The Importance of Childcare Support Networks for Archaeologists

The author’s son at archaeology field project in Boise, Idaho (2015)

By William White

University of California, Berkeley

Last winter, during ski week school closure in California, several anthropology undergraduate students brought their young children with them to class. I am a professor who never minds this. I completely understand how fragile childcare arrangements can be for archaeology college students. I started my PhD when my son was two-years-old and my daughter was about six-months-old. My PhD revolved around meeting academic and parental obligations. I tried to make graduate student cocktail mixers leaving early enough to help put kids to sleep. As a grad student with children, I found that I had more in common with some of my professors who also had childcare woes than other PhD students.

Childcare is essential to being able to conduct fieldwork and research as parenting children, regardless of their age, and being out in the field does not always mix. I had my children after I had already completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, so worrying about what I was going to do with my child while I took a field school wasn’t a concern. But, the presence of elementary school-aged faces in my college lecture got me thinking: What do students who are parents do when they need to go to archaeological field school? What would a single-parent professor or cultural resource management (CRM) archaeologists do when they needed to go into the field?

Attending an archaeological field school is central to becoming a professional archaeologist. Many cultural resources companies refuse to hire archaeological field technicians who have not taken a field school. Most professional archaeologists get their start as field techs. Being flexible for those early career field projects is also important for launching an archaeologist’s career in cultural resources. Having kids adds another dynamic to the decision to take a field school or the ability to be flexible in your early career.

Finding someone to take care of your kid for happy hour cocktails or a late seminar is much easier than locating someone who will watch your kid full-time while you are out of town for six weeks. Based on personal experience, I know how important both extracurricular student bonding activities and field projects are for an archaeologist’s career. I also know how I managed to meet some of those obligations without leaving my kids in a parked car at the field site (Hint: My wife watched the kids so I could do archaeological fieldwork). In fact, most of the archaeologists I know have spouses, friends, or family members who will watch their kids so they can go out into the field. I know of very few field projects where children are welcomed. Liability issues make them virtually prohibited from CRM fieldwork. In addition to figuring out how students navigate childcare and fieldwork, I also wanted to know if archaeology is conducive to parenting. Are we working in an industry that makes it easier or more difficult to be a parent?

Parenting from the Field

The expectations of a field-based career does influence an academician’s decision to become a parent. Unsurprisingly, it is women who report delaying pregnancy to pursue their career; however, having a child effects the careers of both parents in positions that require fieldwork. Lack of work-life balance is cited as a major source of stress for parents in the academy (Lynn, 2018). Academicians are frequently able to bring their children with them in the field. Fieldwork with a baby is not easy but it can be done. Collecting quality field data and taking care of a baby are not mutually exclusive (MacDonald and Sullivan 2008). Women in academia, including archaeologists, conduct substantial fieldwork while pregnant that makes significant contributions to their field (Carter 2017). As long as health risks are mitigated, pregnancy should not prevent women from conducting productive fieldwork (Sohn 2018). Accompanying parents to field projects can become an enlightening experience for children old enough to remember their experiences. While they recall being bored, tired, and hot, children of academicians recall traveling abroad on field projects with their parents had a positive impact on their lives (Barton 2014). Debates around being a mother and field researcher are an “evergreen” topic for companies, universities, students, and scholars. The particulars of being a mother and doing fieldwork are the focus of an upcoming book from Rutgers University Press titled “Mothering from the Field: The Impact of Motherhood on Site-Based Research” (Muhammad and Neully, editors; 2019).

Archaeologists are already having intense conversations about parenting and fieldwork online. On Facebook archaeology groups and CRM Archaeology Podcast Episode 158 you can find lengthy discussions about how parents handled children for fieldwork. Episode 158 unearthed deeper revelations about how having kids can affect a parent’s career. Fieldwork oftentimes delays an archaeologist’s decision to start a family. The constant childcare dance prevents some from even entering the field and drives others out of it. Parenting only gets more complicated as older children have emotional and psychological needs younger kids do not. It is important to be present for an older child’s activities and be there to help them thorough the dilemmas of being a teenager. Advice and presence becomes more important as a child gets older.

While professors and academic researchers have the freedom to bring their children to the field, this is rarely possible for CRM archaeologists or students. Liability issues on CRM projects prevent children from being present on most CRM projects. Typically, only principal investigators and company owners have told me they brought their kids to the field. Students may not even know they can ask to bring their kids with them to the field. (FYI: Do not be afraid to ask if you can bring the child with you to a field school. The worst they can say is ‘no’. Also, the response of your supervisor and co-workers will give you an excellent idea of how conducive this workplace is going to be for parenting.)

For an archaeologist, a strong network of family and friends are paramount to making fieldwork happen. Having a supportive spouse makes it easier for archaeology students to get their field training when a field school is not amenable to children. Supportive family or close friends can also fill the childcare void while also providing a nurturing environment for children while parent(s) are away. This is even more important for archaeologists who are single parents. The economics of childcare are also an ever-present consideration for any archaeologist who has to go into the field. Can you afford the kind of aftercare or preschool that will allow you to get back to town from the field? Can you compensate folks for taking care of your kid while you are in the field? Most archaeologists are not able to afford this kind of childcare, which is something companies and field school directors need to start taking into account as childcare problems undoubtedly drives away many talented archaeology parents.

What do I tell students?

Raising children is not easy. Doing archaeological fieldwork as a parent is even more difficult. But, archaeology is full of parents who have managed to get an education (including field school), forge a career, and raise their children. Without children, there would be no archaeology. However, we live in a world where archaeology is not conducive to being a parent. I feel more can be done to make it easier for students to bring their children with them to the field. I understand that not all projects will be able to accommodate children, but professors and anthropology departments can do a better job of creating local field opportunities where children can be present.

I do not believe CRM will be able to provide opportunities for archaeologists to bring their children with them to the field as it would violate too many liability clauses and occupational hygiene ordinances. The companies I’ve worked for do a pretty good job of letting management bring their kids to the office, but I think they could do more to help up-and-coming field technicians who are parents. The best thing they could do is hire some of these folks as permanent employees, which would remove some of the precarity of having to be ready to do fieldwork at the drop of the hat. This means creating opportunities for field techs to do office work (i.e. activities normally handled by archaeologists with graduate degrees). It will not create opportunities for all field technician parents but it would help many.

It may not always be possible, but a workplace’s willingness to allow children depends on the flexibility of management, especially those with children. Parents in management have the most power to make archaeological fieldwork more amenable to children. It is within the power of supervisors who are parents to make archaeology more realistic for co-workers who are parents.

Children are always welcome in my class, which means I need to keep doing what I can to create field schools where children are welcome. Safe, local, low-cost, public projects like public archaeology projects in Boise, Idaho through University of Idaho. On these public archaeology/field schools, children work alongside parents. Projects like these are too few, but I feel like there is space for there to be more of them in the future. We have a chance and an obligation to make sure parents can bring their children with them to field school.

A field archaeologist’s career success depends on the social networks. Archaeologists are not the only ones who travel for work. Archaeology families have to work together to help make fieldwork possible. The parents among us also need to remain mindful of the ways archaeology is not supporting parents and to remedy the mechanisms that keep parents out of the field. Those without children may not be aware that they are hindering an archaeology parent’s progress. It is also up to archaeology as a profession to do whatever it can to help make parenting and archaeological fieldwork possible. We can follow the lead of field scholars in academia to make it easier for parents to be with their children in the field.


Barton, Erin

2014  Innocents abroad: Fieldwork with family. Arizona State University (https://research.asu./stories/read/innocents-abroad-fieldwork-family) Accessed August 28, 2019.

Carter, Imogene

2017  Pregnant in the field: have trowel, will travel. The Guardian, July 1. ( Accessed August 28, 2019.

Lynn, Christopher D., Micaela E. Howells, and Max J. Stein

2018  Family and the field: Expectations of a field-based research career affect researcher family planning decisions. PLOS One, 13(9). ( Accessed August 28, 2019.

MacDonald, Joan Ramage and Maura E. Sullivan

2008  Mothers in the Field. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24. ( Accessed August 28, 2019.

Muhammad, Bahiyyah M. and Melanie-Angela Nuelly, editors

2019  Mothering from the Field: The Impact of Motherhood on Site-Based Research. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Sohn, Emily

2018  A guide to juggling fieldwork and pregnancy. Nature: International Journal of Science, February 14. ( Accessed August 28, 2018.

Tagged with: