Photo/stories from the field: those books of fieldwork and parenting you know don’t exist

During the study, we have been repeatedly asked and/or it has been commented to us ‘how emotional the fieldwork must have been’. It is a question, we’ve struggled to answer without falling into stereotypical responses of emotion. In the study, the relationship between childhood and public life is approached in broadly phenomenological terms and we draw on ethnography and social theory rooted in this philosophical tradition to think about experiences of human agency, relating, belonging and everyday life in childhood.  Such approaches raise questions about interlocutors’, and researchers’ relationships of care and concern to the world (Sayer, 2010), as well as what moves and matters (Lutz, 2017) for children as they engage with the world beyond themselves.

What moves and matters and relationships of care and concern, are emotional experiences as Catherine Lutz describes. Emotions are understood as‘devices for identifying what comes to matter to people in diverse historical, cultural, and political contexts and for reimagining human psychology in less individual and more social, relational, and political terms’ (Lutz, 2017). They are ways of understanding ‘shared global predicaments’, a kind of analytical solidarity, an identification of what lies between and connect one and one another and as such, also present aspects of political and ethical life. They offer, Lutz concludes ‘ways of talking about personhood as genuinely relational or transpersonal, beyond even what psychoanalytic theory offered’.

In this series of short blog posts we take this approach to emotion and try to provide some reflections and responses to the observation and question of emotionality in the research.

During the fieldwork, we carried out biographical interviews with the mothers, and to a lesser extent fathers of the children participating in our study. In London, even where both parents were supportive of the study, in most cases it was mothers with whom I liaised to set up fieldwork dates and to arrange visits. It’s embarrassing to remember now how when we started the study we referred to parents in that really rather obnoxious, rigid and balkanising social science term of ‘gatekeepers’, as if ‘gates’ and other ‘thresholds’ (more of which in a different series of posts) are not part of everyday life and lived experience, and as if the ‘subjects’ of enquiry (children in our case) are the only ones with a valuable perspective on that life and experience. Over time and because of the ethnographic way of working, relationships started to be formed with parents who we quickly started to see as our biggest allies in the study. Many of the parents who supported us shared an interest in the questions we were asking about the relationship between childhood and public life, had a history of volunteering, could be described as ‘active citizens’ in one way or another, and found the presence of this ‘curious other’, the ethnographer, in their lives at the very least intriguing.

As well as conversations with relevance to the study questions, many of our other conversations with parents revolved around what were often felt to be the trials and tribulations of raising small children in the same city. We didn’t always agree on the answers to those, and parents in the study varied in their approaches of being a parent, what was important for a ‘good childhood’ and what values they felt the need to pass on to their children.  Economics, race and ethnicity, being in a couple or being single also played a role in how such trials and tribulations were shaped. Yet, irrespective of social distance and if I can to distil these conversations I had on the fly, at the end of visits, with mothers, I would say that they often revolved around the tension between a known uncertainty of being a parent (none of us know how our kids will turn out) and a pressure of doing ‘the right thing’ whatever that may be: whether it was feeding, when to let a son/daughter walk to the corner shop or school on their own, participating in after-school and extra-curricular activities, doing homework and excelling at school, ‘being good’ and ‘doing the right’ thing, etc. In many of these conversations my impulse was always to stay much longer than I did, and to keep talking. My own family commitments, however, meant that I usually had to, annoyingly (for me), limit both myself and my interlocutors’ conversations, always one foot halfway out the door.

One visit in particular to Ava and her family really captured many of these themes. It was mid-June in 2015 and I had spent the entire day with Ava at school, a visit that had to be rescheduled three times on account of Ava being ill one day and my own child being ill on the second rescheduling. Ava’s dad was travelling for work and so Dawn, Ava’s mum had been home on her own with the two children for a few days now. After school, Ava and I were picked up by Dawn and baby Tom. We went to the art store and then to the supermarket before heading home. Ava and I played, Tom tried to join in, eventually it was dinner time. We sat down to a meal of ragu and fried courgette (something I now also cook on occasions). Tom is helping himself in a feeding practice I recognise as the latest in middle-class feeding fads (guilty!) ‘baby-led weaning’ which is supposed to encourage healthy food choices and less of a taste for sugary foods. ‘I didn’t know you could do baby-led and they would be okay’, Dawn reflects. I reflect on the pleasure of watching children eat with relish, something I don’t experience at home. Dawn and I share a glass of wine, I wonder if that’s allowed in that book of fieldwork that I know doesn’t exist. But it feels okay, it’s been a long day, I struggled through most of it on account of disrupted sleep and the challenges of concentrating all day in the year 2 primary school classroom. Dawn says ‘it’s nice to have dinner with a grown up now that Jerry is away this week’. Ava, Dawn and I talk about second babies (real and imagined), about summer plans, and about having ice-lollies after dinner, Tom happily gobbling up ragu and courgette in his high chair and interjecting every-so-often with gesticulations for more food. Ava and I then make a bracelet together and play a make-shift pretend game of lacrosse in the backyard where she plunges me back into some of my own (English) childhood reading: the Enid Blyton series of Mallory Towers where parents are absent and girls rule, while getting in and out of all sorts of trouble in the forging of an ethical life.

At 7pm it’s time for me to leave.

I go up to the bathroom. Tom is in the bath, propped up in a bath seat. Dawn is sitting on the floor washing him. I thank Dawn for her hospitality and say that I might see them in transit [we are going to the same city for our summer holiday]. Tom has spewed a bit in the bath. Dawn dilutes the spew and says she won’t mention it to Ava [who will be jumping in soon]. I say ‘in that case there is a chunk there you may want to make disappear’ and she scoops it up with one of the bath toys. We laugh about this and as I’m leaving the bathroom she says all of the following things ‘it’s funny this parenting lark … you can’t lose our sense of humour…and we don’t have to do it perfectly!’ I say ‘no, just good enough, right?’ and we both smile at each other.

This felt like a tender moment, infused with emotion, a sort of mutual understanding. The whole evening had been really lovely, being in company. It touched me. It was nice way to say goodbye.

I left the bathroom and headed to the upstairs living room to say goodbye to Ava who was not interested in saying goodbye to me at all. I had to work hard to get her attention. ‘Do I get a hug?’ I asked her. I really didn’t want to leave without saying anything. She gives me a massive all-embracing hug and hangs herself off my body. We squeeze each other tightly. I thank her for hosting me for the day and wish her a great summer. I’ll see her in the autumn when she’s in Year 3. She doesn’t say anything. She untangles herself and goes back to ignoring me and building her den.

I let myself out and head for the tube.