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. 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.

    • As my kids get older, I hope to bring them with me more often.


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