Yes, You Can: Choosing Marriage and Your Career at the Same Time

bride and groom kissing in front of corn

I keep trying out different beginnings for this post.

I could tell you the story of how I came across the Day Zero Project a few years ago and immediately loved the concept of their “101 [goals] in 1001 [days]” list. I could tell you that I made such a list, filled with both lofty and mundane goals, and kept it in the back of my journal where the paper it was printed on grew increasingly worn as I unfolded and refolded it to check off different items over the span of two and a half years. I could give you a lovely, triumphant, brief coda in which I realized at the end of my 1001 days that nearly every enormous-at-the-time goal I’d originally put on the list as more of a long shot than an act of faith had been checked off. Pay off undergraduate loans. Check. Travel to Europe. Get accepted into and start a doctoral degree program. Check, check. I could tell you that I know without a shadow of a doubt that my marriage made achieving these goals possible.

I could tell you all these things, and they would all be true.

But there’s another way I could begin that would be equally true. It would go something like this: Just under three years ago, I was visiting a campus several thousand miles from home for the admitted students’ weekend at one of my top-choice schools. I wore a brand-new engagement ring on my finger. And I was horrifically confused because all of a sudden that second fact felt vastly more important to me than the first. I distinctly remember sitting alone on my host’s couch on the final night of the visit journaling about how relieved I was to go home the next day and how seemingly suddenly I found myself filled with ambivalence over pursuing this career path that I’d been dreaming about since I was eight years old and discovered you could make a living out of loving books. I flew home and told my fiancé something along the lines of “I realized there that this whole grad school thing is no longer my dream. You are. You and the marriage we’re going to build together.”

Later that year we married, moved, and I started graduate school anyway. I promptly spent my first two years of coursework feeling unsettled and wondering what I was doing in the classroom when everything about my life outside of it felt far more real and more important. In an environment where everyone jokes (with underlying dead seriousness) about being married to their work, where sustained intellectual passion is required for success, I wondered if I’d disqualified myself from the start simply by being married and by wanting, vehemently, for my marriage to succeed. I wondered if that made me a terrible feminist. I wondered (angrily) why my husband kept insisting on believing in me and pushing me out the door when I just wanted to hide at home all day.

These questions eventually faded, mostly as I made likeminded friends, found sane advisors, and moved out of the coursework phase of my program and into the kind of teaching and research that I find enjoyable and meaningful. When I wrote a new 101 in 1001 list for myself at the beginning of this year, the category I could most easily fill was the academic/career goals one. At first I felt a pang of doubt—did this mean I was moving away from my marriage somehow? But I knew I wasn’t. I have never felt closer to my husband, nor more proud of the life that we’re building together.

This is where it could be easy for me to disavow my newlywed self. This is where I could say that even though marriage helped me achieve those huge goals of savings, travel, education, it had also threatened to completely disrupt a career trajectory I’d set for myself since childhood. Except that I know to the core of my very being that I was not impoverished by that time in my life, that my dreams then were neither smaller nor less important than they are now, even though they took on different trappings. I think having a span of time wherein I was paying careful attention to the foundation of my marriage has sent our roots deep and our branches high, and I know that paying more attention to my career does not mean a net loss of attention for my marriage. But I still don’t really know how to describe that time without it sounding like I’m casting a value judgment on one versus the other.

Here’s the thing—I don’t think our culture gives us very good ways to talk about the natural ebb and flow of goals and dreams over the course of a lifetime. Certainly the two beginnings I tried out for this post seem incompatible, right? How could you be reaching so many goals and feel so lost? No, the way our culture tells it either you’re rocketing through the glass ceiling or you’ve opted out completely. Either your marriage is disrupting your career or your career is disrupting your marriage. And any shift in goals, which we should probably be applauding and accepting as part of a natural growth process, requires a complete rejection of your past self and your past self’s desires. I wonder if that’s why we so often set marriage/family and career against each other, why we get movies that portray ice-queen corporate women who must be disciplined into having an acceptable emotional life via shenanigans involving either a man or a baby who teaches them How To Feel. Maybe that’s why women have so much panic over the idea of stepping off the fast track of our jobs for even a second in case it means that years from now we’ll find ourselves saddled with five babies, a mortgage, and no marketable skills.

Honestly, I find this dichotomy exhausting. It pits women against each other in horrifying ways and it ends up devaluing all our goals. If I could travel back in time and tell my visit-weekend self something, it would be this: You can have a family life that checks and feeds and balances your professional growth. You can have a professional life that informs and enriches your personal life. One or the other of those things might take precedence temporarily through the natural shifts and changes of life. That’s okay. Your horizons are broadening rather than shutting down. (I would also tell her that 10pm after a weekend of schmoozing with strangers when you are introverted and excessively jet-lagged is NOT the time to be making major how-you-view-your-life decisions.)

I hope this post doesn’t come across as prescriptive. I’m emphatically not saying that every woman needs to work, or that it’s not okay to be either completely oriented either toward the home or toward the workplace if that’s where your natural tendencies lead you. I’m not really interested in the whole “can women have it all” conversation. I don’t know. I suspect it depends on what you mean by “all.” But I do hope, sincerely, that women feel that they can have what they want. And that they know it’s all right if those wants change, maybe over and over, through the course of a lifetime, that they recognize marriage and career as not necessarily contradictory things.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that I learned this lesson in part by observing my husband. I’ve spent the last three years watching him chase down huge dreams and reach major career milestones, spurred on by our home life rather than distracted by it. I’ve seen how much it enriches our marriage when he can be passionate about things outside of it, when he introduces me to new experiences, people, ideas, and when I can do the same for him. There’s a short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that we used on our wedding day that says:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly

away from the noisy crowd

when I see the pale

stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways

through the pale twilit meadows,

with only this one dream:

You come too.

These words have taken on new significance for me after the experiences of the last several years and now sum up so perfectly how I view a good marriage. It’s not a world unto itself, nor a goal in and of itself. It’s not the enemy of living a full life outside of the circle of each other’s arms. It’s not a disruption or a distraction. Instead, it’s simply taking each other by the hand, no matter what changes or adventures might come, and saying, “You come too.”

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