Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Thank you for visiting this page. My new (and improved) blog BirthRitesAnthro can now be found at: where I shall be writing about all things #birthrites, (M)otherhood, repro health issues and anthropology stuff in general. Do call by!

This site will stay live as an archive of my older material

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Motherhood in the Field: Arrivals and Departures

"...a central point of fieldwork - to just load upon experience and let yourself slowly sort it out at levels conscious and un-." 

The months are flying by and the arrival (and subsequent departure) of my husband and son in the field has definitely been one of the most challenging aspects to this adventure so far. A mixture of new baby heaven and all the emotions that go with it, a full house from two to five in a matter of days and a family reunited after two months of separation. This could have been a disaster, turning everything upside down just as my data collection was gaining pace and my informant relationships developing. It was in fact the opposite ... it changed the way I look at my research questions and gave me a completely different perspective on maternal subjectivities. It also reminded me of a crucial aspect I had up to this point been ignoring - the paternal perspective on motherhood and child rearing. An obvious yet easily lost perspective in a fieldsite with highly gendered spaces. Having my husband here, himself once a local boy increased my limited opportunity to be reminded of how people here shape fatherhood and men's role in child rearing and decision making.

This of course I have realised upon reflection and a re-reading of my field notes made during those two very short months, I keep a kind of personal reflective diary as well as an ethnographic description diary which is proving very useful. Living it at the time felt like a different reality family life became increasingly distracting and I constantly worried about opportunities I may be missing out on, or reading time I would never get back. There was an emotional pull of putting work off in order to take advantage of the boys and lap up every moment of my son's presence. Things began to get harder as their visit came to a close and I worried (as my previous post demonstrates) on how I would cope in there absence. 

Saying goodbye a second time around has been horrible and unsettling for us all, it really made me reassess my priorities - PhD or Family - it felt like a battle between the two. I realise now that it is not so clear cut and there are ways to make them of equal importance in a practical sense. It might seem strange to put my academic and career development on a par with my family but no-one quite prepares you for the emotional and physical strain of...well....either one and in that sense they are very similar. Being a mother and a wife influences who I am as a human being, but so does my study. This experience is teaching me a lot about myself and the strength of my relationships and in turn is giving me an insight into the lives I study that would never have happened if my own family life hadn't been turned upside down in order to make it happen. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Newsflash: Breasts are for feeding babies with!

I wanted to take a break in the current usual proceedings of reflecting upon my time in the field as a mother and to write about a more 'in the news' topic. There has been a week of virtual and physical world activity in support of Breastfeeding. I picked up on a record attempt in the UK for the most women (and babies I assume) breastfeeding simultaneously and a surge of campaigning and images in social media promoting support for all mothers in the practice of feeding one's baby with one's breast (novel idea, its bound to catch on!). 

I am at once overjoyed by the amount of beautiful images splayed across the internet of babes happily latched onto their mothers and also annoyed at the fact a week in the year needs devoting to highlight the support needed for said mothers. At risk of stating the obvious, breasts are for feeding babies with, that is why women have them, any other socially constructed benefit such as the beauty of them, their sexual attractiveness, the invention of special cloth devices to put them in and their marketability to entice heterosexual men to buy anything is merely an added extra. Though in some societies they seem to have got that the wrong way round and even more so have turned them into a weapon of offence in a feeding situation. 

I find the whole situation very odd, I'm sure my baby if she could enter into the debate, would be inclined to agree. That of course is my gut reaction to a world of silly rules, but by thinking anthropologically I can think of some more rational explications to this breast utility obsession. What exactly is it about the human condition that throughout time and place we change the way we relate to our bodies and what they do?  For what purpose does it serve to treat breasts as something other than a source of (emotional and physical) survival for a human infant? Whether we choose to use them for that purpose is a separate argument, put ultimately that is why they are there. 

For some cultural comparison here is a brief ethnographic vignette taken from my fieldwork diary: 

When I boarded the combi* this morning I wished it was possible to take a snapshot of the scene that greeted me. Apart from myself with nuzzling babe in arms there are four other women of varying ages from late teen to 30s (as usual at this time the combi was populated only by women going about daily business) all nursing babes or toddlers. As we chatted about the recent thunderstorms, how busy the city centre had become etc. no-one batted an eyelid at the amount of breasts on show, as they never do because if you have a baby or small child who is pining at your chest then you feed it - why wouldn't you?

*A combi is a micro-bus/van with seating that is used as public transport around the city.

That is what I would describe as a healthy social attitude to feeding one's young. This was by no means a special day and justified by a female only presence, it happens on any day regardless of the gender mix. People of any age and gender will stop and talk to you, kiss and coo at the baby without any hesitation about it being attached to a nipple. Here feeding is not a shameful or secret event and nor are women accused of 'making a point', they are simply feeding their child whether it be on public transport, in the workplace, at home or walking down the street (a skill to be valued in itself!). 

Mexico has a stereotype of machismo and of treating women poorly, and I certainly do not dispute the aspects of violence, maltreatment and appalling incidents of feminicide that occur. But lets get beyond the sweeping generalisations to turn the focus back on a so-called civilized and developed society such as the UK. 

Capitalism and Patriarchy Come Hand in Hand

The societies most offended by a woman using her body to ensure the survival of her baby are the most technologically and economically advanced, or that is to say are the most technologically and economically dominant. There has been a long tradition in feminist anthropology and social theory that questions the use of technology as a means of population control (for an introduction see Emily Martin for a distinct analysis of obstetrics and authoritative anatomy knowledge and Vanessa Maher (ed) for a collection of writings on breastfeeding). Population control in the theoretical sense involves the manipulation of social thought (common sense) and bodies for the common economic good of a nation - or for those that govern the nation. What economic purpose is served by controlling how a growing population is fed? Maybe that is one for the formula companies to answer!

From a feminist perspective I would argue that much has to do with the destructive illusion that gender equality is about making women more like men rather than acknowledging that biological difference is a strength particularly in terms of life creation and survival. Women are 'freed up' to enter back into the workplace and therefore should feel liberated about the choice of bottle feeding over breast. opposed to the workplace adapting to the needs of a breastfeeding woman is the type of situation that makes breastfeeding an issue that then needs dealing with. Laws and policies must be devised and rights defended in order to ensure some smokescreen of equality in what is essentially a patriarchal work-space. Only in the most advanced capitalist societies do organisations need to create a policy for breastfeeding because in those societies women's bodies really are commodified and sexualised to a point where people have forgotten what breasts are for. And those that remember have to work hard to defend what is seen as a radical standpoint and feeding one's child becomes a Right rather than a normal bodily function...what a topsy-turvy world we live in!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Motherhood, birth and hormones in the Field: a reflection

A few weeks have passed by, a new life has left my womb and come to bless our family and the remainder of my small family unit has arrived (post-birth) to join me I the field. Theoretically it is my planned break in work activities and time to spend recovering from pregnancy and birth and bonding with my loved ones. I have longed for two months to see my husband and son again yet at the same time was apprehensive about how it would make me feel.

We are now a family group of 5 in the field site, I am two weeks postpartum and myself and new baby have not left the house since the birth. She is 100% healthy, feeds and sleeps well and therefore leaves me with time to reflect (and worry) about my work and period in the field, especially when the school run is taking place and everyone else is out of the house for a few hours. One could almost say I have too much time think, or in fact that I just think too much..fin!

I became so engrossed in my data collection during those first couple of months partly because it was going so well since our move to this house and partly because I was worried about not functioning well postpartum and everything generally going a bit wobbly. I also looked forward to taking a month off and being absorbed by family. Needless to say this has not happened. I had a very quick and simple (and exhilarating) birth leaving me physically in excellent condition and really I should know myself better by now! The truth is I can’t switch off completely no matter how hard I try, so I figure it is better not to try. Instead I’m worrying about the data I’m missing out on whilst in the house and the practicalities of what need to be achieved whilst I have some help around and also afterwards.

Whilst I’m doing my usual and unavoidable ‘getting on with it’ I’m managing an interesting emotional state – a combination of postpartum hormone cocktail and the closeness of having the family back together again. I had no idea actually how much I had missed the boys until they arrived and now it feels very clear just how much I have, do and will miss them. I also had no idea how much I missed my home and daily life. The old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ appears to ring true here and now these emotions are coming back to bite me on the bottom! I am also fighting at the same time with a will to carry on working and not neglecting my data collection.  It feels very much like the struggle between family/work/study/life balance that I face at home, only here there’s the added bonus of sunshine and exaggerated hormones.

I was helped very much yesterday by reading THIS article published a couple of years ago in Anthropology Matters. The paper consists of a discussion of the problems faced by Phd students who were carrying out anthropological fieldwork for extended periods (generally around 1yr). It definitely made me feel better about my own situation (taking comfort in other people’s misery!) and made me realise that I’m not doing too bad. I have been struggling with a decision about cutting my fieldwork period short and trying to figure out just how much data is enough for my thesis. This kind of thinking is based purely on my emotional reaction to the family being together again, though I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. My Phd at the end of the day is a purely individual goal that admittedly is all about me and what I can achieve in my student and academic career. My family is about our collective unit and love, not too difficult to figure out what should take precedent! Or is it? Like many a ‘modern lady’ (sarcasm italics) I would actually like to have it all, though this appears to come with a price that leaves me in a constant state of emotional, psychological and physical compromise – very close to what I’m actually here to study in other women.

I have a deep concern about how much data is enough and what kind of quality it needs to be in order to achieve a fabulous doctorate thesis, but I am just as concerned about the ongoing affect this is having on my family unit and the overwhelming feeling that I just want to be at home curled up on the sofa with my babies reading their favourite stories and just being together.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Motherhood in the Field: "Mummy I want to go home"....

Coming up to about a month of our 10 month residence in the ethnographic field and last night I heard the words I have been dreading "Mummy I don't want to be in Mexico any more, I want to go home". If anything I'm surprised it took this long, though my eldest has always been sensitive to what's going on around her and is not likely to blurt this out at any given moment. I have to say I envy a child's ability to be honest with themselves and those surrounding them, in reality she was only echoing what I have often felt on the inside during this first month.

So far we have had arguments with landlords and house moves, infestations of head lice, regretful, unplanned trips to the jungle (long story!), occasional vomiting, over tiredness, insomnia and a spattering of general wobbling of confidence in what I'm here to achieve - and that's just me!

Having been witness to all this and only once have uttered the 'going home' words, (which to add context were said as an over-tired, outplayed four year old was refusing to put her own pyjamas on) before promptly falling fast asleep, has actually left me feeling immensely proud of eldest daughter and amazed at her adaptation skills.After spending a sleepless night worrying about my response/plan to these dreaded words, there was no mention of it the next morning as she happily chatted on about her plans for play that day.   She appears to be coping with this whole fieldwork thing much better then me! 

A positive house move to a neighbourhood where other children are at hand to play with and impending starting of pre-school have certainly helped smooth over this initial period. From my workload point of view it also allows me to stop pressurising myself into intense data collection as I will very soon have a short period of 5 child free hours a day to occupy myself with and a more defined 'work day'. I've never been a outspoken fan of routine, however, bringing a child into the field has forced me to have a structured routine that is beneficial to data collection. 

Pregnant belly and chatty four year old are also proving beneficial in the legitimising myself in surroundings and with informants arena. It's become quite useful when attached daughter begins most conversations for you, being an apprentice in the field one has much to learn about how children engage strangers in conversation and abstract useful information. So much so I'm beginning to wonder whether I can continue in her absence whilst she's at school!!

On a poignant note, coming to observe motherhood in a place where motherhood is everywhere  and in most aspects a very social event. Where women  work with babies or small children attached to them, where daily tasks are carried out and life goes on without a severe separation of activity and mothering spaces it allows me to reflect upon the fact that I have half my child stock here with me and will continue to do whilst I work and study for a doctorate degree. If anything, I am questioned here as to why I would leave another child behind - quite different to the conversations I had in the UK about why I would possibly want to bring a child with me.

The emotional strain of leaving one child behind was something that I expected to struggle with, though it appears, as with my daughter that my son is adapting quite well to my skype presence and seemingly a less outwardly affected than I at our separation. The next challenge will be when we all come together in month's time and then have to separate again - with the addition of a new baby. The fear of not knowing how this will all pan out is driving my data collection each day and helping me maintain focus. I do wonder that without this added pressure what stage I would currently be at now...probably still looking for a cheaper, more comfortable house!

Monday, 11 March 2013

motherhood in the field: Separation and Arrival

The challenge has begun (on a matter of principle I refuse to use the word 'journey'!). In the early hours of this morning my four year old and I waved hasta luego to my husband and three year old son and began our journey to Mexico (aptly we left on mother's day). We will be apart for the next 2 months when they will come over to visit, in time for birthdays and await the birth of our third child. After that we shall become fragmented once more for four months. Already this gives me a deadline to work towards as I try to plan what aspects of fieldwork I can fit in within the next two months, whilst at the same time settling my four year old into her new surroundings, the last trimester of pregnancy and dealing with the temporary separation of our family.

I am aware that this preliminary post is sounding rather balanced and sensible. It must be noted that as I write I am only halfway through travelling to the fieldsite and having set off at some ungodly hour this morning am actually far too tired to think or feel the gravity of the situation. Less than 24 hours since we said our hasta luegos I am yet able to comprehend the emotions of leaving one of my children and partner behind.

I received some interesting comments and tweets after my last post relating to the topic of parenthood in the field and the work/motherhood balance in general. A consensus amongst many was the idea that fieldwork could/should be done for short periods and that finding a time to parent would be difficult. This did make me reflect on the perspective of my children and how appropriate it was to bring them into the field, but this was constantly outweighed by the acceptance of my chosen discipline of anthropology and desire to complete an in depth ethnography of my subject in question. Although compromise is the key to most things in life (most definitely concerning parenthood!) I am quite confident in defending the point that my field data would itself be compromised (and not in a positive way) if I didn't commit to a substantialy lengthy period. Wanting to understand pregnant and maternal subjectivities at least deserves one to be around for the gestation of the phenomenon. A field context is important here, my acompanying child and growing fetus are along for the ride for various practical (and biological) reasons. I want to understand motherhood and pregnant bodies in a Mexican context so I don't see too much problem with bringing my own bodily accessories into the fieldsite. Who knows, it may even result in an advantage...I'm sure my children will be the judge of that!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Motherhood in the Field : a new thread

I am about to embark on a years worth of anthropological fieldwork into social pregnancy and maternal subjectivities. It is my aim to spend the next 10 months 'hanging out' with pregnant women and their families, midwives and other health professionals and generally anyone who can stand my presence and questions for a long period of time!

In preparation for the field I have learnt much about interview techniques, fading into the background (or not!), the effect of the researcher on the fieldsite, best way to take notes etc. but little about the specific aspects of my own life that cannot be suspended in animation whilst I go about my field life. 


I have found noted in odd ethnographies and papers where anthropologists have noted the presence of their children (Sheper-Hughes in Death Without Weeping, Gutmann in The Meanings  of Macho), some reflections/mentions of pregnancy in the field (Rapp in Testing Women, Testing the Fetus , Ivry in Embodying Culture) and nothing so far on leaving one's small children behind to go into the field (though I am happy to stand corrected). I have come to conclusion that like much ethnographic fieldwork mysteries it must come to to initiation and guarded experience. Arguably if ethnography is to be a reflexive practice there needs to be a space for discussing such experience - it is either woefully lacking or I have failed to find it. 

I have decided to treat my posts here over the next year as a thread for my field experience and its clashes/coincidences with motherhood. This way such reflections may stay out of my confidential field notes and I will have a space to reflect upon myself and hopefully open up a discussion space for all parent anthropologists to contribute. 

OVER THE NEXT YEAR I SHALL EXPERIENCE THE FOLLOWING (in my personal life as mum, wife and woman): Being accompanied in the field by a small child; leaving another small child and husband at home for the duration; being pregnant with third child; birthing said third child and continuing in the field. 

Have I gone mad?? Is a question on the lips of many..Is it ethical/moral to separate one's young family in the name of fieldwork and what right do I have to do so? I have been asked and have asked myself many of the same and similar questions HOWEVER, as is the concern of many a fledgling academic - as much as I love to theorise about the cultural construction of the human body, my womb does have a shelf life; women have to fight hard in academia to achieve their goals and qualifications; I live under the illusion that if we can't have it all we can at least try; although I struggle to find published evidence I surely am not the first woman (or parent) to be in this situation.

Crash, burn or be successful...only experience will prove my resilience and that of my family!