Love

Why My Husband Got His Own Apartment

Photo: moodboard, alacatr | Canva
Professor and his apartment

My husband’s new studio apartment is on a college campus. As such, it has the requisite cinder block walls and brown-tiled bathroom floor. It is not a beautiful apartment, but it is more than passable. It’s clean, warm, and comfortable. It requires no commute. And perhaps most importantly, no one else lives there.

My husband will be spending three nights a week at his new apartment, Tuesday through Friday, as he settles into his new job as an Assistant Professor. I’ll admit, I feel a bit guilty that we have access to two living spaces when so many people are struggling to afford just one roof over their heads. Then I remind myself that the university is under-enrolled and the apartment would otherwise sit empty. But still. It seems extravagant.

There are lots of good reasons for this new living arrangement. My husband is currently dividing his time between two campuses, one an hour from our home and the other 30 minutes further away.

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I worry about him on the road. Not just because of the other drivers, who seem to be getting ever more distracted and ever more aggressive. Not just because of the wet winter weather, or the heavy darkness that falls early and lifts late. I also worry because he’s a Black man behind the wheel. A Black man who has been pulled over 55 times and counting. A Black man who could all too easily end up in jail or dead.

These are the reasons I cite when I tell others that my husband is now gone three nights a week. People seem to understand. I don’t share the other reasons, the more personal reasons. That’s because I don’t want my coworkers or acquaintances to think there is anything “wrong.” Because there’s still a part of me that just wants a “normal” marriage, a “normal” family.

But here’s the thing: “normal” doesn’t work for all of us. I’d venture to claim that “normal” doesn’t work for most of us.

The nuclear family — what we’ve come to perceive as the “normal” family — hinges on a set of assumptions that no longer match the realities of most working families in the United States. For instance, one parent can stay at home and the other parent can support a family on one income. That both parents are happy in these socially prescribed roles. That kids can walk to school and generally get themselves wherever they need to be. That they can stay busy running around with other kids after school. That neighbors can offer support when it’s needed.

Instead, we live in a society where most households require two incomes to achieve any semblance of financial stability, where parents spend hours shuttling their kids to and from school and other activities, where the division of household labor requires constant negotiation, where neighborhoods and other communities have all but dissolved.

This means that parents in today’s nuclear families are responsible for pretty much everything — working to pay the bills; finding childcare and organizing activities to keep our kids busy so we can work to pay the bills; getting kids to and from their daycares, schools, and activities; working second shifts in the evening to manage the household; and working third shifts through the weekend to do all the household tasks we can’t get to during the week.

Somewhere in there, we still need to eat dinner. We need to spend quality time with our children and quality time with our partners. We need to parent, teach life skills, to raise good humans. We need to keep them healthy and safe, to protect them from all the unhealthy excesses of American life.

We need to communicate with our partners about all the crap there is to do and who’s going to do it and when. We need to communicate with our partners about how we’re feeling, which is often not so great. And let’s not forget that after spending the better part of our Saturday afternoons pulling hairballs out of the drain, rescuing petrified bread crusts from under the couch, and scraping toothpaste blotches out of the sink, we are also still supposed to find the energy and inclination to want to be intimate with one another.

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It’s a lot, to say the least. My husband and I were sort of making it happen for a while. Okay, we weren’t always taking the time to communicate about our feelings, but it was easier not to think about our feelings. Communicating about our feelings sometimes led to hurt feelings, which led to arguments, which required so much energy.

When our youngest started Kindergarten, I thought we had made it. Both our kids could now more or less dress themselves in the morning and sleep through the night. There was a year in there, maybe two, where life seemed almost manageable. Both kids were at the same school — a school they could walk to, no less. I was working remotely, no longer commuting downtown each day, and my husband was working four days a week. We had some money in our savings account. The kids weren’t yet in any sports teams or other organized activities because they were both still young enough to engage in unstructured free play. They even had a few friends on our block.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about parenting, it’s that as soon as you dare to think, “I’ve got this,” everything promptly unravels.

I knew that my daughter’s adolescence was hovering on the not-so-distant horizon, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be fun. Add a strong will, feisty temperament, powerful set of lungs, and complex multiracial identity to an unpredictable hormone cocktail, and you’ve got your work cut out for you. But I also thought the transition would be gradual, something we’d learn to handle over time.

Nope. Her adolescence hit the family like a giant wrecking ball about a month into her fifth-grade year. Almost overnight, it seemed, our daughter transformed from a bright-eyed child beloved by her teachers into the “problem student” — disengaged and full of attitude. Emails from school staff began peppering my inbox — one more crazy thing to deal with. My daughter no longer wanted to play with the boy across the street because he was a boy and he was two years younger than her and she didn’t play anymore. Instead, she preferred to shut herself in her room and listen to inappropriate music. I had to pick my battles, so I let the music slide.

My husband and I were parented very differently, and it wasn’t the first time we struggled to get on the same page. But there was so much coming at us — so many negative emotions — we didn’t have much time to process. He yelled at our daughter because he’d grown up being yelled at, and I tried to sweep things under the rug because I’d inherited an instinctual aversion to conflict. Especially loud conflict. We both felt consistently undermined. We both thought the other partner was handling things all wrong, though we admitted we had no idea how to handle them right.

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The new layers of conflict brought my husband’s childhood and young adult trauma to the surface in unexpected ways. He collapsed at work, for reasons the ER doctor vaguely attributed to “stress,” and had to go on medical leave. Our home began to feel like a minefield. If we didn’t tread delicately, at any moment, even the good moments, something or someone was liable to explode.

So much for life to be manageable. There were therapy appointments, so many therapy appointments, to schedule and get to. All the therapists suggested endless meetings and exercises. Family meetings, scheduling meetings, finance meetings. Gratitude exercises, journaling exercises, mindfulness exercises. I didn’t want homework. I didn’t have time for homework. I wanted them to fix us during the hours we were paying them to fix us.

I desperately signed my daughter up for a basketball team in an attempt to channel her intensity and leverage her impressive athletic ability. Thus, the Shuttling of the Children to Extracurriculars began. During all this, we were grieving other losses, even if we weren’t aware we were grieving them. The fledgling community we worked hard to build in our children’s early years had all but unraveled during COVID, and we were left with fraying edges, and occasional looping text chains that rarely ended in real human contact.

The strange simplicity of life during COVID had ended as abruptly as our daughter’s adolescence had begun. We were thrust into the deep end again, but the waters were darker and churned more violently, the humans thrashing around us angrier and more aggressive.

Everything is back to normal, they told us. But nothing was normal, and normal sucked anyway.

What I desperately needed was head space. An internal processor by nature, I was feeling constantly flooded, forced to react in real-time to events and emotions I couldn’t anticipate and didn’t understand. This past summer, I started walking everywhere I could. Both because I found it helpful and because I wanted to win my job’s summer walking challenge. I desperately needed a win, any win.

I’ve always jogged in the mornings, but walking was different. I wasn’t plowing through the miles to check something off my to-do list. I was simply putting one foot in front of the other, spending time with my brain, body, and heart. Summer drew to a close, as summers tragically do.

As the darkness and drizzle descended, I felt a mounting anxiety. I assured myself that things seemed to be getting better. After a rocky start to sixth grade, my daughter was settling in. Only one teacher had called us to date, and she was shining on both the volleyball and basketball courts. My partner and I were using new tools to communicate, which sometimes worked when we could think enough to remember what they were. Our son was, for the most part, still a thriving, happy-go-lucky kid, evidence that we were doing something right and that it was still possible for a child to perceive the world as benevolent and kind.

Still, everything felt tenuous. I was reminded of a story my father told me growing up, in which a man was condemned to perpetually push a boulder up a mountain. Every time he approached the summit, the boulder rolled back down and he had to start over again. That’s kind of how life felt, pushing boulders up mountains, nearing some sense of accomplishment, of completion, only to lose my grip and watch them tumble away.

I knew there was no such thing as a perpetually “happy family.” I knew that behind every filtered Instagram photo, there was a world of stress and hurt. All around me, it seemed, couples I’d thought of as “happy” were getting divorced. I wondered if we would join the fray. But I didn’t want to. My partner didn’t want to. Sure, we threw around the “D” word sometimes, mostly in anger, but we’d worked too hard, loved too hard, fought too hard, been through too much, and weathered too many storms.

When my partner accepted a new job, after six months of medical leave, I mostly felt relieved that we would have two incomes again and that he would have something productive to engage in. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder when the boulder would once again begin to tumble downhill. We were diligently working on ourselves and working on our relationships, but when would the pressures of the outside world push us to our next breaking point?

It occurred to me that he could look for an apartment closer to his new job, but I was nervous to bring it up with him, scared that perhaps we’d be inadvertently laying the groundwork for a future separation. Besides, how could we possibly afford it?

There are a million reasons to maintain the status quo. There’s inertia, for one. There’s a general lack of energy, which prevents creative problem-solving. There are potential expenses. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s the pressure to do what’s “normal.”

But what I saw in the unraveling relationships of so many people around me was that they maintained the status quo until they simply couldn’t. Maybe they tried to talk. Maybe they tried therapy. But they were never able to get off their treadmills for long enough to adjust their perspective or give each other enough room for grace. They ran their marriage out until it collapsed.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not anti-divorce. I’m grateful it’s an option for anyone who feels trapped in an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes, divorce is absolutely the best way forward.

I also have to believe there’s a middle ground, perhaps multiple middle grounds, if more of us could just let go of our perceptions of “normal,” and seek out alternative solutions. Before the nuclear family structure rose to dominance, we had multiple emotional outlets, multiple “third spaces” beyond work and home, and multiple people stepping in to play roles that now rest on our shoulders alone.

Another living space may seem extreme and expensive — it certainly did to me when I started thinking seriously about it — but then I remembered all my friends who had to find their own living spaces after getting divorced. They couldn’t afford it until they had to, and then they found a way to make it work. One of these friends even confided that had she sought out her own “third space” while she was still married, her relationship may have taken a different trajectory.

I write a lot about gender equity in marriage, and some friends want to know: is it fair that my husband gets his place three nights a week while I’m managing the kids and household? Yes, I’ve asked myself this very question. Yes, I have to unload more dishes, shuttle kids to more activities and hound them more to do their chores. But there are trade-offs, always. When it comes to the division of labor during the week, I have to think far less about who’s doing what. I don’t have to delegate or feel resentful when something doesn’t get done.

   

   

I also know that equity doesn’t always mean splitting everything down the middle. I know my partner needs to expend more energy just to get through his days. I didn’t suffer extensive trauma as a child or young adult. I don’t have to code-switch or battle racial biases just to do my job. I’m in a line of work that is less emotionally demanding than my partner’s. When I wrap up a remote workday, I’m hungry for real human connection; my partner, meanwhile, deals with real humans all day.

This new arrangement we’re experimenting with is, more than anything, an acknowledgment of the fact that it’s really hard to live with other human beings. Nearly all of us have at least one roommate horror story. Nearly all of us have good friends we could never live with. Nearly all of us were routinely driven crazy by at least one family member growing up.

Giving each other physical space means fewer opportunities for petty disagreements that spiral into something larger. It also means less emotional complexity. Consider this: When one of us isn’t home, there’s a 25% reduction in the number of bodies, but a 50% reduction in the number of relationships. When all four of us are home, there are six relationships to manage at any given time. By the laws of probability, the chances of all six of those relationships going well simultaneously are pretty low.

A spare apartment is certainly not a perfect solution to all our current and potential challenges. It’s not the only solution. It’s probably not a permanent solution. But it’s a solution we happen to have at our disposal, and it’s worth a shot.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Substack. Reprinted with permission from the author.