On doing fieldwork with a toddler

As I am home with my family in social isolation for an undetermined period of time to avoid catching/spreading the coronavirus, it seems like a great opportunity to recall my time out in the world. In fact, I have been planning to write this post for a while, but just could not find the time. As conferences have been cancelled and a big project I have been working on is stalled, it seems like an opportunity to catch up with delayed tasks of all kinds.

Just before Christmas I came back from a two-months fieldwork in Timor-Leste, with my two-year old daughter and my amazing mom. I feel the need to share this experience for various reasons. For starters, I don’t think most people (apart from mothers) acknowledge how motherhood changes a woman’s life and how much harder it gets to invest in our careers. Before having a baby, I imagined how this would be, but living it does not compare to the scenarios I had in mind (always more optimistic about my supposed ability to magically multiply time). While the joy of having a child is also hard to describe in its fullest expression, as a researcher I feel that, at the end of the day, when I have to compete for a grant what counts is the number of publications I have and not my ability to manage the first years of my child and all the rest that was already there filling my agenda. The whole system does not really care about this, because it is designed from a masculine perspective.

At the same time, I can’t avoid but asking what is really going to have more impact in the world: my work as an academic or the way that I raise my child. In my view, the way we raise a child has a social impact that goes beyond any academic study, which makes it one of the most important yet underestimated jobs in the world. A job that is only partly economically recognised through a limited period of paid maternity leave, which varies considerably across countries and between theory and practice (see the case of OECD countries here and here).

As I was thinking of this post, I did a quick search online and found some interesting websites discussing precisely doing fieldwork with kids and family (a great resource is https://akidemiclife.com/. See also https://throwntogetherness.com/2019/06/24/care-work-on-fieldwork-2/). Ironically, before my latest fieldwork I just had no time to even think of this simple kind of search. I had recently come from a six-months period away with my then one-year old daughter in the UK, as a visiting researcher. While not a fieldwork, it was also very intense. My mom was with us for half the time, my husband for one month and the last two months were absolutely the most exhausting time of my life so far, as I had to manage it all by myself. While my daughter was at the nursery half of the day, it was in fact too little time to manage it all in a way to keep healthy and have any kind of rest. Somehow I managed to be productive, but I was also constantly sick due to lack of sleep and stress.

By the time I went to Timor-Leste (for the first time ever), I had just recovered from the previous trip and finally got back to a routine. Then there I was, leaving again, in what turned out to be the longest trip I made so far — while carrying a toddler. I did not know anyone there and found it hard to organise some basic things such as renting a house, before getting there. I got a few contacts and spoke to this Brazilian couple with two kids who had been living in Dili for a few years to ask about basic things, such as healthcare for children, access to medicine, malaria, etc. It helped a lot to put my mind at rest and be more confident about bringing my daughter along.


Arrival area in Nicolau Lobato airport, Dili
Arriving in Dili, at Nicolau Lobato airport.

The trip was incredibly long. I left from Brazil, got a 14 hours flight to Dubai, then another 9 hours flight to Bali, then another 2 hours flight to Dili. To make it easier, especially considering the 12 hours jet leg, I spent 1-2 nights in each stop to recover and get my daughter to slowly adapt (but that was of course more costly). Thankfully, my daughter was amazing and gave me no hard time during the whole trip. She further enjoyed her whole stay in Dili and the company of her grandmother.

Looking backwards, I would like to reflect on the following factors regarding this fieldwork.

Firstly, preparation was key. By this I mean not only getting in touch with people who lived there, booking hotels, insurance, etc., but preparing for what I could not organise in advance, that is, mentally preparing for the unknown. I think this is important in any type of fieldwork, but particularly so when you are carrying a toddler along to a place where you have never been before and which is incredibly far from home. In my case this entailed accepting the fact that there were important things that I would only be able to sort out once there, including: finding a house to stay for the remaining of the period, creating a support network so my daughter could have a social life during this period, organising the practicalities of the fieldwork (in my experience I found that in some places it is just not possible to organise activities beforehand). Given the massive financial investment that I was putting into this, I had to find a way not be stressed out with the fact that I had very little control on the basic aspects that would make the trip worthy and successful in terms of my research and still trust that it would all go well.

Secondly, having support is imperative. In my case support came in many forms. While not being able to join us, my husband was supportive of the whole enterprise, even though it was very hard for him to stay away from us (yet again). My mother was crucial as I would have not been able to think of the trip have I had to go alone (with or even without my daughter). Once in Dili I was blessed to find out that two dear friends anthropologists who have been studying Timor-Leste for years were there— they were supposed to be back to Brazil by then, but had the opportunity to extend their stay, which made a huge difference in my whole fieldwork. In time we also met other people living there who became friends and supported us in different ways. I could not be more thankful to these people for making our stay there so much easier and joyful.

A whole (and very hot) day sorting out our visa renewal. Me, Nina, Bemvindo (helping us out with translations to tetun), and my mother.

Thirdly, I would have never embarked on this fieldwork if I did not have some kind of financial security. I remember the first time I went on a fieldwork, in Mozambique, during my PhD and how I was counting every penny. I went there with an adventurous spirit. I basically used public transport (which is quite different from public transport in Europe or even in Brazil), stayed in hostels or very cheap accommodations, ate whatever I could afford, and so forth. I could never do this carrying a child along. In fact, I ended up spending much more in Timor-Leste than what I had anticipated, just so I could offer my daughter and mother a little bit more comfort. In particular, I paid a really expensive rent just to make sure they were in a place where they could be comfortable, safe, and have a space where my daughter could play and interact with other kids while I was out on my activities. It is the case that this also put me in a different position vis-à-vis many of the people I was speaking to and trying to empathise with. I was living among foreigners who had more resources that most Timorese, instead of experiencing the everyday dynamics I was so much interested in. But that was the trade-off I had to make to feel at ease after carrying my daughter to the other side of the globe.

That said, I did not keep my daughter isolated. Looking at my own life and childhood I think that exposing a child to different environments and cultures is an invaluable gift and it shapes the kind of person the child will be and her values as a human being. I vividly remember the first time I set foot in Khartoum when I was about 10 years old in 1990 and how it changed my whole understanding of what poverty and inequality means. I also vividly remember the colours, the market, the incense, all these cultural differences that made it all so fascinating. I have no doubts that that experience influenced my decision many years later to study Africa and later get into Peace Studies.

In Maubisse, following an interview and waiting for coffee.
In Liquiçá, this sweet lady gave my daughter a souvenir from her shop

Fourthly, I am not sure it even makes sense to speak of emotional preparedness (can we in any way control this?), but this was a factor. In my case I was studying the different narratives on violence and peace in Timor-Leste, so many of the interviews I conducted were very delicate, as they were charged with a strong history of violence. Reading about violence can be hard, but listening to personal stories of violence is a very different experience and it is not something you leave behind when you go home at the end of the day. Being away from home and from her father, my daughter was particularly in need of my attention and it was not easy for me to shift my energy from an intense day of interviewing to a place of nourishment and caring by the time I got home. It was a lot to digest in a short period of time. So, while I think we cannot be fully ‘emotionally prepared’ for this kind of situation, I believe that anticipating that it can be hard and think of ways to (try to) compensate for this imbalance beforehand could be helpful. Having tools to get centred in difficult times is crucial. I cannot detach this from some kind of spiritual practice, whatever it may be, as well as journaling to put it all out (when time allows, which is also hard when you travel with a toddler), or simply having someone else to talk to about the experience, especially people who have gone through the same and can offer deep empathy.

With a very special friend, Mr José Ramos-Horta.

I could go on about other elements that marked this period of my life, but to sum up, the big take away for me is that it was absolutely worth doing it. Tiring? Yes. Challenging? Definitely. Emotionally charged? Undoubtedly. But, perhaps because all of this, it was also very empowering at the end of the day. When I look back to this fieldwork, as well as to the previous trip, the feeling is that ‘I made it’! I managed to get what I had to from both trips, while never being away from my daughter, which I think is a big privilege. It also brings a sense of pride. Often when I met people in Timor-Leste I would comment that I was there with my daughter and there was always an empathetic response. This was particularly so with women. In fact, it worked both ways. Listening to their stories not only as a researcher but as a mother, I could feel things differently than I would have otherwise. I had a different heart than I had before becoming a mother. This enhanced the emotional aspect of the fieldwork with all the pros and cons, but I believe it worked as an instrument of connection.

Finally, having experienced all this, I cannot stress how much I started to admire all academics who are mothers and manage to get so much done, and write, and produce while being a mom. I believe that the moment society starts to value motherhood and not just take it for granted, there will be a profound change towards a more nourishing and caring world. In Timor-Leste a had the privilege to meet a few mothers who were either academics or engaged with policy activities and many who, besides that, had been through so much during the violent times of the Indonesian occupation and still had been able to overcome this and make a difference. They have my profound admiration.

Nina wearing a tais, a traditional Timorese cloth

Last but not least, a big thanks to my mother for her invaluable support during this journey. No words could capture my gratitude in full.

2 thoughts on “On doing fieldwork with a toddler

  1. Olá, Roberta. Gostaria de deixar um rápido registro no seu site. Antes de tudo, lamento profundamente não ter extraído mais de suas histórias durante o período que fui sua aluna no IESB, sinto que foi uma oportunidade perdida.
    É difícil pra mim descrever o sentimento que tive daqui enquanto lia esse seu relato de viagem ao Timor-Leste com a sua pequena, pois em meio a um misto de vontade e medo de seguir os seus passos, eu olho para os meus pequenos, reflito sobre a viabilidade logística e financeira e, apesar de todas os “formigamentos que borbulham dentro mim”, volto à sua história na expectativa ter o que eu não vivi.
    É incrível e inspirador ver a sua coragem em desbravar um mundo cheio de incertezas e se manter fiel à sua paixão na busca por um ideal de vida não convencional.
    As suas palavras, o seu encontro com o José Ramos-Horta e a sua sinceridade sobre a vida acadêmica versus vida familiar é raro e precioso para mim.
    Quero dizer que eu me conecto com você e que desejo no fundo do coração que seu esforço seja reconhecido e que seja a diferença por um mundo melhor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lilian, querida, muito obrigada pelas palavras! Fico feliz em ver este tipo de efeito do post, ainda mais no caso de alguém que foi minha aluna há xx anos atrás, rs… Acho que nunca é tarde para perseguirmos nossos sonhos. Às vezes precisamos dar um ‘leap of faith’, seguir nossos instintos e acreditar que vai dar certo. Acho que tive a oportunidade de treinar isto antes da Nina nascer (apostar em coisas sem ter certeza no que dariam), e isto facilitou alguns passos posteriores ao longo da minha jornada. Mas não existe um tempo certo e se é algo que vc quer, tenho certeza que vai encontrar inúmeras histórias inspiradoras que podem servir como empurrão. E eu fico à disposição caso queira conversar sobre isto. Aprendi muito ouvindo e lendo histórias de outras pessoas e se eu puder oferecer o mesmo farei de coração. Acho que a maternidade muda o tempo das coisas, mas a vejo como um contributo para nosso desenvolvimento e não como um obstáculo para realizar nossos sonhos. Muitas felicidades p/ vc e sua família!


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