Tuesday, January 20, 2004

A House Divided ...

One of my first comments on this blog was from another biologist (Pharyngula) on how happy he was to have a year's worth of separation from his wife behind him. Since I'm traveling this week apart from my SO yet again, and Pharyngula has just discussed some of the challenges of academic life while having a family, I thought I'd describe my separation for the past year and a half.

It all started about 2.5 years ago, when my SO was looking for a new job. My SO was applying for research tech jobs in-state, and for one job they asked, "So, are you thinking of moving anytime soon? We'll need a long term commitment." At the time I was an adjunct looking for jobs on both coasts, and I felt I had about as much employability as a caterpillar. In the end my SO took the job and the long term commitment.

Less than 9 months after the 2-3 year commitment was given, a community college in California decided that caterpillars make good professors, and hired me. Since the position was too good to pass up (for many reasons, including the minor details that we'd be living near old friends, I'd get to develop a new course, and my salary would increase more than threefold) we ended up doing what I imagine many academic couples have done: we split the household.

We don't have kids, so that probably made it easier. We were close enough that flights could be gotten relatively cheaply, and driving wasn't out of the question. We used IMs, voice-over-IP, e-mail, and (gasp) the phone. We visited every other weekend when we could. In the past semester (while we were selling our house) I spent at least 10 of the 16 weekends during the semester out of town, most of those visiting my SO.

We spent all of our long vacations together. In some ways the separation was good, because it let each of us focus on our very time intensive jobs, and it also reinforced for us (or at least me) just how precious we both were to each other. But it was also stressful, and I'd be eternally happy if I never again saw that same, long stretch of highway I got so used to driving. It also hurt both of our job performances -- whenever we were together the last thing we wanted to do was work, even if it was the entire month of January that we were spending together. We both installed IM's at work, and chatted for long periods of time every day. And heck, there's no way I could leave town 3 days a week for 10 weeks during a semester and do as good a job as I'd like to.

However, what it also taught me is that we were far from alone in our separation. I know of at least two other faculty members who live in split academic households at my current school, and the scary thing is that both of them have been doing it for years. And with at least some folks hoping for a backlash against spousal hiring (for very good reasons, I might add), I wonder if the trend will become more common. At least my SO and I knew that it was going to be temporary -- initially we thought that within 6 months it'd be over, though that 6 months extended to a year, and then a year and a half, but we'll ignore that. In any case, we knew it was temporary and that we were moving to an area where finding a job for my SO shouldn't be impossible. I guess I can understand why couples would do a split household permanently (life happens despite our best intentions, and I'd far rather live in a split household with my SO than without my SO), but the stress and frustration are something that nobody needs.

I'm not sure that this post really has an academic point, but one question that I'm coming to is this: how can academia (or society) help those individuals who live in a split household? My campus showed incredible understanding -- my teaching schedule was compressed to fit into 3 or 4 days so I could travel easily, I wasn't given much committee work, I was able to do work remotely, and my students put up with delayed e-mails and slowly graded papers, but I can't imagine that happens everywhere. And for those people who have kids, I don't even want to think about the stress that they add to the picture.

I guess a second point of this post mirror's Pharyngula's: if you're considering going into academia, be prepared for hard relationship decisions and non-ideal living conditions. I know of many couples who've never had to live apart, yet I know of some who've lived apart for more than a decade.

But for now, for us, our separation is nearly at an end. After my trip ends we'll load up our moving van and head out to California, where we'll both be living under the same roof. And, for the first time in a very long time, we don't know when that joint tenancy will end.

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