Like most migrating academics, my husband relocated because of a job and, like most trailing spouses, I relocated because of him.
We moved from a large Midwestern city, where I had a lucrative career, to a small Southern town, where I had no job and no immediate prospects. More people lived on our previous city block than now live in our entire town. Hello, Green Acres.
Because we were accustomed to the anonymity of a city, we knew our geographic shift required adjustment. So we adjusted. I learned that the sum total of my grocery basket shouldn't be condoms and beer, because inevitably the cashier was my husband's student. That first year, I didn't teach, but I certainly got an education.
At the end of that year, one of my husband's colleagues (we shared the same discipline) unexpectedly retired. I was tired of not earning a salary and, besides, what's a terminal degree-wielding woman to do in a town where the only other employment option is Wal-Mart? I applied for the tenure-track opening.
And so began my education in the paradox of the trailing spouse.
It didn't matter that my husband recused himself from the interview process when I was hired. The specter of my wifeliness was everywhere: I was introduced by my husband's last name even though I had kept my own. During heated salary negotiations, the provost refused to pay me more than my husband because, he said, my husband wouldn't like it if I made more than he did.
I possessed the de rigueur qualities: previous teaching experience, professional accolades, and desired technical prowess. But I couldn't help wondering if, in this case, a quality that had nothing to do with my professional experience was my most valued asset: my status as wife. My husband was a valued colleague and by hiring me, the department was more likely to retain my husband. Retaining my husband meant departmental continuity. Departmental continuity meant less work for an already overworked chair. All other things being equal, I was a savvy choice.
And isn't that what every academic couple wants? Typically the two-body problem in academe is a problem of distance -- two scholars working at different institutions, in different towns, or even in different states because they can't secure positions at the same institution.
My two-body problem, however, was one of proximity. My husband and I worked in the same town, in the same institution, in the same department, and in the same subfield. Even our offices were adjacent.
For four years we worked seamlessly. We doubled the enrollment in our subfield, secured grants, revamped curricula, and purchased new equipment. He published nationally; I published nationally. I started a successful campus program; he was appointed to the faculty senate. During our tenure, more students were accepted into national competitions than in the previous 10 years combined.
Everything was close, except us. The chairman may have ensured my gainful employment, but he couldn't ensure domestic tranquility. The department flourished; our marriage floundered. We separated.
If working with a spouse is thorny, try living apart and still working closely together every day. We fiercely guarded our privacy, assuming that our colleagues would respect the boundary between the professional and the personal. We were wrong.
When you work at a small liberal-arts university in an even smaller town, the situation is ripe for gossip and misinformation. To some extent, all universities function as small towns. Sometimes that containment is comforting.
At other times, though, it is cloying and even claustrophobic. The first time I went to the campus recreation center to use a treadmill, the center's director demanded a copy of my marriage certificate -- because what married woman doesn't change her name? The next day, I received an apologetic call from the president of the university. In hindsight that was foreshadowing, but at the time I just rationalized those attitudes as evidence of small-town Southern mentalities.
My husband and I told exactly one person that we had separated. That person, a junior faculty member in our department, found himself in a precarious position when a senior professor came to him demanding to know what was going on with our marriage. He had heard from a friend of a friend of the plumber who happened to be in my husband's apartment fixing the washing machine (I am not making this up) that something was awry in Hooterville.
The senior professor's motivation was pure gossip. It had nothing to do with our jobs; we were both still teaching, attending faculty meetings, and serving on committees just like everyone else. I foolishly thought that was an isolated incident, that because we were consummate professionals at work, we would be allowed to deal with our private problems in private. Wrong again. After less than a month of separation, the news became known around the campus.
I realized the situation had erupted from a private two-body problem into a public fervor when I received out-of-state phone calls from former colleagues who had heard the news.
After my initial and unprintable response, I thought: Why and how did this news get across campus, across town, and across state lines? I later discovered that the interloper, let's call him Mr. Haney, was a staff member in my department. Through a series of ridiculous and minute details too mind-numbing to reiterate, Mr. Haney discovered that my husband and I had different addresses -- water on the gossip grease fire.
Students will always talk about their professors. I did it. You did it. But when faculty and staff members blatantly disregard faculty privacy and basic decency, it's frustrating to understand, let alone to tolerate. I had been publishing nationally and no one knew it, but the minute something went afoul in my private life -- and especially because my husband and I worked together -- our private roles as husband and wife instantly became public fodder for speculation and gossip.
Weighing his privacy against his work obligations, my husband waited as long as was professionally appropriate to inform the department that he wouldn't return the next year. When my husband met with the senior faculty members individually to tell them he was leaving, all but one already knew, thanks to the rumor mill. (If only faculty senate meetings could be that expeditious.)
Most colleagues wished him good luck, but one senior professor, who has taught at my institution longer than I've been alive, had a very different response: "Bitch." He is the chair of my tenure and promotion committee. Makes it a little awkward to just pick up the pieces and go on.
It's now a year later. My husband moved out of state and left academe entirely. I am still here. Each day I work in a lab we built together. I teach some of his students and some courses he designed. My husband's position was reconfigured and filled temporarily with a one-year lecturer.
I have assumed responsibilities that used to be my husband's. My personal relationship was halved, but my academic responsibilities have doubled. It's normal to be compared to your predecessor, but it's an odd situation when your predecessor used to be your spouse. It's even odder when you are on the committee to search for his (academic, not marital) substitute.
I knew this year would be difficult personally and professionally, but I hoped to be treated as a professional, qualified academic and not as the female remainder of a partnership that fell apart. I continue to be disappointed on that front: Somehow the demise of my marriage still seems to be ripe for public discussion. Standing in a hallway, with students swarming, I've had colleagues ask me: "Have you heard from 'Oliver'? How is he? Do you communicate with him? Do you know where Oliver is?"
Three other colleagues left last year. No one has asked me anything about them. They only ask about my ex-husband because I am his ex-wife. My status as trailing spouse persists.
Because my colleagues are more invested in my personal life than in my professional one, it makes me wonder what the mission of our department really is. When Mr. Haney, the gossipy staffer, waxes poetic about how the department is one big family, I maintain professional aplomb by staring blankly into the distance.
Even after all of that, I don't regret my decision to trail my husband. You can't predict how the professional choices you make are going to affect your relationship.
I also believe that working with your spouse or partner is not inherently problematic; in fact, it can be advantageous. Certainly my husband and I achieved more together than we could have achieved separately: seamlessly sharing departmental responsibilities, collaborating on projects, helping each other grade and create projects.
Trailing spouses need to be hired, supported, and viewed as academics in our own right and not simply as the lesser denominator of a two-body problem.
If you work in a department with academic couples, and the ideal two-body solution unravels, here is my advice: Do your job, be a professional, and mind your own business.