The two-city life
Corinne's "radical" arrangement
Corinne was getting desperate: she’d finished her PhD a few years earlier, and the temporary fellowship she secured afterward was coming to an end. The academic job market was abysmal (Editor’s note: Still is!). Though she hated the idea of leaving academia, Corinne had begun exploring careers in other fields. And then an almost-perfect academic job opened up. The only problem? The job was in Ireland, and Corinne, her husband, and their 4yo son live hundreds of miles away in Scotland.
For a variety of reasons, the couple had little interest in relocating. Instead, Corinne decided to experiment with what she calls her “two-city life.” During the academic term, she flies out Sunday afternoons and flies home on Wednesday afternoons. “When I’m gone, I’m completely gone,” she explains. Her husband, a civil servant, oversees all things home- and childcare-related—"the nursery runs and food prep and the general day-to-day stuff.”
If this seems like a radical arrangement, it’s worth pausing to imagine a gender-reversed situation. Men frequently travel for work without anyone batting an eye. And yet Corinne remembers being quite torn. Before she even applied for the job, she and her husband had long conversations about what it might mean for their lives. Once she got the position, her instinct was to find ways to compensate for her absence. “Maybe I should prep meals?” she recalls thinking, before realizing that would be nearly impossible to fit in before she left for the airport.
She worried – and still does occasionally– that she can’t really call herself an involved mother if she’s gone three nights a week, or that her son would be harmed by her routine travel. When Corinne described her dilemma to her own mother, her mother’s feedback was harsh: “I guess you’re going to have to choose between your career and being there for bedtime.” Eesh.
Nevertheless, Corinne persisted. And to her surprise, the new arrangement is…kind of wonderful? Rather than feeling constantly pulled between work and home, she has clear boundaries. Mondays and Tuesdays, she works long days on campus and then takes time for some self-care. The rest of the week, she works on her own research while building in plenty of time for adventures with her son: ice cream runs after preschool, building a fort together in the woods near their home. She worries occasionally that she’ll become a “Disney dad” – a parent who is absent for most of the daily care work but swoops in for special excursions and treats. But from what I can tell, Corinne remains deeply involved in her son’s life, even though she may not be the one tucking him in every night.
By far the best outcome of this experiment, Corinne says, has been watching her husband’s transformation. “He has always been super involved with our son,” she explains, “but I just think he’s so much more competent now.” Before, Corinne tended to oversee his parenting – stepping in if she thought he was forgetting to pack something in the nursery bag, for instance, and then feeling grumpy about having to manage him. But now she has empirical evidence that he is perfectly capable of parenting without her constant oversight. Further, the one-on-one time has been good for father and son’s relationship. Whereas their son used to come exclusively to Corinne for comfort, he now goes to whoever is closest when he needs reassurance.
Corinne and I both recognize that an arrangement like hers will be neither possible nor desirable for many readers. So I was curious about whether she saw any generalizable lessons from her experience. Number one was this: “You have to ask.” Many of Corinne’s female friends assure her that their husbands would never be capable of doing what Corinne’s husband has done. And yes, it is possible that she landed herself an exceptional man. More likely, though, what’s unusual about their family is that Corinne was willing to entertain a “radical” option for achieving her career dreams, and her husband was game to support her. “I think he’s tremendously proud of me,” she says.
The same principle could be applied at a much smaller scale. Corinne recommends examining your own assumptions about what’s possible. Which of your narratives might be worth testing? If you assume your partner would never be okay with you traveling on your own for a weekend – or that you would need to spend a full week preparing them for this – well, have you given it a shot?
This is in no way meant to minimize the very real constraints I know many of you are facing. Corinne acknowledges that her arrangement is facilitated by her husband’s relatively flexible job, as well as a certain amount of economic privilege. The idea that it is our thoughts that manifest our reality is, to put it bluntly, self-help BS.
That said, it is also true that unchallenged assumptions about who we (and our partners) are and what we are capable of can keep us enmeshed in patterns that no longer serve us, or perhaps never did.Corinne notes that her job situation may need to change at some point, as her son gets older or if her husband hopes to take on a new position. For now, though, she is content to “step back and smile and just let my partner be an equal partner.”
I’d love to hear from you: have you ever challenged an assumption about what your partner is capable of, or what being a “good parent” looks like? Comment or reply to this email and let me know.
For more on the topic of what men are capable of, parenting-wise, see Andrea Doucet’s aptly titled book Do Men Mother?