Academic Summers II: Motherhood, Pregnancy and Archival Work

‘…when issues related to pregnancy and parenting emerge during fieldwork, researchers are expected to ignore their discomfort, the difficulties and the dilemmas that they face, with little training and support if they want to finish the research.’ Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, ‘Gender and pregnancy in the field: Autobiographical reflections on gendered aspects of researching security in Brazil’, Gender Studies Network Occasional Working Paper, King’s College London (Sept. 2017) 4.

My colleague Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti recently wrote a fascinating paper on experiences of pregnancy in fieldwork. Her paper coincided with my own experiences of being a mother to a toddler, pregnant with a second child and undergoing archival work in France during the summer of 2017. Roxana, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster, has written a paper which is both reflective and heavily-researched. It falls into a category of literature I’m currently been enjoying – science- and data-based research on motherhood and pregnancy (Callahan, 2015; Geddes, 2013; Oster, 2013). This blog post does not claim to link my research and my experience as a mother/pregnant woman with the same amount of detail, focus and sophistication; however, it offers a slice of my own experience in doing archival research whilst mothering a young child and growing a tiny human in my body. It also hopes to challenge the idea that questions of ‘pregnancy and parenting’ should be ignored during fieldwork.


Going back to full-time work when my son was 10 months old, I had to make a series of decisions about my relationship to work and to my family. How much time was I OK with spending away from my child? People have different thoughts on this: some would say ‘Give up your job! It’s not worth it!’; others ‘Work part time! Best of both worlds.’; others ‘They’ll be fine! You need a life too!’. Ultimately, it came down to: what works for me (and my family) right now? As it turns out, it took about a year to find the balance which suited us.

Two parents working full-time suits our family. First, I enjoy my work. Second, I wanted to set an example for my son: that it is not only men who work, and also, that it is important to enjoy what you do. Third, there is a lot to be said for the flexibility of academic work. Through all of its crushing demands and infuriating problems (early career exploitation and uncertainty; high levels of anxiety and pressure; increasing demands for both research output and teaching duties; GENDER PAY GAP), academic work gives you a lot of independence. Because I am not clocked in, I can do many aspects of my job (not least with online marking) on the train, from home, in a café on the other side of the world. So when my child needs to be picked up early from nursery because he is ill, I can usually go to pick him up, take him to the doctors, give him cuddles and then tuck him into bed at 7pm before resuming – at my kitchen table and sometimes accompanied with a glass of white wine – my own work for the rest of the evening. In many jobs this is just logistically impossible.

But if I’ve realised that working full-time suits me and my family, I’ve also realised that there were limits to what I was willing to do. As the year went by, I was able to have a very clear list of a few things which seemed particularly important to me as a full-time working mother.

  • I want to be home to drop off/pick up E in the mornings/evenings;
  • I have decided to make my time with E predominantly about him;
  • I do not want to work on weekends.

Of course, rules are mean to be broken; or rather, these are guidelines which need ot be approached with a certain flexibility. I want, and need, to attend seminars in the evenings, and meet up with friends, so it’s now about being selective and saying no to lots of things, but not everything. E also has to learn he cannot have my undivided attention at all times; if the TV and phone are off or out of reach, I do carry on with other stuff and let him take part in it, like cooking, (bits of fractious) reading and going to museum exhibitions that I want to see (he particularly enjoyed Soul of Nation at the Tate Modern. Next on list is Queer British Art). And occasionally, working weekends can be necessary (deadlines and stress) and even lovely – it gives him special alone-time with his father or grandparents, and me a chance to feel young and free (yep. BL on a Saturday morning is now my idea of youth and freedom).

Doing Oral History under the Coupole of Le Printemps, Paris

But where do archives fit into all this?! Archival research is the pillar of historical research, but it requires a lot of time, much of which is away from home. This may seem obvious for a London-based historian of France who needs to travel to France for archives, but my British history colleagues also travel up and down the country to get their archives, and depending on their research topic to Geneva, Burma or South Africa. Multi-archival research and transnational approaches are key to our work, no matter what period/topic you are researching. Reconciling this need to travel for research with my own parental duties has been a major hurdle.

At first I thought I’d found an ingenious idea: day-trips to archives in Paris. I live not far from St Pancras, and Eurostar tickets are quite affordable (if bought well in advance). But this means being super organised, and it does make for long, long days with very early starts. I did it a few times but realised that not only was I restricted to the kind of archives I could visit (Parisian only), but that generally I need more than 1 day to get ‘stuck into’ archival research. The first-day buzz can carry you through 2 or 3 or 4 consecutive days of research with incredible force, but constantly starting-and-stopping means my momentum (and the clarity I gain on my project) gets a bit… well… lost.

Then, I started to make more and more use of online archival sources. There are, as it turns out, plenty of ways to advance your primary research from your office, so this is a great alternative to ‘traditional’ archival work. Making contacts with historical witnesses and descendants; getting in touch which archivists who generously share photocopies and scans of their archives with you; finding online sources which you need much time to scour.

But the reality is you need extended periods of time in the physical archives. So at the end of the 2016-17 academic year, I decided two things (1) I needed to go back to the archives for more extended periods in order to move my research projects forward (2) I needed to make this work around my family. In the Spring I sat down and, over a week, sketched out an elaborate research schedule involving 4 archival trips to Paris, Aix and Marseille ranging from 1 to 7 days at a time.

The trips, which added up to about month in the archives, were carefully spread out across the summer so that it would not be too much time away from home in any one chunk. They required a lot of organisation, not only to carry out these trips but also to ensure childcare. The first three involved my in-laws stepping in to help, and the last trip was organised so that E could be with his maternal grandparents during the day, going to the beach and the park and getting up to all sorts, while I’d be spending days in the archives. This meant a 3-hour commute every day, but it seemed worth it.

But just as I thought I was nailing this whole ‘motherhood/archival work’ thing, I found out I was pregnant. It was great because we’d always wanted another child, but it did come a bit unexpectedly. I was initially worried that the first trimester nausea and exhaustion would hamper my plans for the archive trips in Paris; it didn’t. I really enjoyed all of those trips, and time flew such that I barely noticed I was away from home. And E had a great time with his dad and his grandparents.

Fuel to get a hungry pregnant lady through her fieldwork.

What I did not expect was that the second trimester of pregnancy would be so difficult, and that this would have a direct effect on my last archival trip in the South of France. The size of my stomach has grown much faster than during my first pregnancy, and I have been much more tired. The exhaustion of the first trimester alleviated a bit, but with a move (how much crap we have will never cease to amaze me) and a lot of toddler illness, there was no time to really recover. By early August, as I was heading off on a 2-week holiday, I was spent. And newsflash, a holiday with an energetic 2yo is not the most relaxing thing in the world. By mid-August, I was taking two-hour naps in the afternoon (and I hate napping), was having daily dizzy spells and yo-yo-ing between feeling nauseous and having to eat to maintain energy levels. It became clear that, for safety reasons, I could not commute by car to and from the archives on a daily basis in those last two weeks of August. So I had to modify my archival plans, book hotels and spend more nights away from E than I’d originally wanted to.

In the end, it was no problem at all and E and his grandparents got plenty of time to bond, which was so lovely to see. But I’d forgotten something else: THE ARCHIVES ARE PHYSICAL. The constant hunching over, and the sitting down/standing up dance that I do to take notes and photos of documents, are really tiring, back-breaking (or so it seems) work. These postures were particularly painful this time round, as I was constantly putting pressure on my expanding stomach such that I’d have huge cramps in the evenings. Even carrying large file boxes looked so awkward that archivists took pity and carried them for me.

In the end, I listened to my body. I reduced my time in the Aix archives, and cancelled my archival trip to Marseille. At first I was so frustrated by this, feeling I’d failed on my ‘archive mission’ of the summer. But that’s bullshit, really. I allowed my body to rest as I worked from home a lot more and got a chance to look over some old archival material – neither of which should be considered a waste of time.

Productivity in the ANOM, Aix-en-Provence

Yes, I did less than I had originally intended – but the quality of what I did do was really thrilling and eye-opening. My interview with Rosine Picard, the daughter of one of the founders of the Merci Train, sent my mind racing with new ideas, new ways of understanding what this train meant for those who were involved. It was a turning point for how I conceive my next book on gratitude in the mid-twentieth century. The second major focus of my archival research was my work on non-white men and women under Vichy, especially those involved with the French Internal Resistance. This is going towards an article I’m working on, the ‘Resistance in Colour’. In the Archives Nationales, I found numerous reports on the relationship between Muslims, Vichy and the Nazis in Paris. The material at the Préfecture de Police archives was ground-breaking – tens of files of colonial/indigenous men and women arrested by the Parisian police, many of whom were associated with underground resistance activities during the Second World War. In Aix, reports showed a link between Indochinese workers and the FFI, and I started to fully realise just how stranded colonials and indigenous men and women living in metropole France felt – and were – during the war.

For years, as a PhD and then a post-doc, I thought that private life matters (be they partners, children, other hobbies and passions, etc) limited my professional productivity and advancement. More recently, I feared that motherhood and pregnancy would significantly affect my archival research and professional development. This summer kind of blew all that out of the water. If my family life does have an affect on my work, and sometimes limits it, it in no way nullifies it, and on the contrary can help me to better prioritise and take the time to get to the more important stuff faster and more efficiently (rather than spending time taking notes on archives that seem interesting and I might use, maybe, down the line, one day). The added bonus is coming back from a few days at the archives with a pink flamingo watering can to give to E, having his chubby little arms wrap around my neck as he tries to pull it out of my backpack, and seeing him happily potter towards the garden to water the plants shouting ‘Ago! Ago!’. He barely noticed I was away.

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