In modern US society, it is commonly accepted that we marry for love. While we may dream of marrying rich, most Americans end up choosing the person they fall in love with who meets their criteria for a lifetime partner. Someone who makes you laugh, loves children, shares your religious values, has common political beliefs, comes from a loving family, shares your interests, is smart, honest, loyal, physically attractive, etc. – these are typical criteria on any checklist for marriage material. But what about career-compatible? Where does that rank for you? It may seem like a ‘nice to have’ or not even make your top ten, but it turns out that it is more important than most of us realize… until well into our marriages.
It seems obvious that you would want to marry someone who is supportive of your career goals. But a spouse expressing support for your goals is strikingly different from he/she literally supporting your professional choices through direct actions impacting your household, family life and his/her own career. Your spouse or life partner taking daily steps to enable your professional path can make a world of difference in where you end up both professionally and personally. In her best-selling book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully- and I mean fully – supportive of her career. ”
The gravity of this reality can be hard to understand and appreciate until you are married and start a family. For that is when you suddenly need to account for the full time job of raising children being added to your marital plate. This third, full-time job is abruptly inserted into your union and you must negotiate how it will be incorporated into your lifelong partnership. Not unexpectedly, if greater household and/or childcare responsibilities fall to one partner, his/her professional career can suffer. Too often this sacrifice falls to women since the American workplace continues to operate on the inequitable notions that mothers are expected to handle a disproportionate majority of the childcare and household demands – what sociologist Arlie Hochschild termed “the second shift” nearly thirty years ago.
In a 2007 study of well-educated, professional women who left the paid workforce, 60% pointed to their spouse’s lack of participation in domestic roles and childcare as a critical factor in their decision. They cited the social expectation that women should be the ones cutting back on employment to care for family. This assumption is prevalent. Yet, irrespective of gender, whomever has the higher paying, higher profile job or one with a demanding schedule and frequent travel will make it challenging for the other partner to pursue his/her own career goals, especially when children are part of the equation. The flexibility needed to cover sick days, carpools, do the shopping, make doctor’s appointments, supervise homework, pack lunches, etc. will inevitably fall to him/her. Hiring household staff (nannies or housekeepers) or having supportive extended family can help, but this is a luxury for most, and someone still needs to manage these employees or family members and keep tabs on the household overall.
Lack of spousal support can be devastating to careers. Who will pick up the kids and take care of things at home when you need to travel or stay late at the office frequently? How will you earn tenure when your partner’s job forces relocation? How can you prove yourself and work your way toward higher pay when your spouse’s military position demands moving every couple of years? And what about the second shift? How will a disproportionate balance of household and family responsibilities impact your marriage, your health, your happiness, or your own career?
It’s hard to understand all of this or really take it to heart when you are falling in love and not yet immersed in the sometimes stark realities of gender bias and parenthood. And even the best of intentions will sometimes turn out differently once you are in the thick of it. My spouse and I are still re-balancing roles after I stepped out of the workforce for five years and then returned nearly 20 months ago. Despite sharing an egalitarian philosophy of marriage, I was completely caught off guard by how traditional our domestic roles became once we had children and I assumed the role of stay-at-home parent.
Could this have somehow been avoided with more deliberate planning or words of caution from a friend or mentor? I honestly don’t think so. As new parents, we were making it all up as we went and following social cues based on the persistent social construct weighting the domestic responsibilities of motherhood as greater than those of fathers, thus falling in to the inequitable patterns that continue to be the norm. I’m not sure my younger, uninitiated self would have followed any advice in this area or made different choices because of it. Structural inequalities are difficult to shake and some of this negotiation and re-setting is just part of what makes marriage hard work.
So how can we break this cycle of inequity and career hampering? 1) gender-blind, family leave policies, 2) more affordable, quality childcare options, and 3) flexible work policies – to name the big three. With those in place, whether or not you have the good fortune or foresight to marry someone highly career-compatible and a true equal, your career will be less jeopardized by the sometimes surprising inequalities that can emerge when balancing career and family.