Introduction to Mothering in the Field

“Birthing the Social Scientist as Mother”, excerpt from Ch. 14 in Mothering in the Field: the impact of motherhood on site-based research, Rutgers Press. 2019.

This work describes how my own definition, process, and experience of caring fieldwork have evolved over the past twenty years, from the time my mother passed away and entered the professional world to when I became a mother, quite unexpectedly, at age forty. It positions fieldwork as providing the context and opportunity for a developmental journey, not unlike those accompanying motherhood, with its stages of initiation, incoherence and integration.

Becoming a mother was the catalyst I needed to let go of previous conceptions of what practicing social science should look like. This meant releasing the notion that I had to remain a detached observer, accepting the impossibility of work-life balance, and disconnecting my sense of self-esteem from the validation of the academy. This level of new found acceptance arose following what Brown (in Cunningham 2012) describes as a “willingness to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth” and from an increasing concern with how to make my call to social justice work sustainable alongside my call to be a good mother.

Occupying dual work-life roles meant redefining my value not so much in terms of the standard audit culture—meeting economistic goals of efficiency and performance outcomes—but in terms of valuing the practical wisdom my lived experience as a mother-scientist brings to the fields of relationships I encounter every day. Yet, this orientation toward work is often met with institutional pushback, even from within humanitarian organizations I currently study and work with that have caregiving as central to their mission. While they have formally moved from a model of “aid to accompaniment” with affected populations, a philosophy that argues responses to social problems must be collective, many still celebrate the ideal social justice worker as a heroic change agent: able-bodied, privileged, and free from personal care-taking responsibilities.

As one new humanitarian mother explained, “I used to be a top performer, and I know [becoming a mother] is going to affect my job, and this [realization] has been a gut punch. I’m going to be tired, and there is always someone younger and peppier ready to take my role. My organization purports to be about family, but informally there is a lot of discussion around mothers not pulling their weight. The superstars are workaholics who peak at roughly thirty or maybe thirty-six and set the gold standard. After that, once they are parents and seen as having diminished capacities, they are marginalized.”

I also used to fear that owning a new set of limitations while honoring any form of self-care would be seen by my colleagues—mostly male with wife-centered support systems at home—as a lack of the stoicism needed to do the job or a weakening of my commitment to change systems of structural violence. But once I became pregnant and took ownership of my work in the context of my caretaking responsibilities, I became less concerned with these “others” and more confident in my own internal compass.

It is true that becoming a mother changed my entire way of being in the world. To start, the neat compartmentalization of my professional and personal life became impossible because my body, which was now the source of food and life for a dependent human, was carried into both worlds. It sometimes leaked, and my circadian rhythms and their corresponding levels of alertness and sleepiness were intimately intertwined with my child’s feeding cycle and attachment needs. The time for writing and research now takes place in those precious pre-dawn hours before my child awakens. I have ceased to be self-conscious when colleagues peel stickers off my back or politely look away when glittery balls bounce out of my briefcase. As my stoic professional persona has begun to erode, I am challenged to live the feminist philosophy I espouse, one that privileges questions of ontology over epistemology and embraces an anti-Cartesian resistance to the binary oppositions that I know were always blurred in fieldwork (mind/body, nature/culture, sacred/profane, emotional/rational, home/field).

In terms of working definitions for this paper, then, I conceive of the field as this blurred site of shifting locations of encounter on which we come to know who we are in relationship with others. Given the politics of daily life for the mother–social scientist, the field is an unstable, dynamic realm of possibility and struggle, a living laboratory she enters as an outsider, with purported investigator expertise that remains impotent until it meaningfully engages with local knowledges. In such settings, occupying a highly translatable role such as mother may help transcend daily politics and affirm bonds with others across cultural boundaries, especially with mothers who are often pivotal actors in their own local communities.

As I now conceive of it, to mother is to embody the virtue of care and to strive to bring compassion into daily practice with others in a way that affirms our mutual humanity and enacts presence. In the language of humanistic nursing, enacting presence involves a “mode of being available or open in a situation with the wholeness of one’s unique individual being; a gift of self, which can only be given freely, invoked, or evoked” (Paterson and Zderad 1976). It emphasizes being over doing and in my current work supporting the well-being of humanitarian and global healthcare workers, presence may include active listening, offering emotional support, and practicing moral solidarity and responsibility in a way that feels energizing and not depleting. It is an inherent trait in those who are called, as I and my mother and grandmother, both social workers, were, from a private to a public space of practicing care work, where work becomes an extension of service, and service an extension of life.

Ethicists distinguish care (meeting the needs of those who cannot meet their needs themselves) from service (meeting the needs of those capable of self-care). Care and service can be considered existential acts and ethical commitments that arise amid and in spite of the uncertainty and danger that define the human condition. Service, aligned with the lived principles of accompaniment and restorative justice, can be distinguished from the colonial mind-set of helping or fixing, where “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak. When you fix you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole” (Remen 2017).

Mothering in the field as scientist thus means that one is committed to both care and service, both daily nurturing practices as banal and intimate as wiping noses and bottoms, breastfeeding, and carrying children and, more expansively, extending compassion and social responsibility into one’s professional life in relationship with strangers and vulnerable others. We learn to enact care or service well to the degree that we were well cared for. Therefore, at its most basic level, mothering draws from the universal field of love and attention from which every human being begins as a beneficiary.

Mothering is among the most challenging and rewarding calls because one must expand to become better than she is. The gift is in the stretching. For those of us who conduct social science work in the field, in settings where we engage and seek meaning in particular human problems, processes, or practices, such stretching beyond the self means acknowledging that the way we occupy these lived spaces matters. We may cultivate the quality of being reflexive to inform our daily experience in the field, awake and aware as compassionate acompagnateurs. We may be willing to identify and question our assumptions and blind spots as they arise as growth opportunities, committing to the deep listening of others, seeing interpersonal conflict as the expression of unmet needs, patiently resting in the bardo of what is uncomfortable and unknown before rushing to action.

Or we may avoid all of this complexity and potential distress, because we lack the capacity or willingness to identify and regulate the difficult emotional fallout such a collision of worldviews may entail, “coping” instead through disconnection, avoidance, or compulsive behavior. After years of honing the ability to dispassionately witness and record reality with my highly attuned yet fallible sensory body instrument, becoming a mother has deepened my desire to cultivate the qualities of active witnessing suffused with compassion, presence, and awareness of process. Developing these qualities as well as validating them in others (both men and women) feels more authentic in recognition of the human condition, such that we are always acting in ways that are mutating, emerging, and vulnerable.

Too often we deny this vulnerability and pretend embodied emotions do not underpin our daily work practices and relationships. And yet, when that emotional content is missing, we experience its absence viscerally as anomie. This essay documents my developmental process as a field researcher and mother-in-training in terms of how I continue to learn to accompany others through embodying a mothering mind-set at work. This process involves learning to recognize the interrelationship of my more slippery, subterranean processes to my external fieldwork “performances,” which in turn has led to an uneasy but sustainable integration of the “back” and “front” stages of my life.

In this paper, I focus on the stages of development I went through to achieve this mothering mind-set as I navigated different field contexts as an activist, reporter, and advocacy researcher committed to addressing structures of violence through the participatory method

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