Photo/Stories from the field: ‘I hope we are not boring you?’

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The Connectors Study has coincided with me becoming a mother and the first 18-months of fieldwork in London started when my son was around 18-months old. The intensity of the fieldwork often left me feeling like I was putting in a ‘third shift‘: the desk based aspects of my job during the day bookended by my own family life, and then extended by participant-observation with other families usually in the afternoons or weekends. Organising fieldwork effectively meant coordinating 15 family diaries including my own to find time to spend with the children in the study over an 18-month period.

 

There are very serious discussions to be had around ‘balancing’ working life and family life, especially for women, and I’m certainly not the first to experience the difficulties and inequities of trying to do so (and sadly won’t be the last).  In the meantime, bodies that haven’t slept will do what they do as I experienced one Saturday afternoon.

My son was a baby that didn’t sleep – or more accurately slept in spurts of 45 minutes to 2 hours at a stretch each night for roughly the first 12 months, and erratically during the day until getting into a routine of naps.  The ‘spurts’ did eventually get longer but even now I haven’t had an uninterrupted night’s sleep in over 4 years. My partner and I used to get through weekends on the knowledge that he would at least reliably nap for two hours in between 12-2pm – I’m not sure how I got through the week days. So, fieldwork, which often happened at the weekends, came at a time of cumulative and ongoing sleep deprivation for me.

One Saturday, during the first visit to a family, I heard the words no researcher ever wants to hear. I had arrived at the family home around 10.30am. The previous night had been a particularly bad night’s sleep. According to my fieldnotes I had been up between 1-3am so I was on about 5 hours of interrupted sleep. Not wanting to reschedule a first visit I caffeinated and made my way to the other side of the city. On arrival, I gratefully accepted the next cup of coffee that was offered and spent the morning with Andrew, a 6-year-old boy, who showed me his toys and books; we played, we drew, and we had lunch together.

After lunch Andrew’s mum Lorna was showing me his Year 1 reading books. It was around 1.30pm by this point and that elusive second wind was yet to blow. I found myself flagging, and as I sat on the sofa next to Andrew and Lorna my eyes must have glassed over. I had a split second of tuning out, or as I wrote in my fieldnotes a few days later ‘my mind just stopped’. My eyelids felt heavy and all I wanted to do is curl into a little ball on their sofa and sleep. Lorna’s next words shook me awake abruptly: ‘I hope we are not boring you?’, she asked in what I have since come to know as her keen sense of humour. No, no, not at all, I think I managed to muster, followed by a quick ‘my son didn’t sleep well last night’, in what I can only hope came out as a reassurance of my interest.

I left the family home around 2pm that day and promptly fell asleep on the train back to Waterloo.

3 responses to “Photo/Stories from the field: ‘I hope we are not boring you?’

  1. Melissa,
    I really enjoyed reading this post. Navigating caffeine in the field is not something I’ve read about before but something I’ve felt to be noteworthy. As my children are older it was less sleep deprivation and more my ageing body i think that has caused my tiredness. I never felt able to ask parents for a cup of tea, as I was already asking so much of them it seemed, and there were times when I was distracted by my hope of an offer. When it came, sometimes I too sat with cup in hand, body heavy, unable to focus my attention. At other times, I would wander around cup in hand, fumbling to write notes or take photos, reluctant to give up the coveted drink. I became aware how holding a hot drink positioned me very much as an adult, how I became more cautious and less able to move so freely with the children. The offer of a drink does something too. In the school where I researched, I remember the day some months into the fieldwork, when a staff member first included me in the group round of tea making, offering me a drink rather than expecting me to get my own, and it felt like a breakthrough, signalling an increasing acceptance of me within the classroom. At the same time, I felt the weight of reciprocity signalled by this small act of generosity, alerting me not to ‘stand’ too distantly from those I am observing.

  2. I feel so identified by this! I started fieldwork with families when my (now 14 months old) baby was 7 months. Although I haven’t fallen asleep (I think?), it’s been sometimes so hard to follow the conversations or to think what to ask next in an interview, feeling that my brain is working at half the speed it’s used to… cups of coffee have never been so welcome in fieldwork!

    • Hi Susana,
      Great to hear from you. Yes, there’s lots to say about doing fieldwork with babies in the background: both serious issues about the amount of support that researchers are given, and women/mothers have; and more amusing things when with all best intentions and will in the world, you sometimes just have to give in to the exhaustion.
      I hope your fieldwork is going well. If you have a photo-story you would like to post on the blog we would welcome that.
      All the best,
      Melissa

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