Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fieldwork, Forest and Babies.... how mothers do it

A couple of days ago I got an email from a friend and fellow wildlife biologist who is currently doing their Ph.D. in India about how to continue your research with pregnancy and child rearing. Her exact question was "if in the US, a Ph.D. pursuing student gets pregnant, what are the options she has which facilitates her to get back to the program?" She raised an important question. It made me think about the systems in India and in the USA and other countries for graduate students. In fact, recently there was series of emails on this topic when a grad student mother wanted suggestions about bay gears and other stuff for conducting field work with her three month old in the alpine zone. If you are working full time, you can get maternity leave. In some countries you can get even up to a year of paid leave. But what about grad students? Are they considered a full time employee in an institution? do they have all the rights as the other employees have. Most of the time students do not even have a lot money to hire help or leave kids in a day care even if there are day care options. In India for example day care options are not always available. What do you do especially if you are doing field work? How do you take care of your child, especially an infant or a toddler or and do your research? Before I hd my first child little more than a decade ago my examples and role models were (and still are) Jane Goodall, Jeanne Altmann, Alison Jolly, Rosemary Grant, and Patricia Wright who have successfully raised children and did research in the wild. Before that I also had spoken to Dr. Lalitha Vijayan in India who had done field work with her then nine month old son  Robin Vijayan in the forests of Kerala. But none of my cohort or contemporary wildlife biology students in the late 1990s thought of having a child and continue to do field work. In fact, we thought having a child will go against our goals of life!  So when I decided to have a child in the middle of my Ph.D., it came as a shock to my mentors, peers and family members. What on earth is she thinking? How could you do field work and have a child? On top of that, I studied a nocturnal prosimian in the wild. How would I do field work and have the baby at the same time? Won't it be difficult and challenging! It has been a challenge and part of the ups and down of my academic carrer! I ended up with two children in the middle of my Ph.D. and with the second one I had a full time job five weeks after I had the baby. So how did I do it? I did it with lots of support from spouse, family, friends, mentors and every one in my field site! It did take a global village. In fact, my Ph.D. advisor was in the hospital when I delivered the first child. It is perhaps about time I shared my story with others in India and elsewhere who would like to have a child and continue field work especially for their Ph.D., eh? In recent years in India, I may be the only one who did field work with a child since Dr. Lalitha Vijayan had done it. 

For a significant part of her toddlerhood, my firstborn literally grew up like a wild child as we spent a year and 5 months in field. In the beginning I had my sister coming to help me for 5 months. In the beginning of my second field season we used to boil the water and filter it since we were afraid of waterborne deseases but by the end of the year she was directly drinking  from the river, and even spending days away from me in the villages with my field assistants' families. She was fluent in three languages at age 3 and would translate back and forth between English, Bengali and Tamil, She went with us at night for catching lorises. or with tiger reserve field stuff at night for patrolling or looking for wilddogs hunting or elephants or following monkeys during the day. She developed a deep connection with forests that is so deep rooted, that even now she sparks up whenever she sees any kind of forest land, national parks or thick bushes even in corners of urban habitats!

So here is what I wrote to my friend who asked me the question.

I guess the big difference between here and there is that people are doing Ph.D. with children (especially young ones) more and more. But it is not easy! It comes with a price. Professors do not like it and of course there is not a whole lot of support system. In our department at ASU I only know two female grad students (including me) who had children during grad school. And both of us did field work. I think it is doable and it is good for the grad students to be a good role model but it is not easy. It also depends on the health of the mother and child in the initial phase. My grand plan was to have the baby and take her to field when she is 6 months old. But due to complication of child birth as well as fulfilling the university requirement in terms of proposal defense etc., I had to postpone the field work by a year and half. That made things tougher to finish especially because I did not have day care options. But once I was in field it was not too difficult! I certainly had a lot of family and friends' support. My entire immediate family (my sisters, parents) came and stayed in field. We also had enormous support from the field assistants, local villagers and forest range office staff. You need to have a strong support network to do the work. I knew the field staff for many years and in fact, KMTR was my second home so it was not a strange place, and above all I trusted the villagers with my offspring. In the US you can be enrolled in the Ph.D. program even if you are not doing your research. Or you can take a year of leave of absence from the program. I do not know what the rules are in India. Do you get maternity or paternity leave from UGC (University Grants Commission which sets rules for graduate students) or individual institutions, like in any other jobs. Who is your Ph.D. advisor? A lot depends on him or her. The advisor has to be supportive. I know there was lot of resistance in India when I had the first child. People thought I am giving up my research etc. The pressure was a lot from both sides - India and the US. It did slow down my productivity and changed the focus. But I do not give up. Most women decide to have children after finishing their Ph.D. because of the pressure. I know they are more successful than me in some ways. I was thinking of people in India who have children in wildlife field. I can't think of anyone who had a child during Ph.D.. It would be good to do a survey of how many Indian wildlife ecology students/ postdocs have children while they were doing their Ph.D or would like to have one. I have done it with bothmy kids. With the second one, I was also teaching apart from finishing up my thesis, and without a baby sitter.  had to carry Nilavi in a sling while teaching for a semester. I do not think any of these were possible without Madhu! Sharing parental responsibility and co-parenting play a big role here. 

So the bottom line is, it is possible to do the work. It may slow you down little bit but do not get discouraged! Find out frist whether you can get maternity and paternity leave from the program. Then decide: when would you like to go back to field? Ask for help from your parents and as well as from the locals. Do not worry too much about being in the forest with a child. Breast feeding is the best option when you do field work because you do not have to worry about outside infections with waterborne bacterias and viruses. Carry your baby in a sling or a pouch so that baby will have body contact. Try to get a breast pump and a refrigerator if possible so that you can store milk. But otherwise schedule your field work in a way that you can work around the feeding. If you wait till 6 months then baby will be on solids in between breast feeding. Try for a natural delivery if you can because the healing and recovery is faster unless you need a C-section. In case you need to have a C-section, keep your options open for that and go for it. Recovery is slower but you can do it. I started working about 5 weeks after a C-section with my second child. After baby's birth do not listen to others who may warn you about not producing enough milk, or say that the baby is starving. Milk production depends on the mother's emotional health, persuasion and frequent sucking by the new born. You also need sleep and rest, lots of water to drink. Mothers of a new born generally get little sleep and it takes a while to get used to the baby's sleep cycle. Think of the mothers in rural areas and the support network they have. Allomothering is really important especially if you are in field. I also think it helps if you can read up on developmental psychology of newborn and attachment theory of parenting, mother-infant co-sleeping, and cultures of child rearing in different regions of the world., Given that we are so much more into the popular contemporary western culture which suggest a lot of things that is contrary to child rearing by a natural mother in a more rural set up I think reading what the other mothers have done or do is very helpful. I have referred to some of the materials that I read and used in this blogpost and the other one about allomothering. And do not worry about taking them to conferences and meetings. Our kids are with us since few months old. Now they are older they help us in organizing meetings.

Hope these are some of the helpful tips for mothers or mothers to be in field. I would like to get all of you mothers who have done or doing currently and balancing family. 

39 comments:

Subasri Pillai said...

Good one !!!
Nicely executed .

DNLee said...

That is so awesome that you took your child with you.
I always imagined that if I were a mother I would take my children with me in the field, running wild in the forest and I especially love that you had such an amazing support beyond your family.

I think I'm very interested in hearing your child's take on the whole adventure. I bet her stories would be worth hearing.

Keep up the good work.

Lorena said...

I enjoyed reading your experience. What a strong woman you are, congratulations. I´m from Colombia, but I live in Mexico. I´m a PhD student, single mother, my baby boy is two years old. In a few days I´ll be starting my field work, and after reading your post I´m seriously thinking about taking him with me to "field". As my work is with butterflies in urban environments we have the chance to go back home every day.
¡¡Thank you very much for sharing this¡¡

Kaberi said...

Lorena, I really appreciate and admire your courage to do your Ph.D. with a child as a single mother! Wow! But it is indeed a great experience to have your child with you in the filed. But there are pros and cons. As I have mentioned it was great to have my daughter with me but at the same time there were times when I felt that I could have done some more work if I were alone. It is always a balance and in my case I had to work on a nocturnal mammal. So it was harder! I am indebted to my family and friends! It was an amazing support system without them I would not have done what I did! IF you plan to take your child to field then it is better if you have some one watching the child when you collect data. Or else bring him some times may be not everyday. Thanks again.

Lianne said...

Congrats for sharing this experience. I am a single mom in a PhD program. My daughter is not in the field with me, however when I did my B.S. degree and M.S. I had my young toddler with me. It was an awesome experience for the two of us. I would not have made it through any of my academic pursuits without the help of my mom, aunts, uncles, and a few close friends. Now my daughter is getting close to high school graduation and she has never doubted whether or not she would go to college. She has never wanted or lacked for anything. It is not an easy path to walk and there are lots of things I wish I could do over. Balance is the ever elusive goal daily for me. Some days I rock and other days - not so much. =) But one thing is clear, it is an experience that is worth it not only for the mother, but for the child as well. I love my daughter and we have made great memories trekking through the woods looking for squirrels, running through the grass catching bugs, or running off to conferences in neat cities. More importantly, it teaches our children to go after their goals and not to fear challenges they might face in life.

Shermin said...

That's a truly inspiring story. Thanks for sharing, I hope I have the energy to take my kids (yet-to-be) into the field some day!

Daniela said...

Thanks for writing this post. One of my committee members forwarded it to me. I think more people in academia need to talk about this! I got pregnant with my daughter when I was doing my first field season for my PhD in Mexico. I went back to the US to give birth and the reaction from faculty was horrible! My adviser was very supportive and I was glad to have her on my side. I had no rights as a grad student, no maternity leave. If I took a break from the program, I would have no health insurance, so I decided to continue working from home as a research assistant after baby was born. I was lucky that opportunity came up, but it was all because of my adviser. Then when my daughter was 4 months old, I went back to the field. I had a huge cooler of frozen breast milk, but the airline lost the bag and by the time they found it, it was all ruined! My wonderful mother in law flew in from the US and came to my field site with me to hold my daughter while I collected data, so I could nurse her every hour or so. She was a demanding baby and wanted to eat all the time. Now we are in Mexico again for my final field season and she is 15 months old and having a blast. It's hard, but definitely doable and I am glad I had my baby while in the program. She will know she was part of this most amazing part of my life.

Caitlin McDonough said...

Thanks so much for writing about this! I'm in my first year of an ecology PhD and I don't have kids yet, but am thinking about it. It's so important to hear from working mothers in the field because so many of our advisors and colleagues represent a generation of women who waited for children, or never had them, or men who had stay-at-home wives. I would love to have children while I'm young and have the flexibility of a grad school schedule, but I worry about the repurcussions of pausing my research, missing a field season, or losing a project. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! You make it seem completely possible.

crickrs said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences! It is important for people to hear that science and child rearing do mix.

Rajasri said...

It's an important topic for discussion especially for women from developing countries where social-economical systems are really very very different from developed countries.
I have got my kid during my post doc period and frankly speaking without my husband's support it was a near impossible thing for me to balance everything from home to work (includes field work). We are both in biological field so some common understanding is there. We first took our child in field when he was only 6 months old, except some minor troubles like time framing, route planning etc. it was really a nice experience with many things to learn. In India, field work with a baby is sometimes a show but I got immense help from my associated persons including team members, forest officials and villagers. I tried to avoid to take my son in very tough conditions unless it was essential. Many a times my husband stayed with him in research station / border area with laptops and baby items and I went for data collection with rest of the staffs. Nowadays my boy occasionally accompanies me or stay with his father if possible. My role models are those innumerable anonymous ladies throughout India who are working in agriculture fields,migrant labourers and domestic helps. Despite having severe economic and social constraints the way they nurture their children is remarkable and a learning experience for any urban establish mother.
Second important thing is flexibility. You may not get all the required items everywhere so try to be local in practice (it means to understand how the local people deals the problem) ,stick to bare minimum essentials so that it will be easy for you to manage and your baby will be accustomed with the local system too.
Finally, it is up to the parents how to cope up with the situation and I think it can be done in many ways provided that you are willing to do so.
Thanks for giving me a chance to share my thoughts.

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