Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It takes a village

The hard thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that you always have a childcare problem. The great thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that the childcare problem becomes, inadvertently, a way into community; a passage into relationships of trust and reciprocity that would otherwise be closed to you. Away from home without your networks of friends and babysitters, any after school-hours activity can present a major headache. We have had a particularly challenging time because we work with two after-school programs, so all of our research activities with youth are, well, after school. To survive we have taken advantage of our own transnational networks—for a few weeks the niece of our good friends back home, who was studying abroad in Madrid for the semester, babysat our daughter during one of our weekly sessions, until her travel schedule and her far-too-soon return home prevented it; and when friends from Connecticut visited us, we recruited them into babysitting, as well. But we have also relied on the kindness of new friends and neighbors, and it is here where the childcare problem becomes a blessing, forcing us into a new community. Last week, just when our babysitter was no longer available to us, we added a second youth group to our schedule, giving us two evening focus groups a week. Trying to figure out childcare arrangements became nearly as complicated as the research itself. Our daughter’s regular ballet class in the neighborhood provided half a solution: she was covered for the first hour of our two-hour session. Midway through the first session, I ran out to pick her up from ballet and brought her back to the youth center, fortunately just a couple of blocks away.

If you have to take your kid to work, a youth center in Madrid is not a bad place to do it. I could write a whole separate blog post on the warm welcome my kiddo has received from the staff and teenagers at both youth centers where we have worked, and how I believe I owe whatever ethnographic access I have obtained to her. If she is not with me, the staff and teenagers always ask about her, and watching them interact with her so lovingly allows me to glimpse a side of them I would not otherwise see. But here I want to simply comment on the grace of finding others to take care of your child, because let’s face it, however child-friendly the work environment, sometimes you just need your kid to not be there so you can work, and sometimes the desperation to find childcare is so great that you would practically fall on your knees to beg someone to take her. And in a new country with new relationships, that humbling act of ‘I need help, can you help me’ can bring a surprising grace. I am lucky enough to live in the same community as the teenagers with whom I work, and the younger sister of one of my 17-year-old students, who I’ll call Carol, is in the same ballet class as my daughter. We often see Carol, and other students of ours on the street in the neighborhood, and they always greet our daughter with a big bear hug or a high five. Carol’s little sister and my kiddo have become good friends, walking together on the way to or from school and at ballet twice a week. So once I decided that running out to pick up the kiddo halfway through a focus group was not going to happen again, I thought of Carol. I called her up and asked if she could take both kids home after ballet for an hour while we finished our focus group. She said sure. Tonight after our session finished, I walked the few blocks to Carol’s apartment, where I was invited inside to a scene of childhood bliss. The girls wanted to keep playing. I chatted for a while with her mother and cooed over her baby brother. I knew that the family had moved here a few years ago from Brazil. And I thanked Carol and her mother profusely for helping me out. “It’s nothing,” Carol’s mother said genuinely, almost embarrassed that I should thank her. I had offered to pay Carol, but they wouldn’t accept any money. That brief encounter inside their home changed the way I saw Carol and her mother, as my asking them to take care of my daughter probably changed the way they saw me. Instead of the teacher from America who’s always asking weird questions, I became the recipient of their kindness.

There have been so many other occasions here when new friends have amazed me with their generosity, dispatching nieces or offering themselves to take care of the kiddo so that I could work, give a talk at a conference, or just go shopping. So to all of you who have been part of my village here in Madrid: thank you. Your kindness has made me conscious of community, and of the need to pay it forward, to invest in the ties that make this transnational migrant life possible.

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