Facing up to our own mortality has a way of making clear what has been hidden. In the case of Covid-19, a disease that has challenged our institutions as nothing has before, many of us are forced to do the very thing our culture of constant motion discourages us from doing: thinking, clearly and deeply, about what it means to be a wife, a husband, a parent, or a friend in a country with no culture of community or human connection or a common good.
As married couples spend months trapped in homes with partners and children, the cherished institution of the nuclear family begins to look increasingly unworkable and obsolete, while marriage begins to feel more and more like a two-legged stool.
To be fair, people have been predicting the decline of marriage for over a century. It is an institution that always seems to be in crisis, never quite able to keep up with the shifting demands of a modern life in which fewer and fewer people are paid anything close to a family wage. The pandemic did not create the contradictions; it just turned a chronic problem into a crisis, shedding light on what so many of us have tried to ignore.
In the coming weeks, my marriage of 16 years will end, not in court but in my living room. I will appear before the judge via Zoom on my computer and Pete will appear before her on his. Although our relationship is friendly, although both of us have found new partners we love, I suspect that the formal end of our marriage will still feel bittersweet and somewhat surreal.
With a swipe of a judge’s pen, our family will be restructured. This process hasn’t always been easy for us or for our children, but in the end, when I’m feeling sad, I tell them — and myself — that they now have four adults who love them, a wider circle, something a little closer to a clan.
The well-meaning imperfection of it all reminds me of my favorite piece of writing on the subject of divorce, Grace Paley’s short story “Wants.” The narrator is running an errand when she encounters her ex-husband and thinks, “Hello, my life.”
In that brief encounter, he accuses her of never wanting anything. But she wants all kinds of things — “to be a different person” and a better citizen: “I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either had enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time.”
Who could blame her, or us, for wanting the fairy tale to be real? But in the end, wants are no match for war and hardship and the imperfect business of being human. Paley saw clearly what so many of us now are finding out — that the world we’d like to live and love in is rarely the one that we inherit.
Kim Brooks is the author of “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.”
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