In mid-2011, I learned that I had received a rather prestigious fellowship for field research. At the same time, my husband and I were in the midst of discussing when we should start a family. He is an academic too, and we were well aware of the old adage that “there is no good time to have a baby.” So we decided to start having the conversation. Considering his timeline and my tenure-track timeline, we decided that the summer of 2011 might be a good time to start trying to conceive.
Because you see, that it is the thing about being an academic woman on the tenure-track – you are constantly planning 3 or 4 concurrent major life and/or professional decisions. Big fellowship (check!), Baby (maybe?) Will we have trouble conceiving? Is this a good time to stop the tenure clock? What about finances? Can I delay the projects? Maybe I won’t have to…can baby come?
I finished up the academic year, packed my bags, and headed off to begin a multi-year study. The first field season was chugging along, data were being collected, and new friendships were being forged.
I brought one pregnancy test with me and I took it. It was positive. And then I took 14 more (purchased abroad), and they were all positive. After all these years, I was pregnant on the first try. So we were having a baby, and I had just begun a new project.
I finished the field season, and I came home to a wonderfully happy hubby and dozens of questions about how we were going to manage this change in our lives. The thing about being a field researcher is that you have to be able to go to the field – often. Could I be one of those researchers who straps her baby on her back, and heads out into the field? My field site is not entirely safe, but everyone has babies there – so we should be able to manage this, right??
Our son was born in May 2012, and I postponed my next round of fieldwork until 2013. I hoped that by July 2013, I would have all the answers to these questions – that I would have successfully navigated caring for my child and getting work done. My tight research timeline and the prohibitive costs of airline tickets and a passport for the baby meant that I would travel alone this field season.
What I didn’t anticipate is that you are never quite sure of what you are doing as a parent, particularly with your first child. What I didn’t understand was that no matter how much I love my job (and I do love my job), I would value time with my child just a bit more. I didn’t realize that leaving him (albeit in the very capable hands of my husband) would make me blubber and cry in the airport, heart completely broken. All of the clichés of parenthood suddenly hit home, and for 4 weeks I wondered whether data collection was worth our separation.
Was it worth it for me to only see my 14-month old son via Skype? Would he know that I was coming back? Could we go back to our old loving routines? What milestones would I miss?
One thing about academic life and parenthood that has proven true for me is that I am far more productive since I had my son. Gone are the days where I can ruminate over a cup of coffee and my notes for 3 hours before starting to write. This increased efficiency means that this 4-week stint in the field was the most intense and productive that I have ever completed. It was also the most emotionally challenging time away that I have ever experienced. When I decided to become a field researcher at 22 years old, I did not anticipate that 11 years later I would struggle to find the emotional fortitude to leave my family.
My son thrived while I was away. He spent long days and nights with his father; he played and enjoyed his summer. He enjoyed visits from grandparents. And upon my return, he was thrilled to see me. Thankfully, we quickly found our way back to our sweet dynamic. And I successfully finished this research project.
Was it worth it? In a word – Absolutely. Would I do it again? Probably not.
My husband and I are now considering the next 3-4 concurrent professional and personal life decisions. They now involve alternating summers at each other’s field sites, and bringing the family along. A long time ago, I would have thought this would signal a compromise in intellectual rigor. I now recognize this as a sign of a wholly actualized life – where work and family find a way to coexist.