Lately, my professional life has reminded me of the "Bring Out Your Dead" sketch in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The sketch opens with a man rolling a corpse-laden wheelbarrow through a 14th-century village hit hard by the plague. "Bring out your dead!" he cries to the village's few living residents. "Bring out your dead!"
Last spring, I was ready to toss my academic career on the corpse-collector's cart. Fed up with the life of the trailing spouse, I had declined another year of part-time teaching at my husband's university. Then I struck out on the job market in the humanities. My Ph.D. looked DOA. Fearing the contagion would spread to other parts of my life, I tried to dump the stinking remains of my academic career.
Surprise! The career had Monty Pythonesque objections:
Me: (Tossing career on the cart) Here's another one.
Career: I'm not dead!
Corpse Collector: What?
Me: Um, nothing. Here's your nine pence.
Career: I'm not dead!
Corpse Collector: Here, she says she's not dead!
Me: Yes, she is.
Career: I'm not!
Corpse Collector: She isn't.
Me: Well, she will be soon. She's very ill.
Career: I'm getting better!
Me: No, you're not. You'll be stone dead in a moment.
But it turns out that my career wasn't dead. Minutes after bidding farewell to academe, word came that I had won a research postdoctoral position at a college just up the road from the institution where my husband is on the tenure track. I had applied for the position, but it had been so long since I'd heard anything that I hadn't dared hope. Two months after that, I got a publishing contract to turn my dissertation into a book.
Desperate to demonstate her vitality, my career hopped from foot to foot: "I feel happy!" she sang. In The Holy Grail, that would have been the corpse collector's cue to conk her on the head. Instead, I took her by the hand and helped her home.
My husband held open the door. And, in a connubial first, I loved him for saying "I told you so."
Home life is a lot sweeter now that I'm not racked with resentment and regret. Now that things have stabilized -- that is, now that I am regaining a sense of self and a sense of the future -- this seems a good time to reflect on my two years as a trailing spouse. As someone who finished her doctorate and started a marriage to a fellow new Ph.D. in the same month, I would like to offer a frank assessment of how being the trailing partner can jeopardize a young Ph.D.'s career and relationship.
For academic couples worried (or not worried enough) that wedding bells may toll the death of one partner's career, here are four hard-won lessons on keeping both career and marriage in good health.
Plan carefully the decision to be together. My husband's department had resources enough -- and students enough -- to offer me a "part-time" teaching job. The tiny salary made me wince, but with the ink still wet on my diploma, it didn't occur to me to negotiate. Never mind that I hadn't yet tested my Ph.D. on the job market. Never mind that I'd held better and more lucrative teaching posts as a graduate student. My partner and I felt lucky. Unlike so many other academic couples, we would have the privilege of living in the same city.
While my husband and I are grateful for the extra time we've had together, we would also be the first to tell you that that time wasn't as happy as it could have been had we given equal -- or more nearly equal -- attention to my own need for meaningful work.
I naïvely presumed that I could eventually make myself indispensable at my husband's institution. (I further presumed that I would want to.) But my biggest mistake was in opting not to go on the job market myself. The decision to follow my husband was about more than a derailed career. It was also about my own fear, insecurity, ambivalence, and laziness. If I never was tested on the market, then I never risked failure on it. Unfortunately, I felt like much more of a failure for having so blithely abandoned my own desires and for having turned my back on years of training and toil.
Be realistic about differences in status. Back when we were dating, my husband and I moved through graduate school in sync, each tackling the language requirement in our program, the preliminary exam, and the dissertation defense within a few weeks of the other.
So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at how grating the marked difference was in our professional statuses, post-Ph.D. Teaching twice as much and earning less than half as much as my husband left me feeling duped and depressed. His superiority in the academic hierarchy seemed everywhere in evidence, both at work and at home.
All partnerships have their share of codependencies. Academic couples are most at risk for the "equal-and-opposite-reaction-syndrome" -- that is, the likelihood that the more one partner embraces the academic game, the more the other may feel outside of it. The former becomes necessarily single-minded in pursuing tenure, and may appear dreamy and disconnected when not at work.
The latter partner will then compensate for the absent-minded professor by taking over the grocery shopping, home repairs, and any other such mundane distractions. Because none of that labor is validated by the academic institution, the latter partner may instead seek validation in the role of caretaker. (As one nontenure-track woman said of her tenure-track spouse, "I'm kind of his manager. He doesn't need to hold things in his head, because I do it for him.")
Ultimately, the caretaker may have an identity crisis, wondering what her (or his) own career might have looked like had she demanded some caretaking of her own. My husband and I are still learning to negotiate the division of domestic and emotional labor (e.g., remembering birthdays, writing thank-you notes). That, too, is work and it shouldn't go unrecognized or unshared.
Know the real costs of "making a contribution." I said yes to part-time work at my husband's university because it meant I could keep teaching. I said yes because it meant making an economic contribution to the household.
I also said yes to a lot of other things that I should have declined. Eager to prove myself a good departmental citizen (and seeking further validation through caretaking?), I volunteered for committees and student-recruitment events. I agreed to teach a time-consuming first-year seminar, because its small stipend paid for an eye exam and a new computer battery. Unpaid, I designed multiple syllabi for a new academic program and cheerfully handed them over to the dean. (She later cut the program, but promised to hold on to my "excellent courses.")
My husband jealously guarded his time, which irritated me to no end. How could he be so selfish?
A better question might have been, "How could I not?" As long as I devalued my own labor, the university would, too. As long as I felt that my own research and writing didn't count as "real" work, I was running in place.
The equal-and-opposite-reaction syndrome happens when only one party in an academic relationship takes himself and his work seriously. That syndrome is not confined to private life. Until I started prioritizing my own research and writing over the labor that I volunteered -- or sold at a negligible price -- to the university, the university and I would have a mighty unequal relationship.
Get angry. Make up. Make a change. I know what a headache it can be for a department to accommodate the partner of a new faculty hire. I know that there are academic couples out there for whom a "trailing" situation like mine might sound like a perfect fit.
I also know that the pool of part-time academic workers with no health insurance is growing. And I know that, without the time or means to publish, most part-timers (or those on teaching-intensive, one-year contracts) have just about zero opportunity for advancement, let alone for a realistic wage.
Most of the trailing spouses I meet also happen to be women. In a 1990-1994 survey of dual-career accommodation cases at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there was a 70-percent likelihood that the "primary hire" would be male. If the accommodated partner happened to hold a far less desirable academic position than the primary hire, "most of this difference can be explained in terms of the relative strength of their credentials," or so reported a book on the topic, The Two-Body Problem: Dual-Career-Couple Hiring Practices in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins, 2003).
With hindsight, I can see that my otherwise respectable professional credentials took a hit when I accepted my exploitative, dead-end, trailing job. A different kind of person might have continued to make the best of it, subverting her own ambitions and exacerbating a system of academic haves and have-nots. With the support of my partner, I instead resolved to channel my misery into anger, and my anger into change. My self-respect and our marriage demanded nothing less.
While the future is still uncertain, abandoning the trailing spouse track has certainly put the bloom of pink back in the cheeks of my career. No longer professionally shackled to or by the other, my husband and I are finally experiencing the honeymoon period that should have been ours two years ago. We again feel like newlyweds -- but newlyweds who have gotten an education.