When Worlds Collide: A tale of parenting and an optimistic undergraduate

I am pleased to welcome guest blogger Jess Thompson to anthropod. In this post Jess shares her experiences of being a parent and university student, adding to our conversation about carework at university.

I wouldn’t say I’m a typical young woman at the mere age of 22; I threw myself into the world of academia at 18 years old like most my age, but I’d already moved to and worked in London for five months after leaving high school. After 2 ½ years at Victoria University I got on a plane and didn’t look back, ventured to Samoa, and volunteered on a development assignment before returning to finish my final papers for my degree this year. En-route, things took a sharp turn with the arrival of my son (Moo) 8 ½ months ago. Three papers short on my Bachelors in Development and International Relations, suddenly I was faced with a situation I had not anticipated; do I work my life around my son, work my son around my life, or just throw it all away and become a full time mum?

Today, the result of finding a middle ground between the former two options exists. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I could have hoped for. Moo and I are not a nuclear family; I am a co-parent with his dad, a system in place since he was born, and as circumstances arise and Moo gets older, our situation changes as needed. I study part-time, three generations of my family occupy the house I live in, and I’ve not only returned to my volunteer role at GirlGuiding New Zealand as a Ranger Leader (girls aged between 12 ½ and 17), but also taken on an additional role of being a Training Assistant, on the pathway to becoming a Trainer for other Leaders. I live my life as I choose, and integrate Moo into it as required if he is in my care.

From an academic point of view, things have been generally speaking, relatively straight forward. I make the most of the time Moo is with his dad as study time and work care arrangements around lectures and tutorials. But if there was ever a piece of advice read here: you have to be a little crazy and whole lot of adaptable to take an intense 5 week summer paper with a two month old. I would sit at my desk and be working on assignments or catching up on readings with Moo lying next to me playing, or almost begging him to go down for a sleep so I could get an hour’s peace to get part of an essay knocked off.

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This was one method of essay writing; Moo fell asleep in his bouncinette once while I was sprawling through books trying to work on an assignment on the floor.

A lot of the time I find myself switching between my ‘mum’ headspace and my ‘student’ headspace so things can get done. To my classmates I am a regular student just like them, and it’s only when I talk to people that they realise and sit in slight astonishment that I am juggling study with raising an infant. As an undergrad and Moo being his age it is impractical to bring him to lectures meaning I am in constant reliance of my support networks to look after him. Over time, things have certainly become more manageable; I sit and write this on the couch while he eats crackers, stares at the cat, and pulls half the contents of the bottom of the DVD rack out and throws them on the floor. Needless to say he has now started working out how to move, and I spent much of my exam prep this trimester hoping he wasn’t going to learn how to crawl BEFORE my exam.

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This was Moo as I was writing this piece; he shuffled off the towel, is secretly a gymnast with legs like that, and was trying to pick up a small piece of cracker on the floor. Had also thrown his homemade drum away made out of an old formula tin.

GirlGuiding has been a part of my life for over 15 years now, and the concept of leader’s daughters in units with me has been quite normal. A lot of leaders are typically mums, however being so young means many of the young leaders I work with are usually students or full time employed, maybe with a serious partner but no kids. Suddenly I’m an anomaly; 22 years old, well experienced, young leader, facilitating/attending/presenting trainings WITH an under 5! I emphasise with here, as in the course of his life, Moo has already come to weekend trainings, is down for two school holiday sessions coming up, and I’m sure a few more in the next few years.

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I posted this photo on Facebook on the Sunday morning of my first weekend training, captioned: “There should be a blanket patch labelled ‘I survived a GirlGuide weekend as a trainer with a small child.”

Being a new trainer, plus learning the ropes with a very dependent young child makes anyone’s stress levels skyrocket. Attending a weekend training, let alone facilitating one, is another kettle of fish when it comes to having Moo coming along; sometimes I wonder who has more stuff packed in the car, him or everyone else. By the time all his clothes, port-a-cot, food, some toys, and pushchair are packed, then somehow it’s my personal bits, plus resources needed to bring along and so on to pack; there’s an entire house in a small car minus the kitchen sink and a fridge almost. (Although I’m getting really good at car tetris.) A conference I attended led me to be ‘that crazy woman pushing a pushchair up and down outside to get the baby to sleep’. Part of one weekend training involved sitting at the back of the room listening to presentations quietly, so to avoid the awkwardness of the occasional squeal or baby noise we sat at the back of the room listening while I bribed Moo with gingernuts on a blanket on the floor. That same weekend I was presenting two morning sessions; Moo was happily sitting watching me present when all of a sudden he fell down from sitting up and absolutely lost the plot while I was mid-sentence. Bringing such young children has become a rarity over time but now there are a couple of us who for one reason or another need to bring children along always/on occasion and that these other little people are a major part of our lives beyond GirlGuiding and they do need to come along and be involved in the training sphere sometimes. Bringing Moo along certainly has its challenges, but he has never hindered the ability to get things done.

Looking to the future is a hard and difficult one. My passions for a very long time have laid with the Pacific and Development, and really making a difference in the world. Once upon a time I saw myself ten years from now potentially returning to the academic sphere having ventured overseas once again and gained some real-world experience. Now as I save what I can from my benefit each week so that in the long run I can afford to buy my first home (big dreams I know, but you can’t give up on your dreams entirely) I’m faced with a future either working within the NGO sector locally for a salary less than ideal doing something I love, or adapt my skills into something else and start a career path down a different track, while committing my spare time into my passions. One day I’d love to return to the academic sphere to add to my study in a postgraduate form, but only when things are a little more stable.

Regardless of where the future is headed, there is one thing I know for sure. We cannot let children hold us back from chasing what we want to do, sometimes the better option is to let our children come along in the chase. From my perspective there’s a lot of occasions where we forget that other people have lives beyond the portion of their lives we know them from, and sometimes these intersect, and other times they are reason things do not happen immediately. Adaptability and flexibility is key, not only from a mother’s point of view but from an everybody point of view. I praise people like Lorena who have the ability to combine their interests with their children and also their professional life. As the concept of professional work changes and how it is represented, from flexi-hours to working from home, surely it is time to bring the sphere of children and where they fit in the bigger picture into it as well. What if we looked at others like real complex humans, with histories and stories untold, friendships and relationships we may not know about, and a vast array of experiences and needs; would our methods of recognising care, how we treat people, and how we go about and participate in our careers and lives differently? I certainly hope so.

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Doing the squiggly writing – a guest blog post

I am delighted to welcome guest blogger Charlotte Weston, who agreed to write this piece following my earlier post on Doing fieldwork with kids: Part I. These posts are part of an important conversation I think we need to have to make the carework many of us do more visible at university. 

I joined the world of academia at 28 years old; a full decade older than most first year university students. I had a bunch of stuff to do first, like getting married at 21, becoming a solo mother at 24, and trying my hand at lucrative careers like being a musician, a photographer, and a small business owner. When I finally made the decision to go to university it was because I wanted a career rather than a job. I no longer wanted to try and make money from my creative pursuits, and I was ready to commit to something long term. I was exhausted from years of financial insecurity and frugality as the sole-earner, child-carer, and responsibility-bearer for my little household. I wanted to knuckle down and find a more stable and defined career path.

But I had someone else to consider, and what did my son want? Me.

In an effort to balance our needs, I decided to get the education I’d always wanted rather than go back to full time work at that point. I’m working towards improving our lives long-term but in the short-term my university schedule allows me the flexibility to pick him up from school most days and do fun things together…

 Picture1Even though he’s sometimes dejected when I get to school and interrupt his play time.

 …or bring him with me, or stay home when he’s sick without having my pay docked or letting  my colleagues down. It also allows me to include him in my world on a regular basis, something which most workplaces don’t encourage or allow. I have no idea if my university has a policy regarding children on campus; I don’t want to know so I’m not going to ask!

There are such high expectations of constant productivity in the workplace and other institutions that children usually aren’t welcome in those environments: they make noise and have needs and can be unpredictable. And unless an event is specified as child or family friendly, it’s usually not. These attitudes unfortunately have the result of not only excluding children from ordinary or extraordinary experiences, but it excludes their parents as well. Particularly if, as in my case, you’re a solo parent and you just miss out if you can’t take your child with you. I don’t have the money for babysitters, nor do I have a partner to share the daily care. And everyone else misses out too: on opportunities to practice tolerance and kindness when children are disruptive, or the opportunity to meet a cool little human, or experience the genuine infectious joy when a child laughs, or the feeling of being part of a community where people of all ages are valued.

I want to see our society evolve (or return) to one where children are welcome everywhere it is safe for them to be. The only way I know how to do this is to simply ignore the unwritten rules, and take him where I want to go, including university. He’s attended a few lectures per week with me for the last year.

 Picture2Here he is plugged into the tablet during a lecture. Thank goodness I bought that
when I was still working; I had no idea it would be such an effective mute button.

 So far all of my lecturers have been happy for him to accompany me, with some making a particular effort to welcome both of us. I think my favourite moment was when he laughed out loud at what he was watching on the tablet for about 30 seconds, oblivious to the fact that the entire class could hear him, and my lecturer got the giggles. I was highly embarrassed at the time, but now when I look back on it I think it was a wonderful. In my cognitive psychology course I “encouraged” him to sit on the floor under the desk instead of on the seat as we weren’t allowed devices in the first six rows of the lecture theatre due to research into the effects of the distraction on grades. He thought it was super fun to hide under the desk.

Picture3Sometimes he gets bored at uni and does things like this. I’m OK with this. Apparently it’s good for kids to be bored. I’m not going to cite that claim because this is a blog and I don’t have to. 

 Mostly it’s been good, and he’s been good. I’m lucky that he’s old enough to behave (mostly), he sleeps well so I’m not sleep deprived (except when I procrastinate an assignment and stay up late finishing it), and he can entertain himself. As a parent and an adult student I’m motivated, and (reasonably) disciplined. I’m not doing it because it’s the natural progression from high school – that was a long time ago! Nor am I doing it because my parents think I should. I’m doing it for me. I don’t have as many hours in the week as my fellow students who don’t have children, so I have to focus harder in the hours I do have. I’ve spent most of my life as a night owl but these days I usually get up at 5am to study in the peaceful morning hours by myself before I have to get him up and ready for school.

The major downfall of studying with a young child is that I think I could get much better grades if I didn’t have the drain on my energy and time associated with parenting, and I struggle to come to terms with that. I want to do postgraduate study so I need to get good grades. Sometimes I’ve missed lectures because he’s too tired to be trusted to behave, or I just don’t have as many hours to work on assignments as much as I should. However it makes the As I do get that much more satisfying.

There’s also the social downside: I never really lived the young student lifestyle and find it hard to relate to most of the students in my class, who are mostly teenagers. I’ve made one good friend so far – another mature student. I overhear conversations about party games, and happenings in the hall of residence, and I don’t even know what they’re talking about. I feel like I can relate more to the faculty members, but I’m an undergraduate student, so there’s a divide there too.

I’m still financially vulnerable, and that makes me feel guilty and worried. I wasn’t an anxious person before I became a solo parent; now I have constant low level anxiety, and it’s almost entirely money related.

Then there was the time that my son woke up all through the night with a sore tummy, and I couldn’t send him to school but I had a test that day so I took him to university with me. This turned out to be a bad decision.

Picture4So unwell he couldn’t even sit up straight.

 This photo was taken moments before he vomited everywhere. Through the tutorial room, the hallway, and into the toilets I ushered him towards, mid-vomit, that were miraculously across the hallway (but still not close enough). I bumped into the course coordinator for my test as we left university, and asked if I could resit the test another time. She glanced at my vomit-covered child in sympathy and said “of course, go home”. I felt guilty for taking him to university with me; he needed to be home, and if it was a bug other people could have caught it.

Then there are the times when the student lifestyle has meant I’ve been strapped for cash, or too tired to cook a decent dinner, but he still requires feeding on a daily basis.

Picture5Here he is eating cheerios leftover from his birthday party while watching Netflix.
There is not a vegetable nor educational resource in sight, and certainly no nature.
The tomato sauce is in a plastic container as there were no clean dishes left.
I posted this picture on Facebook to make everyone else feel good about their parenting.

I’m too early on in my academic career to have experienced any particular requirements or expectations on my work, so my thoughts are entirely personal at this stage. I do wonder about my future career. I can’t take overseas jobs, and I imagine fieldwork or research as a mother would have added levels of difficulty, although it’s not impossible.

I’m very fortunate that I have a large support network of friends who give me practical and emotional support. I don’t think I could get through the demands of university without them. My friends are a big part of why I want to study friendships and community, and the flip side of that: loneliness and isolation. I’m particularly interested in community in non-traditional urban spaces, and how the internet changed the game. I want to look at it from the various disciplines of psychology, anthropology, geography, and sociology… so I’m doing two degrees at the same time so I can fit in as many papers as possible. I love university; I have always thrived on learning, analysing, debating, critiquing, exploring. Now I’m doing it officially. The benefits are worth the hard parts.

Picture6My friends are great but my cats are no use at all when I’m trying to revise my notes.
Yes, this is a gratuitous kitten picture.

 I asked my son’s opinion on university for this post and he said “I don’t want to give you any answers, think for yourself.” So I asked if he wants to go to university one day: he said he does, he wants to learn writing. “What kind of writing?” I asked. He said “I want to learn to do the squiggly writing.” So in conclusion, here is a picture of his notes from a lecture, compared with my notes. He’s pretty close.

Picture7I particularly enjoy the full stops at the end of each “sentence”.

Doing fieldwork with kids: Part I

Recently I started a new research project looking at the social impacts of three Sistema-inspired orchestral music education programmes operating in low decile schools in the Wellington region, where I live. El Sistema is a Venezuelan music and social development initiative that began in 1975 and is today one of the world’s largest and most famous orchestral music education programmes. Sistema-inspired programmes operate in over 60 countries and there are at least six here in New Zealand, including Auckland-based Sistema Aotearoa. My new project involves working with kids: those involved in the orchestral programmes, and my own. In this post I reflect on what it’s like to do fieldwork with my kids in tow, and in the next I’ll discuss how I plan to work with the children in these programmes.

It took me a good couple of years after finishing my PhD to start a new major research project. There were a few reasons for this. Two weeks after submitting my PhD I started working as a lecturer on a series of short-term contracts which meant constantly developing and teaching new courses. I needed to publish from my dissertation so I could secure a permanent academic position – something that is extraordinarily difficult as an adjunct, as many blogs, news articles and #quitlit posts on social media have pointed out. I had my daughter in 2012. And I needed some space to think about what I wanted to work on for the foreseeable future. In 2013 I was employed on a 3-year, part-time contract, meaning I could access university research funding not available to those on short-term contracts. This, combined with the fact that you need to be research-active with a track record of obtaining funding in order to compete for academic jobs, meant it was a good time to develop a new research project.

When I started my PhD I had not yet met my husband and children were not on my horizon, so everything and anything seemed possible. Now I had two other people to think about in deciding where, how, and what I wanted to research – in that order. I wanted to do ethnographic fieldwork in Wellington and continue my interest in development and social justice. Basing my new project in Wellington was also a practical decision: I could take my daughter with me, I wouldn’t need to be away from home for extended periods of time, and I could get started without the security of funding or a permanent job. Coming up with a feasible project was more difficult, but a serendipitous sequence of events led me to Sistema Aotearoa and eventually the charitable organisations that run Sistema-inspired orchestral music programmes in Hutt Valley and Porirua.

I was pregnant with my second child by the time I established relationships with the organisations, developed a research proposal and obtained funding, and received ethics approval to begin the research. Ethnographic fieldwork was relatively straightforward to begin with as I could take my music-loving daughter and composer/conductor/musician husband along to interviews and performances. Things became a bit tricker after our son was born last year.

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Part of my field-and-carework kit

For a start, my fieldwork kit expanded significantly from a pen, notebook, iPad and camera to include nappy bag, frontpack, and buggy as well as preschooler snacks and activities. I didn’t always have my daughter with me but my son was now a permanent attachment, meaning I relied heavily on family and research assistants for help. He still breastfeeds frequently at night and at the moment my fieldwork doesn’t extend to evening rehearsals as it is just too difficult to get away after the dinner-bath-bed routine. I do go to some evening and weekend performances, usually with one or both kids in tow, and my husband or mother-in-law (also a musician).

Combining fieldwork with carework is not easy. I no longer write notes in the field while my kids are with me, instead relying on my memory, what Simon Ottenberg terms ‘headnotes’ (in the 1990 book Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek), and my GoPro camera. I miss things when I’m breastfeeding or changing nappies or leaving the room with a screaming baby or taking a preschooler who’s had enough somewhere else to play. (I have a keen recollection of my then 3-year-old daughter standing up during the middle of a concert and loudly announcing, “That’s enough, everyone wants to go home now.”) My kids miss me when I pay attention to the person I’m interviewing or spend an afternoon at music lessons without them. I often don’t get time to write up my fieldnotes in Evernote at the end of the day, and I definitely don’t have the same amount of time or headspace available to just think.

Despite the difficulties, there are a lot of things I enjoy about combining fieldwork with carework. I like my children being able to see and participate in what I do and love watching their interest in music grow. I get a different perspective when sitting on the floor with my son. My daughter often makes interesting observations about things that I hadn’t noticed, and I value being able to discuss the musical aspects of performances with my husband and mother-in-law. I also appreciate the connections I can make with the children I’m working with, who invariably ask “whose mother are you?” upon meeting me, and also with their parents.

Doing fieldwork with children in tow is not new; a number of anthropologists and geographers have offered useful insights into how one’s children can shape the research process. Kelly Dombroski’s excellent blog post on carework in fieldwork discusses some recent publications on this topic (including her own). However I have not yet come across much work that reflects on fieldwork at home with children. Even this “Family in the Field” survey of anthropologists undertaking fieldwork with their children assumes that ‘the field’ is somewhere away from home.

Do you do ethnographic fieldwork with your kids at locations close to your home? Do you know of people who have written about this? I would love to hear of your experiences!

Version 3
At a concert with my 5 month old (note the buggy doubling as a tripod)

 

Write when the baby sleeps

I’ve just started a year-long professional development course for early career researchers* which has given me an opportunity to think about how my writing style has changed since I was working on my PhD. When I was writing my dissertation I had a fantastic writing habit and, inspired by Inger Mewburn’s tips on How to write 1000 words a day without going bat-shit crazy, was producing anywhere between 1000-2000 ‘keeper’ words (that would go directly into the thesis with minimal revision) every day. Things have changed a lot since then: I now have a wonderful, bright, inquisitive, 2-year-old and a job I love. Long gone are the days where I could dedicate all my waking hours to thesis-writing!

The biggest change for me is being a parent. In particular, being the parent of a child who doesn’t like to sleep unless it’s on or next to me. Like Ava Neyer, I read all the baby sleep books in first few months after she was born to try to figure out how to help her sleep. Nothing worked. Eventually we found our own rhythm: I wrote (or read) when the baby slept. Most days I had at least one 25-minute block (or one Pomodoro) where I couldn’t do anything except sit or lie next to my daughter while she slept, so I used this time to write, read, or plan out what I was going to work on next.

She’s getting the hang of sleeping now (we use the Wait It Out method, which works for all of us) but I still use the time just after she’s nodded off to read or think. One of my goals this year is to cultivate a daily writing habit so I can get back into the writing groove I had going as a PhD candidate. To do this, I re-read Charlotte Frost’s top 10 tips for forming good writing habits and joined the Savage Minds Writing Group for anthropologists, which has some fantastic  posts on ethnographic writing. The course I’m on will also help, as will Shut Up and Write sessions (in real life and on #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter).

I’m keen to hear how other early career academics make space for their writing. Who else does #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter? How do you juggle parenting with life as an academic?

* Dr Kathryn Sutherland studies the experiences of early career researchers and has recently published her findings: ‘Success in Academia? The experiences of early career academics in New Zealand’

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!