The XX Factor

When a Spouse’s Career Always Comes First

Law school dreams and parenting don’t always go together.

Photo by Umkehrer/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the first interview in an occasional series, “Best Laid Plans,” about how career decisions get made over time, and are altered by the unpredictability of life. If you would be willing to be interviewed for this series (we are looking for both men and women), please email with “interview me” in the subject line, and we’ll be in touch. [Update, Jan. 14, 2014: We are no longer accepting emails.]

Name:  Jessica Ash

Age: 37

Occupation: Financial trader

Partner’s Occupation: Product manager

Location: Fort Wayne, Indiana

Children: a 9-year-old and 4-year-old twins

Hi, Jessica. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I was going to have it all [laughs]. I was going to go to law school and be very successful. I just never thought there would be anything that would stop me from working my way up the corporate ladder.

What was your life situation at that time—did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future?

I expected it in the future. I had no husband, no kids at the time. Thinking forward, I guess I thought we’d be a dual-income family, and just … American: Everybody goes to day care, the kids would be taken care of, and I’d work and come home at night and take care of them.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Not at all. It surprised me because I was always career-driven, but after having kids I didn’t feel like I could have it all in the same way. My kids and being home became more of a priority. So that meant there was no more professional life. At first I worked to get the paycheck, and then I wanted to be home with the kids for a little bit. At this point, my family comes first. I still want a career and believe that I have growth potential at my current company. I still want to achieve for myself, it’s just on the back burner until they’re older, when it doesn’t feel like there is such a hard balance.

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

I didn’t have any expectations on that one. It was only career—it was the only thing I ever worked toward, until I got married and had kids. I got pregnant three months after I was married, so marriage and kids came quickly.

In your family, whose career has come first?

My husband’s, always. Even when we were dating. We met in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he got a job offer in New York right after we met. In that moment I moved to New York and gave up everything, and his career has come first since then. He’s always been the breadwinner, though at first I didn’t think about it as him being the breadwinner. He had a job, I had a job. I was young—24, 25, when I moved to New York. I always lived in big cities, but this was an adventure, and it was New York—what wasn’t going to be there careerwise? It didn’t feel like a risk.

Did you ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons? What were they?

I grew up with a working mom who was the breadwinner, and I never considered staying at home. My husband and I bought an apartment in Inwood [a neighborhood in New York City], and I assumed I wouldn’t want to stay at home. My mother-in-law stayed with us for a year to sort of do child care, right after our son was born.

I had three months of maternity leave. At that time, I was in charge of the fourth-year medical program at Columbia. It was an administrative role. During my maternity leave, I had the first pang of wanting to be a stay-at-home mom. But I went back to work. Then I left work because careerwise, everything was settled, my oldest child was great, and I decided to change my life and go to law school. Halfway through law school, I found myself pregnant with twins, and it was a shock. We were prepared for one child and me having to take on law school. Getting pregnant again changed everything. Then a job opportunity came up for my husband in Indiana, and six weeks later we moved there. I never went back to law school; I never finished up.

My becoming a stay-at-home mom had a lot to do with finances. It made more sense for me to stay home in Indiana, and it made more sense for me to work in New York because the cost of living was so high. Then, after the twins were a year old, it was time for me to go back to work, and I just followed my husband. He found me my current job. We found child care combinations for the kids, and I was back at work.

Did your partner ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons?


What is your child care division of labor?

For the most part, it is 60/40. But it’s probably more like 80/20 in reality. My husband is very present, but the kids always go to me first. And, with his longer hours and work responsibilities, I am more available to the kids. We are almost equally involved in the child care division when he’s at home, but when you take everything into consideration with school responsibilities and such, I do more. We both have to travel for work, but I don’t travel nearly as much. He’ll definitely take on child care, and he’s a great father, but work calls, and his work will take priority over the family. We both work from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but he needs to take work home. He tries to leave—a great novelty here compared with New York City—tries to leave at 5. He’s very present in our kids’ lives.

What is your housework division of labor?

One hundred percent me [laughs]. OK, it’s 95 percent me. In all honesty, I do it because he wouldn’t do it the way I want him to do it, if we’re going to be truthful. He takes out the garbage. He’ll do the dishes on request, and when the house gets out of hand, he’ll help.

How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, exercise)? Does your partner have more or less leisure time than you do? How do you make sure your free time is equitable?

We really don’t have leisure time. Both of us pretty much revolve around the kids, so we’re going from one activity to another activity. Him versus me, watching TV, or watching sports … I can try to add it up in my head, but neither of us has as much leisure as we’d like. I read standing up while talking with the kids. We watch TV after they go to bed. About two hours a day, I guess.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

Not about the career sacrifices. We’re not the biggest planners. I wish I had planned a little better, but I wouldn’t change a thing. These questions are hard! I would change so many things outside of my family. With hindsight I would have been more settled and into a career before marriage and children, would have traveled more and had more life experiences. I consider all of this either “outside my family” or before I met my husband. But I wouldn’t know how to go back and have this outcome. And I love my life the way it is right now and wouldn’t change it.

I guess if I had to change one thing, it would have been to go to law school after college. But I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I actually grew up, and by then it was a little too late for those goals. At this moment in time, it’s not about me. And when the kids are older, I can figure out what I want to do then.