Men In America
3:37 pm
Mon August 18, 2014

More Men Put Ambitions On Back Burner For Their Partners' Careers

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 10:17 am

Ricky Nussle has a map on his living room wall. He can use it to track the moves he has made for his wife, Amanda Saraf, who is training to be a doctor. The first was from Houston to rural Kirksville, Mo. Then to Phoenix. Next year, they'll move again for her fellowship in Columbus, Ohio.

Those moves represent one way families are navigating the American economy today: With more women in the workplace than in previous generations, it's not difficult to find men who are uprooting their careers and moving for their spouses' professional ambitions.

And men who follow their partners often must grapple with the implications for their careers, while also facing their own set of difficult questions about what it means to give up the traditional role of breadwinner.

While his wife's career blossoms, it hasn't been so easy for Nussle. When the couple left Texas, he gave up a well-paying job with a big oil company. In Missouri, the work was meager. He was a bacon-maker at a factory for $10 an hour. It was tough work for a guy with a biology degree.

"It did definitely suck," Nussle says.

He took a second part-time job doing environmental mapping for minimum wage.

"It was very hard for me to be open and share with people when they say, 'What do you do?' I would normally just say I worked for the conservation department," he says. "You don't want people to look down on you and think you made a bad decision. Like, 'You shouldn't have moved, and now you're making bacon.' "

Changing Social Norms

But this is the way it had to be if he wanted a life with Saraf. They have two dogs, a cat and now a baby on the way.

Nussle says it stings the ego when he doesn't have the money he needs for nice Christmas gifts or a good dinner out. But, he adds, he's happy women are becoming more powerful in the workforce.

"I think eventually men are going to have to realize they'll need to sacrifice something if they want to make a relationship work," he says. "I guess in a way it does take a strong-willed person to put yourself on the back burner for someone else."

Saraf admires the sacrifices her husband has made for her. "You know, he is a very compassionate and giving person and he is very selfless," she says. "I don't know how a relationship would have worked with someone else who had a set path they were on also."

With more women going to college and domestic social norms changing, more men like Nussle are likely to follow their spouses' careers. One survey from workforce mobility group Worldwide ERC shows that 62 percent of women accepting job transfers are married, up 6 percent since 2007.

"When we think about women who trail their male spouses, traditionally we think of them as good wives and mothers," says Sarah Tracy, who studies family communication at Arizona State University. "When we think of men who trail their wives or females, we think of them as unemployed."

Tracy says that has a way of coming up in social settings — like questions at parties. Some may assume that the husband is lazy or makes less money.

"So they are asked to account. And those little ways of having to explain all the time can be exhausting and also identity threatening," Tracy says.

Career Sacrifices

Being the trailing spouse has been hard for Barry Sparkman, too. On a summer Sunday afternoon, he and his partner, Dan Childers, are at home with their dogs in central Phoenix. Childers is an ecologist and a professor; Sparkman is an artist.

Childers is clearly proud of Sparkman's abstract paintings that decorate the walls of their home. But it's been Childers' successful academic career that has paid the bills and forced the couple to move four times in 27 years — most recently from Florida.

"Leaving a vibrant urban center like Miami and coming to Phoenix was something I was hesitant about," Sparkman says. Miami "was fantastic — the arts community was really great. It was easy for me to find work and be active as an artist in a way that was relevant nationally."

But with each move, he says, he has had to re-establish himself in the arts community. Right now he's looking for new studio space, but without a permanent day job, that's hard to pay for.

Sparkman says he's well aware that career success is still a cultural measure of masculinity in this country. Both men say the decisions they've made aren't really about gender. They're about money and personality.

When Sparkman thinks about his situation, he says it might be easier if he just stayed home and cared for kids.

"And I wouldn't mind making the career sacrifices because I would have this other piece," Sparkman says. "But we don't have that piece and so the expectations I have for myself professionally are still as high as Dan's. It's just I'm not getting there very quickly."

Childers is aware that he helped put his partner in this situation.

"It does make me anxious. This is going to sound like a very one-sided relationship. I have always done everything that I can think of within my power to be supportive of Barry as an artist," Childers says. "There is no stronger champion of what he does than me."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We end this hour with a story from our series about men. This month we've been hearing about men's changing roles at home and on the job. Today, what happens when a man's career takes a back seat to his spouses? Peter O'Dowd has this story on the difficult questions men face as they give up the traditional breadwinner role.

O'DOWD: Ricky Nussel has a map on his living room wall. He can use it to track the moves he's made for his wife. First from Houston, Texas, to rural Kirksville, Missouri. Ricky puts his finger in Kirksville and traces a line to the West.

RICKY NUSSEL: Then from Missouri we moved out here to Phoenix, which was a fun two-day trip.

O'DOWD: He did this for Amanda Saraf who's training to be a doctor. Next year they'll move again for her fellowship.

NUSSEL: Across essentially the entire country to Columbus, Ohio.

O'DOWD: While Amanda's career blossoms, it hasn't been so easy for Ricky. He gave up a job that paid well with a big oil company in Texas. In Missouri, the work was meager.

NUSSEL: It did definitely suck. One of the jobs was shift work.

O'DOWD: Bacon maker at a factory - 10 bucks an hour - tough work for a guy with a biology degree. Ricky took a second part-time environmental mapping job that paid minimum wage.

NUSSEL: It was very hard for me to be open and share with people. When they say what you do, I would normally just say I worked for the conservation department. You don't want people to look down on you or think you made a bad decision like you shouldn't have moved. Now you're making bacon.

O'DOWD: But this is the way it had to be if Ricky wanted a life with Amanda. He has two dogs, at cat and now a baby on the way. Ricky says it stings the ego when he doesn't have the money he needs for nice Christmas gifts or a good dinner out, but he adds he's happy women are becoming more powerful in the workforce.

NUSSEL: I think eventually men are going to have to realize that they're going to need to sacrifice something if they want to make a relationship work. And I guess in a way it does take a strong-willed person to put yourself on the back burner for someone else.

AMANDA SARAF: You know, he is a very compassionate and giving person, and he's very selfless. I don't know how a relationship would have worked with someone else who had a set path that they were on also.

O'DOWD: With more women going to college and domestic social norms changing, more American men like Ricky will follow their spouse's career. One survey from the workforce mobility group Worldwide ERC shows the number of married women accepting job transfers has gone up 6 percent since 2007.

SARAH TRACY: When we think about women who trail their male spouses, traditionally we think of them as good wives and mothers.

O'DOWD: Sarah Tracy studies family communication at Arizona State University.

TRACY: When we think about men who follow their wives or females, we call them unemployed.

O'DOWD: Tracy says that has a way of coming up in social settings like questions at parties.

TRACY: Who are you?

O'DOWD: Assumptions that he must be lazy or make less money.

TRACY: And so they're asked to account. And those little ways of having to explain all of the time can get exhausting and also can be identity threatening. Being the trailing spouse has been hard for Barry Sparkman, too. On a summer Sunday afternoon, he and his partner, Dan Childers, are at home with their dogs in central Phoenix. Dan is an ecologist - a professor. Barry is an artist - a painter.

DAN CHILDERS: Any of the pieces that you see in this house could leave the door if somebody writes the right check.

TRACY: Dan is clearly proud of Barry's abstract paintings that decorate the walls, but it's been Dan's successful academic career that's paid the bills and made the couple move four times in 27 years, most recently from Florida.

BARRY SPARKMAN: Leaving a vibrant urban center like Miami and coming to Phoenix, you know, was something I was hesitant about.

O'DOWD: And so Miami was a good place for you guys?

SPARKMAN: It was fantastic. The arts community was really great. It was easy for me to find work and be active as an artist in a way that was relevant nationally.

O'DOWD: Barry says he has to reestablish himself in the arts community with each move. He's looking for new studio space. Without a permanent day job, that's hard to pay for. When Barry thinks about his situation, he says it might be easier if he just stayed home and cared for kids.

SPARKMAN: And I wouldn't mind making the career sacrifices because I would have this other piece, but we don't have that piece. And so the expectations that I have for myself professionally are still as high as Dan's. It's just I'm not getting there very quickly.

O'DOWD: Barry's partner, Dan, is aware he helped put Barry in the situation.

CHILDERS: It does make me anxious this is going to sound like a very one-sided relationship. And I have always done everything that I can think of within my power to be supportive of Barry as an artist. There is no stronger champion of what he does than me.

O'DOWD: Both men say the decisions they've made aren't really about gender. They're about money and personality. Barry says he's well aware that career success is still a cultural measure of masculinity in this country, but being the trailing spouse doesn't necessarily have to be the measure of a man. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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