There are a ton of reproductive field scientists out there. Especially during graduate school that requires field work, it can feel isolating and lonely, because few other students are parents. However, there are some hopeful stories out there about women who did manage to maintain field work while pregnant and/or while parenting young children. Here is one such tale!
By Kirstie Savage
For me, reproduction and research go hand-in-hand. I study how coyote removal impacts small mammal communities. One measure I was interested in investigating was if coyote removal impacts reproduction in females. I designated a female to be “reproductive” if she was pregnant and/or lactating. This made me realize that, by my own definition, I have spent my entire time as a Master’s student being “reproductive”. I started my Master’s with a 10 month old, who I nursed until just before she turned two, at which time I got pregnant with our second. I literally had one week between stopping actively nursing and getting pregnant. Given this continuous cycle of reproductivity, you would think that I had many crazy, reproductive-related experiences in the field. However, as I’ve come to discover, being a reproductive female field researcher isn’t all that crazy. Sure, I’ve had some fun experiences as a result of my reproductivity and I’ve learned some valuable lessons, but overall I’ve just been another female rocking it in the field.
I think the most fun experience I had was when my daughter, Maple, was 11 months old. At this time, my husband and I went on a vacation and left her with my mom. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I pumped my butt off, on top of breast-feeding, to have enough milk for my mom to give her six 4-oz bottles in a 24-hour time period for 10 days (feel free to be impressed because I sure was). Well, the way a female’s body produces milk basically follows a supply and demand logic. That is, the more your baby eats (or your body thinks you baby is eating) the more your body will produce. As a result of my feeding/pumping combo, I had ramped up my milk supply. While we were on our vacation, I pumped to maintain my supply not factoring in how much it had increased. Shortly after the trip, we had our annual vegetation extravaganza at our field site. Maple was home, I was no longer pumping, and she was not able to eat all the extra milk I had to offer. I found myself out in the field on a team with my advisor, a few guys, and leaky boobs. I mean leaky leaky. I leaked through my nursing pads, bra and shirt and had nice large milk circles surrounding my boobs. It was painful and I found it to be embarrassing. In order to avoid this again, I started pumping in the field. I found a convenient way to use my bra to hold the breast pumps in place, so I could drive the ATV around while pumping! I would just warn whoever I was with that I was going to pump and off we would go. From this experience, I learned to not care. To not be embarrassed by leaky boobs or pumping in front of people. I am a reproductive woman. My body makes milk to feed my child. I don’t think I’ve ever made anyone else uncomfortable with my leaky boobs or field pumping, yet I still felt it. I know now how silly that was. I am still an awesome scientist and woman even with milk circles.
In addition to fun times with leaking boobs or pumping on the go, there has also been the joy of bringing my toddler into the field with me. I’m extremely lucky and have a supportive husband, a field site only 45 minutes away, and a nice researcher house we can use. So, bringing my toddler into the field was usually fun and generally not a hassle or pain. Most of my favorite field experiences are from when I had my family there with me. I have many fond memories with Maple being in the field with me, from driving around in the ATV past the bison to evenings spent looking for coyotes. I think the most upsetting thing that ever happened in the field with respect to Maple was a sunburned child. Needless to say, it has been pretty uneventful when it comes to being in the field with my daughter and husband. Maple has been coming to the field from 9 months to 32 months and sometimes I think she loves it more than me. Of course, she’s still a kid and gets bored on long days or mad at me for not letting her hold a mouse, but overall, I think it has really helped her to be more flexible and patient. My last field day was just recently, and my family joined me in the field one final time. Maple’s excitement at going out and checking the traps for mice was contagious. She was so stoked to be out there and loved seeing the mice. It made me realize how much joy and meaning being able to share in this experience with her brought me. I’m so grateful that I was able to show my daughter what it means to be a woman who works in the field.
The final stage of my reproductive Master’s has been being pregnant through my final year of research and my thesis defense. This has been more challenging than what has preceded me. I was sick my first trimester so our fall sampling at 9 weeks pregnant was not all that enjoyable. Somedays I had to take it easier than others and ask for a little more help, but I pushed through it and in the end, it was fine! Then at 37 weeks I did our spring sampling. Again, I had to take it easier and ask for more help, but it was still fine. I was still able to get out in the field and do my work. I particularly enjoyed the wide squat to bend down and pick up the traps. I viewed it as extra strength training, building those thighs of steel! However, I will admit, it was hard for me to need the extra help and support. It made me feel like I wasn’t really doing my part the way I should be.
This got me thinking about the “liability” of hiring women in a reproductive stage. Pregnant women may find a time during their pregnancy when they’re not able to do the same amount of work as their male or non-pregnant female co-workers. Obviously, this is no reason to discriminate and not hire a woman (as laws have clearly demonstrated), especially given that just because the woman is carrying the child doesn’t mean there isn’t a man who is equally responsible in the process. Yet, I still felt the guilt of having to do less because I was so pregnant. The guilt of allowing my fellow grad student who does small mammal sampling with me to do more days of sampling. How do we reconcile this? As a direct result of being very large with child I was able to do less work. How do I not feel that guilt? How do I not feel “less”? I’d love any and all advice on this one, because even though I knew it wasn’t the most logical, I still felt it.
Over the last two years I’ve learned that it is totally possible to be a field researcher and be reproductive. Furthermore, I learned that it doesn’t have to be this crazy thing. It can just be life. Sure, having a child, being a nursing mom, or being pregnant made going out to the field inconvenient or more difficult at times. It made it so I had to sacrifice time or energy in ways I wouldn’t have had to otherwise, but having kids does that to life in general. I’m sure it could be more difficult than my experience depending on where you do your research but, in the end, there are ways to figure it out, to adapt. Having a supportive advisor made this process so much better for me and I would stress the importance in finding an advisor who supports a man or woman who intends to, or does have, a family. There’s enough challenges to face when being a field researcher and it’s so important to have an advisor who’s in your corner cheering for you whatever your circumstances are. I think having a supportive partner is equally important. It takes a village to raise a child and you need people around you who support and help you through. In the end, I’ve found that being a reproductive graduate student has made me a better graduate student. I have had to be smarter and more intentional with my time because I have more to balance. I have had to be more on top of things and proactive. I’ve had to be both a mom and a field researcher.