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 seventh interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.
Names: Robyn and Ian
Robyn’s Occupation: Environmental due diligence assessor
Ian’s Occupation: Employee at a local government environmental agency
Children: 4-year-old and 1-year-old
Location: Long Beach, California
Hi, Robyn. What were your career expectations when you first started working, and how have they panned out?
My original expectation was that I would be a research scientist. But that’s not what happened. I met my now-husband when we were both in grad school for geology, on opposite coasts. We met at a conference in Costa Rica and then developed a long-distance relationship. I was about two years ahead of him in grad school, so the idea was that I would find a postdoc in California, because his school was in California and I was in Massachusetts. I only applied to postdocs and teaching jobs on the West Coast so I could be closer to Ian.
But unfortunately for me—or so it seemed at the time—I didn’t get any of the postdocs I applied for. One of the problems in academia is you need to be willing to go wherever geographically to secure a position, and I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice my personal life. We both knew after two years of a long-distance relationship that it wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. I could have conceivably gotten a postdoc somewhere else, but it probably would have meant our relationship had to end.
I went ahead and moved to California with no job. I had been living as a grad student, so I didn’t have a whole lot of savings, and I realized I needed to figure out what I was going to do quickly. I couldn’t sponge off my also grad student–salaried boyfriend for too long. That’s when the expectations went out the window. I temped as a secretary for several months and tried to figure out what to do. I was throwing out résumés left and right in both the public and private sectors. I discovered having a Ph.D. with no real-life work experience makes private-sector employers—in my experience—reluctant to hire you. They think you’re expensive, overeducated, and underqualified.
An old college friend of mine had gotten a job with an environmental consulting company, and it sounded like something I could do. It was a small mom and pop–owned firm, and she was willing to give my résumé straight to the owner. That’s how I got my first job in the environmental consulting field. Then I did 10 years of that, and now my new job, which I just got this past May.
Hi, Ian. What has your career trajectory looked like?
I’ve worked since I was 14, and looking back now, my expectations have continually changed. When I was 14, I didn’t have expectations other than a paycheck. When I first went to college, I wasn’t quite ready to be there, and I flunked out. I did community college for a year after that and worked construction. While the money in construction was good, the guys I worked with were considerably older than I was, and they were physically beaten down from working blue-collar jobs for 20-plus years. That was not the path I wanted to take. So college became a more important thing to accomplish at that point.
I worked my tail off and got back to a four-year college. Once I got my bachelor’s, I got a job that was just a job, and then I went to grad school for geology. I really liked it, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. The academic route seemed appealing—I had a lot of teachers in my family and thought it was something I would enjoy doing. So I got my master’s, but before I got my Ph.D. I got an opportunity for a teaching job closer to where Robyn lived than I was at the time. Her job in California was nearer to mine, but not in the same town. I took that job and left school, and I loved it. I was someone’s sabbatical replacement for two years, and I figured I’d finish my Ph.D. while doing that, but it turned out a bit harder than I expected.
As I was still trying to pursue the academic route, not having a Ph.D. hurt me, and nothing was panning out. I was unemployed for three months—I’d never been unemployed that long in my life. I was 31 at that point. I was fortunate because I was looking for any job, and a colleague of my wife’s heard about a job, and it was almost double my then-salary. So I transitioned to doing environmental work as a consultant for a school district. Then that job looked like it was ending, so I started desperately looking for another job. I got one at my current employer—an environmental regulatory agency. I’ve been happily working there for five years.
What was your life situation when you were starting out—did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future?
Robyn: I was 25, just shy of 26, when Ian and I started dating. I always considered myself a feminist, and at the time, the concept of ordering my life or making my choices around a relationship was something that intellectually I thought was incorrect, that I shouldn’t do that. But then your real-life situation and experience takes hold, and as our relationship developed I realized that was more important to me than that specific career in academia. And I don’t regret it.
For a very long time I thought I definitely didn’t want kids. I think that came from seeing my parents. They are scientists. My mom’s a math professor, and my dad’s a meteorologist, and they’ve been married for more than 40 years. But when I was growing up, my mom had given up her career aspirations. They met fairly young, and she followed him around for his job, and she stayed at home with young kids. It was no secret that she resented that. My mother did what was expected socially at the time, but that wasn’t really the right choice for her personality. She told me: Don’t follow a man or make choices for a man.
She took control of that when we were older, went back and got her master’s, and taught at the college level. I internalized that message—kids hold you back—and I felt if you’re going to have kids, you have to focus on them and let them be the center of your life. And I wanted to essentially make choices for myself, be selfish.
I had previous relationships end because I told my boyfriends I didn’t want kids. When I met my husband and we became serious, I said well, you have to be willing to accept that I don’t want kids. I didn’t see myself changing my mind on that.
Ian: I didn’t really know if I wanted to get married or have kids. I was interested in the general abstract concept, but I didn’t have any serious thoughts about either until my relationship with Robyn. When she and I started getting serious and I discovered she wasn’t all that interested in having kids, it was a bit of a transition for me. But I was OK with not having them. We ended up having a very comfortable adult life. It was very satisfying. And I was able to transition and accept that was going to be our life, and then things changed.
So, your current life situation doesn’t match up with your earlier expectations, then.
Robyn: I never expected that I would have two children as part of my life choice. It’s funny—my desire to have kids was like a switch getting turned on. After several years of, “Nope, I don’t want kids,” all of a sudden, I initiated the conversation: “Do you think we’re missing out on anything by not having kids?” It was a long conversation. It took a while to decide—my oldest was born when I was 35, five years after we got married.
Ian: There had been little tangential conversations about having kids here and there, but my first hint that she was really serious about it was when she thought we should get a dog. She’s not even a pet person—she doesn’t really like dogs! [Laughs.] I’ve always loved dogs, so I said, “Great, let’s get a dog,” and at the time I thought, “She seems like she wants something to take care of.” And not too long after that, we started thinking seriously about having kids. Now we have two of them.
In your family, whose career has come first?
Robyn: It’s back and forth. That’s one of the things I feel really grateful for in our relationship. It’s really egalitarian. I suppose you could look at the first sacrifice as mine—I gave up my prospects as an academic to move out here. But then when I got my first job, then I was the breadwinner for a while, and at that point my career took precedence. Then when he switched careers, and he also went into environmental consulting, his position was more lucrative, so the priority shifted to his career. If somebody had to take time off for whatever it is, it was more often me. But just this past May, we started making the same salary, so now we’re back at treating our jobs as equal demands. So every time something comes up, it’s a discussion: Who has the more pressing deadline or mandatory meeting? We have moved past the argument about whose career is “more important.” We don’t say that anymore.
But it’s a lot more juggling, and now with two kids, our time-management skills are not the strongest. It’s been a struggle, and I’d say that’s been the biggest surprise. This week was a perfect example. Our 4-year-old got a stomach bug, and then Ian got the stomach bug, and I’m trying to juggle work and being the only healthy adult in the household. Then I come down with it. We don’t have family nearby to help us out, so the entire week was upended.
What is your child care division of labor?
Ian: Our entire agency works a four-day a week, 10-hour-a-day schedule, that’s what they do. Having a three-day weekend is great, but there are real challenges to it. The four days I’m working, it’s a 10-hour day, plus commute time. I’m away from home 12-plus hours for those days. Robyn works a more typical 9-5, and her commute is only about 15 minutes long.
So Robyn does a little more child care, but I think it’s about a 60/40 split. [Ed note: Robyn says it’s closer to 50/50.] But, dads can never do quite as much as nursing mothers. The reason I say it’s 60/40 is that generally when something happens with the kids, they need her. We took a trip back east and the kids ended up getting sick—the youngest needed her time 100 percent. I can do as much as I can, but sometimes they just want mama.
What is your housework division of labor?
Ian: As opposed to going 50/50 on each task, I’ll take a whole chunk of tasks, and she’ll do another. She does bills, schedules, and that sort of thing. I do the majority of the cooking and most of the grocery shopping. The only things we split 50/50 are dishes and laundry. We each do our own laundry and we split the kids’ laundry. I do a lot more of the chores around the house, fixing the sink, that kind of thing, because with my construction experience I can do little projects. But it takes me forever, because we have no time.
How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, solo exercise)? Does your partner have more or less leisure time than you do? How do you make sure your free time is equitable?
Robyn: Leisure is like a once-in-a-blue-moon thing. We don’t watch TV, and we don’t exercise regularly. We played beach volleyball every weekend unless it was raining before we had kids, and we had a big social life, but we haven’t built that back up yet. If we’re home on the weekends, we really do try to be family-focused. It stems from the feeling: Do we give our kids enough attention? Ian is still trying to finish his Ph.D., and working on his dissertation takes time away from the family. Prior to that, he built an extra bedroom onto the house so we had room for the kids, and he did quite a bit of the construction himself. But those are things that are based on helping the family out. If anything, I might get a little more leisure time because I’m still nursing our 15-month-old, and I can at least read my e-reader while I’m nursing.
Ian: We used to watch a lot more TV when we didn’t have kids. I’m not watching much at all, which is frustrating during football season. I used to be very athletic, and that hasn’t happened since we had kids. All that extra leisure time is gone. Total leisure time every week is maybe five hours—and that’s counting the 20-30 minutes each day I spend catching up on news on my phone. It’s the age of the kids. It’s hard to get leisure time with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old.
Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?
Robyn: We’re both super happy where we are careerwise, but I wonder if by having two people who are career-focused and also having kids, maybe we haven’t advanced individually as much as we would have if we focused on one person’s career. How do you not get mommy tracked? Every day I have a different answer to that question.
In general, I feel so privileged to have this life. I would have told my younger self to not be so rigid in my expectations, because I was able to roll with the punches and be more flexible. I wouldn’t have expected that, because I like to plan. It’s hard to regret how anything turned out, so I should have gone in more open-minded about what could unfold. Especially with the kids, it was a huge internal process: Am I betraying my ideals because I want this suburban life after all? But I did a lot of amazing, fun things before we had kids. When we did have kids, it didn’t feel like I was missing out because I had lived life to its fullest potential in my 20s and early 30s. I love my kids and I am really happy to be a parent and have that family focused life.
Ian: I’d like to say it would be really nice if I got my Ph.D. when I was back in college, and it would be nice to have not flunked out of college in the first place. But flunking out really taught me a life lesson. I developed my work ethic after that. It’s hard to look back and say I wish I had done something different, because we’re in a pretty happy spot.