Illustration of a squirrel.
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty; The Atlantic

What Squirrels Taught Me About Life After Divorce

Only 25 percent of gray squirrels survive their first year. Success rates for second marriages are almost equally dire.

Noah likes to feed the squirrels naked. I don’t know if he does it this way when I am not here. But like clockwork on the weekend mornings we spend together, the squirrels will start to tap on the window. And Noah will rise from the bed as if responding to a baby monitor. He will stumble to the kitchen, grab a handful of unsalted almonds from a jar in the cabinet, return to the bedroom, and crack the window an inch, popping the almonds out one by one so they land on the sill in a line.

The squirrels live in the saw-whet owl nesting house he bought and placed on the corner of his fire escape. For a few hours each morning, they pad back and forth across the windowsill, balancing on the black steel ribbons of the landing, waiting for him to put out breakfast, then second breakfast, then snack. If no almonds are waiting for them on the sill, the squirrels will knock loudly on the window until he wakes up. They stand on their hind legs like tiny Peeping Toms and stare at us in bed until food appears. They will knock and stare if we are sleeping, or reading, or having sex.

The squirrel house is made of cedar and has a hunter-green composite roof. When Noah first showed it to me while lying in bed one afternoon, I didn’t pay much attention. I’m a single mother living in the Long Island suburbs, while Noah is a single man in his 40s in Brooklyn. We are both divorced. Spending $60 on a small house that may or may not get used by squirrels seemed frivolous to me, but in the middle of the pandemic, any kind of distraction also felt worth it.

Noah was far from the only person taking solace in squirrels during the pandemic. Around this time, in May 2020, we watched Mark Rober’s video “Backyard Squirrel Maze 1.0 -Ninja Warrior Course” on YouTube. After cadres of the small animals destroyed his squirrel-proof backyard bird feeders, Rober built a course designed to challenge the squirrels’ mental and physical abilities. Those that made it to the end received the prize of “a butt-ton of walnuts.” The video has 107 million views.

Many of those views came from my own household. During the first year and a half of the pandemic, I spent my weekdays away from Noah’s place in my apartment with my two children. Third and fourth grade, then fourth and fifth grade, took place in the living room via Google Classroom, while I taught my college courses over Zoom in my bedroom. I could also watch squirrels chase one another through the branches of the towering old oak tree in my backyard, but they never came close enough to feed. I was more interested in birds, anyway. Noah bought us a glossy blue egg-shaped feeder to hang from the tree.

The first few days, the kids enjoyed watching the birds land and chatter while they ate the seed. The kids’ teachers would be droning desperately on the computer, but my sons would be looking outside, entranced by the bird dramas. They would report their sightings of cardinals and mourning doves and finches when we all came to the table for lunch each day.

One morning, the glossy blue egg was hanging sideways by its steel string. A pile of birdseed was on the ground, and squirrels were munching away. I shooed them off, repaired the feeder, strung it back up. From my bedroom upstairs, I watched as a squirrel climbed the oak’s trunk until he was parallel to the bird feeder, and then he launched himself onto the orb. Over and over, he would jump and skitter and flop off. Over and over, he would climb back up, adjusting his height and angle, until he finally stuck his landing. Stretching his body vertically so that he hung nearly upside down, the squirrel worked the metal dish and dowel at the bottom of the feeder until birdseed was scattered everywhere.

A few mornings later, I came downstairs to make coffee, and the feeder itself was lying on the ground atop a giant pile of seed. Birds and squirrels were enjoying the party. I walked out with my coffee cup to assess the damage, shaking my head but also marveling at the ingenuity of the little bastards. I went to refill the feeder, but when I pulled out the plastic bin I used to store seed, I discovered that the handle had been chewed off. Apparently, the squirrels had found the source and feasted on that too.

Noah first noticed his squirrels because a neighbor a few floors up kept a bird feeder on the fire escape. Every morning and afternoon, the squirrels would scamper up and down the steps, chasing the rain of seeds that would pour forth when one or another shook the feeder vigorously. When he was suddenly working from home every day, alone in the quarantine months, these squirrels would often be the only living beings he saw for days. The squirrels would pause at his window to eat the birdseed, and he enjoyed watching how they perched on the edge of the ironwork and observed the dogs and humans going by on the sidewalk. They became part of his day, and so he thought about how to make them more comfortable, how to make them stay.

In an article about the history of squirrels in New York, Sadie Stein wrote that in 1968 100,000 drowned squirrels were pulled out of a reservoir. This mass death was linked to a phenomenon that occurred across the eastern United States called the Great Squirrel Migration. After a robust year for acorns in 1967, squirrel births skyrocketed. Unfortunately, that plenty was temporary; 1968 was an unusually bad year for acorns, and it is likely that squirrels left their usual homes in search of more food. In September of that year, hundreds of thousands died on highways, or while crossing bodies of water. Squirrels are not agile swimmers, using a kind of doggy-paddle technique that requires a lot of energy to cross a short distance, and they are known to die of exhaustion when crossing bodies of water.

The squirrels migrated because they were desperate. I worried that Noah was like their 1967 bounty—unreliable and temporary. When we went away on vacation for a week, he asked his friend Ryan to stop by to water his plants and feed the squirrels. As the weeks passed, we named the squirrels, and every few months they seemed to change up, with different squirrels taking ownership of the house. Noah calmed my anxiety about dependence by reporting back that while the squirrels usually eat the first few nuts they grab, they also collected nuts and ran down to the apartment building’s lawn to bury them. They were storing their caches. They seemed to know it is not safe to rely on a single source of sustenance.

In our respective divorces, Noah and I had both lost places we’d loved. We’d both had the experience of feeling at home, of feeling like we’d found the place we’d be for the long term. We also knew what it meant to have to pack up and leave. His ex-wife still lived in his old apartment. A new family had moved into my house after my ex-husband and I agreed to sell it. I’m not sure which is worse.

He’d had squirrels at his previous apartment too, though he had not cultivated them—there was a fallow planter on his fire-escape ledge, and one morning he woke up to a bundle of sleeping squirrels curled around one another. I think this was when he first fell in love with them.

For most of our relationship, we both lived in what we called our in-between places, him in Brooklyn, me in the suburbs. We both missed our old homes; we both felt unsettled where we were. Our current apartments were pass-throughs, and we knew it, though we didn’t know what we were passing through to.

Noah and I had been talking about moving in together before COVID hit, but every time the discussion circled too closely to reality, one or the other of us would balk. I’d never introduced the kids to anyone I’d dated before. Noah and I dated for two years before he met them, and then the four of us went climbing together, and running, and to the zoo. Noah and I were moving toward something, but with no timeline. Until the pandemic, we’d both enjoyed living on our own, were ambivalent about marriage, were working on ourselves after our respective shipwrecks. Neither of us was in a hurry to change anything.

My maternal great-grandfather had a summer cottage in Tappan, New York, where he kept gardens. He used to treat the squirrels like pets, my mother remembers, and would often walk around his garden with a squirrel on his shoulder or perched on his hat, as he fed the animal nuts from his pocket.

But squirrels are not pets. One day, while riding on my grandfather’s head, a squirrel sunk its claws into the side of my great-grandfather’s face and ripped it apart. This is one of the few stories I know about the man: He worked for a French steamship company, he loved his gardens and his granddaughter and squirrels, and one of them nearly took out his eye.

I imagine him strolling in his gardens before that awful morning, smiling contentedly while making his granddaughter giggle by tossing peanuts to the squirrel on his shoulder. I imagine he might have thought I have everything I wanted, the same way Noah and I did for a period in our respective homes before our divorces. When you live with a person you love, you think you have an understanding; you think We’re in this together and Things will always feel this good. I imagine my great-grandfather’s pride must have stung along with his face that day, the same way mine stung when I signed away my farmhouse. We both should have known better.

Noah promised he would never open the window more than an inch to pop a nut out onto the sill, would never try to pet them. I mostly believed him. From what I could see, Noah and the squirrels seemed content to live alongside each other. The squirrels munched happily on the fire escape as Noah sat and chatted to them from the other side of the window. Sometimes, if a storm blew the nesting house too close to the open ledge, Noah would poke the green handle of his broomstick out of the window and nudge it securely into the corner of the fire escape again.

According to National Geographic, there are more than 200 types of squirrels in the world. Many people consider them akin to chipmunks or bunnies, but make no mistake: They are in the rodent family and, like rats, their front teeth never stop growing. In New York City, the Parks Department notes that the majority of the squirrels we see are eastern gray squirrels, though they are not necessarily gray. Often they make their homes in trees, stitching together a palace of leaves called a drey. There is typically enough room for two squirrels in a drey, and a male and female might share the space during mating season. The females nest alone when pregnant. They usually give birth to a brood of two to six babies in winter, and another in summer.

Mother squirrels with babies are often described as living alone. By the time the pandemic hit, I had lived with my children for five years, and I certainly never felt like I lived alone. Even on the weekends they spent with their father, they remained present in our place through the drawings taped to the walls, the stray socks they peel and fling around the living room while doing homework or watching television, the drawer of multicolored children’s cutlery next to the adult stainless-steel forks and knives. And yet, during the pandemic, when friends would text to check up on me, I realized this is how many saw me: living alone, with children. Squirrels and humans, it seems, require an adult partner in order to be considered not alone.

This aloneness was a bitter topic between Noah and me during the pandemic. As alone as I might have seemed, Noah was actually alone. And no amount of Facetime or texting could change that. I was jealous of this. After days of teaching in my room; preparing breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, and dessert; overseeing Zoom elementary school and homework, getting the kids out for walks or to throw a ball; bingeing Survivor or the next Wings of Fire book, all I wanted was a minute alone. All Noah wanted was a minute with me.

I felt alternately smothered and cozy. Every week I’d oversee our homelife. Every other weekend, I’d drive the children to their father’s and then continue on to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. During the first year of the pandemic, Noah’s apartment was an oasis. Noah is tidy, loves clean lines, is a phenomenal cook. Years earlier, the first night I stayed over, he’d made me breakfast in his underwear. This was in his old apartment, the one he’d bought when he was still married, before the divorce was finalized and the apartment became hers. I sat perched on the stool at the big marble island and told myself over and over, Just sit here and enjoy this. I watched him from the other side of the island as he moved between chopping vegetables and whisking what he called “hotel eggs” in the double boiler—his face set in concentration, a clutch of black hair falling in his eyes—and was content.

I feel the same way when he feeds the squirrels. I turn in bed to watch him. He is dutiful and precise and talks to them as he delivers the almonds. He experimented with walnuts and peanuts, but the squirrels seem to prefer almonds. “It’s pear day!” he announced one morning, sliding slices of pear out onto the windowsill. “Wait your turn,” he’ll chide if two begin to bicker. When he spots a squirrel with two long rows of pink nipples, it makes him happy knowing there are going to be babies. He leaves cotton balls out for the mama to insulate her nest in the winter, and the stuffing soon pokes out between the cedar slats of the nesting house.

Noah is a caretaker. The first winter in his pass-through apartment, mice invaded. He used glue traps and, multiple mornings before work each week, he placed a frightened mouse in a cardboard box and carted it over to a patch of grass near a horse stable, where he would pull a vial of olive oil out of his pocket and grease the creature’s feet until it could free itself from the glue and scamper off. He did this over and over until the building management finally repaired the wall behind his dishwasher where the mice were getting in. At the end of her life, Noah’s geriatric Italian greyhound could no longer make the jump up to the bed. She could relax only when Noah was next to her, so he slept on the floor. For months.

I believe, wholeheartedly, in snap-traps. I don’t think I would sleep on the floor for months for a dog. I questioned my capacity to care for other humans until I became a mother. Not much about that came naturally—I never felt comfortable with baby talk or babies, generally, and I often joke that I do not like children, only mine. But the love, the care, the putting them first—these things became simply part of my body, the same way my children were.

Once, at the farmhouse, I fell down the porch stairs while carrying my second son in the crook of one arm and pruning shears in the other. The baby was in that squishy-all-over phase; even his skull was still soft. My ankle twisted at the top of the porch, and without thinking or trying, I tossed the shears to the side as we tumbled, twisting my body so that I was between the baby and the bluestone slab beneath us. He was so much lighter than me that he inhabited a different gravitational force, and for a moment, we were like acrobats, reaching for one another across the air. And then I was on the ground on my back, and he was on my chest, and we were both so stunned that it took a moment for us to cry.

In addition to my children, I want to care for another person like that on purpose. I want it to be intentional, not reflex. A person I choose, not a person who is an extension of my own body.

When we found the house we wanted to buy together, it was a surprise. When we put an offer in, we didn’t expect for it to go through—this was in the height of the 2022 real-estate boom. We were the last appointment of the weekend to see the small yellow cape on a corner lot. It was surrounded by gardens and flowering trees. When Noah saw the amount of natural light in the kitchen, he turned to me. “I think this might be our house,” he whispered.

We were surprised again when, a week later, we were under contract. The reality of what we’d done began to set in. There was anxiety and fear. Mostly, though, we were excited to wake up together each morning, excited to begin living in a home that felt like it was more than a pass-through.

That following weekend, as usual, I dropped the children at their father’s apartment and made my way to Ocean Parkway. After a candlelit dinner with wine discussing paint colors and lawyers, we went to bed. And at 6 a.m., like clockwork, a small tapping on the window woke us up.

I opened my eyes. Noah was already rising from the bed. He cracked the window and said good morning; it was the squirrel we’d named Racecar a few weeks earlier because of the strange stripe of fur missing down her back, as if someone had taken a razor and just ran it along her body from her head to her tail. When the squirrel had first shown up, we’d thought it was a male, but soon nipples popped out like little pink buttons. It was April. The gestation period of a gray squirrel is about 40 days. She’d probably give birth in June, around our fifth anniversary. Around our closing date. Around the time Noah would need to leave his apartment. The squirrel accepted the treats, and Noah returned to bed.

He looked at me, then looked back at the squirrel munching on her breakfast. “I know,” he sighed.

A group of squirrels is called a scurry. A family of squirrels is called a drey. When I learned this term, I thought it must be incorrect, but the word for a squirrel home and a squirrel family are, in fact, the same.

Noah is afraid that he will not be able to enter the circle of closeness between my children and me, that it will always be the three of us and him, rather than simply us, all four together. I am not able to confidently erase this fear for him. Home has meant the three of us for many years now. We enjoy it; I like living alone with my children. To me, this seemed like the best way to ensure our survival. But as I watch the way things flourish under Noah’s care, I’m not convinced that my theory holds up.

I imagine our new house, with the children’s socks tucked in the couch corners and their art on the walls, Noah’s rescue cactus in some sunlit corner, hotel eggs on the stove. I will try to hang the glossy blue bird feeder again, and Noah will find new squirrels. I hope that this home will be one of safety and security, of caretaking and caregiving, of joy and helping one another grow. But I know the statistics. Although they can live up to 12 years in the wild, only 25 percent of gray squirrels survive their first year. Success rates for second marriages are almost equally dire. I don’t plan on marrying again, but I recognize that my magical thinking (if we don’t get married, we won’t get divorced!) can’t keep us safe in the way I might hope.

As we research strategies to soften the blow of Noah’s leaving on his squirrels, I stumble upon a hopeful fact. Squirrels typically keep a second drey nearby. They know their nests are fragile, prone to predators or storms or mite infestations, and so they have a backup plan, the same way they bury stores of nuts in the fall so that they will have enough food during the winter.

This does not guarantee that they will survive, of course. The Great Squirrel Migration followed a year of plenty; even in typical times, most squirrels will die in their first year of life. The mothers know this, and they curl tightly into their babies in their nests for as long as they can. But they can’t stay there forever, because not moving is certain death. So they make their backup plans, and fortify their dreys to the best of their abilities. And they hope for the best.