Fieldwork and Parenting

I am a parent. I am also a qualitative researcher, whose work often requires time in the field.

In my last blog post I talked a bit about the challenges of avoiding “parachute research.” In that post I discussed the importance of continual reflexivity–the process of self-reflection wherein I am constantly checking my own power and privileged as the researcher and how my “position” might influence not only my analyses, but the people with whom I interact.  It requires that I adapt my research to the needs and interests of the people with whom I am working, continually reflecting on my role in the community.

Avoiding parachute research, also requires being present. Working with communities, building relationships with people, and gaining a sense of “life on the ground” requires fieldwork.

Yet, doing fieldwork as a parent is complicated.

Some scholars have the ability to spend a year doing field work, others a few months. What do you do when your time is dictated, in part, by your role as a parent?

I can’t leave for a year. For one, my kids are school-aged. Second, I have a job that requires me to be present. So, I typically carve out  3-6 week periods during the summer months to “live” in the community. I rent rooms from local residents, stay at local B&Bs, and attend an array of events, meetings, and get-togethers.

I schedule my interviews during this time, too.

So, as I am trying to be continually reflexive, I am also thinking about my role as a parent: “I wonder how the kids are doing?” or “I can’t wait to see my kids.” Thus, my identity and role as a mother not only influences the amount of time I can carve out, but my ability to be reflexive. For me, this process of both physically and psychologically draining.

In 2015, I spent 5 weeks in Flint, returning to my then home in Silver Spring, MD only once for a week to pack up the house and move to Oxford, OH. Fortunately, I have amazing parents and in-laws who managed to care for the kids during that chaotic time.

I am currently nearing the end of another 5 week stay in Flint, Michigan. This trip has been much the same. During the week I rented a room from an amazingly supportive and caring couple living on Flint’s south side. During the days, I attend an array of events and meetings, copied documents from the Library’s city archives, and met with members of the community. In the evenings I  journal, discuss the day’s happenings over dinner with friends, or write. The next day is similar. On the weekends, however, I split my time between my house in Cleveland, where I go to do laundry and check in with my partner, and my parents’ house, where my kids are staying for the summer. When I am with my family, I feel like I am missing out on events in Flint. When I am in Flint, I feel like I am missing out on summer quality time with my kids, pets, and husband. Some days feel like a lose-lose.

On the other hand, I love my research and the people with whom I am collaborating and working. I love the people that I meet at coffee shops and at the library. I love that Flint feels like a home away from home for me. Maybe, when my kids are a bit older, I can take them with me on my trips to Flint–show them all of the places that I talk about and introduce them to friends. Maybe next year! For now, I have two more weeks of juggling fieldwork and family before we all head back to Ohio and the new academic year begins.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing how you juggle fieldwork and motherhood Dr. Nickels! As a mother and scholar, I understand and appreciate all that you have to do to maintain both identities. One way I deal with traveling for scholarly work is to bring my mom or husband with me to take care of my son when I am at a conference, workshop, etc. It usually works, but that gets expensive. I’m still trying to figure out what is best so thank you for discussing your experience.


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