Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Alena Sander on her field work abroad and the challenges and opportunities of international mobility for young mothers in academia.


Today’s Academy is highly internationalized, and mobility is one of its key features. Although it is expected that academics from all disciplines frequently travel around the globe in order to exchange knowledge and build up networks, in reality, not all researchers are equally mobile.
In this blogpost I focus on one particular group of scientifics who are often perceived as restricted in terms of international mobility: mothers*, who, because of traditional gender roles, are less likely to travel than their childless peers. Others have already studied the challenges that especially young mother* researchers face when it comes to mobility (see below). I therefore suggest to rather draw attention to the benefits that international mobility may have for a mother* researcher, her family and her home institution by drawing from my personal experience of a three-month field trip to Jordan during which I was accompanied by my family. I thereby intend to make a plea for a university that actively deconstructs traditional gender roles that account for women*s lower mobility, and promotes and supports the international mobility of young researcher mothers*.


Alena Sander

In October 2018, my husband, our five months old baby son and I embarked on a three months adventure: My doctoral thesis on the power relations between Jordanian civil society organizations and their European and American donors brought us to Amman. While my husband took care of our little one and ate his way through the fantastic Middle Eastern cuisine, I conducted a participant observation and interviewed experts for my study.

I had started preparing for our trip months before our son was even born: I first needed to know if my husband was on board and motivated to take parental leave to be a full-time dad in dusty Amman, while I was going to be out during the day gathering data. We had been living abroad together for several years already, and I knew that he was excited to take as much parental leave as possible according to Belgian law (which is only four months). But I doubted that he was motivated to spend all his parental leave in a country where he would be a complete stranger, with no family and friends around. When I popped the question, however, my husband was excited about the idea and quickly said yes.

Following the birth, I spent my maternity leave carefully planning our stay abroad. When the baby was asleep and my husband at work, I booked flights, looked for apartments, contacted people in Jordan, took a travel insurance, looked for hospitals in Amman (just in case), looked up which formula brands were available in Jordan and searched for activities my husband and son could attend while I would be out during the day. My biggest concern, however, was how to cover all the costs that awaited us. Although I had spent days on searching for funding opportunities, travel grants or scholarships designed for families, young parent researchers or mothers* that would allow us to actually finance our adventure, I did not find any for which I was eligible as a PhD candidate in Belgium.

I was lucky, and able to arrange for the research project I am a part of to cover at least my own flight, the rent of our tiny apartment in Amman as well as some per diems. We came up for the rest thanks to some personal savings.

In the field

When we arrived in Amman, I immediately started working, while my husband and our son quickly adjusted to the new environment. Somehow, my husband had managed to find an activity for every day of the week: baby gym, story reading, a singing class… Soon, they developed a daily routine. They would attend one of these classes in the morning, have a nap, then eat falafel at a restaurant nearby, where our son was the most popular client and spoiled with the best hummus and pieces of warm, oven fresh bread. The afternoons were filled with coffee, grocery shopping and some playing and crawling until I came home. My husband loved it, and our son was a happy baby (with a good digestion, thanks to all the chickpeas).

At dinner, I shared with my family what I had experienced during the day. My husband listened carefully and asked many questions. Since my field started to become his home for at least a while, his questions became more and more specific. Although I kept a field diary which I used to reflect on observations and interviews, dinner became the time I thought out loud about and discussed what I had seen and heard. This often helped me to see my research from a new perspective and to explore new options and innovative approaches.

My husband’s passion for my thesis grew from polite to genuine interest. Himself being in Jordan, he could see what I observed – although not through the eyes of a researcher (which, at times, can be revealing as well). His wife’s doctoral research suddenly concerned the real lives of the people who surrounded him – not just some far away Jordanians he had never met. Although he had always been supportive of my research, this gave him the last impulse he needed in order to understand why I was so eager to conduct my study. 

The fact that my family was now a part of my field resulted in more than a few interesting dinner conversations. We used the weekends to discover Amman and the surroundings, and started having a social life with other foreigners and Jordanians my husband and son had met during their baby activities. Because I was accompanied by my family, I arrived in Jordan as a whole, as a place where I could imagine a living, not only conduct a field research, with more than just professional acquaintances. My field became my almost-home, which would never have felt as such if I had not been there with my family (which, I am aware, also poses ethical challenges, see the debate about “going native” referring to the danger for a researcher to become too involved with her field which may lead to the loss of objectivity and distance: O’Reilly 2009). This had a positive impact on my research ethics and methods, but also on my understanding of the field.

Three months later, we are back in Belgium. The sky is grey, it is raining cats and dogs. I look outside my office window, students walk by. I am sitting in front of my laptop, summarizing, analyzing and interpreting the data collected during our stay in Jordan. My husband is back to work, our son started daycare a while ago. Jordan is still on our mind. We would have loved to extend our stay. 

Doing field work with a child

I am not the only researcher-mom* who is motivated to take her child on to a field trip abroad or a research stay at a foreign institution. Some of my colleagues use their children’s summer holidays to combine their vacation with a short field trip (which is not as much of a vacation as it sounds like). Others move abroad for a whole year, giving their children the opportunity to get to know another culture, and often another language, while working at a research center of another university. Those who cannot bring their children along often do not travel at all – or only for very short periods (Nikunen and Lempiäinen 2018). 

Although children have an impact on the mobility of both fathers* and mothers*, women* are more  limited for two main reasons: First, they are often under societal pressure for being “a good mom” that puts her career second to her family, no matter what (Tsouroufli 2020; Kulis and Sicotte 2002; Kupferberg 2009; Riesch-Toepell 2003, see also Gustafson 2011 on the construction of the good/bad mother). Second, women* scientists continue to be more involved in unpaid care work at home than their partners. Hence, they are less likely to travel in general (Misra et al. 2012; Jöns 2011, see also: Acker and Armenti 2004). This is especially problematic in an academic world where international mobility is perceived as “a major form of professional and identity capital” (Morley et al. 2018) on which researchers are supposed to build their career (Bauder 2015). In contrast, those who cannot present an academic CV filled with field trips abroad, a research stay at a foreign institution and international conferences are often perceived as “underperformers” (Costas et al. 2013).

Of course, there are a number of reasons why a mother* would not bring her child on a research stay abroad. It might not be a safe-enough place, or involve too much traveling on the spot. A child might not be willing to accompany her parent, and not every researcher can count on a supportive partner. Others may just want to concentrate on their study while doing field research, without having to think about what to prepare for breakfast, lunch and dinner for their little ones. For me, however, bringing my family on my field trip to Jordan was one of the best decisions I took during my entire doctoral journey: I was able to extend my field work up to several months (which I would certainly not have done without them), gained new perspectives for my research and stayed focused, as I did not worry about how my child was coping with me being absent or feeling like a “bad mother” for having left my baby “alone”. It also had an important positive impact on my mental health and personal well-being, which is often cut short during PhD times. I continue to be a highly motivated PhD student – which also benefits my University as I publish, participate in conferences and continue to do field research abroad. 

Other researcher-colleagues I know brought their families on field trips to Peru, Bosnia, Burkina Faso and Portugal (for other accounts, see also Eggert 2017, Cornet and Blumenfield 2015; Scheyvens, Scheyvens et Nowak 2014; Starrs et al. 2001), which sounds like a great adventure for all of them. However, planning and implementing a field research abroad, especially with small children or children with special needs, or as a single parent, is a real challenge and does rarely feel like a relaxing family vacation. 

It seems like international mobile mother* researchers are a rather rare species (Leemann 2010; Kulis and Sicotte 2002; Nikunen and Lempiäinen 2018; Toader and Dahinden 2018; Toader et al. 2016). A supportive surrounding is a must, if we want to change the situation and enable mothers* to become more mobile. This includes the partner or family and friends, but also, and maybe even more importantly, the researcher’s home institution. In order to support especially mother* researchers who wish to become internationally mobile, universities should care to (1) support mothers* in the organization of a field trip abroad, including logistics and provide distance support for when they are in the field; (2) create special funding opportunities for mothers*, who plan to go on a fieldtrip with their families; (3) build family friendly international institutional networks that mothers* can benefit from while being abroad.  In such a best-case scenario, the home institution supports mothers* financially, logistically, and if necessary, psychologically to become internationally mobile not despite, but with their family.