Field Prep: Protocol, Passport, & Baby ?

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.

12 thoughts on “Field Prep: Protocol, Passport, & Baby ?

  1. As a father of one (and in a few weeks, two), I warmly recommend having children to all who suffer from procrastination.

    I can also recommend taking your family with you to the field. I collected data for my master’s thesis this summer, and having my wife and child with me. Even with 10-12 h workdays in the forest surveying vegetation, it almost felt like camping. And if it’s not possible to stay at a field station, accommodation is often WAY cheaper with a big room/cabin divided for lots of people, so you might as well take your friends on a little vacation. (Also: friends make cheap field assistants).

    • It sounds like a wonderful start.

      I couldn’t be a field biologist without having an incredibly supportive spouse, who has been flexible enough to do full-time childcare (plus camps, grandparents, the village) while I’ve been away in the field. She’s not a field biologist, and has a full-time job that matters to her as much as mine does to me, so this isn’t easy for any of us.

  2. Lovely, thanks for sharing. I have just returned from field work with my husband (non-academic), our five-year-old and two-year-old. There definitely was some compromise in intellectual rigor, but it was worth it and the kids had an amazing time! I think you really hit the nail on the head with your sentence about ‘deciding to become a field researcher at 22 years old’ — I love what I do and I wouldn’t change a thing, but, man, were my priorities different when I was 22!

  3. “work and family find a way to coexist” Yes, exactly, even if it isn’t the way you imagined when you were 22 (or even, in my case. 42 when i had a total change of lifestyle). Your kids are going to have an amazing upbringing!!!!! d.

  4. It is so great to hear your story of navigating being an “outdoor” biologist, mother, and spouse to another scientist and how you are trying to make it all work, even if there are no easy solutions. As a graduate student married to a more “indoor” biologist, I have the next two years of amazingly remote field seasons before we plan on starting a family. I hope they are not my last hurrah, but I am certainly branching out my skill set to other analytical, indoor techniques that are possible during late-stage pregnancy and breast-feeding. It’s wonderful to hear about how other readers have figured out how to do field research and have a family (even bring the two together), and I hope to join them some day. Having a supportive spouse/partner/family is crucial!

  5. I think it is better to take your children to field whenever it is possible! I have done my Ph.D. field work with a toddler in a Tiger Reserve with we two spent more than a year. It took some extra time to do the work but I did it! Now we are in field again for the past 8 months traveling and setting up research projects in various parts of India with a 13 year old and 8 year old! This time though I am not alone as a parent! My husband I together are sharing the parenting job! Kids learn a lot and experience they gather through the exposure is incredible! I have to be back again in field without the kids for 6 weeks or so and wondering how I would manage because I find long separation from kids do make me productive for a short period but make me unproductive in the middle somewhere of a long period! I guess dilemma of a mother whether to do research with or without your kids is one of the toughest one… Recently a friend of mine took her one year old to field in the Trans Himalayas for a year. She and I exchanged emails for more than year since she conceived about her decision of doing field work and becoming mother. There is so little support network for women researchers in this issue.

  6. Maybe this is another ‘upside’ to being women in science, this discussion about how to negotiate and support each other with ‘away from home’ work of any type; it is ‘permitted’ by society for us to be open about missing our families and finding ways around the problems. Maybe many men miss their families and kids too, when they are in the field or somewhere else, but maybe society has expected them to ‘man up’ and not show emotions in the pretence of being strong (the Anglo stiff upper lip). Maybe if we find alternative ways to manage families and ‘away’ work, it will help men in the field to cope and discuss these issues and maybe involve the kids more, too. Win-win-win????? Just maybe; just hopefully.

    Well done for discussing these things openly, and thanks to the bloggers on TSW for allowing such discussions.


    • Absolutely! One of the things I’ve found really encouraging is that when talking about the kinds of institutional changes that could be made to get and keep women in science, men have spoken up in support because it sounds like something that would make _their_ lives better!

  7. Pingback: In Praise of Boring, Local Field Sites | Dynamic Ecology

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