Quarantine with my ex changes my opinion about good careers

Things Nino hates about me: I yell. I’m ungrateful. I threw things when we were married.

Things I hate about Nino: That he left.

Five years ago

I supported the kids after the divorce, so he’s always had save-the-world jobs that pay almost nothing. But he came to the farm every weekend to see the kids.

Once he had to skip two weekends for a work trip. I said, “Are you going to Europe?”

“No,” he said. “Georgia.”

“For two weeks? For what?”

“It’s actually just one week, but I’m taking the bus there and back because our research doesn’t have a lot of funding.” I told myself it’s ridiculous that he can have a job that does not pay enough to support a family. I told myself my kids are never working at a job where time is so undervalued that you travel by bus.

When the divorce was not so raw and the kids were not so young, they played by themselves and we sat on the back porch and talked. I asked him about his research. He told me some vague answer but I asked a few more times and then I realized he worked as an advocate for men who don’t pay child support. AND I LOST MY SHIT. But silently. I told myself don’t worry, it’ll be a good storyline for a movie about me.

Another day, on the porch, I asked about the men who don’t pay child support. As in, of all the people to advocate for, why them?

It turns out that men in prison can’t pay child support, because they’re in prison. So while they’re in prison, the government pays money to the mom and kids. But when the dad gets out of prison they can’t see their kids until they pay back what they owe to the government for covering for them. And, of course, most men in prison are Black, and then Black kids can’t see their dad.

It was a lot to get my head around.  He recommended that I read The New Jim Crow. I also read some of his research. After that, I decided that I was helping the world by enabling him to fight against the prison system. Now I know I do not get to be the hero in the story of helping Black people. But I didn’t know that then.

February 2020

I had coronavirus and worried the kids will be alone while I’m in the hospital. I cough and cry and sleep all day. I call Nino and he flies to Boston. I am annoyed he has to wait two days before he can get on a plane. I tell him to just quit his job. It’s a terrible job.

He decides he’ll stay till the end of lockdown. We thought it would only be a few weeks.

He connected our older kid with a local food bank that requires an oath of anti-capitalism. Our son was so happy about that last part. Our younger son needed a pianist to accompany him and in a post-coronavirus world, it has to be someone you live with. Nino learned a Tchaikovsky piece and they practiced each night after dinner.

Lockdown went on and on.

At dinner, Nino and I made inside jokes and this shocked the kids at first but they also saw our long history together. I told them, “I’ve known Nino since before the Internet had pictures.”

They said what they say to everything: “Boomers.”

March 2020

Nino and I began calling each other Boomer before the boys could do it. The boys didn’t know what to make of this.

The boys couldn’t tell what is happening. I couldn’t tell either. Nino kept saying he didn’t want to live with us and he would get his own apartment. But he never looked for his own apartment. Probably because he doesn’t earn enough money to get one near us.

My older son said, “Nino hunting for an apartment is like Elmer Fudd hunting for Buggs Bunny. It’s not really a hunt, it’s just a backdrop for the real story.”

I ask, “How do you know Elmer Fudd?” He shows me memes. Then I wonder, What is the real story?

Nino kept saying he left so much behind in Madison. I think WTF? The only family he has in the world are his parents and us and none of us are in Madison.

April 2020

He said, “Can you please not schedule coaching sessions for 11pm? You get all excited then you want to stay up all night.”

He knows me so well. I moved some phone calls. I slept better.

He held the ladder while I moved a plate. I accidentally brushed him on my way down and he recoiled; he didn’t want me to forget that he’s moving to his own apartment.

May 2020

George Floyd was killed and Nino disappeared into the Internet. He had lots of work to deal with in Madison. He wouldn’t talk about it, but one morning he had a Zoom call and I restructured the book garland that did not need restructuring so I could listen.

He explained his spreadsheet for the Madison bail fund. He said at the beginning he could do everything by hand. The people on the call ask him how he had so much time to do it. He said he had a job that wasn’t very demanding.

I hate myself for scoffing at his not-very-demanding job. He was setting up a bail fund years before I had ever even heard the word.

The Zoom callers talked about how Madison police were taking videos of protests and arresting people two weeks later. The fund received lots of donations and bailed out lots of people. Nino was passing the baton on most of the maintenance of the Madison bail fund because he couldn’t do it from Boston.

June 2020

I didn’t know he worked with people for years on the bail fund. Now that Black Lives Matter is everywhere I ignore the years I was pissed that he put nonprofit work ahead of us. I ask him, “Can I write what you said about the bail fund?”


“Can I say you work on it?”

“I guess. Why would you say that?”

“Because I’m proud.”

“No. Don’t say that.”

So I tell the kids they should ask Nino about the work he did in Madison. I tell them, “He did amazing stuff.”

The younger one says, “I thought you said he didn’t make any money.”

“Well, I did say that. But I’m seeing that isn’t always how you judge a person’s work.”

July 2020

I make vegan dinner for the kids and fish for me and Nino. I think about how we will spend family time tonight. I suggest watching Hamilton. “It’s compliments of Disney,” I say and look across the table at Nino because he used to work there.

He reminds me about the woman who said the gamma rays from his screen were negatively affecting her reproductive system and he refused to move his screen.

The boys laugh.

I sense a social skills lesson. I say, “Dad got fired. He should have moved his screen. When someone is an idiot at work just go with it. It’s not our job to call out people for being idiots.”

My younger son says, “Mom, that is literally your job. You do it every single day.”

My older son says, “Oh, yeah, and Hamilton is canceled.”

I look at Nino. “Is it canceled?”

He says, “I don’t know if it’s canceled. I’m not watching it.”

I google. I find Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders…. And It’s Not Halloween. I keep that to myself in case I can get the kids to watch with me. Wait. No. I’m not doing that because then I’d be one of those people who only supports Black Lives Matter when it’s convenient. I knew we should have seen Hamilton on Broadway.

Nino tells us about how the Madison bail fund reached a big milestone and bailed out all the Black women who were in jail because they couldn’t pay bail.

The boys ask him how much money it was. He says he can’t answer but he tells us you pay bail with cash at a reverse ATM machine at the jail. They paid one bill at a time and it took an hour and a half to pay the last woman’s bail.

My kids work on the math. Shout out numbers. Nino smiles.

I smile too. We are being a family. Nino is in the next stage of his life, here in Boston, helping our son be an activist in his own community. So I have a soft spot for that bail fund. I sent money to them, and I hope you will, too.

41 replies
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    Based only on what I just read, Nino is a good man who does good work. The Buddhists would call it right effort. Those boys are lucky. Be well

  2. Marie
    Marie says:

    You seem to be growing. Realizing that not everything you think just because you think it is true. Keep going in this direction.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      “…where work is so undervalued you have to travel by bus.”

      What’s wrong with traveling by bus? How do you disavow capitalism but insist on not taking the bus? Socialism involves extensive public transportation, preferably the green kind.

      You may or may not have been joking.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Sorry that I accidentally posted this in the wrong place. It isn’t meant to I be associated with the previous comment.

      • Ibtisaam
        Ibtisaam says:

        I’m pretty sure it refers to one’s time being of so little value (in terms of billable hours) that you can afford to sit in a bus for days. Can you imagine a lawyer sitting idle for days travelling to a client?

  3. Graham
    Graham says:

    I agree with Kitty. This is a lovely story, full of truth and an absence of smooth edges. This is mostly, in my experience, what love looks like. Messy, heartwarming, and sometimes unrecognizable until you have the patience to look more closely. Also, your sons are generally hilarious and I always enjoy their pithy one-liners.

  4. MB
    MB says:

    The relationship sounds tender and I hope it continues but the commentary from the kids was surprising public school fodder! Summing up the founding fathers as slave owners is skewed and negates the sacrifice it took to forge a new nation with ideals and liberties outside of a monarchy. That’s the thinking being taught in public school, rarely in Homeschool. Thank goodness for capitalism or none of us would have a cell phone or computer to connect and respond.

  5. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Full circle only with the wisdom gained from hard knocks. You are blessed… I expect a virtual invitation to the reconnection ceremony. I’ve watched it unfold for over 18 years or is it 19?

    • Ibtisaam
      Ibtisaam says:

      Do they have to be couple to co-parent their children within the same household? I am hoping for a similar platonic, benevolent co-parenting situation with my children’s father, which Covid-19 may been facilitating. Observing with interest….

  6. Hildegarde's Noviciate
    Hildegarde's Noviciate says:

    Funny it took a pandemic to force families to connect…something we lost while hustling and working for people who dont even know us…. and care even less. Perhaps it was a wakeup call for everybody to get back in touch with the collective conscious. Reminding us about whats important..family and community and the beautiful land we live on, feed on..and holds our ancestors bones
    So spend some of your life making the world a slightly better place for your kids to grow up in.
    After all, your boss isnt going to be the one to hold your hand in the nursing home…
    It will be the eyes of your child you will want to see when you close yours.

  7. Christine Morgan
    Christine Morgan says:

    I appreciated this story and the staccato way it flowed. I felt invited into the scope of what “living with differences “ endures and grows. Thank you for sharing yourself. I relax so many expectations on myself hearing your changes. And I donated. Thank him for his Great Work and good heart.

  8. Roohi Ahmed
    Roohi Ahmed says:

    It can still be a movie plot. Netflix!! Thank you for sharing your dynamic personal family life. Raw yet very pleasant.

  9. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    First, what a lovely column! I found myself speed reading it because I was afraid July meant he was on his way back to Madison. And the comment regarding Elmer Fudd truly is a classic!

    OK – Hamilton. When Black actors were restricted to playing “black” roles, people complained – and appropriately – that it was racial stereotyping. So now that people are cast in roles based only on their talent, are we saying Black people should not be cast in historically white roles? Two things to remember – two of the stars of Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom, Jr. both have filled Shakespearean roles on stage, and not roles that are typically thought of as “black.” And secondly, in terms of economic equality, all those Black performers in the version of Hamilton which is being broadcast by Disney are sharing in the $75MM which Disney paid for the rights – this in addition to the excellent salaries they earned on Broadway (and will earn once again if / when Broadway reopens – in whatever roles they fill, Black, White or Pink). Why are Black people not entitled to fill any job for which they are the best qualified – including as a Founding Father on Broadway? There – I’ve said my piece! Go watch Hamilton. It’s great acting, great lyrics, and a fun history lesson.

    • Etienne
      Etienne says:

      I tend to agree. While Hamilton certainly glosses over the subtext of slavery that shapes the daily lives of the founders in profound and contradictory ways, there is also growth to be had from watching black actors depict such contradictions. Indeed, if the actors in Hamilton were all white, I wonder if we would be forced to have the same conversation. But even more, do we not also see that it is the ideology of whiteness that causes us to shudder at the thought of a black person playing the role of a white slave trader. True liberty and equality is embracing that discomfort and using it as a catalyst for dialogue.

      • me
        me says:

        Christopher Jackson’s inspiring portrayal of George Washington made me fall in love with him: both George *and* Jackson.

        Brilliant performance.

  10. Petrina
    Petrina says:

    If only I’d remarried my husband, how much happier my children and I would be. Even a great stepparent relationship will always take conscientious oversight. Always an underlying anxiety, hoping things will go well with gratitude for what would be a given in a parental relationship.
    My children love their stepfather and quite voluntarily began to refer to us as their parents which is a lovely acknowledgement of his role in their lives. But oh, how I miss the ease of that absolute love between a father and his children.
    If I’d had an opportunity to revisit what I’d thought of as a well considered decision, and if I’d had the benefit of knowing just how difficult blended families, even really good ones, could be then I’d have forgiven a trifling inconsequential infidelity. I’d have chalked it up to a 42 year old’s libido and not ruined his life and mine.

    • Hildegarde's Noviciate
      Hildegarde's Noviciate says:

      Its not about 2nd guessing what you felt was right at the time.
      You blame yourself for not forgiving…what…someone who hurt his best friend, a friend who chose to spend the best part of her youth and her body to create human beings in his name and image and share her life and love making a home for them all, trusting her vulnerability to someone who she thought was her best friend…who violated all that in order to gain the affirmation he needed to feed an ego that didnt want to grow old. Instead of having the courage to fix what he had.
      The stepdad is far more than the father. The stepdad is willing to step in and love another mans children. To care for another mans children for the woman he loves. Go through the fights, put up with the “youre not my dad” remarks over and over again for the woman he loves and the children he loves. Who the hell said that a father is automatically better than the stepdad.
      Love is work..no matter who you love. Hes willing to do it for you and your ex’s kids. Your husband apparantly put himself before his kids and you.And what is your ex doing now? Is he pining for you in a celebate corner?
      Sounds like you made a good choice to me. But what do I know?. Im old school. I believe the one that is worth it is the one that, shows up and sticks it out even tho he doesnt have to. Loves and cares even tho he doesnt have to.
      Again…what do I know

      • Graham
        Graham says:

        You’re right, what do you know? How can you presume to make judgments about other people’s lives with generalisations that reflect nothing of the complexity involved in most infidelities?

        It doesn’t excuse your hamfistedness when you simply epilogue your opinions with, “what do I know?” If you know you don’t understand other people’s experiences (which you don’t) perhaps it’s a good idea to avoid trying to convince them they did the right thing when they have concluded they hurt themselves.

        Better to listen to the experiences of the person who has lived the life, isn’t it?

        There is such poignancy in Petrina’s observations about her life, one that none of us knows better than she does.

        Infidelity is often an awful, disastrous and destructive “solution” to a genuine problem. Better to try and understand it than to throw ignorant accusations around.

        But, what do I know? Quite a lot as it goes.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Graham gives us a nice lesson on how to be a good commenter online. But it’s really a lesson for everything: How to be a listener in life. Listening is so difficult in real life. It takes so much patience, restraint, and respect. It’s much easier to ACT like a listener online but instead, tell people online what to do and how to think. I’m guilty of this, too.


        • adunate
          adunate says:

          Actually, I think Hildegarde knows quite a bit and you shouldn’t be so hard on her. Petrina’s words are beautiful and well-meaning. Yet, they’re also multifaceted. She describes hers as a “well considered” decision. Obviously at the time, she didn’t feel a 42-yr-old’s libido was a “trifling inconsequential infidelity.” Actually, I don’t think infidelity is ever trifling or inconsequential. I wonder if Hildegarde isn’t suggesting Petrina ease up on herself and see the best in the decision she made. It sure would be nice if we could have a 360-hindsight, right? Hindsight if I forgive him and stay married? Hindsight if I divorce him and remarry someone else? Which hindsight is better? Unfortunately, we only have the one from that “well considered decision.” Who knows, had Petrina chosen differently, life could have been much worse. Petrina, you didn’t ruin your ex’s life. He did.

          • Ibtisaam
            Ibtisaam says:

            “Blended” families are overrated and it’s about time the importance of the actual parents is once again, emphasized.

    • MB
      MB says:

      This is a brave statement. It must be a heartache but so generous of you to share to help others… Forgiveness is underrated. We are constantly pumped with “what we deserve.” No we don’t deserve infidelity but the healing balm of forgiveness can do wonders for our health, our mindset, our humility or a cure for our pride. I recently divulged some injustices in my relationship that have been hard to deal with and two friends immediately fired back: “SO what are you gonna do about it?” The question wasn’t put forth with compassion but almost disdain. Maybe I had burdened each of them with my story and hadn’t read the situation as I should have but I think it’s rare to hear quiet council of support for the patient long suffering journey that was the route of yesteryear. All around those are very painful and difficult roads but I have found more recently websites to help couples navigate the world of betrayal trauma and healing. I’m sure that kind of support wasn’t available to you then and you did the best you could with the tools you had.Thanks again for your honesty and sharing. It’s a side of he story not readily shared and will help many who are on the fence.

  11. Jenwithben
    Jenwithben says:

    The importance of teaching sons that their father is worthwhile—both personally and professionally—is underestimated by high performing women. Bravo to you!! Too many women think divorce is the answer to their problems (it’s not) and that disparaging their ex is a sport their children will enjoy watching (it isn’t). The way you talk about Nino is so kind and respectful. The reconnection of your nuclear family is a love story. The love of parents for their children had its own word in Ancient Greece—that’s how special the connection is. Nino is the only person who can share this experience with you. I’m so happy to read that you are rediscovering day to day joys of coparenting while cohabitating with him.

  12. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Back in the Autumn of the Middle Ages the former rough tough marcher lords became courtiers and got seriously into “medieval romances” that imagined thug nobles as noble knights rescuing damsels in distress. Also, if you’ve read any medieval romances, they had parties. Boy, did they have parties.

    Back in the 20th century the educated gentry invented “activism,” play-acting at revolution — after all the real revolutionizing, done by guys like Hamilton, bastard brat of a Scotch peddler, was over and done with.

    History does not repeat itself, it merely rhymes.

  13. Priya
    Priya says:

    Love how this is written like a novel with progress made over the months. Thanks for sharing your personal life in a hilarious and easy to read way. Nino turned out to be hero which you discovered last few months. it just takes perspective and respect to open our eyes to see what is going on in other persons life.

  14. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I enjoyed this post much more. It was interesting reading about your life rather than generalized judgments, and the contextualization of that political position on Hamilton made it more interesting.

    As you know, I’ve been reading this blog since the farm days, and I was surprised to hear now that your ex-husband visited you every weekend there, then. I hadn’t known that. For some reason, I thought he lived in New York.

    I’m glad things are going better, and that your younger son is sufficiently recovered from his mysterious concussion that he can play again.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I didn’t know why he had a concussion, just that it had caused him major impairment over the course of several months. Meanwhile, your reticence to discuss it directly was notable. I assume there were legal reasons. I hope they settled, and that he is entirely recovered.

        My son won’t be returning to the Conservatory next year because he decided to go to college two years early instead. He’ll miss it and all the friends he made there, including his classmates from composition seminar. I’d like to say I hope your fully recovered son can get back into the swing of things next term, but I can’t imagine they will open for classes this fall.

  15. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    This is great. I’ve been reading since before you split up. Did you tell your kids you’re not Boomers?! No one is more Gen X!

  16. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Thanks for sharing Penelopy. This is so beautiful and heartbreaking, and so much like my own imperfect life. There is no justice, but I’m glad you Nino and your boys have been able to bridge the gaps between you – despite the hurt. Thanks for sharing this empowering story.

  17. Scarlet
    Scarlet says:

    Your post literally makes me teary eyed. And not just because it brings up a lot of deep topics. But because you can share so much. It is like baring your soul. And you seem to do it so easily. I feel that I am in the room with you and your family.
    I am so closed. I never open up and let the world into my inner rooms. I tend to keep feelings locked away. You strike me a very brave. You are an excellent writer.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’ve read this post like three times and just now get how hilarious the following exchange is – “I sense a social skills lesson. I say, “Dad got fired. He should have moved his screen. When someone is an idiot at work just go with it. It’s not our job to call out people for being idiots.”
    My younger son says, “Mom, that is literally your job. You do it every single day.”
    My older son says, “Oh, yeah, and Hamilton is canceled.”
    Kids make some great observations and they aren’t afraid to share their insight.

  19. Chris
    Chris says:

    That bail fund is gonna need a lot more money if you and all your followers don’t vote for Biden and the Republicans continue to run the country.

  20. Navaz Ibrahim
    Navaz Ibrahim says:

    One of the wonderful articles I have so far managed to read in this blog. It has everything for those who love to care and love the person they love, and it’s a clear indication to think well before we make a hard decision in life, especially when you say bye to any relationships. We take years to build a relationship and ruining it for a single reason (that will definitely have an option to solve) without giving a second thought; it happens in everyone’s life and if someone reads this article, then I’m sure he is going to sit and think before making the final decision.

    I’m a person working as a Business Executive in a domestic workers visa service offering company in Dubai, and my job nature exposing me to different families who are having different stories to share with me. When I talk with the maids and nannies we have here, most of them are single mothers and they share their stories. I can hear their happy, sad, good and bad stories, but most of them felt so disappointed to what they have done without thinking to call time on a relationship.

  21. Emily Carson
    Emily Carson says:

    It’s nice to read this kind of blog. I was curious about how the quarantine goes with you and about your career. I am a job seeker and I want to look for a better career. The covid 19 is a pain and it blocks my job search. Good thing everything is going well now. I hope I can find one. You and your family take care!

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