Joanna Dreby, co-editor (with Tamara Mose Brown) of Family and Work in Everyday Ethnography—about negotiating the challenges of parenthood and fieldwork—explains how her family life sometimes gets in the way of her work.
I was supposed to write this post last week. But then the pediatrician diagnosed my 11-year-old Temo’s persistent cough as possible pertussis, keeping him home for five days followed by his 7-year-old brother Dylan who began with the cough a few days later. Temo’s antibiotic treatment started first, leaving one extremely bored, rambunctious, 2nd grader home the entire work week. I juggled Dylan around my class lectures, stack of papers, the conclusion to my book manuscript I keep putting off, and this blog post to write. The laundry didn’t get the memo and do itself either.
Although frustrating, this surely sounds familiar to other working mothers. It is especially not aberrant a week in the life of the academic parent. I trade stories like these frequently with colleagues, who know this shuffle all too well. A single parent, others may comment, “I don’t know how you do it.” I do not know the answer. My children, of course, notice, and at times critique my coping techniques. At morning drop off when Dylan blows a kiss and yells goodbye saying, “I love you, don’t stress today,” I know he understands. We may smile knowingly at these personal struggles, social scientists so often keep these discussions in the backstage, talked about informally at lunches or events only when we dare to pull back from our professional personas.
These are professional problems, yet those of us who formally analyze social problems, and the links between the private and public spheres, rarely turn the scope of analysis on ourselves. The black hole seems especially apparent in qualitative field research. Ethnography as a social science research method embraces full involvement in research; ethnographers delve into the days of others to fully understand the rhythms of these lives that may, on the outside, seem so foreign. Strangely, ethnographers so often remain silent on their own struggles to manage family and work. Until now there have been too few outlets that look squarely—and with an academic gaze—at the problems and successes of the academic parenting.
My new book, Family and Work in Everyday Ethnography, which I co-edited with Tamara Brown, brings together essays considering the intersections between parenting and the practice of ethnography. Leah Schmalzbauer writes of becoming pregnant, and raising two children, amid interviews with immigrant populations, and how becoming a mother altered her own analytical frame, as well as relationships with participants. Chris Bobel faces the tragedy that wracked her personal life and its impact on her professional identity. Randol Contreras comes to terms with the ways his research on drug robbers in the South Bronx competes with his son’s need for fatherly affection. These and the other essays in this book show how researchers who are also parents meet work and family commitments. Some reflect on their efforts to keep work separate from their families, while others accept their connections and intersections. Throughout, the authors grapple with these difficult struggles both with integrity and honesty. I cannot imagine a challenge more worth the struggle.