A grad student was commenting recently that she didn't know what to say to her advisor's wife when they met at social functions. The concept of a 'faculty wife' (stay-at-home mom with professor husband) seemed very strange and remote to the student. I sort of know what she means, and I hate it when people think I am a traditional 'faculty wife' just because my husband is a professor, but I thought the student's discomfort was a bit extreme. I had dinner with a colleague and his very traditional 'faculty wife' last week, and we had a great time talking about the things you talk about with people who aren't necessarily scientists: politics, travel, books, etc. I know that the situation is not completely analogous -- it is easier for me as an 'older person' to interact socially with colleagues and their wives than it is for the student to socialize with professorial spouses -- but the point is that 'faculty wives' are not necessarily alien beings with whom one cannot converse.
Perhaps part of the student's discomfort related to the fact that her advisor is a very private person and it was therefore disconcerting to be confronted with part of his private life. Perhaps the student feared that her advisor's spouse would start talking about what she was getting her husband for Valentine's Day, or what kind of socks he likes to wear. In an effort to convince the student that she could relate to her advisor's wife, someone told her that this particular spouse is in fact a brilliant scientist who was not given a faculty position here when her husband was hired, who spent years raising her own salary from grants and contracts, and who finally gave up and now just stays at home with the kids and does volunteer work at schools and so on. This information really shocked the student, and it occurred to me that this might make the student more rather than less uncomfortable around her advisor's wife, knowing that bit of history. But it's the truth, and I think it's best that the student knows it, whether or not it helps her find things to say when standing around the cheese tray at the next department social function.
10 months ago