When Stepping Out Of Traditional Gender Roles Feels Lonely

Though the majority of our friends and family support our decisions, we lack for role models in our own genders. I long to confide in women who took the career path, but can still only lean in so far.

One thing I’ve learned after 10 years as a college professor is that teaching tends to operate by Murphy’s Law, thriving best with adaptability and the assumption that your best-laid lesson plan will go haywire when it depends on the 10-year-old PC in your classroom.

Last week, I arrived at my afternoon class early to set up some extra equipment I needed to have a guest speaker join us via Skype. To avoid any embarrassing technological mishaps in front of my students, I decided to test the system by video calling my husband, Jason.

Jason also teaches at my university, but as a part-time adjunct compared with my tenure-track position. He otherwise stays home with our 2-year-old daughter, Benna. Benna happened to be napping when I called, so Jason and I chatted over Skype for a few minutes while I checked the volume and web cam. Our conversation was short and sweet, just some pleasantries before class got started. “See you at dinner,” I said, and we disconnected.

When I looked up, some of the students were staring at me with dreamy faces. “You guys are adorable,” one girl said. Another sighed, “Relationship goals.”

I smiled. Jason and I are used to bringing our partnership to work. We met many moons ago in our graduate creative writing program, began dating in our first year, and after earning our degrees three years later, entered into a shared life as cash-poor contingent faculty. Over the next seven years, we lived in five different states, stringing together a series of temporary teaching gigs that kept the bills paid (barely), but allowed us to write while we searched for something more permanent.

Despite the low pay, piecemeal health insurance, and zero job security, I can make those years sound almost romantic. Because adjuncts often have to share campus offices, it was not uncommon for Jason and me to literally work side-by-side, grading papers and conferencing with students who occasionally noticed that we had photos of each other on our respective desks. If one of us got sick, the other would substitute teach. When my father died, Jason taught my classes for two weeks, assuring that I kept my day job while learning how to manage an estate. We served on committees and started a faculty newsletter together (Working Words, we called it, so clever of us). At the end of the day, we left campus with our messenger bags bumping as we walked to our car in the faculty lot.

Don’t get me wrong: Higher education’s reliance on adjunct labor is a crisis of ethics and sustainability. The majority of qualified, dedicated college professors—nearly 80% of all college faculty—are working in contingent positions, and almost 30% are living in abject poverty, without health insurance, commuting long distances between campuses, and juggling teaching loads of four, five, even six or seven classes per semester at greatly reduced pay than their full-time colleagues. Those seven years that Jason and I lived as such were marked by gaps in doctor visits and teeth cleanings, by exhaustive freelancing in the summers, and by almost continuous student loan deferments. The only reason we could make it work for as long as we did is because we did it together, pooling our meager resources.

Ah, but Hollywood has taught us how love can flourish even, and sometimes especially, under conditions of struggle. As higher education’s secret about the source of its faculty labor began to reach public consciousness, Jason and I—largely because we still had the luxury of a roof over our heads—felt activated both as teachers and as a couple, writing, rallying, and educating with a purpose that reinforced our sense of teamwork, partners in a life marked by inequity and eccentric one-bedroom apartments stuffed with secondhand furniture and our many books. We were poor and marginalized, but we were poor and marginalized together.

Things are different now. I did eventually get hired on the tenure track by a wonderful college, and we moved again, this time with Benna, and hopefully for the last time. In our new department, I have an office, and Jason does his work in the adjunct area, an open arrangement of cubicles right outside my door. We are both extremely grateful for the fact of my office and all it symbolizes—stable health insurance and increased job security and the support for scholarship that comes with the tenure track. But sometimes this layout makes the delineation of our new roles painfully obvious.

I see Jason less than ever these days. To minimize the amount of childcare we need (even with my salary, the cost of childcare in the city is oppressively high), we stagger our teaching schedules and trade off the parenting, with Jason doing the lion’s share. I miss my daughter when I’m at work, but I also miss my husband. My professional life now includes so much that he isn’t part of, just as our home life runs mainly by Jason’s design.

You could argue—and many of our progressive friends do—that it’s great we’re both willing to do the jobs we’re most needed to do, even if they stray from the traditional arrangements that primarily raised us (especially Jason, who grew up in the rural, religious, and heteronormative culture of the Deep South). Stay-at-home dads are on the rise, right alongside breadwinning moms. This has much more to do with necessity than choice, but Jason is an excellent caretaker, and his management of our house and time with our daughter frees me to dedicate myself during my working hours.

Nonetheless, there’s a pioneering quality to our lives that’s both exhilarating and occasionally lonely. Instead of feeling like we’re on the outskirts of the American dream together, it can sometimes feel like we’re on separate westward trails. Though they ultimately head in the same direction, they take us through vastly different daily terrains.

If politics are a measure of anything in our house, they’re a measure of small, but noticeable drift. Is it any wonder that Jason, still an adjunct, is drawn to Bernie Sanders’ emphasis on economic disparity? Or that I, now in a position that requires me to collaborate with the white men who still dominate higher education, find myself identifying with Hillary Clinton? The last time we talked politics, I ended up in tears not because Jason had said anything combative, but because, deep down, I knew that I, too, might have felt the Bern more keenly just a few short years ago. When privilege gets as complicated as it is in our house (don’t forget, we’re also raising a daughter whose self-perception would surely be affected by growing up with a woman in the White House), it’s hard to know for whose benefit we cast our votes.

Though the majority of our friends and family support our decisions—and some even comment on how marvelous it is that Benna has a father who cooks dinner and takes her to music class, and a mother who leaves the house each day for work—we lack for role models in our own genders. I long to confide in women who took the career path, but can still only lean in so far. Because, unlike at the office, we don’t really have a clear demarcation of professional and domestic spheres, what with Jason still teaching part-time and hoping to write again someday, and me racing home each night to play with Benna, spending my Saturdays with her instead of going to the coffee shop to work on my book.

What I’m trying to say is that any kind of cultural pioneering will require you to adapt more than plan, improvise more than memorize. Like a good teacher, you learn to rise to your own particular circumstances. There’s freedom in that, no doubt, but also isolation.

When I think back on those years of adjunct teaching, I remember, too, the other dream Jason and I had, the one we kept tucked in our pockets and took out to remind each other of options when it seemed like there were none: to open a soup restaurant together. Jason, a talented amateur chef, would run the back of the house, making delicious, low overhead soups and stews and fresh breads, and I would run the front of the house, hosting and serving. Even our wildest professional fantasies included the other one in an equal share, our partner in all things. Relationship goals.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Photo courtesy of the author

Other Links: