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Does my fieldwork make me a bad mom?

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 Does my fieldwork make me a bad mom?

It can happen at any time, and happens almost every time before I leave for an extended time for field work/science. We’re sitting, walking, just doing something together as a family. And we start talking about what this week is going to be like, which always turns into what my upcoming travel plans are. And, every time, as if on cue, come the guilt-inducing statements that are honestly like hundreds of little tiny knives cutting my mom-heart.

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I mean these are the looks I get from our dog before I leave. “Don’t leave me mom,” is exactly what those sad puppy dog eyes are saying.

“It’s so hard to have a mom who’s a scientist,” our oldest says, sounding exasperated, after a deep sigh and a roll of her eyes.

“Mommy, why can’t I come with you?” asks our youngest, with her eyes big, bright, and just so sincere. Even the dog seems to participate by pacing around and shooting me forlorn looks while I pack.

I’ve done everything I can think of to reduce the stress of my being gone on my family. Make lasagne so the family has lots of leftovers in my stead? Check. Line up some extra dog-walking since our husky-lab mutt is insatiable when it comes to exercise and I’m the primary exerciser? Check. Purchase the ticket that ensures I’ll be gone for the least amount of time possible, even if it means a heinous travel schedule? Checkity check check. Do any of those preparations ever assuage my guilt? Honestly, not really.

I do a variety of things to make myself feel better about having to leave to science/field work. First, I try to take my girls in the field with me when and if I can. This works particularly well for my local prairie research, and not particularly well for my New Zealand, remote island field work (hard pass on having the girls jumping off of boats onto islands in swells). Taking the kiddos in the field comes with some advantages and disadvantages. I can’t be as efficient, work as fast, or work as hard when they’re with me. And they are 8 and 4, so they complain about stuff. But, they learn a ton, bring levity to field work, and remind my students and me to take time to appreciate the fun, amazing, and weird stuff we see and do in the field. Seeing the world through a kid’s eyes is an experience we should all have to help remind us why we do what we do. If you do take your kids in the field, I recommend bringing fun treats they don’t get otherwise (our girls get fruit snacks and 2nd breakfast after early morning mammal trapping), planning shorter trips, giving them an old phone with which they can take pictures, and expecting to carry the littles as their legs tire.

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The girls learn a ton, and in this photo, big gets to teach little how to smammal in the prairie.

Second, I remind myself that though they view my job as negative sometimes, it’s probably a really good thing that they get to experience being raised by a female field scientist. We are few and far between, and I know how important it is to raise strong women in our patriarchal society. I don’t want my daughters to be held back in their ambitions because they are concerned about whether women can do a particular job (spoiler: We can. We always can).

Third, I try to connect with them as much as I can while I’m gone. This part is especially hard with international field work, but it helps ease the blow of being apart. I also remind myself that it’s likely so much harder on me than it is on them. In fact, my husband makes a point of feeding them junk like Lucky Charms and pizza, and taking them to do fun stuff even I haven’t done (drinks on top of Hancock Tower? Really?! One day maybe I’ll get to go, too). It is of course tough when I’m gone, but my husband does a good job of making it seem fun. Last time I went to New Zealand for three weeks, they all recorded a short video each night to show me what I missed. It was so sweet, but also made me feel even guiltier.

Lastly, I think I’ve just come to accept that feeling guilty is just part of who I am as a mom. Even before both girls were born, I began feeling guilty about how my food choices, exercise, and air quality of my town were impacting them. I’m not sure if it’s unique to me, but it definitely is one of the things that defines me as a parent. I’m constantly worried that my decisions, big and small, will screw them up for life. It’s hard that they also say things that make me feel guiltier because I can assure everyone that I do NOT need the help in feeling guilty. I’m just working toward embracing it.

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Little and I smiling by some prairie smoke while out in the field.

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Our youngest daughter is especially excited to not need a car seat in the UTV and is ready for the wet morning dew.

Dr. Holly Jones (@DocHPJones), is an Associate Professor at Northern Illinois University. This story was published on October 9, 2018, on the blog 'Field Secrets' (available here) and has been republished here with permission.

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Published on: May 03, 2019


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