The Trouble with Fieldwork and Kids

In the short time I began this blog, I have written several times on travel and kids – this is because I have been gone so much over the past 2 years. I just spent the last 5 weekends away, including one weekend with the kids on my own, one weekend with my husband sans kids, and three weekends in Southeast Asia on my own. Right now I am trying to juggle fieldwork plans for the summer, which involve another 4 weeks away. The majority of the time away involves work.

When I meet a new anthropologist/archaeologist and discover they have children, one of the first things out of my mouth is “how do you manage fieldwork with kids?” The last thing I want to do is peg myself as a mother before an academic (and I was an academic first, after all), but I have found that there is no simple solution to managing the needs of children and the needs of my work.

My research and my profession require some travel every year beyond the regular academic conferences most professors attend. I typically run an archaeological field school every few years, or work on one during the summers for extra pay. Excavation involves sharp tools and safety training for adults, so taking small, curious children is difficult if you cannot constantly supervise them (which, as archaeologists know, is really difficult).

As a result, I’ve either taken a family member (or family members) with me to digs or left my kids home alone. I will admit that taking my kids on digs, even with the help of family members, is not ideal. They don’t understand why mom is gone most of the day, physically exhausted at night, and consumed with her computer for most of the evening trying to finish up administrative work associated with fieldwork.

As most of us who have run or worked on field schools know, fieldwork does not stop when the excavation ceases at the end of the day. Budgets need to be reconciled, emails need to be answered, photographic and mapping data needs to be downloaded and backed up, equipment needs to be charged, blog posts need to be written, equipment needs to be unloaded and organized, excavation binders need to be double checked by staff, staff meetings and planning for the next day’s work needs to occur, and artifact bags need to be checked and stored. If there’s no cook on site, food needs to be bought, prepared, and served, and then the kitchen (or cooking area) needs to be cleaned up. These are just a few of the many tasks that take place at night on a field project.

As a field director, I am often so consumed with work on site that it is hard to squeeze in a Skype call or phone call (if we have internet or cell phone service). This is why it is so difficult to bring children into the field on an archaeological project, and why many of my friends have chosen to leave their children at home while on an excavation.

Ethnographic research with kiddos presents different challenges, as this blogger openly discusses. I am contemplating moving some of my research to Southeast Asia (possibly Nepal) after my trip to Nepal this past March, and this work will likely begin as a qualitative, ethnographic project. I am also entertaining the idea of spending some time teaching Japan to conduct research on the products discovered during my research at a Japanese American internment camp here in Idaho.

Unlike archaeological projects I run as an academic (which last between 4-8 weeks in the summers), this kind of research requires a substantial amount of time in the new place. Ethnographic research requires a long-term commitment to the site that is not transient or temporary in nature. Anthropologists often spend 18 months to 2 years doing fieldwork, and sometimes they continue to work at their site for their entire career. As someone who aspired to be an anthropological archaeologist and who attended a Ph.D. program that focused heavily on social and cultural anthropology, I highly value this approach. It takes lots of time to establish informants, social and professional networks, and to simply get what is going on around you in a new place. Enmeshing yourself in a new culture can also be compounded by language acquisition, which takes much time even if you have a good academic handle on the foreign language before taking off into the field.

This all brings me to back to the original intention of this post, which is to discuss the challenges of managing childcare in the field. My partner works full-time as a staff member at the university that employs me. To accommodate my work schedule, he takes his vacation leave to watch our children when I travel. There have been times when his vacation has run out, or he has work that simply cannot wait, so our family members have stepped in to help. We also have nannies who have watched our children, but it is cheaper (and easier coordination wise) for my husband or family members to take time off to watch our children.

I have yet to figure out how this situation will play out if I spend longer amounts of time in places like Southeast Asia, where I cannot come home for the weekend or easily bring a family member and children. The time zone alone  makes it difficult to call or Skype at a reasonable hour of the day. Whoever chooses to take care of our children will have them for the long haul of my fieldwork because it is simply too expensive to fly back and forth between Asia and Idaho. Our family members either work-full time or take care of elderly family members full-time, meaning that I would be on my own with the children if I took them for a long period of time to my fieldsite. While I believe experiencing other cultures and learning how to adapt to a new environment are incredibly valuable experiences for older children, my children are at the ages where they care more about the next meal or potty break than experiencing a new place.

There is no easy solution to dealing with having small children and doing fieldwork at the same time, but I will say that I have been impressed with granting agencies that provide budget lines for childcare. The Wenner-Gren Foundation is one of those agencies, which sponsors and funds high quality ethnographic and archaeological research to the lucky few who are granted their awards. Such a budget line is rarity, however, making it really difficult for parents to fund their childcare. This is especially true parents are doctoral students or  are taking sabbatical leave with reduced pay during the time in which they conduct their research. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I am hesitant to suggest it in a time of dwindling funding in academia. I also recognize that other professions present similar travel obstacles, and that I am simply lucky to have a job in this economic climate.

I am curious to know how other academic parents have managed to juggle fieldwork and children and would love posts (anonymous postings included) on this blog or via email ( if you are willing to share your story. Have you taken your child out of school to come with you for fieldwork? Have you enrolled your child in a foreign school while doing fieldwork? Was it easier to leave your children (or child) behind or keep them with you? What would you do differently?


2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Fieldwork and Kids

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. This was a key reason I quit archaeology. I knew that having a family was important to me, as it is to you, and I didn’t see a good way of making it work. You have been able to make a certain amount of fieldwork possible, which is awesome! You totally rock as an archaeologist and as a wife and mom. But yeah, if you started doing ethnographic research in Nepal, it could start to suck for your kids, your marriage, and your own happiness. Your follow up post could be: How archaeology has lead to divorce for so many of my colleagues. I had a conversation with Jen Trimble about this shortly before leaving Stanford, and Stringy taught me a lot about the life of a non-tenured archaeologist in academia. But I also remember my dig in Crete where a married couple sometimes brought their 4 year old on site. The man was a supervisor but the mom was digging test holes at the top of the island near the steep cliff. They could keep him content for awhile digging in the spoil tip, but then a many would arrive to care for him Ossie the rest of the day. As to travel, they had had to permanently move to east Crete and both locate their research there to keep the family together. They almost never saw their relatives in the US and Canada. So big trade offs.

    • Kate – I agree with you that it is difficult to make all the pieces fit together when it comes to family and archaeology. I also agree that ethnographic research is much more difficult to conduct for colleagues who need to travel and cannot take the rest of their families with them. I am really at a crossroads with where I want to go with my research, so I am going to keep all doors open at this point and try to figure out family logistics/research plans/etc. as I go. It is very difficult to balance the needs and demands of a family and the very complex needs/demands of fieldwork in a foreign country. I figure I will take it slowly and feel it out as I go, and if it doesn’t feel right for me or my family, then I will move on to something else. All these decisions are very hard to make, though. It was so much easier when it was just Ben and me!

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