Political ecology fieldwork with a toddler: a personal account

Dr Jessica Hope, University of Bristol

Jessica Hope is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Momentum is gathering behind bids to make academia more diverse and equal. Part of this is about better recognising care responsibilities, which for me personally is about childcare. Since having my two year old, I have been increasingly involved in work to better recognise the challenges facing academics with children, for example how to negotiate career breaks or do fieldwork. In this blog, however, I want to write a personal and positive account of how good fieldwork with children can be, when well supported. I hope that this offers some support and encouragement for those wondering what they can manage or ask for and that it contributes to widening conversations about academic lives. 

I have now been to Bolivia twice with my child. First, during my maternity leave when she was 9 months old (for 2 months) and secondly, in April when she was two (for a month). Both trips were great and I would deem them a success, both in terms of collecting data and as family time. In this brief blog, I’ll focus on the most recent trip and write about three key things – being supported economically; the practicalities of travel with a toddler; and the positives for my child. 

This recent trip with my duaghter was much more relaxed than the first, in terms of feeling able to spend my funding on childcare costs. I have a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship at the University of Bristol and these come with £5,000 research funds per year. This money is for my project and I secured approval to use some of it to pay for my daughters travel costs and those of my sister, who left her life in Berlin for a month to help me with Evie. Following conversations at the RGS and within DARG, this time around I felt much more justified in asking for (and spending) money on Bella and my daughters trip. The first important part of this was that I could choose the best care arrangements for my child. Bolivian childcare infrastructure is not ideal for an English-speaking foreigner, especially one moving between three fieldsites whilst there. Settling young children into nurseries is also no small thing wherever you are and the thought of putting Evie in a new nursery each week filled me with dread (I will, however, put her into a nursery when I go on fieldwork to Canada later in the year). Instead, the worries about having my toddler with me in Bolivia (and leaving her whilst I worked) was greatly reduced because she was with my sister – someone we both know and love. The second important part of being supported economically stems from uprooting Bella and my daughters lives for a month. It was a big deal for them to come to Bolivia for me but what helped make this a positive and happy time for us, and not just a productive time for me, was that I had the funding to cover our costs and live securely and happily whilst there. 

For this short tip, I went to 3 field sites and carefully planned for heat, mosquitos and altitude. In terms of practicalities, my big take home point from doing fieldwork with Evie is book an apartment. Being stuck in a tiny hotel room made our first trip stressful and strange upon arrival. However, this time we had space. We could keep to my daughters routines, we could cook and, most importantly, we had a lovely home environment in each place. We could put my daughter to bed and have time to ourselves before going to sleep (20 minutes later) and our apartments offered some breathing space from all the newness and work (for everyone). Finally, I want it in print that I got strong. Really strong. I took one big hold-all for me and my child. I had a dictaphone, a tripod, my phone, some notepads and about 2 outfits. The rest of the bag was filled with stickers, books, soft toys and the clothes she needed for both the heat of the lowlands and the cold of La Paz. The bag was akin to a small garden shed. In addition to carrying a shed, I had a buggy and, ofcourse, a toddler. She was amazing during the trip but often wanted carried when in a bus station or busy airport at night. I couldn’t refuse and so would find myself carrying a huge bag and a toddler, up and down the Andes. In case my sister reads this, I should also come clean that option two was that I had the child and a smaller bag, whilst Bella carried everything else and pushed the buggy (thanks Bella). 

I want to end by saying that this trip has scored high, in terms of lovely time spent with my sister and child. Some of our evenings together were magic – playing games, making masks or (endlessly) sticking stickers. I loved our breakfasts – sat together eating porridge before heading out on our separate adventures. My daughter missed her Dad (and he missed her terribly) but apart from that, I think it was a really positive experience for her. She experienced new places and worlds, she realised more about different languages and sounds. She tried new foods. She is definitely more confident as a result (not so good when she’s happy to run off at a busy market) but, most importantly, as the trip went on all that was different became less strange and more normal for her and it feels like her world has widened. 

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