being a working mother, being a person of color, being a female in a white, male-dominated industry. I’d obsess over old conversations with my leaders, analyze what I could have possibly done wrong to be left in the dust. My self-doubt would encapsulate my brain and keep me up at night, leaving a painful pit in my stomach and an intense anxiety every Thursday and Friday as I stared at my phone, waiting for my job to call me back.
I felt silly feeling this way as I FaceTimed my parents, now almost 60 years old and still working in Miami like the workhorses that they are and have always been. I’d see the scars on my mother’s face from the three masks she has to wear all day, every day as a healthcare worker, and watch my poor father try to continue to safely run his business in the COVID hotspot that is South Florida. They’d comfort me and love me. My husband would do the same, holding me as I’d cry and giving me the space I needed when I’d take that extra time every night in the shower to scream into the scalding hot water that would burn my skin and soothe my devastated soul.
I know this sounds dramatic, but this has been my reality. When you pour your heart into a career, it becomes a part of who you are. When you work in my industry, you literally work night and day, and find yourself spending more time at work than at home. Your coworkers become your extended family and you all live this incredibly hectic yet fulfilling lifestyle. When you get to be a part of an exciting, creative team, you feel like you’re part of an exclusive club — one I worked SO hard my entire life to a be a part of. And as a working mother, I felt like I was even more thankful to be a part of this club, since I was only met with support when I was pregnant, was provided a wonderful maternity leave, and never ever given any kind of drama when I pumped milk for my baby for over a year after she was born. I thought it couldn’t get any better than what I had. I was so loyal, totally in it for the long haul, dreaming of getting older and retiring with this company.
I embraced the chaos that was being a working mother. I got to know my daughter’s preschool teachers, many times dropping them off at school after working an overnight shift. They knew I had a demanding job, but they also knew I loved it, and my daughters did, too. I wanted to inspire them that they, too, could “have it all” like Mommy! And my husband was the best: always an equal partner, supporting and believing in me, telling me how I was well on my way to greatness. I was just so happy! 2020 was going to the BEST year!
The hardest part of the furlough has been the lack of communication. From my understanding, there can be serious legal restrictions when you are on furlough, and the company is apparently not allowed to contact you unless it is to return to work. It’s especially hard when your leaders and coworkers become a part of your extended family and they are not allowed to talk to you or give you any kind of information. This only adds insult to injury and makes the whole process seem even more personal, and even more painful.
When you become friends with the people you work with, and then you see them go back to work, and not be able to talk to you, it adds yet another layer of despair. And with this lack of communication, you are left in limbo, without a timeframe, wondering how much longer this is going to last. And the more time that passes, the less hopeful it seems, the more depressed you become.
Also, when you do not have any sort of timeframe, it is impossible to plan your life. How are we supposed to know how much money to save? Or what to do for the new school year? This uncertainty, depression, and anxiety put me in a really terrible mental state, probably the worst I have gone through in my entire life.
So when the job that I let define my self-worth and happiness was taken away from me for nothing that I did wrong, it resulted in a complete mental crisis. I remember one particular night in August coming to the realization that I may never go back. I was heartbroken and felt like a part of my life had died.
I grieved my old life, trying to come to terms with that fact that things will never be the same again. My whole body ached and trembled as I wondered how I was going to be able to make a living for my family, now that unemployment benefits have expired, and now that none of the 30+ jobs that I’ve applied to so far haven’t called back. I melted into my poor husband’s arms, shaking, as I buried my face in my pillow, completely soaking it with tears. I felt my entire face swell up as my head throbbed from the pain. I cried, and cried, and cried, until there were no more tears left inside of me. I woke up the next morning feeling like a shell of the person that I used to be. I walked around my house like a zombie for a few days until something clicked. I found hope again. I found an opportunity to make my own path.
I am still furloughed. It has been two weeks since I had that emotional breakdown, and even though I hit an emotional low that I’ve never hit before, I’m finding the resilience to pick myself back up again. I am no longer waiting by the phone, no longer analyzing what went wrong, and no longer questioning my talents and abilities. Through the support of my close family and friends, I am starting my own company in the middle of a pandemic and actually feel a lot of peace and calm around the notion that I will be okay. I will be okay, and my family will be okay, because we always have been and we always will be. There is really no other way to look at it.
Even when accepting a situation sucks, if you can find the power to take control of your life again, your entire world will change. That is the path that I am on right now, and if you are furloughed, underemployed, unemployed, or laid off right now, I encourage you to do the same.
You did not lose your job because of anything you did. Your job does not define your self-worth or your happiness. Whether or not you are part of that exclusive club that gets to return to work or not, you are still exactly the same person that you have always been. You now have the choice to redefine yourself and create your own path. Think about what it is that you have always wanted to do, and just DO IT! You have nothing to lose!
And when you put yourself and your family at the forefront of your future, you will only have something wonderful to gain.