Navigating Ethnography as a Divorced Single Mom (@theTable: Parenting in the Field)
By Katherine Dugan.
I became a single mom officially one month before I began ethnographic work among a group of young adult millennial-generation Catholic missionaries who have traditional ideals of marriage and families. I received the final divorce paperwork and celebrated my daughter’s second birthday weeks before I started spending hours each week in Bible study and chit-chatting about Catholic evangelization and Pope John Paul II’s gender complementarianism. In the subculture of ideologically conservative Catholics at the center of my project, divorce is considered a plague. These young adults worry that divorce causes a “wound on [the] heart” of children and argue that broken marriages are the result of Americans’ unwillingness to work hard to embody an ideal Catholic marriage.
I was nervous about being a divorced single mom among these Catholics. Reading through my field notes, the awkwardness of those early interactions is obvious. I worried that my new status would make me seem untrustworthy. I wanted to be transparent in my self-presentation, but I was still wrestling with my own understanding of my divorce and figuring out how to be a single mom. My daughter is in those early field notes, but mostly as logistical challenge—leaving an event early to relieve the babysitter; making a phone call to check on her; scheduling fieldwork around her dad’s visits. Trying to take my lead from ethnographers like Kristy Nabhan-Warren, I agreed that “mutuality” is part of ethnography. She posits that “ethnography can afford a depth and understanding of others’ lives,” but is always also imbedded with the vulnerability of the ethnographer’s position. I quickly realized that I had not considered how vulnerable it would feel to embody something my interlocutors’ worldview deemed corrosive.
Ethnography is always, to some extent, a performance. We make choices about how we present ourselves as we interweave ourselves with others. After several weeks of avoiding reference to my daughter and worrying that my divorce would somehow come up, I realized it felt disingenuous to spend mental energy avoiding mention of my two-year-old. My internal worrying about their judgment of my divorce made me overly-guarded. It was an emerging ethnographic friendship with a missionary named Claire that shifted my approach. She was single, twenty-six years old and especially open about her life. It seemed human that I should reciprocate. When I started to mention my daughter casually and stopped thinking about being divorced, the tone and style of my fieldwork expanded. As I let myself be more vulnerable, I learned just how much these Catholics also struggle to navigate between their ideals and their realities.
Claire and I talked often about dating and her prayers regularly referenced hope for a “good Catholic husband” and a big Catholic family—soon. She also told me stories of being hurt by dating experiences and how confusing she found dating. When she asked me about my dating life, I nervously reported my lack of surety about how to date as a single mom. She told me to pray about it. We talked about how hard it was for her to wait for her boyfriend to “DTR” (define the relationship) and she taught me that, in this subculture, men are supposed to take charge of a dating relationship. When I used the phrase “hanging out” to describe dating, she shook her head and explained dating ought to be a clearly defined event, not a nebulous hang-out time. The ideal purpose of dating, she noted, was to find a husband with whom she could begin a big Catholic family, complete with complementary gender roles. I wondered how the strong and intelligent young woman in front of me would thrive in that kind of marriage.
Despite her clarity on the ideal, Claire often bemoaned how unskilled she felt at dating and finding a spouse and starting a Catholic family. She was not confident in the model her parents had set—they were married, but she worried their marriage as not Catholic enough and prayed for them during Bible study. Claire and her fellow missionaries were devout Catholics, but also middle-class American millennials. Many, many missionaries grew up with divorced parents. The bombastic Catholic ideals, I slowly realized as my friendship with Claire developed, usually felt somewhat out of reach.
After all of my fretting, I never felt judgment from Claire about my own divorce. That is not to say that Claire thought my divorced single motherhood was a good thing (like I, eventually, did). But she avoided negative comments about my status, even when she worried, in general, about the negative effects of divorce and single-parent families. Being a divorced single mom was never the barrier I worried it would be. This was, I think, because these young adults sensed that their long-prayed-for Catholic ideals are hard to enact. Because of their worldview’s harsh critiques of divorce, I had expected judgment. But, perhaps, Claire’s own complicated romantic relationships and less-than-ideal dating experiences made her feel unqualified to pass it.
When I had discovered ethnography as a research method in studying religion, I was enthralled by the intimate and nuanced portraits of religious life my academic role models produced. But the romanticized image I had of being an ethnographer did not include an image of myself divorced and juggling the demands of raising a child alone. The logistics of single motherhood meant that I had to admit (to myself!) my vulnerabilities: I was not able to be the untethered ethnographer I had imagined being.
Ethnography enmeshes us in the ideals and fears of other people, but it also implicates our own ideals and fears. I used to wish I did not have to juggle the demands of divorced single motherhood with ethnographic method. But now I suspect that my status forced me to be vulnerable with Claire and others in a way that enriched my perspective on the complicated terrain between ideals and daily life.
Katherine Dugan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Her most recent project, Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism, is under contract with Oxford University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University.
Next: Justine Howe, “Becoming a Parent in the Field, or How I Learned to Let Go of the Ideal of Objective Research” (Part 3)