Becoming a Parent in the Field, or How I Learned to Let Go of the Ideal of Objective Research (@theTable: Parenting in the Field)
By Justine Howe.
Omer, the instructor for the adult education class on the Qur’an I was observing, stood at the front of the classroom and gestured to where I was sitting at a desk in a public high school classroom. “Most of you remember Tina,” he said. “She is a doctoral student who is writing a dissertation on Muslim communities in Chicago. More importantly, she is a new mom, of a beautiful baby boy, mashallah.”
Such was my re-introduction to the Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb Foundation, a third space community in the Chicago suburbs, which served as the primary case study for my dissertation, and now book, Suburban Islam (Oxford University Press, 2018). I had been conducting fieldwork at Webb for the year before my son was born and was returning to classes and activities after several months off. But in my third trimester, I developed high blood pressure and eventually preeclampsia, and was prescribed bed rest. As a result, I had more extended time away from fieldwork than anticipated. And because I was barely showing when my hiatus began, many of my more casual field contacts did not know I was pregnant, though I usually talked about my pregnancy in longer conversations and interviews.
Omer’s reintroduction made it plain that I had (unwittingly) held onto the ideal of being an objective researcher. Now, visible, embodied changes made it plainly obvious that I never had been. Ostensibly my entry into the community was through my academic project. To be sure, I moved fairly unencumbered through Webb spaces and events. As a white woman, I was also not immediately marked as non-Muslim in the Webb community, because it included members of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, and many women chose not to wear the hijab. But my ability to form more meaningful relationships in the field came to depend on my embodied role as mother, a role that I came to see as the foundation for mutual exchange of knowledge between myself and my conversation partners.
Pregnancy and motherhood made me vulnerable. Instead of being the purveyor of knowledge in a community that highly valued academic expertise on Islam, I became the recipient of wisdom about breastfeeding, sleep training, and managing grandparents’ expectations. I learned a lot from these conversations about how to soothe my increasingly sleepless baby who had driven me to the brink of exhaustion. My son increasingly accompanied me to Webb events, where he sat on laps, wooed everyone with his giggles, and gave no indication of his penchant for nightly escapades.
I also became a person who needed care, usually in the form of food. Over lengthy meals (after all, I needed those third helpings!), conversations became more far-reaching, less question-and-answer, and more centered in telling stories and commiserating about their implications for us as American women, as wives, and as mothers. These experiences clued me into the benefits of gender-separated social spaces that are common in Muslim communities and to understand how complex such spaces are. My conversation partners were critical of gender separation when it was imposed on them. In those afternoons, though, I saw why they often wanted to be with just other women and mothers. I didn’t always feel comfortable discussing breast-feeding or childbirth experiences in the mixed-gendered gatherings comprised of other married couples that constituted the majority of my limited social time. Having a baby in graduate school (and in general!) can be an exhausting and lonely business; I reveled in the female camaraderie and the slowness of those afternoons as much as I couldn’t wait to get home and turn those moments into field notes.
In turn, I began to see parenting as a key entry point into how my conversation partners navigated ethical dilemmas and political demands of the post-9/11 era, of which there were so many for American Muslims. Yet as my research progressed, I came to understand that my conversation partners and I, despite not sharing a religious tradition, placed the same moral value on parenting – that is, we understood parenting to be our most important social obligation. This is what Kathryn Lofton calls the “elaborate discursive regime” of American parenting. Over the twentieth century and into the twenty-first centuries, the advice sold in parenting manuals and the peace of mind purveyed through various products may change over the decades, but the social pressures and moral weight placed on parenting has not.
Being a wife and mother in a companionate, heterosexual marriage carried the additional benefit of signaling to my conversation partners that I shared their particular investment in the nuclear family as moral center. The Webb community’s social activities focus on the parent-child relationship and make leisure time into meaningful ritual performances. Through events such as father-son football, the organization seeks to cultivate an American Muslim identity that is “seamless” and that is recognizable to other Americans (especially their white, Christian neighbors) as American. Such efforts reflect the particular political position of American Muslims, as highly-surveillance religious minorities, who want to create safe spaces of fun and affirmation for their children. At the same time, they reflect broader realities of American upper-middle-class family life, in which parents serve as managers for the children’s leisure time, hoping to shape their kids’ future academic and professional futures, as well as to cultivate their moral subjectivities. My ethnography has attuned me to why my husband and I agonize over and make about our now kindergartner’s afternoons (how much/little structure? Chess and/or soccer? Are we offering too much/too little choice?) These choices inflect our own socioeconomic privilege and the ways – like members of the Webb community – that we perceive so much to be at stake in these daily decisions.
As the dissertation became a book (this time, with my younger son as my constant companion), what started as a small piece became the basis of the book’s main argument about third spaces as essential for understanding the constraints and possibilities for American Muslim identity in the 9/11 era. I used to wonder about what I else might have written, and I still wonder about what I might accomplish had I not become a mother, but I know — in that embodied way I have since come to embrace — that there is nothing more rewarding than the insight that comes in your most harried, sleep-deprived moments.
Justine Howe is assistant professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Suburban Islam (Oxford University Press) and the editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender.
Next: Amanda Baugh, “Exposing my Kids to Ideas I Avoid: The Inelegance of Parenting in the Field” (Part 4)