I sat in my rented apartment, a thirty-something divorcee crocheting a blanket, alternating red, gray, and black yarn in a chevron pattern while binge-watching made-for-TV dramas instead of writing a research grant due in December. With each stitch and episode, my mind could not escape questions swirling in my mind: Could I get the funding I sought to maintain my career in health services research at a university and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)? Would I ever get remarried? Would I ever become a mother?
The more pressure I felt to produce fundable science, the more inertia crept in and lingered all around me. One afternoon in October 2009, I wondered to my friends on Facebook whether the VA would be willing to pay me $1 million to crochet scarves instead of conducting research on the relationship between depression and mortality among military veterans. I could generate my own study on post-divorce-depression and scarves crocheted.
My apartment resembled the one I occupied immediately after college, rather than my first house my former husband and I had purchased three years earlier. I spent many nights alone, stroking my elderly cat’s black and white fur, curled up on my mismatched half of furniture than once made up a home.
Our dual academic careers had not survived our move from an east coast city to a Midwestern college town. My attempt to walk the tightrope from our postgraduate fellowships to faculty positions had failed. Our carefully constructed relationship, based on a lifelong friendship and intellectual pursuits, had collapsed like a house ravaged by a hurricane. We divorced within a year.
Instead of marveling at granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, colorful rooms, and large windows, I stared for hours at barren white walls, wondering what the future held. Instead of eating dinner on ivory porcelain plates and tulip-shaped flatware from my wedding registry, I sipped chicken noodle soup alone at my over-sized kitchen table, pressed too closely into dated laminate cabinetry, using mismatched bowls and spoons I had gathered from a local thrift shop. I would only later decide that I did not need to be married to purchase a matching set of dishes and silverware.
Some nights, I sat outside on the tiny patio and listened to my brass wind chimes tinkle in the autumn breeze, preparing myself to face each new and uncertain day.
I had no way of knowing then that within exactly one year, I would marry my on-again, off-again post-divorce partner, become a stepmother to his four-year-old son, and buy and move into a house. I would find myself hurrying to finish and submit my third and final attempt at the same research grant before giving birth to our son a few months later.
Our son is now in third grade and my stepson is in high school. Four years ago, we moved to our dream house on seven acres of land, complete with a zip line over our pond, which launches from the treehouse my husband and his father built for the boys. We see more deer than cars, and our golden Labrador retriever puppy tries unsuccessfully to play with them. My wind chimes hang off the dinner bell we ring to call the boys in from playing outside when it is time to eat.
Instead of worrying about job security, I am well-funded scientist and full professor with tenure – a life I only imagined a decade ago.
As most of us do, I traveled a nonlinear path from 2009 to 2019. Severe perinatal depression and anxiety nearly claimed the lives of my unborn son and me. I began part-time contract research to ensure my ability to pay for my childcare and mortgage as the primary breadwinner. Marriage remains complicated, challenging.
My need to reach beyond science led me to take writing courses, at first online, and then in a Master of Fine Arts program. I aim to combine narrative and data to help other women struggling with mental health and substance use disorders during pregnancy and postpartum.
I miss having the time to crochet, but I gave up binge watching TV to spend more time with my family and to read and write.
Perhaps in the next ten years I will share my memoir or essay collection. Perhaps it will provide a solace for others in dark and lonely moments.
Kara Zivin, PhD, MS, MA is a professor of psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology, and health management and policy, and a research scientist. She studies behavioral health care for perinatal women, older adults, and veterans. She is an MFA student in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, aiming to combine her research with personal narrative. She lives in southeast Michigan with her husband, stepson, and son.
Dr. Zivin implores you to learn more about the rising rates of pregnancy-related death and maternal mortality in the US. Visit MarchofDimes.org.