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Family and the Field


Over the weekend I submitted a grant proposal, wrote a quippy tweet, and read a paper.


The paper was Dr. Christopher Lynn’s ‘Family and the field: Expectations of a field- based research career affect researcher family planning decisions’, published last month in PLoS ONE. (The banner image above is a path analysis of family-career balance and perceived stress among professionals — a figure that somehow perfectly captures my stress levels and the disaster-state of my desk.)


The tweet was:

The grant was a proposal to do more field work away from my family.


Though Dr. Lynn and his coauthors were focused on anthropology fieldwork, I found myself nodding along emphatically at each response to their survey of anthropologists. Ecology, like anthropology, has a long tradition of field-based careers, and high proportions of women in undergraduate and graduate programs which are not reflected in the gender breakdown of later career stages (though see this Dynamic Ecology post on recent tenure track hires). Even as I’ve openly tweeted and blogged about it — you know my older kid is funny, you know I have a new baby — I’ve been reluctant to share much of my deeper experience as a parent in ecology. The gritty details are full of the tensions that Lynn captures in his paper. I’m nervous about how parenthood will impact my quest for a tenure track job, but I want to normalize academic parenthood for the students behind me. I want credit for the hard work that I’ve put into carving out this balance, but I know my experience is grounded in the intersections of incredible privilege. At breakfast on Friday, while I enjoyed a latte served in a beer stein and my baby napped in the stroller and my partner covered our toddler’s preschool drop off, I told a friend that I didn’t know how to write this post. “So you want to have a baby in grad school? Just get an NSF grant that doesn’t exist anymore, then have a healthy infant who sleeps through the night, and have your partner use their paid parental leave to uproot their life and come into the field with you.” It’s disingenuous to package my experience as pithy advice. But Lynn’s paper provides a framework for talking about parenthood and fieldwork in an honest and meaningful way.


The prominence of fieldwork in careers like anthropology and ecology reinforces stereotypes of lone practitioners who can afford to drop everything at home to spend weeks at a remote site totally immersed in gathering data. Lynn and his coauthors explain that this expectation “systematically overlooks the significant social and financial responsibilities experienced by many professionals and trainees, including dependent family members (children, elderly parents, etc.), and household expenses (rent, car payments, student loan bills, tuition, credit card bills), and may act to systematically privilege those without these pressures. Lynn surveyed nearly one thousand anthropologists to explore the relationships between fieldwork and family. My own experiences as an ecologist and mom mirrored so much of the results reported in this paper. Lynn’s work clearly identifies the privileges that enable parents like me to balance fieldwork and family — here, I reflect on how the anecdotes of my life align with the survey of anthropologists.


The responses to Lynn’s survey were nearly evenly split between professionals and students; most identified as women (80%), and white (82%). Aside from my field, my background fits the profile of the typical anthropologist who filled out Lynn’s online survey. I’m a white woman, I’m married (like 72.5% of professional respondents) with 1+ children (67%), I was raised in and I live in North America (82.6%; 80.9%). I’m from an educationally privileged, high-status family; in other words, my parents both went to graduate school and I married a lawyer.


“Regardless of gender or career stage, the majority of those with children (56%) indicated that parenthood did not impact their decision to pursue a career in anthropology.”


I think I fall into the 44%; I realized early on in parental leave that I was not cut out to be a stay-at-home parent. This was not a surprise — I had very much planned on finishing my PhD — but, I did not expect to miss science so much. The weeks that I spent at home with my first child — those long, monotonous, and lonely weeks — solidly reinforced my decision to pursue a career in ecology. Having kids also made me more hopeful, and more committed to applied conservation research so that I might contribute something towards improving the state of the world they would inherit.


“Women were less likely to have conducted field-based research since having a child. When they did, women were dependent on support from their parents more than their male peers were…who were more dependent on spousal support…Support from family and academic peers has a significant impact on individual abilities to conduct extended stretches of fieldwork, the places where fieldwork can be conducted (safety, distance, etc.), and possibly the quality of the work that can be conducted, which echoes findings on family-career balance in academia in general.”


As a PhD student, I spent six field seasons in Acadia National Park; I was pregnant during my fifth and my daughter joined me for my sixth. The next year, when she was almost two and no longer nursing, I left her behind for a two-week field course and then a two-month trip to my postdoc home campus, which included a week of fieldwork. When she was two and a half, I left her again for a week of fieldwork; her sister came with me though, because I was 11 weeks pregnant. Except for my most recent week of field work (Baxter), my postpartum fieldwork is based in a cushy tourist town (Bar Harbor). I’ve had decent cell phone service and ice cream shops with bougie flavors like blueberry sour cream crumble and Maine sea salt caramel. I started working in Acadia before I had kids — in fact compared to the rest of my lab, my field site was wild and remote — but the location of my dissertation work definitely made it easier to consider having kids while I was in graduate school.


“Women and men used a variety of resources for childcare while in the field, though men tended to rely exclusively on a co-parent or combination of childcare options, whereas women more often utilized grandparents and non-relatives (p = .01). The majority of those who had taken their kids to the field reported it as a good experience for the children (87%), though half (51%) also reported that it made fieldwork more difficult.”


My childcare while in the field spanned the gamut — my mom, my husband, a college kid that once upon a time had been my camper at summer camp when I was soccer counselor. We pieced together twelve weeks of childcare for my last dissertation field season in an effort that felt both shoestring and super-privileged. I think it was a good experience for my eight-month-old, mostly because it extended her breastfeeding and she loved eating. Among the challenges that I faced during my dissertation fieldwork, having my kid with me ranked well below a government shutdown closing my National Park, a government sequester closing access roads to my field site, and a controlled burn burning my control plots. I found being pregnant in the field more difficult than being a mom in the field: the heartburn, the achy ligaments, and the visibility were tough. As a mom in the field I carried my kid in a backpack a few times, but mostly I was out there on my own and it was refreshing to get away from the unfamiliar challenges of parenthood (where I often felt totally inept) and jump into the familiar challenges of fieldwork (where I often felt like my most capable self). When you are pregnant, it is much harder to compartmentalize fieldwork and family — you can’t leave the pregnancy symptoms at home.


“Having a partner who is also in academia significantly increases stress, as do negative employment status and, curiously, planning not or being unsure about future children. Among students, being white was significantly associated with a positive sense of family-career balance, as was positive employment status. There was a significant relationship between a low career impact on family planning and a positive sense of family-career balance.”


I don’t know if have a partner outside of academia has significantly decreased my stress. However, I do not find it curious that uncertainty about future children increases stress; in retrospect, I think I was more stressed in the years that we were thinking about kids, or trying to have a kid, than I am now with two children. It’s a huge decision to grow your family — and once you decide, you have so little control over the process. Trying to conceive while attending endless women-in-science panels full of audience questions about disapproving advisors and maternity gaps in CVs is a very unsettling experience. Finally, if I were confident that my decision to have children “early” had a low impact on my career, then I think I would have an extremely positive view of my family-career balance. The truth is, as a postdoc, I don’t yet know the impact on my career trajectory though I think that it’s worth noting the irony in my experience this summer when I was considered both early career and just months shy of being a geriatric prenatal patient. My self-assessed family-career balance is this: I’m too tired to think that I’m doing a bad job. If I am this tired, I must be getting sh*t done.


“Family planning decisions of women were significantly more likely to be affected by concerns with conducting fieldwork, getting tenure, impacts on promotion, preconceived notions of peers, and disappointing their advisors than in men.”


Step One: Paid parental leave for everyone.

I started thinking about this post after my tweet about post-bedtime grant writing went science-twitter-viral. A Syracuse PhD candidate replied “Your ‘Dr. Mom’ tweets keep me going.” The forward-facing social media projection of my ‘Dr. Mom’ life is built on a scaffolding of duct tape, socioeconomic privilege, and falling asleep as soon as the toddler is at preschool. There’s also the luck of landing at the right university (with paid parental leave for graduate students) and the right postdoc fellowship (the orientation featured a powerpoint of all the babies born to fellows during their time in the fellowship). I wasn’t specifically looking for family-friendly programs during my applications, but the visible examples of successful parents in my field allayed (most of) my fears about having one child, and then having a second. The ‘Dr. Mom’ tweets are a part of this visibility, but they also obscure the daily grind of parenthood and the many, many toddler conversations that are way more frustrating and way less quotable. I’ve had every advantage in this game from socioeconomic status to health to living near extended family and it’s still scrape-me-off-the-floor-at-the-end-of-the-day hard. Lynn’s research on expectations of a field-based career provides this framework for parents like me to contextualize our experiences, recognize our privileges, and then work to make our fields more inclusive for all parents, professionals, and trainees.


One last note: this is only the first paper from Lynn’s survey. I’m excited to see where this research goes as they “explore the role of ethnicity, status of first-generation college students in accessing an anthropological career, and how anthropology fares in supporting breastfeeding and maternal and paternal leave, among other workplace issues.”

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