Ricky Nussel 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 Nussel. 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,” Nussel 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.
Nussel 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 Nussel 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.
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.”