Mothering in the Field: Guest Post by Erin Gamble

Erin Gamble breastfeeding her son Wyatt on-site at Ing’yug on Sitkalidak Island.

Being a new mom in graduate school is definitely challenging, especially when field work is a major component for my discipline. Thanks to OHAHP and my personal hero and champion, Hollis, my then-ten-month-old son and I got to test the waters of mothering in the field. Like most fears, the expectations were nothing close to reality. Wyatt and I had an absolute blast and I fully intend to continue bringing my family on my adventures! For all the people in academia wondering about work-family issues, especially graduate students and early-career professionals, I’d like to share my experiences and offer some advice about parenting in the field.

A brief background: Wyatt and I spent five and half weeks on Kodiak, Alaska. Three of those weeks were spent at a remote field location where we assisted with an archaeological survey of a contact-era Alutiiq village. Our team consisted of the project lead Hollis Miller, our advisor Dr. Ben Fitzhugh, me and Wyatt. Hollis’ partner joined us during the second week, but for most of the survey it was just the four of us and the wildlife!

One of my biggest takeaways from our first field experience is to not be afraid (or feel guilty) to ask for help! Often, when people talk about having children in the field both parents are there supporting each other. As a graduate student, my partner is the main source of our income and cannot leave his job for extended periods of time. I’m very fortunate to have an amazingly supportive advisor and colleagues, as they were able to help me care for Wyatt and, honestly, for myself.

Being upfront about the team’s expectations and all our mutual goals was crucial, and we figured out the unknowns as we went. Wyatt didn’t yet sleep through the night and he’s big for his age. My body was in pain, sometimes excruciating pain, all the time. I was exhausted, not newborn exhausted, but pretty dang close. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without having to ask someone to mind Wyatt, and on occasion someone had to mind Wyatt while I ate. Honestly, I entirely underestimated the physical requirements of doing fieldwork with an infant. Everywhere I went, near or far, I was automatically packing an additional 22 pounds with me before even thinking about gear.

Mentally, I grappled with feelings of guilt almost nonstop. I felt guilty for not being able to do more for the team, that my (our) presence was a detriment to the work the team was doing, that I had to ask for help, and I even felt guilty about how this might be bad for my son. Mom-guilt comes in many terrible flavors, but near the end of our trip I realized that I felt guilty because I was doing the thing women aren’t supposed to do. I was selfishly having my cake and eating it! I was maintaining a productive, successful career AND a happy family. I still feel the guilt, but now I just imagine it as a badge of honor I have chosen to wear with the hope that one day making room for families in the field, in the lab, at work (or wherever moms, or parents more generally, need them) becomes normal.

In addition to the guilt, I dealt with a lot of frustration and disappointment. Being in the field is my happy place. I love excavations. I knew it wouldn’t be the same with Wyatt there, but I really wasn’t prepared for how much pain I was going to be in. My body is different after pregnancy – stronger in some ways and weaker in others. These changes exacerbated the aches and pains I felt from lugging bub, bub’s gear, and my gear all the time. However, there were a few days Wyatt either took an epic nap or Ben stole him for a couple hours and I would find my old groove and the pain would just disappear.

I think the most overwhelming feeling I have in regard to the trip is gratitude. Negative feelings and thoughts, even pain – those things are all temporary, but the work we were doing and the memories I made on this trip are important and priceless. I’m grateful to Hollis for the opportunity, her companionship, and for always being my champion. I’m grateful to the Haakanson and Clough families for treating Wyatt and I like family. I’m grateful to the people of Old Harbor for all that they shared with and taught me. I’m grateful to my advisor for putting up with my selfishness without batting an eye, and I’m grateful to the O’Dell Cross family, Patrick Saltonstall, and the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak for their hospitality and friendship. There are a million more things I am so very grateful for, but most importantly I am grateful to my son for completing my life and my husband, Ken, for encouraging my dreams.

Erin Gamble carrying her son Wyatt down the beach at Tanginak, following bear footprints! (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Notes on gear: Wyatt was carried using a hiking backpack carrier 95% of the time and a soft preformed carrier or in arm the rest of the time.  I shipped baby food (pouch style) ahead of us and, other than running out, this worked really well for many reasons. I packed very few toys or formal playthings. Wyatt was more interested in watching the world around him and happily played with bull kelp and other treasures from the beach.

The main item I wish I had lugged out with us was a playpen. I decided last minute not to mess with shipping and dragging one around, but it would have been nice to have a place to just set Wyatt down at the site. Luckily, the tent we used for our kitchen tent had three rooms and we were able to setup a makeshift playpen.

Finally, always bring more baby wipes! They’re useful for adults and kids alike. I’m already a believer that kids should be filthy at the end of the day, so I had very realistic expectations about Wyatt’s appearance. I made sure that the important areas were kept clean and dry, but otherwise he fit in with the rest of us working in the field.

I think the last, and most important, piece of advice I can offer is to remember to enjoy your time. Wyatt grew so much in the weeks we were out in the field. He started to notice birds, learned to wave, and figured out how to suck straws! Remember to take notice of how your little one is growing.

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