I had grand expectations of my life as a faculty spouse. I imagined lunch with Erik on campus, hosting students in our home, and—as a family—all enjoying his summers off. I expected to be closely connected to the university; attending events on campus and enjoying all that the university had to offer. Little did I know what was ahead.
I grew up in a conservative Christian family. I’m sure we appeared to be a model Christian family to friends and family, but my parents’ loss of their own parents at early ages, poor communication skills, and financial stress created great tension in our home. I learned early on not to rock the boat.
Though life at home was difficult, I grew up with a real sense of the presence of God and even as a child was spiritually discerning. I attended public school but was anxious to attend a Christian college. I adored my older brother and followed him to Wheaton. Those four years at Wheaton were transformational. Learning from a Christian worldview, studying under professors and with peers who shared a common love for God, and having dear friends from other denominations were exactly what I needed.
Erik and I met as juniors at Wheaton. He was a transfer from Emory and we met through a mutual friend. He was also an answer to prayer. I had told my mother a few weeks earlier that I would love a date. Not a husband, just a date; I hadn’t had one since I broke up with a boyfriend the beginning of my freshman year and was really feeling discouraged. She promised to pray for that for me. Two weeks later I met Erik and we began dating soon after. It didn’t take me long to know that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
I saw Erik and me as extremely compatible. We both loved God and loved others. In the two years we dated I saw our personalities as very similar so I assumed we would have a pretty easy marriage. I expected a much different marriage than the one modeled for me as a child. I was sure we would always agree, never argue, and I certainly never expected it to be difficult. How naïve I was!
Early marriage and early expectations
Erik and I discussed what our lives would look like when we started a family. We both agreed that when we had children one of us would pause in our career and stay home. It didn’t matter which one of us it was, we said, we would wait and see where we were. But I knew pretty early on, and was content with it, that I would be the one who filled that role. Erik worked hard and excelled in whatever he did, whether it was waiting tables or working in a group home, and I knew he would excel in whatever job he landed, though we never imagined it would be in academia.
As a Christian Education major at Wheaton, Erik’s desire was to work with people with disabilities. He earned a master’s in special education from Vanderbilt and after graduation, we moved to Texas where we both taught in a public school. But God was calling him to do more in the field of special education than work in a classroom. With encouragement from a former advisor, Erik returned to Vanderbilt to complete his PhD. Erik joined the faculty first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then in his current position at Vanderbilt. I was married to a professor.
Challenges to the Dream
The first big disappointment occurred when we realized there was no way we could afford to live near campus. It was clear that my dreams of life as a professor’s wife and my own involvement in the university were not going to pan out the way I had envisioned.
Another came as I saw Erik rightfully recognized for his excellent work. Before meeting Erik, I prayed for a husband who was hardworking. Well, God gave me one and then some. The answered prayer became a real challenge for me. Erik worked very hard striving for excellence in all he did. As I soon learned, excellent work opens the door to invitations to travel. I love to travel. And now I watched Erik do what I wished I could do while I stayed at home being “just a mom.” I wish I had kept a journal but my memory is that almost every time Erik would travel some disaster would occur at home. We would have a flooded basement (more than once), a kitchen fire, sick children, broken appliances, dead car batteries, faulty alarm systems, etc. I often felt lonely and the seed of resentment began to take root.
When he was home, I wanted him to focus his time on our children, so it seemed there was a necessary tradeoff and I committed to being content with little quality time for us as husband and wife.
Our lives revolved around Erik. First the degree. Then the demanding job. Next, working for tenure. After that, the next demanding job and working toward full professor. I didn’t feel like his schedule allowed time for me to pursue interests of my own. In fairness to Erik, I just didn’t ask. The child in me didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t stop to think creatively how we might have made that time for my interests outside of the family, so the resentment grew.
Very quickly and very early on, I could see where God was using Erik and where he was going to use him. I probably had a clearer picture of his purpose than Erik had for himself. Unfortunately, I had no vision for myself or God’s plan for me.
I felt forgotten by God and had a “what about me” mentality. I also began to compare myself to Erik. He is constant motion, constantly doing. I am not wired that way. I like to “be” more than I like to “do.” I found myself feeling lazy and unproductive next to Erik and discouraged and envious of him and his place in the world.
But God has been present in and through our marriage all along. During the time Erik was getting his PhD, I went to a women’s conference at our church. I was struggling with what I believed Erik’s spiritual walk should look like. Isaiah 53:10 was part of our scripture reading and God spoke to me. “In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.” In that moment, I repented of my self-righteousness in our marriage and committed myself to “rest” from trying to change Erik. I needed to be quiet and trust God to work in each of us individually. I have clung to this verse fiercely. I have only praise and thanksgiving as I look back at the ways God has transformed both of us over the past twenty years. My resentment has been replaced with great pride. I remember a moment when Erik made a comment that he could never have accomplished what he has if I had continued my teaching career. I was a contributing factor to his success. That changed everything and I could see we were together; we were #teamcarter.
In the early days when Erik traveled and we would have those emergencies at home, I would call Erik in a panic. He was my first response, every time. He is a problem solver and quick to action. I love that about him. I love it so much that I was just passing the problem-solving over to him (even if he was in another state or country). This kept happening and at a certain point the Holy Spirit convicted me. I realized that I was depending more on Erik than I was on God. God is my true protector and provider. Since that moment of realization, the number of catastrophes that have occurred on my watch has dropped significantly. I don’t react with such panic when they do occur and my first response is to pray, not call Erik. I am much more confident in my problem-solving and believe the mind God gave me is as capable as the one he gave Erik.
While Erik was traveling, I felt like Erik was doing what I would love to do and I was stuck at home cleaning. I hate cleaning. I felt forgotten by God. But I didn’t know how God was at work in Erik’s life. A member of our church small group shared stories of fond memories of his family’s travels across the country in an RV, sitting in the front seat of the RV with his dad. This struck a nerve with Erik and he decided that for his first sabbatical he wanted to do the same—travel the country in an RV. It would be a time to disconnect from the rat race of work and have sustained, focused time with his family. So in our twentieth year of marriage, we had our first sabbatical. Erik’s dream of traveling the country in an RV and my dream of travel came together beautifully. I look at this year as God saying, “I see you. I remember those early years.” I get emotional just thinking about that year and all it represents. We pray we are able to continue RV adventures as empty nesters.
An important source of hope has come from the wives and spouses I have met at Cedar Campus during InterVarsity summer faculty conferences. Many of them will remember me as the woman who cried the first few years we attended. They encouraged me, reminded me that this was a season, and assured me that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.
Faculty week is balm to my soul and refuels me and our family for another year.
Advice to faculty spouses
1) Pray and stay in the Word. Find a prayer partner (another faculty spouse would be ideal) and stay tethered to God. Focus on your own spiritual life, not that of your spouse. Marriage counseling is a great thing! Focus on the Family and Family Life Today are two ministries that have daily podcasts that I have found helpful. Erik and I listen to a podcast together before we go to sleep. It doesn’t sound romantic but it is fuel to keep our marriage healthy and our family strong. Notice I didn’t use the word “perfect.”
2) Speak up and self-advocate for self-care and time away from the children. Find a hobby or class or consider part-time work outside the home. Erik worked incredibly hard and when he came home he was tired. I felt guilty asking him to watch the kids so I could connect with friends or do other activities without children in tow. I look back and think that was just ridiculous and wonder what other solutions might have been possible. I started to flourish when I began a neighborhood baking business in Wisconsin and then in Nashville, volunteered with the Young Adult Ministry at our church. I needed purpose outside the four walls of my home.
3) Grace and humility are necessary in any marriage but I think an extra measure is necessary in the world of academia. I don’t think that we can fully grasp the pressures (be they internal or external) our spouses face. We need to extend grace as they wrestle with balance and our voices need to gently nudge them toward that end.
Advice to married faculty members
1) To the married faculty member, I would say humbly acknowledge the sacrifice and contributions your spouse has made for your success. We need to hear that. I am so blessed that Erik acknowledges that I am part of the reason he has been successful professionally. He sees his success as my success, his awards are my awards. That truly blesses me. I would find it very difficult not to be bitter and resentful if this were not so.
2) Find and meet with Christians on campus or in your field with whom you can meet in discussion and prayer, helping each other navigate the demands and challenges of life in the academy as followers of Christ. Having a front row seat to my husband’s life, I know that this can be incredibly difficult. There simply isn’t enough time in one’s day/week/month. Make time as a kindness to yourself, your family, and your profession.
3) Examine your life. Do you know God and your family as intimately as you know your area of expertise? Balance is ridiculously difficult and some would say impossible. I know that from watching Erik wrestle with this. But I would challenge the notion as a Christ follower that there just is not time for a flourishing life outside the academy. It won’t be your CV and colleagues that care for you in your old age. Consider starting a PV, a Personal Vitae that is an accumulation of memories that are the result of time and experiences with your family.
Advice to both spouses
1) Consider what you want your marriage to say to the world, to the academy. I once heard it said, “Each marriage is a unique ministry.” That really struck a chord in me and I believe it is true. We determined that Erik’s students and colleagues would see in us a united, strong, loving, Christ-centered marriage. We are by no means perfect and we certainly won’t pretend to be. But as #teamcarter we have the privilege of being agents of grace and love, faithfulness and forgiveness, humility and hope.
2) Don't try to do this alone. Be connected to a church. Join a small group. Consider attending a Faculty Conference. I thought the struggles I had with our marriage were unique. It wasn’t until we attended Faculty Conference and I met other wives that I realized what I was feeling and experiencing was quite common.
To learn more about InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry's four regional summer Faculty Conferences, visit https://gfm.intervarsity.org/events/faculty-events.