Published on August 10th, 2023 | by Sara Sadek0
D is for Divorce
Mom: Everything is fine. We’re not getting divorced. But also. You might want to skip this essay.
Last week was my seven-year-old’s spring break. We spent it sick with colds. Again. My morale hit January 2022 second-wave-omicron levels of low.
We had, after much bated breath, finally gotten my elder her first COVID vaccines in December of 2021. Three weeks later, the second wave of omicron hit. Vaccines were not effective against it. That moment broke me — the illusion of finally reaching safety and then having it so thoroughly wiped away with omicron. We were back to agonizing decisions about safety and risk. Debating whether to keep her home from school. To juggling impossible work schedules with limiting her schooldays to outdoor-only times. Holding her heartbreak after the guise of finally reaching COVID safety and jubilation was replaced with another round of fear and doubt and social restrictions.
Why last week’s colds got me as low as second-wave omicron, I don’t know. But I imagine it has something to do with the unrelenting nature of being more sick than not since October, amidst the stress of living three years into the COVID pandemic. I finally realized our rhythms of school and work, my intentions around yoga and mindfulness, good food and rest — the ability to live out any semblance of an intentional life — actually happened less frequently than our sickness rhythms. Which are not rhythms, they are just surviving chaos. The rhythm of sickness is being in a hole within a hole, and trying futilely to scramble out. This poem is a fitting description.
Here’s a weird cope: when I get low, I tend to escape to Zillow. I Zillow studio apartments I could theoretically afford by myself close to the kids’ school. I Zillow homes in the Presidio where we could walk our kids to school, for twice our current rent. I Zillow multi-family homes and imagine living there with friends or with my parents. I Zillow ways that would make our lives structurally easier.
After making my way through copious Kleenex boxes and Zillow listings, with my health finally physically recovered, but my morale less so, when I woke Monday to yet another email from a fellow parent sharing news of her divorce, I could understand and relate. This setup is structurally impossible. Divorce is one strategy to make it less so. Divorce, assuming shared custody, does what most marriages don’t: it protects at least some of a mother’s time from being simultaneously beholden to both the paid work of her profession and the unpaid work of mothering.
These announcements — the marital struggle, brink-of-divorce, actually-getting-divorce announcements — have not been infrequent this year. And I think any family with young children who has lived through the last three years has deep empathy for why that is. This setup is breaking a lot of us.
When I read this particular announcement, what I most felt was the liberation in her telling of it. I reached for my phone and texted my partner (because this is literally the only way we can communicate kid-free right now):
Another divorce. We’re definitely not the only ones struggling through the last three years. But she sounds free, and I get it.
That’s so hard. Yea the stress of everything is impossible. My first thought is I really don’t want that to happen to us, and I can also hear the liberation and think I understand that.
I know. Isn’t it wild that divorce somehow seems structurally easier? What does that say about our society rn?
Yea, that’s why I was thinking. So fucked up. Capitalism has taken community and now reduced it to the nuclear family and now that is breaking down into individual people who share care over children that they have mostly due to biological necessity
Can we just zoom out for a minute and soak in how messed up that is? That capitalism actually benefits from having our prosocial species broken down into individual worker parts? That we have to go against our innate human instincts for connection with our people to meet our financial needs?
Jenny O’Dell’s description of “gross inequality in temporal autonomy” in Saving Time really struck me. She says:
“First of all and most basically, some people control other people’s time. While slavery has been (officially) abolished, it’s still the case that the majority of people ‘rent their time to employers simply in order to survive.’ Until the necessity to do that is addressed — for example with universal basic income — “gross inequality” in temporal autonomy will persist.”
My partner and I have made some conscious choices to push against society’s incentives to separate us from one another and from our kids in their early days, and honestly it’s been at a cost: emotional, financial, and marital. Particularly, it’s been at a cost to our present and future temporal autonomy. Because we choose to intentionally co-parent, and also because both need to work to pay for our livelihood, what that looks like in practice is that we both feel starved for any time that is just ours. Or, even more basically, we are starved for the freedom to do our paid work free from the unpaid work of childrearing.
I think that’s a huge appeal of the idea of divorce for so many post-pandemic families, and primary parents in particular: legally, you get to reclaim some of your own time from the unpaid work of parenting, assuming shared custody. And, even if most of that time would inevitably be rented to paid work in order to cover the additional costs of sustaining a separate household, it would still be paid work time, that is, a couple days a week, free from the simultaneous additional unpaid work of childrearing.
Aside from divorce, how do we solve the underlying issue of having one’s time simultaneously committed to both paid and unpaid work? How do we grant ourselves and each other more temporal autonomy within this current framework? And is it possible to do within a nuclear family construct?
My hunch is no — the nuclear family doesn’t cut it. What we actually need is:
A world that doesn’t require both primary parents to work to financially sustain their livelihood, and/or
Policies like universal basic income that allow for more temporal autonomy, and/or
To break out of our nuclear families and form deeper interdependence to allow for more collective rearing of humans
My 16-year-old second-wave feminist self would be horrified that I’m thinking this, let alone writing it, but I find myself looking nostalgically to stories like The Red Tent, where the wives of Jacob form bonds of sisterhood, shared ritual, companionship, and shared child-rearing. And as I write that, I realize what I’m yearning for are alternative social/familial constructs that allow for more shared responsibility of child-rearing, more community, and more temporal autonomy.
I love my partner. And we’re both drowning. I know we’re not alone in saying this right now. In fact, I think we’re all just beginning to feel the societal reverberations of the particular social experiment that is raising small children while working during the COVID pandemic. I wonder if divorce rates will come to tell a story of how the nuclear family just could not withstand the marital stress test of the moment. But maybe that will pave a path for new ways of imagining family — of leaning into being in community with each other again.