Family Matters: We Talk the Talk, but Do We Walk the Walk?

Diversity is Our Business1: We Talk the Talk, but do we Walk the Walk?,2

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren't they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY's AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren’t they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY’s AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

As academic anthropologists, my colleagues and I talk diversity all the time, but it refers to more than heritage, socioeconomic status, or gender. Jo Weaver and I have convened a session at the upcoming AAA conference about “Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Research” (see Jo’s summary in last month’s AN column), but our session is really as much about diversity as it is bringing non-research design-related issues to the fore. What other biases influence who can become an anthropologist? What if I am reliant on medication to stabilize my mood and that medication is poorly understood and my dose-response is sensitive to environmental change? Do I risk going abroad away from my support system to do fieldwork? Do I even bring this issue up with my advisers when I am applying for or in graduate school? Or do I just avoid field-based anthropology or drop out of my program? In another scenario, what if my own experiences of trauma are triggered by the culture shock of going abroad or trauma I witness in the field and I shut down emotionally? Do I fess up to my adviser that I’m in psychological turmoil?3 These may seem like clear-cut examples of issues fairly likely to occur among students of anthropology4, but when are they ever brought up and directly addressed in classes or advisement?

Similarly though perhaps more banal, when is a student ever given to permission to say ‘I love anthropology and I want to go to ___, but I have children and I could not emotionally handle being away from them’? This was an issue I faced. My children are triplets. They’re 12 years old now, but they were 1 when I started graduate school. Balancing children and a career is not easy for anyone, but what if your chosen vocation traditionally involves traveling great distances away for long periods of time? This is a stereotype in anthropology, but I have been surprised by the students and professionals whose expectations reflect this notion.5

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Let me be clear—no one in my graduate program told me I needed to leave my family behind to become a real anthropologist. I did my fieldwork in, essentially, my own backyard (which comes with difficulties I wrote about for AN in 2008); and I received NSF funding to do it. But my wife and I made ends meet by the skin of our teeth.6 We lived 1 hours 40 minutes away from campus for the first few years so we’d be near family who could help take care of our children while I fulfilled my obligations as a graduate teaching assistant, took classes, and cloistered myself to get work done.7 I recall asking NSF Cultural Anthropology Program Director Deb Winslow and my advisers if could I use my grant money to pay living expenses? The financial and moral support I got for research was great, but my major expense was the cost of buying salivary cortisol kits and sending them out to be assayed. To save money and build up my skill set, I learned to assay them myself from Jason Paris in Cheryl Frye’s Biopsychology Lab at UAlbany instead of paying to send them out, saving around $9,000. Meanwhile, I had three toddlers at home, and taking care of them was a full time job, which left nothing for rent.8 As you can imagine, a graduate teaching assistantship stipend does not really cover expenses for a family of 5.  Answer: We sympathize but, no, NSF funds can’t be used to cover rent unless it is for living somewhere else, where one doesn’t usually live, to do fieldwork at a distance from the usual home. And federal funding can only cover that expense for the researcher.

Not much has changed since I’ve become a tenured professor. I will admit that, although I love anthropology, one of my motivations in pursuing biological anthropology was a mistaken notion that biological know-how would get me paid better.9 But I also looked around at professors with kids and saw the wonderful experience and perspective this life provides to children of anthropologists. One of my advisors, Walter Little, would often take his daughter to Guatemala with him when he conducted fieldwork. I thought, ‘that is the life I want for my children.’ They’ll learn to speak Spanish early enough that it’s not a chore and have an invaluable worldliness (like our President—ahem, raised in a unique family situation by an anthropologist mother). But what I’ve learned is that there is little money out there to support a family while doing fieldwork. We must pay their fares out of pocket if we take them with us. So here my kids are, 12 years old, and they’ve still never left the country. Heck, I think even I had been to Canada by the time I was their age.

What We Know about Family-Career Balances of Anthropologists

I was loathe to talk to my professors about the stresses of supporting my family while going to graduate school. They didn’t have to hear that from other students, I imagined. But I had to. My very first semester, one of my sons was hospitalized for dehydration because of persistent diarrhea caused by an intestinal bug. Not a month later, during finals week, another bug hit the household and took everyone down. Because I saw it coming, I had outlined my answers to our take-home final. When the virus finally got me, everyone else in my house was down for the count and could not so much as get me a glass of water. But I still had one essay to write that was due the next day. I faded in and out of consciousness through the night transforming each outline fragment into a sentence and adding a few qualifiers. It’s probably the worst essay I’ve ever written and it got me a dreaded B (like a D in grad school), but, under the circumstances, it was good enough. As I recovered slightly, I tried to go back to work only to get a call from my wife that one of the kids was vomiting again. Because there was a bug in the house, neither the mother’s helpers we’d hired nor my wife’s family wanted to come in and help out for fear of catching it. But taking care of three sick toddlers was too much for any one person to handle. It pained me, but I explained my situation to my adviser, Larry Schell, and his response has always stayed with me. He said, “No one ever says on their deathbed that they wish they’d spent more time with at work. It’s always that they wish they’d spent more time with their family.”

Family is hard to manage. School is hard to manage. Work is hard to manage. This is life. No one wants to tell their professor or adviser or boss that work or school is putting a strain on their marriage, but we know that many marriages break up over issues like these (the literature on this is huge—this is in no way unique to anthropologists or people who do fieldwork for a living). Stress, as Gary Evans pointed out in a guest lecture at UAlbany when I was in grad school, is not necessarily about having a life full of stressors—it’s often about not having a buffer when there are stressors one is not expecting or has not planned for. I always refer to a poem by Charles Bukowski called “The Shoelace,” which refers simply to the last straw, when you’re dealing with “…roaches or flies or a broken hook on a screen, or out of gas or too much gas, the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk, the president doesn’t care and the governor’s crazy. light switch broken mattress like a porcupine; $105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at sears roebuck; and the phone bill’s up and the market’s down and the toilet chain is broken, and the light has burned out – the hall light, the front light, the back light, the inner light; it’s darker than hell and twice as expensive…”10

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

So the culture of academia (not just anthropology) makes balancing parenthood and fieldwork difficult, but how is that biocultural? As Jason DeCaro points out in previous posts for our blog (here and here), biological theory is implicit in studies of family and human development. But let me spell it out in a different way, one I alluded to above. There are certain notions about maternal investment in children that give moms a (justifiable) pass when it comes to saying, ‘I can’t do that because I have to think about my kids.’ And we applaud fathers who do the same (e.g., Joe Biden [maybe], sports athletes). But while there are few institutional accommodations for things like maternity leave, there are even fewer for paternity. I am not crying foul. I’m saying, ‘I love my children so much that it hurts me to leave them behind while I do fieldwork, and it is emotionally hard to handle.’ As you can imagine, I’m a big fan of Peter Gray and Kermyt Anderson‘s Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Patterns and work by Lee Gettler and others on the hormonal physiology of fatherhood. There is a real physiological change when we become fathers. I want us to think about this diversity more, talk about it more, and support diverse family models and needs more.

Study: Family and the Field

To wrap up and tease you for our November talk and future conferences and papers, these experiences inspired a study I started with my friend and UNCW assistant anthropology professor Michaela Howells this past summer called “Family and the Field.” I was primarily interested in the experiences of fathers and wondered if attitudes, experiences, and paternal investment by anthropologists has changed over the years. However, Michaela pointed out that the whole paradigm of parenting and family is interesting and understudied among anthropologists (but not by anthropologists). We don’t know the answers to questions like, if you want to have a bunch of kids and don’t want to leave them behind to do fieldwork, do you just choose another discipline? Or, do you forego having children for a period of time to complete graduate work and any major field studies? There’s not a lot of data on this within our discipline that we’ve been able to find (but encourage readers to send us sources if we’re wrong).

Our study is preliminary, using an internet paradigm, and hope to follow up in the near future by being able to conduct more intensive interviews. (Perhaps we will be cornering you, dear reader, at next year’s AAA!) So far, as Table 1 shows, we’ve collected data from over 350 anthropologists, nearly 85 of whom are males, and 31 of whom are fathers (mean age = 43.3, SD = 9.33). Of these fathers, 18 self-report their life-work balance as poor or acceptable, while 13 report it as good or excellent. Average perceived stress among these fathers is 33.6 (SD = 1.38), which is consistent with the full sample (33.1, SD = 2.51) (This study is still recruiting professionals and graduate students trained in anthropology, so please consider participating).

In sum, do we structurally bias our training system to undermine some types of diversity in our field? And, what do we really know about diversity, if indeed it is our business. Join us in Denver for “Hidden motivations and glossed justifications” Problems and priorities in biocultural field research” on Thursday, November 19, 4-5:45 PM to explore these questions.


1. Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (2010) writes convincingly about the identity problem anthropology has, that we need PR help in cultivating what is essentially “brand identity,” and that identity should be diversity—“diversity is our business.” See Greg Downey’s Neuroanthropology piece for further discussion of this (and where I learned about Hannerz’ article). Incidentally, another piece by Hannerz that addresses the identity we as individual anthropologists create for ourselves also appeals to me. “Confessions of a Hoosier Anthropologist” (2014) outlines how Hannerz works, though he is Swedish and has spent his career at Stockholm University, was marked by the year he spent as a Master’s student at Indiana University. Folks from Indiana and who go to IU are known as “Hoosiers.” Just among the Biocultural Medical faculty here at UA, Jo Weaver and I are both Hoosiers by birth and upbringing, and Keith Jacobi and I are Hoosiers by education. Funny. Ha ha.

2. “You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?” is a quote by Animal Mother from the classic 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket.

3. These will be among the topics to some extent addressedat our November 2015 AAA session by, respectively, Eileen Anderson-Fye, Rebecca Lester, and others.

4. In 2011, the CDC reported that 1 in 10 people in the U.S. age 12 and over (11%) surveyed from 2005-08 were taking antidepressant medication. The youngest among those are college-age now. I don’t have a citation handy, but we have estimated that as many as half of our undergraduates in anthropology at any given moment are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication.

5. The criteria that render one a ‘Real Anthropologist’ would be a great blog topic, but I will save that for another time.

6. Actually, it was the skin of creditors’ teeth, and we have massive student loan debt as a consequence.

7. I rose at 5 AM most days to make the drive and would be so sleepy, I’d lay down in the shower to get a few minutes more rest and ensure I didn’t fall back to sleep. I was such a regular at the New Baltimore rest stop Starbuck’s on NYS I-87 that they began giving me the “Trucker Discount,” which later became free coffee. I’d hear employees whisper, “he gets a free coffee” as I walked up, so that by the time I finished grad school, the manager who had started this gratuitous gesture was gone and current staff had no idea who I was, just that I merited free coffee for some reason.

8. Either my wife or I needed to stay home or whatever money she earned working covered the cost of childcare [barely] and that’s it.

9. I am the first generation in my family to finish college, let alone go to grad school, let alone become a college professor. So what did I know? Nothing. That’s what I knew. Similarly, another mistaken notion was that my kids would get free tuition wherever I worked.

10. One of my sons was taking lots of photos during one of these periods for me and caught me in a moment when I was working as a GTA at Albany, teaching a course as instructor of record at Marist College, finishing data collection for my dissertation, writing my dissertation, and interviewing for jobs all at the same time. It seems like a lot, right? It was, but that was OK because I accepted those stressors knowingly. It was after getting t-boned in my Prius by a tractor-trailer that I broke down. I wasn’t injured, the truck driver took full responsibility, and my car was fully fixed by insurance; but that extra thing was more than I could handle at that moment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *