Trailing Spouses

I wrote this almost three years ago, but it's back in my mind as I start looking for post-grad school jobs.

I emailed my committee this afternoon to invite them to a talk I will soon give. One of the professors said he'd be glad to attend, and he will happen to be in the country on that day because one of his students is defending. I say “happen to be” because he is currently on sabbatical.

His email got me thinking: not about his reply, but about sabbaticals. With years still left before my own defense, sabbaticals are still a distant future to me, but all the same, they're on my mind. In particular, I wonder what the spouse is supposed to do.

My grandfather was a university professor in New York. He once took a sabbatical in Florida. My grandmother dutifully followed, 8- and 10-year-old boys in tow (my uncle and my dad). They got a second car so my grandmother could carry her sons back and forth to school, get groceries, and run other errands. Grandma's job was wife and mother. She gave piano lessons (though I don't know if she did that while they were in Florida). She didn't work outside of the home. She didn't have an employer to negotiate with. Grandpa was going to Florida, so she went, too.

My husband is not a housewife. He's an accountant, and he's likely to be an accountant of one stripe or another for the foreseeable future. When I look for a sabbatical, what will he do? Must one of us sacrifice our career for the other?

Must I be a superwoman to get the kind of life my grandfather had?

Years later now, I am amazed that it didn't occur to me that I'd face essentially the same problem looking for a job. If I do a post-doc for a year or two, what will my husband do? Who will want to hire him for such a short term? Do we stay here so I can do a post-doc and he doesn't need to change jobs? Do we try to guess at the future and pick a place where we can stay when I move up from post-doc to faculty? If I look for more permanent work in a faculty job now, will anyone want to hire me without post-doc experience?

The expectations for academic lives seem to fit my grandfather's generation much better than my own: one breadwinner with a trailing spouse. That doesn't look like my life. If I cannot be flexible enough to snap up opportunities that require moving to far away places for short lengths of time or on short notice, at how great a disadvantage do I put myself?

For now all I have are questions, hopes, and a handful of worries, but no answers.