What James Bay taught me about balancing kids and fieldwork

This week we have a story from Dr. Constance O’Connor, a conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, which describes how she felt when she was faced with how to manage field work while she was expecting:



Sitting on the edge of the plushy couch in my midwives’ office, I took a deep breath, and explained what I wanted to do.

“I stared at my midwife, anxiously awaiting her reaction.”

I wanted to be part of a research trip that would be tagging lake sturgeon near the shores of James Bay, in the big rivers that flow north through the spruce, tamarack, and muskeg of northern Ontario. I would be clamouring over the high gunwales of freighter canoes on slippery river banks. I would be pulling 35kg anchors out of the silty river bottoms, and handling fish over a metre long. I would be living in a tent, a couple of hours by boat from the nearest town (and therefore the nearest medical centre). I would be 4 months pregnant.

I stared at my midwife, anxiously awaiting her reaction.

She smiled, and said, “Sounds like fun.”

I felt a wave of relief. In my heart, I was confident that I could do it. But, this was also an entirely new situation for me. It was my first baby. And it was also a new research project, a new field site, and a whole new team that I would be working with, so there were a lot of unknowns. But my midwives were so serene around it that it made me feel that it was not such a harebrained scheme.

And so, I headed to the shores of James Bay. Since I was working with a new team, and the team was almost entirely men, I was uncertain what the response would be if I revealed that I was pregnant. As a sensible safety precaution, I told the office staff who keep the health records and other safety paperwork, and I also told one field assistant who would be on site with me. Otherwise, I kept it quiet, which was possible in my case because it was still relatively early in the pregnancy. And waders hide the start of a baby bump!

As with so many things, it turned out the anxiety of preparation was the worst part. Once I was in the field, the work was straightforward, and my role was (mostly) unaffected by the pregnancy. I was really fortunate to have had a relatively easy pregnancy, and the timing of the fieldwork also worked out well. The fieldwork took place over a month during the middle of my pregnancy, and I was between 14 and 18 weeks pregnant during the field season; complications tend to happen either at the beginning or towards the end of a pregnancy, and so those weeks in the middle are a relatively good time to attempt remote fieldwork.

Constance O'Connor with Lake Sturgeon

About 18 weeks pregnant with my first baby, and releasing one of the last lake sturgeon tagged as part of our study during that field season (Photo credit Dan Struthers).

In the field, the hardest part turned out to be the blackflies! We were deep in the muskeg in peak blackfly season, and I can now corroborate with firsthand knowledge that biting insects are more attracted to pregnant women. Combined with the recommendation from my midwives to minimize the use of DEET insect repellants, I am now convinced that one of the inner layers of hell must be trying to hold your hands steady to take a blood sample from a fish, while being swarmed by James Bay blackflies that are completely undeterred by such feeble defences as bug jackets. Luckily, blackflies in northern Ontario don’t carry any communicable diseases, and so although I now have set an entirely new bar for what constitutes “bad” bug bites, there was never any serious health risk.

I am so glad that I took my unborn baby to that incredible place, because I feel like it became part of who my child now is.

There were also magical moments. I first felt my baby move when I was in the field. It was at night, and I was under the endless stars only visible to those who are 200km from the nearest all-season road. I am so glad that I took my unborn baby to that incredible place, because I feel like it became part of who my child now is.

It has been just over 3 years since that first trip, and looking at this retrospectively, the fieldwork was my first foray into balancing my role as a scientist with my role as a mom. Going to the shores of James Bay while pregnant was a crash course in all of the decision-making that goes into trying to keep my child safe and healthy, while also performing my job.

Since that month in the field, I have had to perpetually seek that balance. I’ve realized the truth of the saying that it takes a village, since having good support at home and at work has been invaluable. And even with support, sometimes it’s meant that I’ve had to sacrifice parts of my job that I really enjoy, or give up on some of the ideals that I held about the kind of mom I wanted to be, in order to stay in the overlap where the two roles can coexist. It’s always a balancing act, and I am always learning. As my kids grow and change, and as I continue to develop as a scientist, I am sure that there will be countless more lessons in how to be both a mom and a scientist.

But that trip James Bay to wrangle lake sturgeon while pregnant was the first act.

The lake sturgeon project is a joint initiative with Moose Cree First Nation, and you can learn more at http://www.learningfromlakesturgeon.ca.

Fishing offspring

That first baby is now a child – who loves fishing! (Photo credit Constance O’Connor).


Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!  We are very interested in interviewing women of color who have published cool field science.  If that’s you, or someone you know, please tweet at us or email us femfieldsecrets@gmail.com and point us to the paper.

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