– by Valerie Miller –
Returning is a problematic word for anthropologists. To turn is to go around, go another direction, move to a different position. But REturning would then mean to stay right where you are (by turning again), realizing the full circle. It is movement from A to B to A, movement from home to field to home. What happens when “returning home” no longer makes sense because field becomes home, or vice versa? As anthropologists, we must keep tearing down this misplaced wall that has been constructed between field and home.
I remember in Dominica a time I misspoke when I was on the phone. In answering my colleague’s question to how we were doing in “the field,” a friend sitting on the front porch with me became extremely confused. She asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘the field?’ We don’t live in a field. We live on a mountain.” We laughed and laughed, but I’ve never felt so stupid or at such a loss for words. If “the field” isn’t something I can (or want to) easily explain with friends in the research community where I live, why should I continue to use this word?
All I wanted to do in March 2020 was to stay home in Dominica where I lived with my family and was doing my dissertation research on allomothering, which is an anthropological term meaning “mothering of others” – mothering duties/care performed by anyone other than the birth mother. Home for me and my family was Dominica in the Caribbean, and this seemed to be the perfect place to study allomothering for my dissertation. In rural Dominica, it takes a village to raise a child. Friends and family routinely parent children alongside the mother and father. It was a way for me to both participate and observe as a mother and also allomother. Many have researched how allomothering impacts the child – I study how allomothering impacts the mother’s well-being. Much to my surprise, my sudden expulsion from our Dominican home was then to expose me to allomothering within the United States, where I grew up many years ago.
When COVID hit and I received bureaucratic requests from my university to return, all was changed. With all face-to-face research being indefinitely suspended, I had no bureaucratic “reason” to stay at my “field site.” They decided my home was the United States, so we were asked to pack up and leave Dominica. But, when we initially left the United States, my husband and I, along with our two children, sold our car and almost everything we owned, ended our lease, packed eight suitcases, and moved to the island nation of Dominica in the eastern Caribbean. With no roots existing in our university town, we quickly had rooted ourselves within the rich mountainside of Dominica where we intended on living. Research was going to seep in eventually. “Leaving for the field” for a few years with a family of four doesn’t feel like just a data collection stint in the slightest. Calling our time in Dominica the “data collection phase” or “fieldwork” feels inadequate and cheap – it was our “form of dwelling” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 31). It is likely many anthropologists have felt this way.
When my institution told us to return home in the uncertainty of the early COVID epidemic, I certainly understood why; however, I was still a little shaken and angry. After all, rural Dominica was far less threatened from COVID than crowded urban America. I explained I was already home and had no “home” to (re)turn to, but the COVID-related research restrictions of the grant, enforced by those who release funding, trumped my wishes. Leaving for a Stateside location meant abandoning home to us. Home, after all, is the people around you, the work you do, and the peace you have within whatever your physical locale may be.
Comforts of home vanished when we came back to the States to stay with my brother, his partner, and their baby. We thought it would be temporary, but it is not. We had no house, no car, no weather-appropriate clothes, no work, and no plan. The last several months of being “back home” have been challenging. We are trying to feel at home within a space that simply is not. Anthropologists seem so good at going and coming, at visiting, at leaving, at distancing, and, of course, the discipline selects for such people through admissions processes and career trajectories. But I think we should become better at staying at home, like most of the world does. Even if it is (with)in our research homes – even when we can be physically present.
COVID-19 ruined a lot. It momentarily ruined my research goals, my family’s home life, friendships, and, briefly, my mental, emotional, and physical heath. My self-report may resonate with other anthropologists who have similar 2020 stories. The whole world is heavy within this liminal, pregnant pause. When will this be over? We are all thinking, “what now?” How am I to navigate face-to-face research when face-to-face research has been suddenly terminated?
Communication with my friends from Dominica is still regular due to the wonder of the internet. I get daily updates and check-ins from several of our neighbors. Throughout the Spring and Summer months, my children were still part of their primary school and communicating with their teachers within WhatsApp and Google classrooms. We still are receiving pictures from friends who are fostering our four pets we had to abandon on short notice. None of this communication is the research I was planning for or the “data” I was prepared to collect and analyze. Even if it was, it doesn’t feel like research at all. It is friendship. It is life. There remains a strong bond between my family and our Dominica home. We feel connected.
Is it ever going to be possible to rid or re-frame the false dichotomy between field and home, home and field? We feel cut off from the only home space we had because, to others, it was specifically just a research space – it was “the field,” with an assumption that academia is our home, maybe? We spent time, energy, and love nesting into our Dominica home. I will never in America eat the food my husband planted and grew. I will not meet my friend’s infant she is carrying in her belly. My daughter will not make it to her football games. The relationships we cultivated with our neighbors are hanging on by virtual threads. Moving forward, I believe patchwork ethnography will provide a strong framework in which to think through and work through the ways I can maintain these connections (Günel, Varma, and Watanabe 2020). Through this engagement and within our relationships, we will continue to bridge the gaps that still exist in anthropology between field and home.
I’ve left a village where I studied the transition into motherhood, maternal stress, and how mothers and others raise their children together (allomothering) – just to name some things spelled out in the proposal I created so long ago as a condition for funding. God knows that the learning, engaging, negotiating, feeling, observing, knowing, listening, and researching wasn’t anywhere close to what was anticipated or painstakingly written out in several grants. I went from a village in which I was an unrelated allomother, to a house in which I am now allomothering my own niece. My children are now allomothered by their aunt they have met only once before. A poignant shift in my experience and perspective of alloparenting theory and practice has occurred. It is interesting when you find your research and your life simultaneously situated within an anthropological framework.
So, I guess I transitioned from researching allomothering in Dominica to practicing allomothering in the United States. I do not believe that everything happens for a reason; however, maybe caring for my niece when my brother and sister-in-law need me is reason enough for our recent move. Loving her, caring for her, and getting to know her is a reprieve during this difficult time. I have gained a better understanding of what allomothering is in action, even in America. The learning that happened within the literature led me to believe that allomothering would reduce a mother’s stress. I began my project thinking that living with extended family and sharing childcare responsibilities would reduce one’s stress and improve maternal well-being. In my own experience and n of 1, I now think differently. Some stressors may be reduced, but other new stressors are introduced when you are navigating a homelife and childcare with more individuals, even when you are helping one another. Intimate participation as an allomother has given me a new perspective that observation and data collection alone could not. Participation is far messier than can possibly be imagined, and we are naïve to believe that observation-based data with participation occasionally thrown in as a reflexive side note is enough. Participation is where rewarding growth and new understandings and learning occur.
[Side note: I have paused writing for a moment for my son. He is five. He just ran into my room to tell me about his morning at school. He slipped up and asked his friends, “sa ka fe?” using the Dominican creole, instead of “what’s up?” Of course, they laughed, he was confused and hurt. I am heartsick. He and his sister ask me daily, “When are we going back home? Can we go back home now?”]
I am sure my recent experiences with extended family living and allomothering in Dominica and the United States like all things, are heavily shaped by my particular upbringing within the U.S. in a nuclear family. I wonder if the stress and discomfort and irritation I feel towards my situation is common among women who grew up in a world where living with extended family is the norm. My sister-in-law grew up in rural Thailand and seems at ease with our child-sharing situation(s). Negotiating who is parenting, who is relaxing, who is working, who is cooking, who is sleeping is stressful for me but may not be for others. Having family members living in the next room means constantly and carefully considering the day-to-day needs of individuals outside of my immediate family of four.
Maybe living with/near/by older related women is critical in the reduction of maternal stress. Generally speaking, grandmothers are exceedingly reliable and committed allomothers (Hrdy 2011). My mother recently came to visit us for several days and left this afternoon. She cleans. She feeds us. She tucks in my kids. She walks the dog. She’s always ready to pour a glass and lend a listening ear. I am comfortable with her and trusting of her when it comes to childcare. After all, she raised me. I know, more than anyone, what kind of mothering my children will receive from her. Anecdotally, this is the kind of allomothering I think most of us new mothers are apt to gladly welcome in times of need. Still, several days of help came with several days of lifestyle adjustments. Work schedules, sleep schedules, meals, activities, finances, stress – they are all touched in some way, in different ways, by the presence of an allomother. Help with childcare is beneficial, but it is only one component of a mother’s multifaceted experiences. The connections between allomothering and stress are likely far more entangled and interesting than I originally thought. Thankfully, in research, we are learning even when (especially when) we are wrong.
Returning to the States has allowed me to experience first-hand the joys and stresses of mothering and allomothering in the U.S. during a pandemic. These are not times I will easily forget. These are times that will forever shape my personal and professional self. Regardless of whether or not I feel at home, I am grateful for this experience.
Surely, I’ll revisit these thoughts again and again, but this must suffice for now. It takes a good bit of emotional labor to long for a home recently lost. Writing about it from another place feels like salt in a wound.
Doing the best thing and being the right kind of anthropologist (if there is such a thing) in this particular moment seems impossible. “Why is it so hard to be a good anthropologist?” (Dettwyler 1993: 106). We are trying. Maybe this pandemic will make us better. Maybe it will help us better appreciate the ones who have provided us with home all along.
Dettwyler, Katherine M. 1993 Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Waveland.
Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe.
2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography
Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson.
1997 “Discipline and practice:‘The field’as site, method, and location in anthropology.” Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science 100: 1-47.
Hrdy, Sarah B. 2011 Mothers and Others. Cambridge:
Valerie Miller, PhD candidate. Purdue University, Anthropology Department. Holds an MA in Psychology. Bio-cultural and psychological anthropologist. Researches allomothering, postpartum experiences, parenting practices, attention, and mental health in the United States and Dominica. Passionate about the integration and centering of maternal perspectives in psychological and anthropological research projects.