‘Commuter Spouses’

Author discusses her new book on couples -- in academe and other fields -- who can't find jobs in the same location.

March 29, 2019
 

Many academics have partners who are academics, and "two-body issues" complicate many a job search. A new book looks at the impact of these situations on the couples and on society. While many of the couples examined in Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World (Cornell University Press) are academics, the book explores the issues that arise for others as well.

Danielle Lindemann, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, wrote the book based not only on her research but on her personal experience. She responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Your author ID says of you, your husband and your "feisty preschooler" that "Currently they all live together." As you note in the acknowledgments, this is a subject you know from personal experience. What has your experience as a "commuter spouse" been like?

A: I lived apart from my husband (part of the time) from 2011 to 2013 while I was doing a postdoc at Vanderbilt in Nashville and he remained in New York. We’re actually not a great case study of commuter marriage, because in many ways we had an ideal setup. We knew we were doing it for a finite period, we were childless at the time, it was a research-oriented postdoc, so there was a lot I could do remotely, and we’re also incredibly privileged in a lot of ways. If you changed just one of those variables, it probably would have been a lot less tolerable. As it was, by the end of the two years, I was more than ready to be done with the commuting. In that last respect, I was similar to the people I interviewed for the book. Most people could find at least one thing they liked about the arrangement, but almost nobody was saying, “This my ideal setup and I want to do it forever.” Everyone I interviewed, except for one person, was either back living with their partners at the time I spoke with them, or planned on resuming cohabitation in the future.

Q: Many academic jobs are in small college towns. How does this influence the academic couple in a commuter relationship?

A: I’m far from the first to observe that the geographic dispersal of academic jobs worked OK when academics were primarily breadwinning men with stay-at-home wives (or with wives whose occupations were secondary to theirs). Now, with the increasing democratization of gender roles in marriage, and women’s investment in their education and careers, that model is bursting at the seams. The “two-body” problem is a real issue for academics, as I’m sure we’re all aware. And it’s not just dual academic couples who struggle, but also academics who are married to folks in other fields.

Because we tend to pair with people who are “like us” demographically, academics are often married to other highly educated professionals in specialized careers. These partners, many times, also can’t just go anywhere to work in the types of jobs for which they’ve been trained. It’s a privileged problem, yes, but it seems that sometimes our high levels of education crystallize in a level of specialization that actually limits our universe of job choices (as we perceive it), rather than widening that pool. It’s a paradox. On the other hand, it’ll be interesting to see how technological advances and the possibilities for remote work (including online classes for academics) impact that dynamic in the future.

Q: Many studies of work-life balance in academe indicate that women still have most of the burden of housework and childcare. Does commuter-spouse status change that or reinforce that?

A: We might expect that commuter spouses -- dual-earning professionals who value both women’s and men’s occupations, to the extent that they’re actually living apart to accommodate both careers -- would skew egalitarian when it comes to gender roles. And in some ways, yes, they were egalitarian, but in other ways living apart actually reinforced their standard gender roles. For instance, minor children were vastly more likely to live with their mothers. In these cases, it wasn’t that women felt that they were doing more of the childcare -- they felt they were doing, basically, all of it. Many women I interviewed in these situations referred to themselves as “single parents.”

On the other hand, women were far more likely than men to say that living apart alleviated some of the burden of housework. Interestingly, women were also much more likely to say that living apart enabled them to get more work done. One woman told me that she didn’t think she would have made tenure if she and her husband had been living together! (To be clear, both men and women said that they got more work done while living apart, but women were more likely to say it and to link it explicitly to their gender roles.)

So the commuter marriage actually freed them from some gendered expectations, while reinforcing others.

Q: Your book touches on the subject of "trailing spouses," a term frequently disliked by people who have that label. Should colleges do more to hire the spouses of faculty members?

A: I personally think that, yes, in situations where it makes sense, colleges should be much more amenable to this. Like I said before, the structure of the family is no longer consistent with the structure of academic work. Something needs to give, or the pipeline is basically a sieve, and we’re going to lose a lot of qualified people who otherwise could be making real contributions. There’s clearly the fear that these spouses won’t be as qualified as faculty hired through regular processes, but as I discuss in the book’s conclusion, there is research suggesting that this fear is unfounded.

Q: Are there things that colleges can do to help those faculty and staff members who are commuter spouses?

A: I think it would be helpful for us to think more about how we structure our work, what it is we really need to do and what’s just culture. So, for instance, I think it’s incredibly important to be available for our students and advisees, in person, outside of class hours. I feel strongly about that, and I put it into practice in my own life. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be physically in the office all day, every day. From what I’ve heard from my colleagues at other institutions, some places have a culture that if you’re not physically there all the time, you’re not working. That’s an issue not just for commuter spouses but for academics struggling with work-life balance in general. We should be judged on our output, not our attendance.

The other thing is the way that we train our graduate students: Ph.D. programs, especially -- and maybe this is changing -- often offer a limited form of professional training that’s very academia oriented. And that completely makes sense because we’re academics, so we’re best qualified to train people to do exactly what we do. But that results in graduates with very limited senses of their career prospects (that tiny universe of job possibilities I discussed before) -- when in fact many of the skills we learn in graduate school are translatable to a variety of occupational contexts. I think a lot of people don’t know how to get off the academic treadmill once they’re on it, and it doesn’t help that Ph.D. programs sometimes stigmatize nonacademic career paths. Reframing nonacademic paths (away from “failure”) relatively early in the pipeline would be beneficial, I think, in giving people a wider sense of their range of options.

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