(This post was originally published September 29, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)
It is a privilege to study marine mammals, but it also takes us away from home — at times, to remote and distant places or for long periods of time. Three members of our expedition have children younger than five. What is it like for these scientists to be away from their son or daughter for an entire month?
For me, the joy of raising my daughter comes from watching her grow and seeing the sparkle in her eyes as she investigates and explores her world. These things happen quickly at such a young age, so the thought of leaving means missing out on the many triumphant smiles as a new challenge is conquered or the breathless recounting of some bit of knowledge gleaned. Despite that, parenting is also a continuous, dull roar of responsibility in the back of my mind. Leaving that behind to go on an extended field expedition is liberating, but that feeling is tempered with the knowledge that the roar is now significantly louder for my partner. So going to sea is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the adventure, exploration, and ability to focus on the task at hand, but I think a lot about what might be happening at home. And when I come home to that excited smile, I wonder how I ever could have left.
Going out to sea brings with it a myriad of emotions for a new parent. I’ve summed it up to glee, guilt, and gratitude (3G). First comes the glee. You are so excited to get out and explore, to go back to the pre-parent era with all of its carelessness and adventure. But then comes the guilt. Guilt for feeling those feelings, guilt for leaving your child and partner behind, for being selfish as opposed to selfless. Then after that comes the gratitude. Gratitude toward your support system for enabling you to follow your dreams, for allowing you one speck of selfishness. Gratitude for the project and the people who invited you to come along and be part of an amazing experience. These three emotions stay with you the entire time you’re away, in constant flux depending on how the project is going. On some days, glee wins, other days it’s the guilt. Through it all though, you hang on to the feeling of hope. Hope that when your child is old enough to understand, they think you’re the coolest parent in the world.
An adventure and the potential to learn about species never before seen alive in the wild is powerful motivation for a naturalist. Time spent in the field is immensely rewarding, but it comes at a cost, especially when it comes to family life. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is growing at a phenomenal rate. Each day finds her expanding her vocabulary and developing more and more into her own little person. Missing those little moments — sliding down the slide at the playground, catching a caterpillar in the backyard, looking for shells at the beach — has been hard.
Fortunately, my partner is a marine biologist and understands the demands of fieldwork. She is doing an incredible job holding down the fort back home and looking after our daughter and two demanding dogs, all the while holding a 9-to-5 job of her own. Frequent communication, in the form of text messages, helps to alleviate much of the stress of being away for so long. Despite seeing some amazing things out here, I am really looking forward to reuniting with the pack and am quietly counting the days till I get back home.