I never used to struggle with sleep. But tonight I lie awake again, thinking about my living situation, about flats, money and the future. I lie there while listening to the calming snores of my 5 and my 7 year old in our bedroom’s double bed. Their sweet breath gives my life sense. They calm me though I am feeling so desperate. The double bed is getting a bit small for the three of us. Sometimes I move down to the bottom of it and sleep strangely sideways. My daughter has a broken bone, and I am afraid of hurting her. I stay awake, thinking about how I will have that talk with my ex about the flat, hoping to find that calming tone even as my heart is burning. We started talking through a family counsellor. I started liking him even less ever since that and I feel sorry about it.
It wasn’t until I moved out that I realized that that flat where we used to live, where he lives now, was probably my apex in the social status ladder of Berlin academics. I didn’t own it, but it’s one of those flats with an old and cheap lease. It’s big and it’s light and it has three bedrooms. It’s also hard labor to heat it in winter, because you have to light up the coal ovens. When I separated from my ex, I left him with the flat. As much as possible, I wanted to live up to the vision of finding harmony between two separated parents. So I decided to leave aside territorial and financial claims, until we re-found ourselves in this new situation. I took a chance on a two bedroom place nearby, which was already a marvellous quality of life for separated couples nowadays in Berlin. And it has been really good, because I managed to keep the sense of neighbourhood and proximity for the children. A privilege in many ways.
The new apartment is smaller and darker. In the beginning I made the front room—the lighter one— into the children’s room. I wanted them to feel less loss, to be proud of their space. After two years, we agreed that it would make more sense not to have separate rooms, but instead to have one living room and one bedroom for all of us. My more privileged friends accused me of harming the kids by making them sleep with me. I accused them of being Western and spoiled. They didn’t think about how I couldn’t host more than one grown-up and a child in that kitchen; about how I didn’t feel I could invite people over because I didn’t have a space for them to be in. Let alone my students. I felt I couldn’t invite them in anymore because I wasn’t living up to the image I had, and assumed they had, of myself as their lecturer.
Once I had that living room/playroom in the front, things got better. And then corona came. Actually I was sick before corona; I had a heavy flu in February. And I had no one to bring me a glass of tea. I took three hours to make myself a tea, because I was feeling so weak. I missed my children, but I realized no one could take care of them if they were with me, so I had to tell their father to watch them longer. This got worse with corona, because I was trying to combine being with them alone and working. I ended up in tears until my university finally helped support some child care. I realized at that point that for the past years, my life structurally does not make any sense. I need more company. I need to share my household with someone, since I am a commuting academic. I am such a feminist and yet I was so socially female, and too compromising, in all the decisions after the separation.
So these days I lie awake at night with my snoring children next to me. I think about my mum. She raised me and my brother in Berlin as a single mum with eight years of formal education. As a secretary in Berlin, she was able to afford a bigger flat than I can now. I try to push that thought away, because I feel like a failure if I think about it too long. I love my job, but I am unable to ever put aside any savings. It feels like my only paths left to greater security are getting back to my cheaper old flat, which I left to my ex, or finding a lover to share my finances with, or moving to the countryside where I work. Or I could change my job, but I really don’t want to do that. All of these options require intense labor. I am thinking about when I should invest my time, and where. What next? For the past six months, I’ve been working seriously on getting my driver’s license. I am halfway now and my bank account is empty. I can’t find the focus to study for the theory exam. My ex tells me I should start doing consulting alongside my uni job, that I should get a higher salary. When and how, I ask him? He doesn’t understand. He’s oblivious that his mother does so much care work for him—more than I ever did. The loss that I feel from sharing our households is a gain on his side; he does much less care and household work cause his mum just kind of took over. What hurts the most is seeing how conservative he has become. I always thought we were a feminist couple. But all his feminism left him once it was no use for being with me anymore. He never reflects on how much more privileged this separation left him, in terms of space, time to work, and financial support from his family. I try to push that thought away too. I’ve been really fucking non-strategic, and it’s really time to change that. But before that, I’ll try to get some sleep.
The author would like to note that she negotiated really hard on many fronts, and ended up living in a flat-share of her dreams. Things got a lot better then.
Original photo by Mona Miller