Love me, love my work

The secret to a long-lasting relationship within academia, says Dale Salwak, is understanding the unique demands of each other's careers

July 30, 2009

Some of my colleagues relatively new to teaching seem to be plagued by a vague sense that the nature of their profession might conflict with, or even prevent, the establishment and maintenance of a full commitment to a partner or family. It's almost as if they fear that the sound of wedding bells is the death knell for their academic career.

While it's true that academic life has its unique challenges, all couples face enormous interpersonal struggles, regardless of their professions. Different cultures, different outlooks on the world, different needs, different expectations - all of these can cause a rift that might seem at times unbridgeable. But bridge that gap we must, if it is our choice to share our life with another person.

Unfortunately, on every campus there are faculty members who are torn between the demands of focus, energy and time inherent in their profession and the pressures these demands can place on being a good partner or parent. Nevertheless, some couples find a way to juggle - even thrive on - multiple roles.

For my wife and me, for example, a son and two academic jobs have proved to be the right combination. Because we are both academics, we understand how the career path unfolds and what each must do to advance along it. We try to support each other's endeavours with patience and understanding, and we both have found that our productivity has increased since marriage.

Sharing our professional interests and aspirations has also brought us closer, rather than driving us apart. Our work schedules are less strict and our flexibility is greater than those friends in non-academic positions.

Other than meetings, office hours and class sessions, we can choose where, when and how to engage in our academic work and interests; and for creative individuals, that is an ideal position to be in, with or without a family. The same flexibility that characterises our work has proved helpful as we've raised our son and maintained our home.

Given my personal experience, and the sometimes all-consuming demands of our profession, I would suggest that it's preferable not to marry early in a teaching career; in any case, it may be advisable to marry someone in academia with similar or complementary interests.

Any understanding I have in this matter I credit largely to the example set by my parents, who had been married for 61 years before my father died in 2005. On this subject, their example has taught me nearly all I know.

The deepest satisfaction of my father's life, apart from family, was his work as an academic, to which he gave the greater part of himself. My mother, a college graduate who eventually became a full-time homemaker and part-time writer, scholar and musician, always understood this.

"If your father is happy in his work," she told me, "he's likely to be happy at home." Was she ever resentful of his devotion to his career? "I was proud of what he was doing," she said, "and I was just too busy to be resentful. I never felt neglected, never even gave it a thought. He was busy and I was busy. To put it simply, I worked alongside him, but in a different way." I suspect that my father's satisfaction was high, too, because he knew he was appreciated and that his work was greatly respected.

Theirs was a life of quiet domesticity during their tenure at the University of Massachusetts, then Purdue University and lastly at the University of Maine, where he served as president for 12 years. They would not have wanted it otherwise. The ever-increasing demands of my father's roles as administrator and public speaker eroded their privacy a little, but he maintained it as best he could and remained a close friend to a few, a familiar name to many.

"Ours was not a common marriage," my mother said. "Our travel and academic work made it more exotic, if that's the word. We both learnt along the way, I especially." It was an unusual marriage because of the work my father did and the experiences and knowledge my mother gained from it.

Work was the constant throughout their lives together; their tasks may have differed, but the goal of their separate labours was a shared one: a happy, productive life for their family and themselves. And this view was passed on to my brother and me.

Some friends with whom I have shared these insights have told me that my parents were uncommonly fortunate. Perhaps so, and yet as I reflect upon most of the people I have met through them I find the same to be true for those couples, too. They married not because of family or societal pressure, nor because of personal insecurities.

They married because they found in one another a kindred spirit. "Every aspect of academia played an extraordinary role as a source of conversation between us," my father told me on their 50th wedding anniversary. "We have had a terribly good time together, and we're not at the end of our adventure, either. We haven't finished talking."

In contrast to this domestic ideal, I remember my father describing a couple he knew early in his career. She was a professor of theology at a research-intensive university, he was a CEO she had met 12 years earlier in graduate school.

During my father's acquaintance with them, he was struck by the husband's seeming incompatibility with his wife's temperament and interests. He was not by nature inquisitive, and seemed domineering and possessive. On several occasions, my father witnessed his tendency to minimise her chances to talk and had been present in her office when the husband interrupted her with phone calls on trivial matters.

She also told my father how her husband interfered with her work at home and expected her to perform minor domestic tasks and errands he could easily have managed himself. In the ten years my father knew this couple, he never saw a book in the man's hand; his conversation was usually about himself. In short, he seemed like a gentle but manipulative tyrant who always made sure he got what he wanted.

What led her to marry him and then continue to accept what appeared to be a restrictive and distracting relationship for so many of her most fruitful years is not clear. They had no children, and she never expressed a desire to have any. She was financially independent. She wasn't a loner. One day after a long period of mounting disagreements, her husband said, "Either it's your work, or it's me." She walked out of the marriage.

The ultimatum speaks for itself. To strip someone of his or her work is to strip away part of the soul. For this husband to demand that his wife should abandon the small voice of her unique genius was to ask her to betray her reason for living. The point of aspiring towards anything is to learn to give ourselves totally to that endeavour; in the process, we find the best part of ourselves and our common humanity.

In her case, from that point onward she knew there were two things in her life she could rely on: her scholarship and her classes. They became her most necessary and exacting pleasures. No longer burdened by the accretion of stress and the depletion from demands, she chose to live quietly by herself, close to campus, sustained by her love for books, her passion for her classes, and her remarkable gift for friendship.

"I have no feelings of despair," she wrote to my father six months later. "I continue to work, spend convivial evenings with friends, and lead a comfortable life." She now truly was, as Chaucer's Cressida described herself, "my own woman, well at ease".

Most academics hold in their grasp something as important as breathing: the examined life, the life of thoughtful reflection, the life of the mind and spirit. Their commitment to and passion for their discipline are woven into their being. That intensity is part of who they are.

They are also among the privileged few to be pursuing the life of leisure - meaning not that they don't work, but that the work they do is work they want to do, on which they thrive. They don't take this for granted.

But that sort of labour requires a lot of time alone, immersed in silence, without fear of interruption or external demands. How did Rilke put it? "To go within and for hours not to meet anyone - that is what one needs to attain."

I realise that in this regard, and in many others, academics are predisposed to swim upstream against a strong cultural current that undervalues or openly scorns intellectual contemplation. A scholarly teaching career, by which we really mean a life of the mind, is antithetical to society and therefore antithetical to the expectations or experiences of the majority of people.

I remember a conversation with a non-academic friend after I had been teaching for seven years. I had published two books, was still single and was living in an apartment. My friend asked me, "When are you going to have something to show for your life?" This is the same friend who, upon learning that I had earned all of $1,150 in royalties for my first book, said, "So that's what it comes down to. Four years of work: $1,150."

Both times, I said nothing. What could I say? Her question betrayed a naivety I hear all too often, especially in regard to the sometimes esoteric achievements of an academic career; in this view, the value of one's life and use of one's time is measured by how much one has obtained, materially, and by how much one earns.

Because people with this view don't see the value of the intellectual capital one accrues from scholarly endeavours, they assume no capital is there. How fortunate many of us are to learn early on to calculate wealth in terms of intangibles, with sacred relationships, books and learning the central collateral of our lives.

Unlike the commercial world, the intellectual world academics inhabit operates quietly, in private, with its sometimes modest product made manifest many years later, if at all. We would no sooner produce a lecture or essay or book without time for incubation than a mother would produce a baby without gestation.

I should think, therefore, that if partnership is the choice, then an academic would require in life someone who is intelligent, insightful and unselfish enough to understand and respect the need for privacy and silence. The novelist Nadine Gordimer said, "I long ago made it clear to everyone, even those closest and dearest to me, that during my working hours no one must walk in on me."

Wouldn't each of us want a companion who supports and understands this need in us? Wouldn't we want to live with someone who is as committed and passionate about his or her work, whatever it may be, as we are about our own?

Fortunately, we live in an era of choices, not just in mates but also in lifestyles. The societal pressures to marry and any stigmas attached to being single that were prevalent in the 19th and into the 20th century have been erased from most sectors of Western society. Marriage for its own sake is no longer requisite for social acceptability; single-minded devotion to career is one of many lifestyle options.

When I was in college, I spent way too much time and energy fretting about the seeming antipathy between life and art. On the one hand, I loved almost everything about my schoolwork, but on the other hand it seemed all my friends were getting married, and I wasn't. It had begun to cause me a measure of low-grade anxiety.

Then my father gave me some wise advice. "Stay focused on the work to which you have been called," he said. "Maintain the integrity of your heart, and I can promise you that, all in good time, you'll meet the person you need to meet. Until you meet such a person, luxuriate in the assurance when you wake up each morning that you can take possession of the new day in unquestioned liberty."

Not once do I recall my parents bringing up the subjects of marriage and having children. I felt absolutely no pressure in that regard, and for that I am grateful. Rather, they encouraged me to continue with my studies and follow my academic and cultural interests wherever they might lead.

"You'll meet the right person when you become the right person," my mother said. I didn't marry until I was 36; and when well-meaning friends asked why I had waited so long, I said: "I hadn't met Patti."

By the time we were married, she was headed for graduate school, intending to become a teacher and a speech pathologist. I was seven years out of graduate school and eight years into my teaching career. Some people have a hard time believing this, but there's no professional competition between my wife and me. I think the reason is the three years of friendship when we were both starting our careers relatively early together. I well understood the challenges she was facing and would be facing, and I encouraged and supported her as I'm sure she would have done for me had our positions been reversed.

If she hadn't married a fellow teacher, I doubt she could be as positively self-absorbed as she is. Once when asked what she most likes about her professional life, she said, "I get to do what I want to do." And when I'm buried in my work for long stretches of time, or away at a conference or conducting research, she never complains. Yes, she misses me, but she also knows that the work is essential to my wellbeing.

And so for us as indeed for many of our colleagues, life is organised around work, and we would have it no other way. The joy that comes to us from our absorption in this cannot be explained to someone who hasn't experienced it. My wife requires a lot of time alone, so does our son, and so do I. We didn't marry to restrict ourselves, but to extend ourselves.

Unfortunately, there are no how-to books about ways to achieve a perfect balance between the intellectual life and a committed personal relationship. All we can do is continue to search for hints here and there in the letters and diaries of novelists, poets, biographers, scholars, editors and collaborators; and read their biographies and, if they exist, autobiographies. We can also seek out living authors, visit academics, and learn from their examples.

Above all, whoever we decide to share our most central being with, surely we must be certain that he or she has a compelling purpose in life and is willing to support us in ours.

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