Parenting, AAA 2013, and being an anthropologist

Last month I went to the AAA 2013 meeting in Chicago. This was the first time I’d attended an international conference with my family in tow (20-month-old toddler and amazing husband). My husband looked after our daughter during the day but her presence gave me the opportunity to reflect on how being a parent of a young child has changed my experience of conferences, and possibly my future research directions.

I had a great time at the AAA 2013 and live-tweeted from about half of the panels I attended. I didn’t enjoy all of the papers I heard (mainly because I find it boring to listen to people reading articles or excerpts of thesis chapters – there’s an art to this and not everyone has mastered it) but I did appreciate the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers and meet people doing interesting and exciting research.

One of the first things I noticed was the number of children aged three or under with caregivers (mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles) at the conference. I’m sure this is due to my heightened sensitivity as a first-time parent but it was great to see toddlers playing on stairs, younger babies in frontpacks, and kids sleeping or just taking it all in from the vantage point of a stroller while their parents gave presentations. What I didn’t see, though, was a parent’s room at the conference venue. Was there one? Could there be in future? What did anthro-parents with toddlers do at changing and feeding times if they didn’t stay at one of the conference hotels (like we did)?

Networking was also a different experience this time around. The 19-hour time difference between Wellington (NZ) and Chicago meant my daughter had a hard time settling, which ruled out any evening social events for me. However, explaining why I wasn’t going to be at a dinner did open up a space for people to talk about their own kids and how they handled going to conferences when their children were young. Plus I got to meet some lovely caregivers looking after toddlers whose parents (usually mothers) were giving presentations, people I would not have felt confident introducing myself to at previous meetings.

I noticed a divide in opinion about whether or not I would continue fieldwork in Papua New Guinea now that I’m a parent. This is something I have been thinking seriously about as I start to develop a new research project addressing vulnerable urban spaces in India and PNG. While no-one questions that I will continue to work in India, PNG is a different story (mainly due to reports of crime, security, and violence). Attending the AAA was good for meeting other anthropologists working in Melanesia and discussing the issues involved in taking children/family on fieldwork trips to PNG. Back at home I’ve continued these conversations with other anthropologists. I would love (and plan) to continue to work in PNG but being a mum is likely to shape future research directions.

I’m curious to hear from others about whether/how being a parent affects your future research plans. Have you done fieldwork with family in tow? Left them behind? Decided against a fieldsite due to safety concerns? I would love to hear about your experiences!

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8 thoughts on “Parenting, AAA 2013, and being an anthropologist

  1. When I was finishing my dissertation research, I took my then 15 month old with me. He was at every interview. I had a long relationship established with my participants to the point that some of the women would have been offended if I hadn’t brought my son. It certainly changed the timing of the interviews. Often, I had to wait until he had exhausted himself and napped on a couch or a bed to get to work. Notes were typed up after he fell asleep for the night. I know that once I had children, it changed how I thought about future fieldwork — having worked with refugees and trafficked individuals up until that point, I suddenly began to think about the potential dangers as being more tangible then previously.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have a couple of friends who also did fieldwork with toddlers (one in China, the other in Fiji) and it sounds challenging in terms of getting the work done, but rewarding in terms of the relationships you mention. Do you think you will change your fieldwork topic in future?

  2. I have been planning to go to the next AAG with my youngest, now a baby. I read on the website last week that they provide reimbursements for babysitters while at the conference, and also a ‘spouse registration’ so you can eat together and attend papers. I would prefer parents rooms than unknown baby sitters. But I am still impressed that they are actually planning for children to be there.

    With regards to fieldwork, I assume I am the friend you mention above 🙂 I just couldn’t comprehend going without my baby and I had already agreed to the project beforehand so I sort of just did it. Ethnography is a good method for using with children. And my fieldwork notes were pretty random and not up to scratch really. I had to go back later when my daughter was older and do some proper interviews. But the expansions in my thinking and the new ideas I had to confront in my research (including thinking about embodiment as a mother and so on) were absolutely mind-blowing. My thesis would have been much less cutting edge in that area if I had not had kids during the process.

  3. Hi, I just found your blog!! I had two kids while doing a PhD. Definitely changes lots of things about research/writing etc. My eldest spent the first year of her life in a Port Moresby settlement. I have also taken my children to guest lectures, given a lecture while my second daughter crawled around the place :). I thought I would never complete my PhD but I did eventually :). I am from PNG so I guess it makes a difference in terms of future fieldwork direction. I hope we can share stories about urban png research sometime.

    1. Hi Fiona, thanks for your comments! Yes it definitely changes fieldwork, I’m pregnant with my second and having to plan fieldwork I can physically do while pregnant and with a newborn. I’d love to read your work on urban PNG too.

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