On a Friday afternoon early in the pandemic, I stopped my car in the empty parking lot of a dorm complex at Iowa State University and turned to my 15-year-old son.
“Want a driving lesson?” I asked him. Elias stared at me, then shook his head. He’d waited while I perched under a campus Wi-Fi hotspot to upload some large files for work that our home internet couldn’t handle. We’d taken ice cream from a drive-through to an empty park. We were killing time waiting for my wife to give us the all-clear to return home. Her half-hour job interview was running long.
Beth and I met in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I’d moved after grad school for a short-term job at the public radio station. I segued from there into an ongoing, but precarious, part-time gig and coupled it with teaching and freelancing. When she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the Lower 48, I felt confident the change of location could be good for my career. During our years in Massachusetts, I hosted the Saturday newscasts at a public radio station and racked up bylines—the Boston Globe, the New York Times, various NPR programs.
In the winter of 2012, Beth was offered a tenure-track faculty position at Iowa State University to start the next fall. I expected to continue freelancing and doing slightly more than half the child care once we moved. Then, the day of Beth’s defense, I had a very promising conversation with an editor. As I congratulated Beth after she passed, I whispered in her ear that there might be a job for me in Ames, too.
Iowa Public Radio hired me to cover agriculture. At 40, I’d finally walked right in the front door of a news organization—a phone interview, another in person, and then a full-time offer with salary and benefits. From day one, I had an IPR email address, business cards, and even my own office. I loved my job.
The tenure-track treadmill pleased Beth significantly less. Fast-forward to that pandemic spring. Beth had been denied tenure the year before, and her contract would end in May. The pandemic halted many faculty searches. When that interview, which stretched out to 90 minutes (Elias and I wound up loitering outside the house until it ended), led to an offer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., it triggered relief as much as excitement.
I immediately looked to see whether the local public radio station was hiring and—behold! They needed a climate reporter. Maybe the serendipity that led us to concurrent professional advancement in Iowa would follow us to California.
Or not. I did not get that job, nor so many others. In August 2020, we did everything that is involved in a long-distance move, while wearing masks and limiting interaction with others. It was as awful as you imagine. Because I didn’t have a job in California, I returned to Iowa a few weeks later, resumed work-from-home in a place that no longer smelled like our house, and kept applying for jobs.
Shortly before Christmas 2020, I finally left IPR and moved to California for good. I’d picked up enough gig work to make the move financially possible. We’d sold our house, and I was tired of pandemic isolation, which for my last weeks in Ames meant squatting in the empty house friends had bought but not yet moved into.
With rejections piling up, I asked myself how I had moved thousands of miles, three times, for someone else’s career. Journalism is inherently more flexible (and less lucrative) than scientific research, and I am unfailingly practical. Still, I felt vulnerable and weak. Somehow my professional ambition, which was more clearly defined than Beth’s when we met, was not enough to get me a job where I needed to live.
Then Beth pointed out something I had forgotten. She knew within a few years that Iowa State was not her forever job. She considered applying for others at that time, but we decided she’d pursue tenure. Partly, she wanted to see whether she would succeed. But the real decision had come down to this: I hadn’t wanted to leave my job. With that reminder, I realized Beth’s career had been influenced by my success in Iowa.
While we’d moved there for her job, we’d stayed for mine.
In September 2021, we celebrated our 20th anniversary. My work life still feels very impermanent, but my marriage does not.
Amy Mayer ’94 is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Wellesley network has been a huge source of support.
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