Dispatch from the quantitative | qualitative border

On Tuesday evening I attended my first WAPA meeting (Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists). This group meets monthly, first with a happy hour and then with a speaker. Because I have more of a quantitative background, the work of professional anthropologists really blows my mind. The topics are wide ranging and the work interesting and innovative. I’ve been sorry to miss so many of their gatherings.

This week’s topic was near and dear to my heart in two ways.

1. The work was done in a survey context as a qualitative investigation preceding the development of survey questions. As a professional survey methodologist, I have worked through the surprisingly complicated question writing process many hundreds of times, so this approach really fascinates me!

2. The work surrounded the topic of childbirth. As a mother of two and a [partially] trained birth assistant, I love to talk about childbirth.

The purpose of the study at hand was to explore infant mortality in greater depth by investigating certain aspects of the delivery process. The topics of interest included:

– whether the birth was attended by a professional or not
– whether the birth was at home or in a medical facility
– delivery of the placenta
– how soon after the birth the baby was wiped
– cord cutting and tying
– whether the baby was swaddled and whether the baby’s head was covered
– how soon the baby was bathed

The study was based on 80 respondents (half facility births, half homebirths) (half moms of newborns, half moms of 1-2 year olds) from each of two countries. The researchers collected two kinds of data: extensive unstructured interviews and survey questions. The interviews were coded using Atlas ti into specific, identifiable, repeated events that were relevant to infant mortality and then placed onto a timeline. The timeline guided the recommended order of the survey questions.

One audience member shared that she would have collected stories of “what is a normal childbirth?” from participants in addition to the women’s personal stories. Her focus with this tactic was to collect the language with which people usually discuss these events in childbirth. She mentioned that her field was linguistic anthropology. The language she was talking about is referred to by survey researchers as “native terms-” essentially the terms that people normally use when discussing a given topic. One of the goals of question writing is to write a question using the terms that a respondent would naturally use to classify their response, making the response process easier for the respondent and collecting higher quality data. The presenters mentioned that, although they did not collect normative stories, collecting native terms was a part of their research process and recommendations.

The topics of focus are problematic ones to investigate. Most women can tell whether or not they gave birth in a facility and whether or not the birth was attended by a professional. Women can usually remember their labor and delivery in detail (usually for the rest of their lives), as well as the first time they held and fed their babies. Often women can also remember the delivery of the placenta or whether or not they hemorrhaged or tore significantly during the birth process.

But other aspects of the birth, such as the cord cutting and tying and the first wiping and swaddling of the baby, are usually done by someone other than the mother (if there is someone else present). They often don’t command the attention of the mother, who is full of emotion and adrenaline and catching her breath from an all encompassing, life changingly powerful experience. These moments are often not as memorable as others, and the mothers are often not as fully aware of them or able to report them.

I wondered if the moms were able to use the same level of detail in retelling these parts of their stories? Was there any indication that these sections of the stories they told were their own personal stories and not a general recounting of events as they are supposed to happen? In survey research, we talk about satisficing, or providing an answer because an answer is expected, not because it is correct. In societies where babies are frequently born at home, people often grow up around childbirth and know the general, expected order of events. How would the results of the study have been different if the researchers had used a slightly different approach: instead of assuming that the mothers would be able to recount all of these details of their own experiences, the researchers could have taken a deeper look at who performed the target activities, how detailed an account of the activities the mothers were able to provide, and the nature of the mom’s involvement or role in the target activities.

I wondered if working with this alternative approach would have led to questions more like “The next few questions refer to the moments after your baby was born and the first time you held and nursed your baby. Was the baby already wiped when you first held and nursed them? Was the babies cord already cut and tied? Was the baby already swaddled? Was the baby’s head already covered?” Although questions like these wouldn’t separate out the first 5 minutes from the first 10, they would likely be easier for the mom to answer and yield more complete and accurate responses.

All in all, this event was a fantastic one. I learned about an area of research that I hadn’t known existed. The speaker was great, and the audience was engaged. If you have an opportunity to attend a WAPA event, I highly recommend it.


Marissa Meyer, Motherhood and the Public Sphere

Marisssa Meyer has made quite a few waves recently. First, she was appointed CEO of Yahoo, an internet mainstay with an identity crisis, in a bold act of assertion and experimentation. She made headlines for her history of making waves in internet companies, and she made waves for being female. The headlines about her gender had barely receded before the news broke that she was pregnant. This was huge news, news that had barely receded before she again made headlines for talking about motherhood.

As a working parent, I’m moved to say a few things about motherhood and work.

The first point is an obvious one. Pregnancy is a state that primarily affects the pregnant. As a working, pregnant woman I remember the absolute fear of my coworkers discovering that my pregnant head was a blurred and rearranged rendition of its normal self. There is no public acceptance or public discussion of pregnancy brain, only private, informal corroboration of the phenomena. I felt sympathetic for Meyer as she navigated the intense public scrutiny of her every move within her new position while potentially mucking through “pregnancy brain.” Granted, we are adaptable creatures. I navigated the world of working while pregnant with a minimum of catastrophic errors, mostly through subtle adjustments in my work patterns, and I’m sure that she did as well. And, just as my consuming hatred of onions disappeared during the labor process, my thinking again found clarity. Motherhood does not necessarily affect a woman’s ability to work, nor is it necessarily a negative effect. In fact, we found in a survey of physicists the world over that mothers often discover that they work much more efficiently than they did before they gave birth (may be covered in this report). The wider sense of context and greater array of responsibilities can significantly improve worklife.

The assumption underlying fears about motherhood and work life is that the mother is the sole or primary source of childcare. This is not universally true. Parents make parenting work with whatever tools they have. Some parents have partners with varying degrees of involvement, and some don’t. Some live with family, some don’t. Some have dependable community networks or friends who help out with childcare. Some have financial means that can be used to find help with childcare or to help with other areas of life, in order to make more time for childcare. There are no assumptions that one could make straight out of the gate about a person’s childcare options or preferences.

Meyer made a point of calling her child “easy.” I don’t really see how this should bear on anyone else. I have often called my own kids easy. Maybe a more technical way of saying this would be that their actions generally jive with my own needs and preferences. There are times when that description couldn’t be further from the truth (like when they scream! or puke at dramatically inconvenient times. or cover me in Spaghetti at lunchtime in the office cafeteria!), and times when it seems gloriously true, like the times I couldn’t find a reliable childcare option and my quiet second child hung out in my office all day without most of my coworkers noticing. The truth is that children are people, with a full set of emotions and physical states that they are just learning to reconcile. They start out very dependent and grow independence before we’re ready for them to. Sometimes they are a lot of work, or a lot of frustration. And sometimes they enrich our lives in ways we never could have imagined.

The part of Meyer’s statement that most struck me was that she spoke about her enjoyment of motherhood. Motherhood has plenty of little joys, plenty of cute moments, and plenty of little smiles. They don’t often get as much press as the frustrations, especially from moms who are working on their careers. In a professional world that seems to be eying moms for any sign that motherhood is negatively influencing worklife, moms are often thrust into this dynamic, where being a parent is thought to be at odds with a career. I have often been caught in this dynamic. I enjoy my career and enjoy motherhood and in fact enjoy being able to do both. I rarely hear this dynamic echoed- almost like we need to chose a side and stick to it. But the need to pick sides is an old one, one where the mother is thought to be the primary caretaker, leaving her child adrift if she chooses to also pursue other activities.

Instead, I try to use my enthusiasm for work and school as a model for my kids. I want them to know that it is possible to find and pursue work that they find interesting. And I work to let them know how much I care about them and enjoy spending time with them. And I rely heavily on the networks available to me for help. My system is far from perfect. In November, after being out of town for a few days, I returned to a severely wheezing child. Nothing can make you feel worse as a parent than taking a child to the doctor when they are seriously ill and you know nothing about the history of their illness. And now the wave of finals is creeping over us like an ominous tsunami, threatening to swallow our homelife whole in its voraciousness.

Motherhood is complicated. Parenthood is complicated. Meyer may be moved to characterize parenthood one way in one interview and then in a completely different way fifteen minutes later. As a fellow parent, I would like to issue my full support for her speaking publicly about parenthood at all. I wish her  a string of lights in the thicket of family life and work life and a cord to hold it together in the points between.

And I wish her press about her professional life that isn’t defined by her personal life.