GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Confessions of a Trailing Spouse

In Uncategorized on 2010/08/19 at 02:08

Guest blogger, Lee Skallerup, writing from Kentucky in the USA.

Last winter semester, I didn’t teach. It was by choice, but it was a choice that dates back to 2001 when I first met the man who would eventually be my husband.  I was just starting my PhD and he, after some time off school, had his sights firmly set on grad school and a PhD. We agreed that if we were to stay together, we were not going to have one of those academic marriages where one lived in one city while the other lived in another in order for both to have the tenure-track job; why bother even getting married, we reasoned. Getting married, to me, meant having a spouse around most of the time, not just some weekends, holidays, and extended summer vacations.

Secretly, I figured I wouldn’t be the one who would have to sacrifice. I was four years ahead of my husband and mathematically reasoned that my chances of getting a tenure-track job first were better. And, that is exactly what happened; before my husband had even written his qualifying exams, I was hired as an assistant professor.  We moved across the country together, as a family, even though he had virtually no hope of landing an academic position close by.

And then, he got a job, too. His job was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for a young professor: low teaching load, primarily graduate students, lots of external funding, and travel support. The trade-off? I would have to leave my tenure-track job in a mid-size city and move to a small, rural town, and the economy being what it is, they didn’t have anything comparable to my current position to offer me.

We agonized over the decision. Do we live apart for a year? We have two small kids who adore their father – something I am very grateful for and I didn’t want to spoil those relationships for the sake of my career. I teach English, possibly the most employable (and lowest-paying) discipline. I found some adjunct work, quit my job, and we moved yet again.

The past year has probably been one of the most difficult of my life. When we first arrived, my youngest was at an age when life was still dictated by naps and feedings. Most mothers worked and when we would go to the park, it was deserted. Every mother I did meet was typically ten years younger than I was and had lived here her entire life. Most of the faculty (or faculty wives) had older kids. I felt incredibly alone and isolated.

Professionally, I felt like a failure. I had devoted my entire adult life to becoming a professor, and here I was, underemployed and staring down a mountain of debt. I was raised to be independent, and here I was unable to pull my own weight in the household. I hate housework, I can’t cook, and I ended up resenting every time I had to make dinner or clean up. This was my job now. Ugh. And I desperately missed teaching. For some, a job is just a job. For me, I am a teacher as much as I am a mother and a wife.

Meanwhile, my husband was in his dream position, complete with all of the insane hours that came with it. We lived within walking distance of the university, so he was able to come home most days for lunch and dinner, but being close by also meant that he would often go back to work in the evenings to keep working. He was incredibly supportive, giving me time to keep working on my own research interests and encouraging me to start my own business and blog. But he couldn’t create a friend or teaching opportunity out of thin air.

This fall, however, is looking up. I was offered a full-time instructor position for this upcoming academic year. It offers twice the money as adjunct teaching, but half the money as being a professor. I’ll take it. A new faculty hire and her family have just moved in two houses down from us, and they have a son the same age as my youngest. We’re already scheduling play dates. I feel extremely fortunate and hopeful. But, as a trailing spouse, even by choice, I still wish I had more control over my life and career.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting).

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

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