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Unemployment Diary: My days are no easier

This week, The Post's Theresa Vargas presents a series of stories about what unemployed people do now that they've lost the structure that a job lends daily life. Theresa asked about a dozen people who had recently lost their jobs to keep diaries detailing how they fill the suddenly empty hours in their days.

We'd like to continue building this portrait of how unemployment changes life by asking those of you who have lost work to give us a sense of the changing flow and tempo of your days and evenings. What do you do now that you haven't done in the past? What can you no longer do? How have your contacts with friends, family, colleagues changed? What's better, what's worse?

Give us details on the comment boards below, or make an Unemployment Diary video of your own and post it to us via YouTube.

Meanwhile, we're posting here all week the full diaries of those people who helped us out with the reporting of Theresa's stories.


Paula Griffith has re-drafted her resume at least eight times since losing her job as an architect. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Diary of Paula Griffith, an architect who lives with her 5-year-old daughter in Silver Spring. She's been unemployed for six months.


The irony of all of this is that there are many parallels between writing this journal and my job search. When I agreed to do this journal, I thought, “This should be a snap.” But trying to present to others my daily routine leads me on a meandering path that reveals so much to me about my process and my measurable results. This has also happened in my job search. When I was laid off in June from my position as a Project Architect, I thought, I have already re-written my resume, I have good skills, I have worked on many building types in my 15 year career, I can fit into just about any project team, just get the resume out there. “This should be a snap.” It has been anything but. I have rewritten my resume at least eight times already and learned tons on the way.

Most of my career has been spent as a freelance architect / self-employed. So I know about looking for a new gig. I decided about four years ago that I needed to have a full time permanent position. The task of job-hunting has become in itself a consuming job, what worked in New York city four years ago doesn’t work in the DMV in today’s market.

6:00 a.m.

My day today started a little before 6 with my daughter Isabelle waking me from a hard won sleep. I finally crawl out of bed at 6:15. This is an early morning for Izzy (Isabelle’s nickname); everyone knows by now that she is NOT a morning person. When I was working, I had to be up by 5:30 a.m. to pull myself together, prep for the day, get Isabelle ready and be out hopefully by 7, usually closer to 7:30.

Isabelle says she had a bad dream and she is not going to tell me about it, then checks to see if I am listening, “Do you want to know, Mummy?” I say “No!”

Later, she tells me she dreamt that I was packing up her things. I said, “You mean our things? To leave …?” I tell her not to worry, dreams usually mean the opposite thing will happen and that we are not moving. I mortgaged this place a year ago in suburban Silver Spring. We moved on what I hoped would the last leg of the relocation process to the DC Metro area. We love the neighborhood; we are really city girls adapting to suburbia. My job fell through after that and six months without viable income has wiped out my resources. Unemployment benefits do not cover all of my expenses.

9:00 a.m.
I have dropped Izzy off to school (on time, an accomplishment considering the dawdling) and I am back home preparing for my production time. I start with some yoga today. In my old life, I would have had a horrendous drive down gridlocked Georgia Avenue, 15 miles in over 1 hour. But my exercise came with the tons of walking I did once Downtown.

10:30 a.m.
I reviewed some materials I received from Maryland Professional Outplacement Assistance (POAC) on changing careers. I strategize on my day. I have gotten very organized in the past two weeks since my computer blew up. I have now to go out and use computers at the public library or at Maryland’s Workforce Center. With limited time allotments, every second counts. I now have 3 different resumes and a few more to do.

12:00 p.m.
As I eat lunch, I make a list of my skill sets and my transferable skills. I am in the process of redefining the brand called “me” and developing an individual marketing campaign.

1:00 p.m.
I arrive early at Montgomery Works for my meeting. I spend the time prepping before I get on the computer later, checking my current “to do list.”

2:30 p.m.
I am typing furiously, I have only 1 ½ hours to finish up this resume, get it down to 2 pages and review some websites. I plan to drive over to Wheaton Library afterwards and get another hour or so to send emails and the resumes for review.

4:15 p.m.
I arrive at Wheaton library to find that their computer system is down. I quickly shift my plans and I talk to the librarian about resources I could use to research companies. I get a few websites.

5:00 p.m.
It is time to go into “Mommy” mode. I stop at the supermarket to pick up some milk. I find some canned goods at good deals, mainly store brands. We eat out very rarely, McDonald’s or Subway when we are out and about, typically on the weekend. Most food is prepared at home.

At home for a few minutes, I try to rescan the channels for the TV; honestly, I don’t get this digital transition. Only on clear days do we get good reception, and we are always losing channels. We had cable before, but it was one of the things I had to eliminate.

6:00 p.m.
I go to pick up Isabelle from aftercare. She does 3 days a week, so that I can have the time I need to manage my career search. I also wanted her to get accustomed to the routine, because once I find a job, I will probably drop her off at 7:00 a.m. and pick her up close to closing time at 6:30 p.m. I really do not want to worry about her transitioning.

We have our typical evening. I am tired and she is crabby tonight. By 8:30 p.m., we are having our bedtime battles. I read her a story, she resists and finally she drifts off to sleep after 9. Really, hats off to those parents who do this by 8.

9:55 p.m.

Usually, if it all works well, I get some time to read before going to sleep. Reading is a luxury I did not have working a full time job and being a full time mom. I listen to the radio; Isabelle and I like listening to Delilah on WASH-FM. This habit was born from our days traveling up Georgia Avenue at 7:00 in the evening when I worked in D.C.

My days are no easier than they used to be. Sometimes I fight the panic, Christmas is coming. We have no relatives in this area. I am a true transplant, born in Barbados and living in New York for 20 years. I can’t afford to travel to friends and family, but I will make sure Izzy has a nice Christmas.


7:15 a.m.
I woke up late this morning, 6:30. As usual, Isabelle has snuck into my room during the night and she is still comfortably sleeping. I put together her breakfast and a snack. She gets a reduced fee lunch at school. Six months ago, I would have been screaming like a banshee for her to get into the car so we can go. She is now in kindergarten in a school closer to home. In a few minutes, I have to fix her hair. I am not a good braider and when I worked, I usually had someone put her hair in finer braids that lasted a couple of weeks. This saved me twenty minutes in the morning. Now she deals with my four plaits, sticking out like Pippi Longstocking's.

My first thoughts this morning were on the irony of the situation. I moved to this area for job opportunities. In New York, I still had a freelance practice even as I worked a 9–6 job. That was my backup. Here, I have no backup. Making the contacts required to remain employed in Architecture has been hard. As a single mom, I don’t have the time or money to hang out or to join organizations.

3:50 p.m.
It is difficult to get the computer time I need when using public resources. I have found many benefits in going outside my home in the past two weeks. However, I feel limited by the resources available.

I ran some errands this morning after dropping Isabelle off to school late this morning (my kindergarten party animal could not get out of bed this morning). I shop around more now for what I need. I look for bargains. I know where to get dry-cleaning done cheaply, where to shop for food. Coupon clipping is not my bag, so I need deals off the shelf.

I spent the afternoon at the Aspen Hill library. I managed to complete the resumes and send them off for review. I spotted a few job possibilities and I plan to send off some resumes this week.

I have come back home to regroup and make calls. If I were at work, by this time of the afternoon, I would probably be pumping out drawings in a mad dash to a deadline before the holidays. I was a Project Architect supervising a team that could vary from 2 to 10 depending on what was going on. The dynamics of managing creative types is never dull. I find working with teams of diverse professionals challenging and exciting. I have worked with academics, multi-media artist and marketing professionals, and I find it is good to be flexible.

10:15 p.m.
It has been a busy evening. I worked on branding “ME.” Another lesson learned in my current job search. Having developed my previous business, I am closer to the concept than I thought I would be. I usually don’t have this kind of time for deep introspection. So this has been fun and very revealing.

After picking up Isabelle, I ran into my downstairs neighbor and we had an interesting conversation about how the neighborhood has changed. She lived in the community from the beginning, before all the condos were completed. Things have changed; now we are experiencing the construction of the Inter County Connector (ICC) right behind our building.


2:45 p.m.
Today, Isabelle had a dental appointment for a filling, her first one. It was a dramatic experience. Thankfully, I was able to get her on the State insurance to cover medical expenses. To see her an hour ago, crying on my bosom, would break your heart. But now, she is back to her usual rambunctious self – hyped up on ice cream and Tylenol.

So my day has not gone as planned. But this is one of the benefits of being unemployed. Time for family issues. Normally, I would have had to make a call to a boss, who usually understood but would still be put out by the fact that work had to be shifted.

So my afternoon will be spent playing “I spy”, watching kid TV and cleaning up.

9:29 p.m.
I have been in panic mode all day. I have not fulfilled the commitment I made to myself to get resumes out. I am better prepared with the pieces; my marketing spiel is written.

The mortgage company made its second call of the day tonight. They have started on the hounding process. They need their money. I made a second round of calls to a home assistance and legal assistance programs. No response from them yet. I am at that point where I have no choice.

Isabelle is asleep, so I put a dollar under her pillow, from the tooth fairy. It is her first tooth out. It was a stubborn one, the adult tooth was coming up behind it, so the dentist took it out today. Fridays are my volunteer day with her class. She loves when I come in; she says she wishes I could stay all day with her. What a luxury for a kid with a professional mom.

By Theresa Vargas  | December 24, 2009; 8:02 AM ET
Categories:  Diaries, More on the story  
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