Support for the non-academic spouse?
November 19, 2012 3:43 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage life with an academic significant other, especially when you have your own career and kids?

My husband is an academic and I'm curious how other non-academic significant others manage their family dynamics. Thanks to some pressing research needs and applications (he's on the job market), he's working seven days a week and has been for about the past year. We have young children so much of the childcare, in addition to the cleaning, etc. falls on my shoulders. I also work 40 hrs a week at a somewhat demanding job and our kids are in daycare.

While I am okay doing a good deal of this work as he tries to land a professor job, I have a sneaking suspicion that if he (fingers crossed) lands a tenure track position he will need to work even harder. Plus, we'll almost certainly be starting out in a new city with no friends or family nearby.

Needless to say, all of this is stressful. Are there any forums or other resources out there for people in my position? Have any of you mefites been in the same position and have advice to share? I really want to be supportive and my biggest fear is that I end up becoming resentful somewhere down the road.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This thread might give you some inside information:,14789.0.html
posted by michellenoel at 4:13 PM on November 19, 2012

I'm an academic, but I'm a female academic with a spouse and young child. Here are some thoughts.

- Job market stage and dissertation stage, yeah, I was pretty much working all the time. My spouse had to do most of the weekend childcare, bedtimes, bathes, grocery shopping, etc... but I still did at least half the laundry (while writing from home). I still did a lot of the child-related work like shopping for clothes for him, buying toys for birthday parties, making and going to doctor's appointments.
- But... life on the tenure track is DIFFERENTLY hard. A major change that I've felt is that now I'm actually bringing home a decent salary unlike when I was a grad student. (I'm also at a good R1, my courses aren't brand new preps, I have a supportive department, and I have a lot of research in the wings.)
- I'd say that I am working less hours now that I'm on the tenure track than when I did when I was on the job market, honestly. BUT I am physically located on campus for meetings and teaching a lot more. I'm also more efficient now. (I'm also a social scientist - if he is in a lab-based science, this may not be true at all.)

If I were in your shoes, trying to balance being supportive and also not setting a pattern, I'd say in the gentlest way possible when he is in a good mood,

"Honey, I am so proud of all the work you're doing to secure our future. While I know that right now I have to pick up the slack with stuff like example 1 and example 2, and I'm willing to do that as well when we move to a new place and get settled, but I really hope that once you get settled in that you'll be able to support me a bit more with helping get Calvin down for bed, helping get groceries, and taking out the trash."

If you're looking for something more immediate, I would pick a few tasks that can be done while he is doing other things...

"Honey, it would be incredibly helpful if while you're writing at home on Tuesday if you can run these loads of laundry that I already have down in the basement. Also if you can possibly empty the dishwasher while you're on a break, it would make dinner prep a ton easier for me."

I would also get a professional housecleaner to come every other week. You need it.

I guess I am in a weird position as both the academic and the mommy. There are things that I can't let go and things that my spouse isn't as good at doing. But based on my pals that are male academics or married to male academics, I'd say that you need to be at least a little firm.

Good luck.
posted by k8t at 4:42 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm an academic and my wife has been in your position for years. Not only is the academic life hard, but it's often harder on the spouse than on the academic. The jargon you should google is "trailing spouse"; you'll find a lot of articles and links that way.

I'm happy to share some of our experiences with your privately; just MeMail me.
posted by gerryblog at 4:43 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, another thing that you'll want to think about as he's on the market is the family friendliness of the department. Somehow this is very important for women but seems not-as-important to some men. But while he shouldn't disclose his status as a parent on campus visits, you should prompt him to keep his eyes peeled.

I visited some departments where no one had kid photos in their offices, no carseats in the cars for pick ups for dinner, and faculty meetings went to 6pm (past daycare pick up). Some other departments weren't like that and were much more understanding of parenting needs.

But he has to pay attention to this.
posted by k8t at 4:47 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm in the humanities, incidentally, and we have a young infant at home. My work tends to ebb and flow; if I'm just teaching, it's actually pretty manageable to split things close to 50-50, but if I have a major project coming due my hours can be quite long and my wife has to pick up a lot of the childcare slack. We also have a pretty formalized "Spouse's Day Off" tradition on the weekends where she can pursue her own projects basically no matter what else is going on with my work.

We also have a professional housecleaner, as much as I hate it, and it does make a huge difference.
posted by gerryblog at 4:47 PM on November 19, 2012

You're owed a straight answer, and it's yes: a tenure-track position is not going to be any less work, probably more, and will likely involve more stress. I don't know anyone for whom it has been easy or without some degree of family tension.

BUT: a) a lot of people do manage it successfully, and have loving, well-adjusted families who are financially secure; b) it's no worse than medical specialty training, a board-level corporate position, or nursing (mainly because it's got elements of all these things).

All the above advice is good, but the departmental attitude to tenure is probably key. A department that only hires a few or no more people than they want to stay, and with good morale, will be a very different family experience from the human mill that some other departments run.

It's tough, but doable. Oh, and God yes - get a cleaner.
posted by cromagnon at 4:54 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was produced by an academic + professional (K-12 administrator) couple. What they did:

1) My mother went back to work once both my sister & I were in school. After that, although we had to go to daycare on some days, my father arranged his schedule so that he was home in the afternoons (basically, he taught in the morning, came home, and then went back for evening classes).

2) House-cleaner once they could afford it. My father did and does all the grocery shopping, my mother cooked, and they split the other chores (e.g., laundry).

3) In retrospect, I don't think my father did a lot of conference travel until after we were out of elementary school.

4) My father usually writes in the early morning; I don't think he has ever got out of the habit.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:08 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two academic progeny here.

Mom got up early and worked 2hrs before I woke up, took me to daycare, worked all day, made dinner, did grocery shopping on Saturday mornings (often while I was at swimming lessons).

Dad got me ready for school, did all laundry & dishes, most house & yard maintenance, worked at home after dinner 3+ hours Monday-Thursday.

After school child are was with neighbouring moms in the years my dad wasn't on sabbatical.

Cleaning lady cleaned, I had to tidy my room.

Parents travelled separately for conferences and research with family holidays sometimes tacked on.

My life was very organized, but I did not experience it as regimented.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2012

I signed up and paid my $5, finally, so that I could post an answer to this question. Because I'm kind of you, except that we waited until my husband had a tenure-track job before having a kid, and I have a PhD and work in academia, though not as teaching faculty, so I flatter myself that I see both sides of the academic/non-academic divide pretty clearly.

My biggest piece of advice to you is to not do what I did: don't set yourself up to carry the bulk of the household/childcare/family responsibilities "until." "Until he gets a job." "Until he gets a tenure-track job." "Until he gets tenure." "Until he gets promoted." "Until [next thing]." Because there will always be a next thing.

And it's very hard to ratchet down from a position of doing all the things.

For a lot of reasons: it's hard for him to change his perspective and take on additional responsibilities; you've been doing X, Y, and Z for so long that you're good at them and know how they're done and have built relationships with people (the pediatrician, the cleaning person, the daycare people, etc.) who you have to work with to do them; there's a ton of cultural pressure for women to handle these things and no cultural pressure at all for men to handle them, so for you to hand them off to your husband can be very difficult.

Oh, and definitely don't do what I've done, and refuse to get a cleaning person. GET ONE, for god's sake.
posted by spamloaf at 7:52 AM on November 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thank you for all of the wonderful advice! The cleaners are coming next week. :)

Everything you've said has been very helpful. In particular, I appreciate k8t's advice to pay attention during campus visits to little signs that show how family friendly a place may be and spamloaf's warning to not get caught in the "until" pattern. It sounds like the key to making this all work is to create more structure in our lives.

I'm feeling encouraged about the next few years for the first time in a long time and it's all because of your advice. THANK YOU!
posted by purplesocks at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, glad that this was helpful!

Another thing that can be picked up on during campus visits - during the dinners everyone is a little bit more relaxed. For me it is SHOCKING that parents of small children would not spend time discussing their children during a 2 hour dinner.

As a job candidate, it was very hard for me not to talk about kid stuff. At one interview at the 2nd interview I noticed 3 carseats in the back and I brought it up myself. It was awesome for me to hear about how this woman got tenure with 3 kids under 5. It made me feel really good about the department and my status as a parent in it. Then at that dinner, with 3 mothers, we ended up talking about kid stuff for a lot of the meal.
At another interview, where I knew that I wasn't going to be accepting the job by that point, it spilled out that one of the people at dinner had a new baby. I was amazed that a new mother couldn't feel comfortable to talk about her new baby with her colleagues.
At most of my other interviews though, kid/parenting talk was totally off the table.

This may work differently for men. I've read that women use motherhood as a topic to bond with other women over.
posted by k8t at 3:55 PM on November 20, 2012

The trouble is it's an illegal question. People offered various discussions of "the schools," but they can't ask. Some places do, but none are supposed to, and the artificiality flows from there.
posted by gerryblog at 4:31 PM on November 20, 2012

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