Field work and the absent parent

Like many other avenues of the biological sciences, field work can be essential to research. Specimens and field observations from a single field trip furnish months or even years of lab work and downstream analyses. The cumulative result of regular field work is that findings become incrementally significant, patterns emerge, and new questions arise. But this comes at the cost of absence at home.
Field work and the absent parent

Recently I returned from my first field trip since becoming a parent. As I considered the various ways in which to solve the logistical problem of fulfilling my roles as parent and researcher, I contemplated the often-discussed cost-benefit ratio of field work and other absences from home. Field work allows me to gather new materials and data, exercises my field skills in plant identification and ecological interpretation, and nurtures collaborations with colleagues. It is important for my science and, by extension, my capacity to earn an income for our family.

I looked around for role models as we made this decision for the first time in our home. Mothers in Science, a Royal Society study, showcases 64 women who are mothers and have careers in science. My colleagues shared various permutations combining solo travel and traveling with children, sometimes with co-parents and/ or friends and family who helped them achieve their field work and other work travel.

There were stories of babes in arms being taken along on expeditions, of toddlers and pre-schoolers joining in field sampling, and of school-going children as traveling companions and fully-fledged members of field teams. These tales of childhood experiences in nature, and the family memories created together, seemed rather romantic. But there were also stories of science parents who travelled solo to their field work sites, who were away for days, weeks or even months at a time, of birthdays, school concerts, and sports events missed. However, more than one of the children in these stories went on to pursue a career in a discipline close to their scientist parents’. I like to read this as a good thing - at least, neither the field work nor the parental absences put them off.

The solutions are personal, but the outcomes are that parents and carers who are scientists find ways to fulfil their multiple roles in the societies they live in. I learned from my recent experience that the decision to travel for field work or other work-related reasons, and the arrangements to accommodate the parental absence at home, vary according to the travel itself and where the family unit is at. This time, I opted for solo travel, but perhaps I will share the magic of field work with my young family in future. The frequently-heard advice to ‘do what’s best for your family’ really does apply here. And as with many parenting decisions, what is best for the whole will likely take care of you as parent and scientist.

Aloe striata, South Africa (photograph O.M.Grace)
Not a bed of roses: balancing absences from the home with field work is a perennial issue for researchers in ecology and evolution. Photograph: O.M.Grace.

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