Friday, November 14, 2008

Mothers in the Field

Joan Ramage Macdonald is an Assistant Professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences department at Lehigh University. Maura E. Sullivan is a graduate student in ecology. Both of them do their research in the field, rather than in the lab. And both of them had a baby last year. They wrote about their experiences doing fieldwork with their babies for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

They were happy to bring their babies into the field as long as conditions permitted. And they have what seems like a broad definition of acceptible conditions. For example, Macdonald took her baby Iona while she did her research in the Arctic:

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.

As someone who prefers a climate-controlled environment, I find that hard to imagine. But Joan and her family are obviously of hardier stock than me.

Both Joan and Maura are fortunate to have helpful spouses and other family members who share the child care responsibilities so they can focus on their research. They list the lessons they learned while with their babies in the field, and conclude it's good for everyone:
  • 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).
That sounds great.

(via ScienceWoman, who notes it's trickier with a toddler, and Zuska)

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