before you drag your spouse to live in a random city for your job, read this

Academia is a career that expects you to give up most (or all) choice about where you’ll live. It is also a career in which it is considered perfectly normal for spouses to live in different states, and sometimes on different continents. Every grad student sort of knows this by the end of their first year, although it may take much longer — hello, job market — to fully internalize.

This has the potential to create relationship problems regardless of your gender or sexual orientation. But societal norms mean that women partnered with men are particularly likely to confront gender expectations when planning academic careers. Will a potential partner be able and willing to follow you where the job is? Or will you find yourself forced to choose between pursuing your career and living in the same city as your spouse?

The ideal, I suppose, is a partner who has a career that is relatively portable (so not another academic), at least moderately lucrative, and who will happily follow you wherever you go. And there are some of those out there. Another way to go is the downshifting partner: the one who works part-time, or does something creative, and is the primary caretaker of children and family life.

Both of these scenarios are probably overrepresented among academic women (along, of course, with being single). But even the “ideal” scenario, or one close to it, can pose its challenges. So in the hopes that my experience might be useful to some aspiring academic out there, some things to think about before you drag your partner to some random part of the country to raise your children.

1.  Sometimes “portable” turns out not to be.

D. and I started dating before I started grad school. From day one he knew I was eventually going to have to move somewhere I didn’t have a lot of control over. And he was on board with that. We toyed with the idea that he might take care of kids for a while from relatively early in our relationship. We got married after my fourth year of grad school, and when I started my first (and only) job, we had a 2 ½ year old.

He had quite a successful career in advertising in San Francisco, but wasn’t super-committed to staying on that track. Besides, there was a certain appeal in having an excuse to leave it and start over in a new place.

At the time, it seemed like there was a good chance he could do contract work remotely. So the thought was we’d move to Albany, he’d do some flexible long-distance things in advertising for a while, and we’d figure out the next step.

Then the financial crisis hit, and everyone in advertising lost their jobs. There was definitely no more lucrative contract work for people living on the other side of the country. Working in advertising in Albany would have been nothing like working in advertising in SF, NYC or Chicago. We could live on one income. So we decided it made sense for him to take some time off while he figured out the next step.

2.  Moving to a city you have no real reason to be in can be really hard.

When you start a job as an assistant professor, you are very, very busy. Plus you have an instant network of colleagues, and lots of students to talk to every day. I’m sure some people are lonely their first year, but mostly I was just tired.

That’s not the case if you’re following a partner’s job, and especially if you don’t immediately start working yourself. The first year was really tough, and for different reasons than I anticipated. Our jobs are big parts of our identity. Leaving a career can leave you at sea, and make you question your worth. Plus we had a really close network of friends in the Bay Area. All that was gone.

3.  Your partner isn’t going to turn into a different human being just because you’ve moved and started a new job.

Somehow when I had imagined D. not working, in my head he turned into a 1950s housewife. I imagined vacuuming, cooking, stimulating activities for our son. I imagined clean toilets. I don’t know why I thought the man who flushed his own toilet with a bucket for three weeks because he couldn’t be bothered to call the landlord would somehow turn into June Cleaver.

He has real strengths on the domestic front — he’s a great cook, doesn’t mind endless shopping, and, probably most important, is endlessly patient with kids. But there was a certain adjustment period as I realized the laundry was never going to get put away unless I put it away, nor would the counters get wiped unless I chose to wipe them. (The vacuuming we just gave up on.) And it took me longer than it should have to internalize the fact that there was a reason all the 1950s housewives spent their days popping Miltowns.

4.  People judge men and women differently for making the same career decisions.

Women who downshift can certainly be judged, or at a minimum find themselves out of the conversational loop in our work-dominated society. But the stigma is still much greater for men. Albany’s not all that conservative, but it isn’t Berkeley, where our son’s nursery school encouraged the boys and girls to take turns being princesses. Even these days, choosing not to work as a man — even as a man with two kids under five and a wife on the tenure track — is looked at askance. D. is both very outgoing and has a very thick skin, and he did manage to win over the nursery school moms. But he never really identified as a stay-at-home parent, and the invites to “mom’s night out” were invariably awkward.

5.  And they’ll judge you, too, while they’re at it. Plus you’ll probably judge yourself.

I mostly dealt with this by not dealing with it. I spend lots of time with our kids (#2 was born my second year here), but have gone whole years barely entering their schools. It always takes a while to train the teachers to contact D. and not me, but I can’t say that I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot by skipping out on PTA and field trips. It is definitely extra uncomfortable, though, to be the mom who shows up in November for the first time when all the other moms have been arranging playdates for the last three months.

The tougher part is the stuff you internalize yourself. I still feel guilty that, for example, I have no idea what size shoes my kids wear. They are happy, we are close, they are well-shod. But I can’t get past the idea that it is not possible to be a good mother without knowing everything about your kids’ clothing needs and being in charge of all their daily routines.

6.  Not everyone, though.

The great thing about academia is that people get it. I can’t think of a time when another academic was judgmental about our domestic arrangements. Mostly they expressed envy. And having someone take care of the home front is a pretty great deal, despite the income hit, and even if they don’t do toilets. And as a sociologist, you can feel like you’re doing something positive by subverting gender paradigms, even when all you’re really doing is avoiding the grocery shopping.

7.  There can be happy endings.

At the end of our first year in Albany, D. started a food blog. It gradually built up steam, and after a couple of years of steady writing and community-building had become one of the most visible blogs in the region. He also picked up some low-paying but exposure-generating food writing gigs along the way. When he decided to look seriously for paid work, he was able to translate all that and his advertising background into a part-time job with a major website you probably used last time you were looking for a restaurant.

Our kids are now 11 and 6, and need less constant attention (though the driving to activities is certainly picking up). I’m sure this feeling of having hit a groove is only temporary, and soon enough we’ll find ourselves dealing with some new set of life changes. And neither of us can figure out how people find time to do things like remodel their houses. But for now — and I recognize all the ways in which we are very, very fortunate — we seem to be making it work. Here’s hoping it lasts.

Clean floors are overrated, anyway.


Written by epopp

October 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Posted in academia

13 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for an encouraging post. My wife put her own career on hold to stay home with our son. She used to get a lot of eyes rolling, too. Apparently, women are thought to handle both (at least) a part-time career and a family with ease, which seems impossible to me. We do have clean floors, though. Our son is well trained in the art of vacuum cleaning ;)

    Liked by 1 person


    October 27, 2015 at 1:39 pm

  2. Thanks for this post! I have a question, though. How can a family of four live out of one professor’s salary? My own non-business school after-tax salary pays for rent and day care for two kids at the cheapest place around (big city). If my significant other dis not work full time, we would not have money for everything else. Have you ever had a class taught by a hungry and partially naked professor?? Its not pretty.

    (I guess the opposite of a trailing partner is the high paying one that subsidizes the academic pursuit – i wonder how common that is).



    October 27, 2015 at 2:10 pm

  3. @Strapped — Moderate cost of living city. 3BR house in good school district = $200k. Kids were never in more than part-time preschool, which still only cost half of its Bay Area equivalent. Also, we were fortunate that we did not have loans going in. Plus we made some concessions, like only having one car, that not everyone would be willing to. It would not have worked in NYC, Boston, SF, LA, where professors might earn 10-20% more (maybe) but cost of living is 50-100% higher.



    October 27, 2015 at 2:31 pm

  4. Thank you, Beth, for this wonderful blog post! So many issues resonated with my/our experience. We recently switched back from less to more traditional division of labor/gender roles after 3 years. I’ll tell you how that went soon..


    Matthias Revers

    October 27, 2015 at 3:16 pm

  5. A nice, level-headed post, Elizabeth. I found myself nodding along, but also shaking my head ruefully at the individual contortions current academics must undergo for a career that probably returns 50% less total benefit than it did decades ago. We’re all attempting “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions,” and might be doing so for pennies on the dollar! :-)


    Dan Santore

    October 27, 2015 at 4:03 pm

  6. Great post; really hit home.



    October 27, 2015 at 4:37 pm

  7. Thanks for this post which left me continuously nodding. Luckily, in our case my wife finally succeded in finding a job that is better-paid than mine, so for the last three years I combine the post-doc phase with the family role. I love vacuuming and consider myself the better person in the laundry, but we all are happy at the scarce events when my wife is able after a 10hrs-workday to cook an alternative to my ever-returning Italian recipes :-)


    Hanno Scholtz

    October 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm

  8. This is certainly on my mind as a young academic, so it’s great to hear about your experiences and adjustments. Thanks! I find it curious how much more this is on my mind than on my SO’s. We live in the same structure, but the effects on us as gendered people seem to be very different — leaving me with the puzzle of carving out space for a meaningful scholarly career while not being ‘overwhelmed’ (Schulte) on the home front or doing a ‘second shift’ (Hochschild) just because of the differential pressures on our lives!



    October 27, 2015 at 5:23 pm

  9. BTW I really wish all the hetero males who expect their spouses to follow them would read this. Virtually all of the stresses etc mentioned also apply to women who move to follow an academic. Work isn’t all that portable, it is very alienating to be in a strange town you have no particular reason to be in, etc. Although it may be more non-normative for a man to do this, there is also more acceptance of his not just turning into a wife/mother, and it can be harder for a woman in the position to assert her own needs.

    Liked by 2 people


    October 27, 2015 at 7:34 pm

  10. What a lovely, thoughtful piece.



    October 27, 2015 at 8:07 pm

  11. I mean, the flip side of this (speaking from experience): as a man you at least get a pad on the shoulder from some people for going the nontraditional route. As a women, you don’t plus you feel guilty at the same time.


    Matthias Revers

    October 27, 2015 at 9:56 pm

  12. I’m glad this resonated with people. Although there are a lot of individual variations, many of us will face some version of this problem. I imagine moving as a single person has its own host of issues, too. And Matthias, you are right…grocery store clerks were always so impressed that Daniel could shop with a baby. (Although TBH it is amazing anyone can shop with a baby.)



    October 28, 2015 at 12:34 am

  13. This really resonated with me. I have two (well, technically 3) MA degrees and a PhD that I worked hard for. I really want to do my academic work. But my partner can’t move from our city. This is not a city known for its academic resources, outside of the medical/STEM fields. I’m pregnant with twins and really want to be close to family when they’re born, so I can survive. I turned down opportunities to adjunct because the pay is too low and the benefits nonexistent, so I am working an office job at the moment- which pays well, but depresses me. I’m currently trying to figure out what my backup plan is- and a few years ago I didn’t think I’d have to make one.



    October 28, 2015 at 3:48 pm

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