Motherhood and PhD fieldwork

By Thais Bessa

I am a PhD candidate in my early-mid 30s. I started the PhD 8 years after finishing my masters and in this meantime, I worked great jobs in my field and had two kids, now 7 and almost 4. I do not fit with the statistically average PhD candidate (single, mid to late 20s, childless) and this brings additional challenges to the whole doctoral process. Needless to say, it is harder for candidates in my position to socialize and network (we can’t always “just grab a pint at 5pm”), take teaching and research assistance assignments, attend multiple conferences and training events, jump into summer research opportunities in Australia… it is all much harder, if not impossible. I get it, I made my bed and I am lying on it. It was my decision to have children “young” (I guess in developed Western societies having a first child at 26 is young!) and follow an academic career in a non-linear manner, with a somewhat big break between postgraduate degrees. So although I understand this post feels like a big rant, I am not asking for people to feel sorry for me and offer privileges and exceptions to suit my life. Especially considering that, generally speaking, academic life is a very privileged one compared to thousands of women who have much bigger struggles in their lives and careers.

When I started thinking about the issues covered this rant/post, I read a bit about academic career and motherhood. There is quite a lot of interesting material out there, from books and papers to anecdotal articles and blog posts. Regarding post-PhD academic life (post-docs, tenure-track jobs, etc), there is ample quantitative and qualitative evidence that women with children are much less likely to advance in their careers than men with children. This is all well-known and reflects wider gender inequalities in the workplace. I heard once and it is true: the job market is bad for women but is actually cruel for mothers. As generations pass and men (hopefully) get more and more involved in taking care of their children (which you will never see me applauding because well, it’s their responsibility), life/work balance becomes increasingly part of their concerns as well. Change might be happening slowly and painfully, but it is not an even playfield yet, not by a stretch. You will still struggle to see men being asked “do you have children? And if so who will take care of them?” in job interviews, be it in academia or any field. In an article full of advice on how to deal with having kids and pursuing an academic career, a male professor said in hindsight he was an absent father because he loved his job so much, but kids survive even if they are ignored. Setting aside the debatable parenting standard promoted, it never occurred to him that he was only able to ignore his kids because there was certainly a woman doing his fair share of parenting so he could excel in that job he loves so much. This type of discourse, even disguised as useful advice, continues to perpetuate gender inequality so that unfortunately reconciling parenting and career is an issue that still affects women immensely more. Hence why the title of this post is “Motherhood and PhD fieldwork”, not “Parenting and PhD fieldwork”.

When tackling the issue of motherhood and a career in academia or elsewhere, there is a strong discourse about women being empowered and able to have and do it all. However, I am increasingly cynical about that. Today I read an article that recommended educating new generations of women so they believe they can have it all. First, this type of discourse is directed at women, subtly reinforcing the idea that it is their problem only and taking care of children is their responsibility. But foremost, this emphasis on “educating”, “informing” and “raising awareness” (I worked in the development sector, so I know how these buzzwords are thrown around willy-nilly), can actually make us feel more disempowered. I read this type of speech and one or two success stories of big executives and top academics who indeed seem to have it all and I feel not only inadequate but powerless. Knowing your “rights” and possibilities whilst everything around you and structural barriers remain the same is just frustrating. I call it “informed powerlessness”.

Because although this type of discourse sounds amazing in theory, when it is time to implement, it is utter bulshit. Take the example of fieldwork, a crucial part of most PhD projects in almost every single field. When I first wrote my PhD proposal and shared it with a few professors from my masters, they were very receptive and gave me great feedback. But one thing I heard from one (male, single, childless) professor stuck to my mind. He said the project was great, but my methods were not the best and he said my research would be much stronger and “non-extractive” if instead of interviewing people I did an ethnographic fieldwork, living, observing, and interacting with research subjects in a more natural manner for several months. That hit me hard and I almost gave up on pursuing a PhD as it would be impossible for me as a mother to go live somewhere else alone for several months. But after a lot of reflection and comforting words from awesome colleagues, I realized that 1) I am not an anthropologist, 2) I am not convinced that long ethnographic fieldwork renders “more accurate” data (I find it extremely presumptuous to think that after living with “research subjects” for 6 or 12 months one becomes “one of them” and is given truer information). However, there is another issue there and one that involves important issues of gender, class, and physical ability. For that professor, doing extended ethnographic fieldwork is not only his methodological choice, but also a possibility. But it is not a possibility for people in different circumstances: people who lack the financial resources (grants don’t normally pay the bills back home whilst one lives somewhere else), who have small children, who need to care for older relatives, who have disabilities etc etc etc.

Even when extended ethnographic fieldwork is out of the picture, fieldwork still takes time, not just the preparation of logistics, but the actual fieldwork (be it consulting archives, doing interviews and surveys, collecting samples, etc.) For mothers, being away from home for extended periods of time is hard or impossible for many reasons. This brings great anxiety about whether our research is going to be valuable or scientifically sound. Most advice for mothers to reconcile fieldwork and children call for the importance of having support from your partner and family. Of course this is important but when one does not have extended family nearby and have a partner who is not a fellow academic or who does not have a flexible job, it is hard. Although my partner is supportive and does his fair share of parenting as he should, he also works in a gruesome private sector field where 70 hours workweeks are a rule, working from home impossible and 10 days of annual leave are considered a luxury. So even with the best intentions and efforts, it is virtually impossible that I go away for weeks or months and dump my own fair share of parenting on him.

Some interesting articles about motherhood and fieldwork present a seemly great solution to this dilemma: take the children to fieldwork! Cue beautiful and wholesome stories about adaptability, overcoming struggles and the kids actually having fun and learning so much in the process! However, this is not always possible. These stories make the caveat that the presence of kids make fieldwork slower and longer, but the issue of costs is mysteriously ignored. Which funder pays for the children’s costs? Will funding be available for this longer fieldwork? What about childcare costs, sometimes in a foreign country? I also imagine the ethical issues that having children present in fieldwork must raise. My process to obtain ethical approval was excruciating in itself and I cannot imagine the response I would have received if I had mentioned in the Risks Section “by the way, my small children will accompany me to conflict zones and refugee camps”. I can practically hear the members of the ethical committee having a stroke.

Taking kids to fieldwork also depends on the location of fieldwork, the field of research and the age of the children. Taking kids to Geneva (or even remote villages in developing countries if one is more adventurous) is feasible with the adequate planning and if support is available. But it is unnecessary to explain why taking children to a conflict zone is not feasible at all. Most examples I have seen of mothers successfully bringing their children to fieldwork were in the field of natural sciences. Fieldwork is always difficult and demanding, but I imagine it is easier to have children around when one is observing ecosystems or collecting geological samples, instead of interviewing women about sexual violence. Kids can fit around some type of fieldwork, but in some cases the only option is to hire out childcare, which once again raises issues of cost and might be difficult in certain settings. Finally, these same success stories often include small children in pre-school age who have much more flexible schedules. Once children hit school age it becomes harder to remove them from their habitual life (unless one decides to homeschool on the road, which I am not capable of doing whilst also pursuing a PhD).

These difficulties unfortunately might mean yet another glass ceiling: in practice, the type of topics, research questions, methods and case studies a PhD candidate can pursue becomes constrained not by their hypotheses and intellectual ambitions, but by what they can actually do given their current situation. Fieldwork is an integral part of the PhD process in a way or another in most fields. However, the special circumstances of people are rarely considered and addressed by Universities. In this post, I raised issues related to motherhood, but I am sure there are many other special circumstances that make preparing and conducting fieldwork a difficult balance between the best option scientifically and what is feasible given people’s multiple roles in life.

2 thoughts on “Motherhood and PhD fieldwork

  1. Hi Thais,

    I agree that there is not enough support for mothers conducting fieldwork … and that the issue is not nearly enough acknowledged in academic circles. That being said, my personal experience of conducting PhD fieldwork as a mother has been very positive. I took my daughter (who was seven at the time) to a “post-conflict” country (Lebanon) where I was interviewing former militia members. My daughter attended most of my interviews. I have actually just written a piece on the topic which will be published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics very soon (the online version should be out by the end of this month or in June at the very latest) – might be of interest to you!

    All the best,
    Jennifer

    Like

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you for your comment. I would love to read your article when it is published. If you don’t mind answering, how long were you there with her and how did you manage her school? Also, what did your ethics committee think of her being present?

    Thanks,

    Thais

    Like

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