Is the Nuclear Family Dead? I Don't Think So
Earlier this week, I read an op ed essay by Kim Brooks in the New York Times that made me ache. I could not stop thinking about it for the last 24 hours.
The title claimed you're in good company if you're considering a Covid-19 Pandemic divorce, but that was not what the piece was about. It concludes that we're not meant for nuclear families, and so Kim consoles herself and her children with the thought that "they now have four adults who love them, a wider circle, something a little closer to a clan."
I disagree, and I will get to this shortly. First, though, I want to say that I felt this essay very deeply, because the life Kim describes that pushed her to separate from her husband and her children's father contains all the elements of my own decision to imagine divorce was the answer for my own overwhelmed life. The pain--and the urge to escape it--was so, so familiar and not yet forgotten, all these years later.
As you might know from my About page, my divorce was interrupted by my husband's sudden death, forcing me to look at all my complaints from a very different angle, one that makes me quite hopeful about our ability to stay happily married. But I remember that desperation she describes, and it brings tears to my eyes.
The desperation comes from tunnel vision, from seeing our spouse as the likely cause of our severe pain and the one person who ought to save us from it. Unless you're living with someone who cruelly does things that leave you in fear for your life or your sanity, both of these stories are unlikely, even when it very much seems like they're true.
Like Kim, I felt horribly overburdened. We had moved across the country for my husband's university professor job, and nothing went right with our son's elementary school, so I took it upon myself to find a better school for him and to offer room and board in our home to a string of young people in exchange for handling transportation and after-school care.
I had a 60-hour-a-week, high stress job with a long commute and demanding clients. I thought I was stretched to the max when we learned that our two-year house rental would end a year early, and we needed to move again.
At the same time, my job added the need to supervise two teams, one at a client's office in New Jersey and the other all way out in Queens. While my husband and I were hurriedly looking at houses, I was handling all of the calls with realtors, because my husband despised phone calls.
When we finally decided to go with a builder who offered to erect a factory-built home on a subdivided lot in our current neighborhood in just ten weeks, I was the one who took a car service home from Manhattan to handle signing the contract, because my husband was in the hospital recovering from emergency surgery. This was just a few hectic days after I had called 911 because he collapsed at home, made arrangements for our son, raced off to a meeting, and returned to the hospital just as they finished all their tests.
The load on my shoulders was so much bigger than I could handle. When the builder screwed up and we had to leave the rental with our new house still lying in pieces on the lawn, I was the one who found the four temporary homes we lived in over the next ten months. Because--you know--I was married to someone who despised making phone calls.
I was the one who found new after-school care when our live-in helper declined to live in an economy motel with no kitchen. I could not blame her, and I really wished I could leave, too. My husband kindly took over driving to and from the school, which was in the opposite direction from my office. It felt like a lot of extra work to him, especially given his chronic health problems. It felt like not nearly enough to me.
While we were living in the motel, I developed Toxic Shock Syndrome. I had to drive myself to the doctor, because my professor husband had to show up for exams at the university. He would bring me food from the diner next door when I was able to eat again. I had to hire someone to replace me at work for four weeks. There was no way to work remotely, and I needed a lot of sleep.
The first time I could walk the forty steps to the diner--I remember it was snowing that evening--I purchased a newspaper and started looking for a better place to ride out the storm. It was good that I did, because my husband soon needed 12-hour IVs at home after work.
I desperately needed some form of recreation to survive the stress of my job, but my husband was not interested in lifting our sailboat onto the car's roof or taking dance lessons with me or going out to dinner or a movie without our son, with whom we were spending way too little time. My spare time was spent on fighting with our builder and filing health insurance claims.
I needed someone to take some of my responsibilities off of my shoulders, and my husband was in no position to do so. He was also operating at the edge of his abilities. It never occurred to either of us to turn to anyone other than each other. As overwhelmed as we were, neither of us was inspired to do loving things for the other or even to spend an hour together without griping about something. And, of course, he had to be home in time to fit in those 12-hour IV drips.
Perhaps the only good step we took was to hire a couple of therapists--of course, I found his as well as mine--to gripe at. Neither was helpful for anything else.
When his doctor suggested a year on disability for him shortly after we finally moved into the new house and started hiring landscapers, I jumped for joy. I thought I finally saw a light. My husband turned it down, convinced he could not live without his work.
With that, I began to daydream about the divorce fantasy, the one where the husband you still love and want the best for lives nearby to share custody of the children, while you shed responsibilities and fight stress with the intoxicating neurochemicals of falling in love.
Kim Brooks writes about having the same daydream, even contemplating sister wives to share the responsibility load--without, of course, adding to the responsibilities to be handled. At the start of the pandemic, she began living this wonderful fantasy. Her husband moved across the street. He takes the kids half the time, leaving her a quiet home where he won't feel abandoned when she make long phone calls or goes out to dinner or lunch with friends during his only non-working hours. And both have already fallen in love with new people. Ah, the oxytocin and the happily toned vagus nerves!
Kim is so enchanted with falling in love that she does not yet imagine the day when she wants to be done with her new love and her children have no legal right to maintain their extended family relationships with their parents' new exes.
She does not yet imagine the day her ex-husband's dreams include moving the children to experience another country. Or when he falls too ill to care for them and she has them full-time on just one income. Or when she finds a permanent or semi-permanent new relationship that comes with an obligation to help a relative through Alzheimer's or cancer. Or when she's no longer in the first blush of love and the routine of their life together becomes just as oppressive as the routine with her first husband.
Having my husband ripped away from me just when I thought I could handle no more--when I thought he was the cause of so much of my stress and yet had no extra to give me in return--showed me that I alone had built my stress level up to the point where I could not tolerate it and that I was actually capable of bringing it back down and falling back in love with my first love and my son's adoring father if only he were still alive.
I let go of responsibilities I had previously been sure were mandatory, and the world did not fall apart. I got rid of the noxious commute within a few weeks after he died: I moved the office. I gave my employer the choice of moving the office or losing me to a company with a closer office. After the move, I discovered I was close enough to the university that we could have gotten together for lunches while our son was at school.
I started finding people whose only interest in me was just one of the many interests I wanted to pursue,so I don't need a husband to share my interest in any of them. I cancelled social obligations to take piano lessons. I took sailing lessons and bought a trailer, so I could take our small sailboat out even without my husband. I hired people to do several of my chores when I realized time is a much more precious commodity than cash.
When I was considering divorce I had imagined the two of us could afford a second home, with two sets of kid stuff and separate family vacations, so I started to question where my money went and what I really wanted it for. My son and I did a bunch of traveling, and I bought a timeshare at the beach, somewhere driveable, so we could spend time at the beach even if I had to take half my office equipment and files with me.
I fell in love a few times, enjoying the chemical rush, but I avoided inviting any of them to become my son's extended family until I met someone I was willing to stay with for the rest of my life. That took eleven years. We're still together 23 years later, and I fall back in love with him frequently. My son married shortly before I did, and we both added the sort of extended family his children can count on. His wife's family is enormous and wonderful.
If you are thinking about divorce, I hope you will take a moment to separate what you need from what you expect your spouse to provide. If you do, you just might feel better about your capabilities and also enjoy the delightful rush of falling back in love.