The XX Factor

When Career Ambitions Break Up a Marriage

One spouse’s career in squash did not mesh with the other’s law school plans.

Photo by mama_mia/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 eighth 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: Caitlin and Stephen

Ages: 27 and 26

Caitlin’s Occupation: Full-time law student

Stephen’s Occupation: Squash professional

Children: none

Caitlin’s Location: Washington, D.C.

Stephen’s Location: Richmond, Virginia

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

I went into historic preservation right out of college. I planned to rise up in management and eventually end up in a directorship position, possibly with a small historical preservation society. I was a history major, and I worked in a museum between college and graduate school. I did a master’s in architectural history at the University of Virginia. There’s a lot of opportunity in the field because architectural history is becoming more relevant as cities age—federal laws require that you do an analysis on the impact of historic structures.

Hi, Stephen. What were your career expectations?

When I was a kid back in Ireland, my dad had a construction company, and I worked there every summer throughout high school, and then I went into business with him after high school. But I always wanted to play sports. I excelled at sports: I played nationally in rugby and squash. I met Caitlin in Ireland though a friend of mine I played rugby with, and we started dating. We were both studying at the University of Limerick at the time. I got a couple of bad injuries playing rugby, so I went back to working with my dad in construction. But growing up in Ireland, I thought my rugby career would be the be-all end-all, as every young Irish kid does.

Did you expect to get married and have kids in the future?

Caitlin: Family had always been a goal. I wanted to have a family, have a job, and be successful. But financial security and a fulfilling career were priorities. I met my husband when I was a junior in college studying abroad in Ireland in 2008. He’s Irish. We kept in touch for a year and a half when he was still living overseas. We made the decision together that he would move to the States. He was accomplished at the sport of squash at home, and he wanted to work in squash in the States, because there’s a lot of money and opportunity in private coaching here. I helped him get his green card, and we got married at the courthouse when I was 23 and he was 22. I did his paperwork, got him into squash in Virginia, and helped him out with a place to live.

As soon as he got on his feet, I started grad school. We were struggling then. He camped out with my parents in Richmond, Virginia, and I had a small apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia. But it was very much a partnership then. My mother accepted that I wanted to go to grad school. She wished I was working, too, but she put up with it.

After I got my master’s in architectural history, I worked for the state of Virginia as an architectural historian. I was getting paid $13 an hour, and my contract was renewed every three months. I had no benefits and no job security. So I took a job with a consulting firm in Washington, and it doubled my salary. I was still only making $45,000 a year, but it was something. Stephen had an opportunity to work for a squash club here in Washington, but it fell through. So he thought it would be best for both of us to move back to Virginia because there was a squash job for him there. My mother agreed with him—that I would find something to do there. That really frustrated me. When you’re pursuing a real career, you don’t want to just find “something.” You want to move vertically or horizontally. I didn’t want to go back to $13 an hour.

That’s when we started having issues. He moved back to Richmond full time. He got a job as the director of squash for a health and fitness club in Richmond. He runs his own squash program. There’s upward mobility in this position because the club he’s with is starting to expand, and they’re opening up new locations. The more expanding and the more popular the sport gets, the more he stands to rise.  

So he kept insisting I move back to Richmond, too. I lost my job last spring, and he said, “Now you have no reason to stay in D.C. You have to move home.” I said, “I want to apply to law school,” and he said, “Absolutely not. You have no job. We have no money. You need to move home. I know you said you have career ambitions, but it’s best to focus on my career for now. I can support us. I can give us the life we want, and that’s not your responsibility.” But it wasn’t about my responsibility; my work was fulfilling to me. I got a full scholarship to law school here in Washington, so I decided to stay. He decided to stay in Richmond, and that was that.

Stephen: I always expected to get married and have kids, but I didn’t think it would happen so fast. Caitlin and I were doing this long-distance relationship after she finished studying abroad. I decided if we wanted to make it work, I had to move, so I came to the States. I wanted to work in squash when I got here, but first I had to get through visa stuff and everything. Squash is such a niche sport over here; it’s a high-end country club–style sport.  So I was doing some carpentry work, and then I got a job in squash pretty soon after I moved here, and I’ve been in squash ever since.

When we moved to Washington for Caitlin’s job, I was working full time in Richmond at the time, and so was she, and the job in Washington was good for her career. So we decided to move up for her career, but like I said, squash is such a niche sport, and there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities in most cities. So I couldn’t get a well-paying job in Washington.

Her decision to go to law school felt quite rushed to me because she’d left her job only a couple of months before she applied. I was working in Richmond and Charlottesville, so I thought it might have been a better idea for her to stay working for a year in Virginia, and then she can decide if she really wants to go to law school. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t going to get in somewhere—any school would take her; she’s so intelligent. She went to the University of Virginia for undergrad, and I was in Charlottesville coaching squash at a UVA-owned club. Waiting a little bit and trying to get into a law school in Virginia seemed like a better option to me.

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

Caitlin: I had no intention of going to law school before this year. I thought that I would be able to do what I wanted to do in my career field without it. But I realized in order to move up and in order to have a high-level career in historic preservation, I should be able to do historical preservation law. All the highest level people seemed to have either law or business degrees, and historic preservation requires familiarity with zoning, easements, tax credits, and a lot of other legal things. I didn’t anticipate it. Nobody anticipates a second advanced degree. But I also anticipated having the freedom to make that decision if I wanted to.

My father always encouraged me in whatever educational goals I wanted to pursue. He was one of the first in his family to go to college and the first to go to grad school. He’s a health care executive. He joked that he wanted a doctor for a kid, and I said, “I’m not getting a Ph.D., but how about a Juris Doctor?” He wanted me to rise to whatever pinnacle I could. My mother didn’t finish grad school and was a nurse for many years. She comes from a very conservative religious family, and for her it’s always been: You need to make concessions for your husband because his career is going to earn more. You need to make sacrifices if you’re going to get married. You need to focus on your children, because that’s how you’re going to be the best mom.

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

Caitlin: (Laughs) It doesn’t. It’s pretty miserable going back to the life of a really broke student in a basement efficiency apartment with roommates. We’re separated, and Stephen supports me a little financially. I live off the rental income from the home we bought together outside of Washington. And he gives me a little support because I still manage our finances. It’s not fun to go back to agonizing over whether I can support myself. My friends are secure, they have plans, they are having their first babies, and it almost feels like I am back to square one. It’s frustrating. It was the right choice for me; I just never anticipated doing it without his support.

Stephen: We’re in that kind of middle ground right now where [our relationship] could go either way. Nobody goes out to get married and then wants it to be unsuccessful. I never thought we’d be in different cities working. Even when I was still living with her in Washington, I was traveling five days a week, going to Charlotte and Richmond. That was very hard being away so much. I never thought, getting married, it would be like that.

Did you ever discuss whose career would take precedence before you got married?

Caitlin: He’s not a big planner. So when we talked about future plans, I was the one making the plans. I’ve always been that way in our relationships. He thinks about: What are you doing today? What can you handle today? He’s a what’s-in-front-of-you kind of person. I’m a long-range planner—what are the possibilities than can happen, and how do we deal with them if they do happen?

Going to grad school is a thing in America, but in Ireland it’s not as accepted. I assumed it was like in the States. He has great respect for education, but it was unusual to him that I would pursue a grad degree and that I would want another degree. He accepted grad school, but then thought I would settle down, start working, and we’d start working on a family and that would be the end of it.

Stephen: When we got married we were both in Richmond, and we were both working full time. There’s a cultural difference between here and Ireland. In America, people like to move around a lot and do different things. In Ireland, people prefer to stay in a consistent job and stay in a consistent place. Moving here, people want to see so many different things and do different jobs. That was one thing I found hard to adjust to. Caitlin always wanted to do a new task. She always wants to be challenged. If she’s in something for a while, she gets bored with it. It is tough for me to always be moving around. I tried to explain that. In my field, moving around a lot would be bad for my career. I couldn’t get jobs, because people would be wondering why I couldn’t stay in a job.

What was your housework division of labor when you were still living together?

Caitlin: One hundred percent me. Wait no, I’d say 90 percent me. He comes from a culture of the Irish mother who does everything for her son. She has three grown children living nearby her, and she still does their laundry half the time. They’re grown men with families! My husband didn’t know how to do his own laundry or any housework. If I asked him to do something specific, he usually would, but otherwise it was all me, which was frustrating. His rationale was: If I’m working, I’m fulfilling my responsibilities and I should be able to come home and relax instead of having to do more work at home. I got frustrated because I was working full time, too, and we both had extracurricular interests.

I play women’s rugby, so that took up a lot of my free time. I have hardly any free time now. I get out of class at noon on Friday, and so that’s my day for all my homework, errands and chores and everything else.

Stephen: (Laughs). I would say she did 80 percent and I did 20 percent. We did a lot of the bigger projects on the house together. But, I was traveling six hours a week driving from one club to the other club in Virginia and back to Washington. It was an hour from Richmond to Charlottesville, and then three hours back to Washington. I was just wearing myself out. I shouldn’t use that as an excuse not to do housework. I should have been better.

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

Caitlin: I wish that we had the conversation about values. Unfortunately I didn’t realize how much religion and culture and values contributed to goals. Because I felt like we had the financial conversation and the kids conversation and lifestyle conversation before we got married, and we were on the same page. But we never had the really in-depth conversation about how culturally we feel like people ought to have responsibilities. So we just assumed the other was on the same page. I assumed he would support me in fulfilling my career to the fullest, and he assumed I would have a career, but it would always take a back seat to my family. But I didn’t understand, and he didn’t understand.

I didn’t want to divorce right away because I didn’t want to cause him any problems with immigration, and we still own a house together. So we’re separated. We communicate pretty regularly. We have two dogs, so we exchange the dogs, and things like that. We’re cordial. We’re friendly.

He says that he would like to get back together, but he again has this criteria for getting back together, which involves me moving back to Richmond and letting his career take priority. He says he would be happy to let me finish law school, but I’d need to move back to Richmond and do what he wants, and I’m not ready to accept that. We’re in a holding pattern. But I think it’s going to end in divorce, because I don’t think we can reconcile what we want. I think I owe it to myself to see my ambitions through, because I don’t want to take it out on my future family.

Forget Lean In. I want the “airplane rule”: Put the oxygen mask over your face before you put one on anyone else’s. I want to have a great career that makes me happy and where I feel valuable, and I don’t agree that being married means someone has to sacrifice. As long as I’m doing what I think is fulfilling, then that’s what has to come first, otherwise it doesn’t make anyone else happy.

Stephen: There’s always something you want to do differently. I definitely could have been a little more attentive around the house, which is what she needed. That could have gone both ways, but I let her do the work around the house, and whenever I got back I didn’t want to do anything, whether it be going out for dinner or anything like that. I could have been a lot better about us doing things together.

There’s a massive culture difference between the U.S. and Ireland. Women do take control of the household, and it is unfortunate that it is that way. It’s always been the way we’ve been brought up. And it’s a good thing it’s not like that over here. But I kind of let that slip through the cracks a little bit.

I think what we both want might be a little different. She decided going back to school was more important than taking that year away and moving back to Richmond. She wasn’t working, and I had a full-time job at that point. It made more sense to me.

Check out more of Slate’s Best Laid Plans series.