Mothers in the Field

October 24, 2008

Research in the fields of earth science, biology, archaeology, and anthropology requires significant amounts of travel in rugged, unpredictable, outdoor conditions. How do mothers manage the challenges of fieldwork and a baby?

We each had a baby last year, and we are trying to make motherhood a major, but not sole, focus of our energy. Maura is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology with a 1-year-old daughter, Evalyn. Joan is an assistant professor of geology with a 9-month-old daughter, Iona. We do our research "in the field."

Fieldwork brings with it many joys and challenges that differ from laboratory and library research. We hope the stories of our adventures incorporating our daughters into our work lives will interest others pondering ways to blend field research and family.

Maura started doing fieldwork in Pennsylvania when her daughter was 10 weeks old. Joan drove to the Yukon Territory in northwestern Canada with her infant to do research on the evolving snowpack for two months. Fieldwork always involves a degree of uncertainty: Hazardous weather could prevent or delay your plans, an important tool may have been forgotten, or a fieldworker could become ill or injured. It pays to be well prepared and adaptable; the same could be said of caring for an infant.

Our fieldwork was possible due to our persistence, as well as the assistance we received from spouses, friends, family, and colleagues. Joan's husband provided child care and accompanied her for some of her fieldwork. Maura's adviser accommodated her special circumstances; her husband and mother helped with child care in and out of the field.

Joan's confidence in planning to do fieldwork with Iona in tow drew on her memories of one of her professors bringing an infant on a field trip. Maura was also inspired early in her career by seeing other women successfully manage fieldwork and motherhood.

Joan's story: My husband and I left Pennsylvania for the Yukon Territory when Iona was seven weeks old. Our truck was filled with field equipment, winter clothes, camping supplies, tools, a spare gas can, two spare tires, and baby clothes in a wide range of sizes. We drove eight hours a day for two weeks to reach our destination some 4,000 miles away. We timed all our stops so that when we were feeding and changing the baby, we also bought gas, ate, etc. I learned to breast-feed in the car (while parked) before going in restaurants; we changed Iona on our laps because it was usually too cold outside.

Everyone said I was crazy. My response was, "They have babies in the Arctic, too."

When we got to the Yukon in March, the temperatures were well below freezing (-13ºF, -25ºC) but balmy by northern standards, and our baby was just nine weeks old. On the first day of field work, we snowshoed to the research site with Iona strapped on. We had to outfit her for cold weather and protect her from the sun. We had to carry both Iona and our field gear, and learn when and how to change a wet diaper in the deep snow.

Three Lehigh students came to help me with the fieldwork for three weeks, while my husband took care of our baby. I had to pump breast milk far from electricity or the warmth and power of the car, so I modified my pump to make it battery-powered and portable, and fit it into a backpack with the rest of the gear. I pumped on many a snow bank.

After the students left, Iona and her father usually came along for (my) safety in bear country. She rode inside one of our coats, and as a group, we were safer than I would have been alone. We accomplished a lot of research, although it was slower than "normal." The baby had to adapt to field conditions, and we had to adapt to the unpredictability of both her and the fieldwork.

Maura's story: I conduct research in peatlands that are permanently saturated wetland environments. They often have hazards that prevent me from bringing Eva: chest-deep muck, dense thickets, and poisonous plants. However, she was able to join me on my first postpartum field foray when she was 10 weeks old.

We accompanied my adviser and his class on a trip to one of our study areas that has a boardwalk. While some students assisted me in collecting data and instrumentation from sampling sites off the boardwalk, my adviser strapped on my baby and continued to teach. Eva was a hit with students, and bringing her made it possible for me to help and participate.

Much of my fieldwork this past year, though, has been at remote locations that required at least an extended weekend away from home. Each trip called for a decision about whether it was appropriate to bring Eva. Even if she stayed home, my colleagues would still be affected by my "pumping breaks." What was best for Eva? Was another long trip away from home too much, too soon?

Of the four extended fieldtrips I took this past year, Eva joined me on two. She stayed home for an extended weekend trip to a peatland in western Pennsylvania and again while I taught in a fieldcamp in Wyoming for a week. In both cases, my responsibilities and the environmental conditions detracted from the care I could provide Eva, and having an additional caregiver along would have been inconvenient. Although both trips worked out well professionally, the time apart from my daughter was a challenge.

When the opportunity arose to conduct research in some peatlands in northern Wisconsin, I was not looking forward to another trip away from Eva. My mother offered to watch her while my adviser and I worked. He cheerfully accommodated not only me, his graduate student, but also my 8-month-old baby and her grandmother. On another research trip, Grandmother also helped with child care while my husband was my field assistant.

Lessons Learned: The main challenges in accomplishing fieldwork with an infant in tow are doing the work while keeping the child cared for and happy, dealing with the unexpected, and breast-feeding in inhospitable settings. You're putting yourself, your colleagues, and your infant in an atypical situation. So being inventive is extremely important. Being prepared is important. We both felt that breast-feeding offered a distinct advantage over bottles; we didn't have to worry about spoiled milk or a hungry baby if we ran into delays.

Sometimes you can't take your baby. If there is a real risk of being stranded in a storm, if it is a dangerous location, or if you can't balance family and professional needs, then it's a good idea to leave the baby at home. On such occasions we were able to pump, and then store or dump the milk, depending on our circumstances. Because we have been able to include our babies when it was safe and appropriate, we have tried to find ways to leave them behind when it was not.

Coming home is also an adjustment. When Maura left her baby home for a week, the baby revolted when she came home, and took a few days to adjust to Maura being back. Taking such reactions in stride and spending extra time together helped to get past those periods.

What did we learn? We care tremendously about both our field research and our families. Fieldwork with a baby is not easy. You can do both, but you need to compromise. You also need patience, a quality that helps in both raising children and doing fieldwork. You need to work out the details with your colleagues, and appreciate their accommodations. And you need to be flexible yourself. More specifically:

  • Having a supportive environment at work is essential for juggling the demands of fieldwork and an infant. In our cases, Lehigh University granted Joan an intermittent parental leave after her daughter was born, and our department of earth and environmental sciences extended a leave to Maura.
  • You need the support of your family throughout the enterprise.
  • You need to have reasonable, and adjustable, expectations for what the child can handle and what can be accomplished workwise. You must be ready to change the plan if necessary.
  • Don't push it if it's a bad day.
  • Expect to be tired.
  • Be explicit with students and colleagues about what to expect and the need for flexibility. That is true even without a baby. Give students clear instructions and independence.
  • Evaluate the risks of potentially dangerous situations in the field. Don't put the child or the group in danger.
  • Fieldwork is good for babies: It teaches them adaptability and a love of the outdoors. Their exposure to students is mutually stimulating and fun, and they benefit from a strong relationship with their caregiver, whether that is a parent, a grandparent, or a nanny.
  • Fieldwork is good for mothers: It helps you maintain a field program and your involvement with students. Outdoor time with your baby blends interests. Exercise at this stage is key for your psyche (and physique).

Will our daughters benefit from having mothers who are not only working outside the home but also often outside four walls, knee deep in snow or muck?

We would like to think that through their exposure to the outdoors and science, our daughters will catch a sense of wonder at the world around them and a desire to understand it. We hope that observing their mothers' pursuit of nontraditional careers will inspire and build confidence in each of them.


Joan Ramage Macdonald is an assistant professor of geology at Lehigh University, and Maura E. Sullivan is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at the university.