Fieldwork with Three Children

At annual meeting, anthropologists discuss mothering in, and of, the field.
November 25, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – When L. Kaifa Roland brought her then 9-month-old child to a (successful) interview at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she alternated between her professional, interview-appropriate voice and -- she pitched her voice up, "Oh, honey" -- a more motherly tone.

“When I am somewhere, my daughter’s going to be there. If she’s not welcome, I won’t be there,” said Roland, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boulder. “I don’t know if I should consider that the Sarah Palin model…” she joked.

Roland spoke last week at an inter-generational panel on mothering, anthropology and fieldwork, held at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, which ended Sunday, in a tiny but crowded room. "I think it's somewhat telling that we're all packed in this tiny little room because there mustn't be mothers who are anthropologists here," the session chair, Colleen M. Scanlan Lyons said. “My experiences in anthropology and mothering were concurrent,” said Scanlan Lyons, a doctoral candidate at Boulder who deferred graduate school a semester when she learned she was pregnant.

Posing what was, for her, anything but a rhetorical question, Scanlan Lyons framed the panel's discussion by asking, “How do you plan field work in Brazil with three children and a husband with a U.S.-based career who, when he asked for a sabbatical, got the reply, ‘We don't really do that here’?”

“How do we mix our passion for anthropology, which is rooted in fieldwork, and our passion for parenting, which is often rooted in schedules and routines and a sense of normalcy?”

Donna Goldstein, an associate professor at Boulder, described two extended field trips with children – the most recent being a venture to Buenos Aires this summer with her daughter and partner, a linguistic anthropologist. “I got off the plane in Buenos Aires, [my daughter] had thrown up on me three or four times before we landed. I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting trip.’ ”

But, Goldstein said, relying in part on some excellent contacts for childcare, “I managed to get done the things I wanted to get done…. There’s a mathematical equation you need to do with fieldwork with children: Six weeks with children is equal to three weeks alone and use a multiplier for how many children you have.”

“The good thing is I knew not to skimp over things that would make everyone happy,” she said – including plenty of trips to museums, parks and zoos.

Meanwhile, Alma Gottlieb, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described how it was unexpectedly easier to bring her son to an African fieldwork site at age 5 than her daughter to Portugal at 11. For adolescents (or pre-adolescents) who lack fluency in a particular language, “a lot of problematic things can happen when you’re inserted in a school system," said Gottlieb.

Panelists described work-balance issues in shifting to U.S.-based field sites -- where, depending on how close they are to home, anthropologists might always feel "on call," so to speak. Panelists also discussed condensing field work abroad into shorter spurts, although Scanlan Lyons acknowledged the problems that can arise -- both practically speaking (research takes much longer, and requires more trips), and academically speaking (she described having left her site just when she felt she was getting really deep).

As the cornerstone of anthropology as a discipline, fieldwork, she continued, is not something to be tinkered with cavalierly.

In response to many comments about barriers to mothering in anthropology, one audience member pointed out the advantages of academic life for parenting. “It is more flexible. You can be doing major work at midnight,” she said, adding that arranging one’s schedule to pick children up from school is “doable,” whereas in other fields it may not be. Plus, she said of her own fieldwork in rural Bolivia, “To be a woman with a child [there] is normal. To be a woman without a child is to be immature and strange and not normal.”

“There were places I never could have gone if my daughters hadn’t gone there first, if they hadn’t wandered into X house where people had been kind of cold to me,” the audience member said.

While children can break through certain barriers abroad, in the academy back home other barriers can abound. In her talk, Boulder's Carole McGranahan cited data from Mary Ann Mason, of the University of California at Berkeley, finding that women who have babies within five years of receiving a Ph.D. are 20 percent less likely to receive tenure in the humanities and social sciences than men with “early babies," who are actually more likely to achieve tenure than others.

The session's title -- "Mothering (in) the Field" suggested a focus on parenting and individual fieldwork, and, more broadly, a need to parent the entire field of anthropology on these matters. Panelists focused on a need for the "buffering" of female faculty within the academy. Laura M. DeLuca, an adjunct at Boulder, called for attention not only to women on the tenure track, but to those in adjunct faculty positions as well.

Threaded throughout the panel discussion were references to ties between the women who spoke, professors to students, and advisers to advisee – the lineages “a source of great joy for us,” said Mary Moran, a professor at Colgate University. Moran recalled starting graduate school at Brown University in fall 1979 and meeting Louise Lamphere, a panelist and now professor at the University of New Mexico (who’s been in the news of late for donating $1 million for a visiting assistant professorship at Brown, 32 years after filing a landmark sexual discrimination suit against her former employer).

The first thing Moran noticed was that Lamphere was pregnant. Said Moran, who completed her undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke College, “I had never seen a pregnant professor.”


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