Reminisces of a Field Mom
The exploits of a new mother following her passion, while raising her toddler in the extreme weather and Spartan conditions of fieldwork in Spiti…
While rummaging through my cupboard the other day, I came across a T-shirt tucked in a corner. The creases on the T-shirt suggested that it was perhaps forgotten for quite some time. As I opened up the T-shirt, a surge of memories flooded by senses. The one-liner on the black T-shirt “Life begins in Spiti Valley” depicting a silhouette of mountain peaks and a Buddhist cairn summed up a significant part of my life in a nutshell! My life of single parenting, of doing a PhD with a one-year-old and learning to rely solely on my intuition all began here!
My decision to get back to my PhD after a year-long maternity leave was one of the most challenging choices. After several months of emotional surges, meandering through the several changes in my PhD objectives to accommodate doing field work with a child, and a grant to kick-start the work, I started the four-day journey to Spiti with my one-year-old. My family was apprehensive of my decision of taking my daughter Nyilza(Kuhu) to the field, and the consequences of a 14-hour journey from Delhi to Manali for a one-year-old made me feel equally guilty. She was feverish, throwing up, refused to breastfeed and was crying incessantly. At that point, I was actually rethinking my decision of taking her to field with me, but I realized that this was what I had chosen and should stick to it in the best way possible. An extra day of stay in Manali eventually eased the situation and we started our ascent from Manali to Kaza.
It would be wrong to say that I had no apprehensions of taking a one-year-old to an altitude of 4200m. As a mother, I did think about some of the immediate worries such as acclimatizing to the cold low-oxygen conditions, finding a person to look after her, keeping up to her vaccination schedules and the possibility of accessing immediate health care options. However one of the most important lessons that I learnt through my experiences was that unless there are major health concerns, children are generally very resilient and can adapt to several situations. While it took a week for me to get acclimatized to the low-oxygen environment, Kuhu took just four days. Within a week she was up and walking around in the field base. The next step was to find someone to look after her while I would be away doing fieldwork. Although a word was spread in the village, no woman was ready to take up this job as they were already occupied with their own house chores and prescribed duties in the agricultural fields. Unable to find a woman to look after Kuhu, this responsibility was finally taken up by an NCF field crew member, Damal lama (TanzinThuktan). His honest assurance that he would look after Kuhu like his own daughter relieved me of my immediate worries. It was amazing to see Damal lama take over all the duties; starting from changing diapers to feeding her and even finding a way to put her to sleep in the absence of a feed.
My PhD aimed to understand the human-dog interactions in the Upper Spiti landscape. Much of my research involved travelling across the landscape in several villages for interview surveys to understand peoples’ perceptions about dogs as well as estimating dog populations. The fieldwork was made village centric for the ease of doing fieldwork with a baby. Travelling with a toddler involves quite a bit of planning, therefore, a bag had to be ready with all the necessities. When Kuhu started her solid food at five and half months, her meals were completely home cooked and I never felt the need to purchase Cerelac. However, that was something I had to forego (for at least one meal) when I was in the field. Sterilizing her bottles were also sometimes difficult so I started training her to drink from a cup or a glass. However what I had not anticipated were the sleepless nights and irritabilities during teething. Kuhu would refuse to take any solid food and completely survived on milk from the dzomo (female of a yak-cow hybrid). The milk (with a very high-fat content) was a savior during these trying times and my neighbours in the village ensured that I never ran out of supply!
The anticipation of spending the next two winter months with Kuhu meant adequate preparation in terms of getting the diapers from Manali before the road closed. The local taxi drivers towing people between Manali and Kaza-Kibber would take up this job making sure that there are transported on time. The women in the village knitted sweaters and socks, ensuring that Nomo (kid in Spitian) is well-clad during winters. I remember that by the time I was heading back to Bangalore, Kuhu had 15 pairs of socks, five full sleeve sweaters and at least half a dozen half-sleeve ones. In a couple of months, Kuhu resembled any other Spitian kid; cracked cheeks, a pink flush on the face and comfortable when tucked and carried at the back. She learnt to call me “mama” and several other words, walked, danced to Spitian music, sat on Chumurti horses during festivities and rode a donkey (with the assistance of course). She even learnt to imitate a donkey bray and would often be practising her emulating skills in her dreams at night.
There are several challenges of doing fieldwork with a toddler. Since my daughter was still in the feed-sleep regime, I was sleep-deprived during my fieldwork as well. I have had extremely stressful times particularly when my daughter met with an accident where she scalded herself when she hit herself on a tandoor (a locally made metal oven). This was one of those incidents that tested my patience, endurance, keeping myself stable when dealing with adversities and following my intuitions to take stock of a situation. However, in spite of all the challenges, they have also been the most memorable ones. Amidst a strenuous day in the field, there is nothing as relaxing as coming back to a smiling face, being greeted with a peck on the cheek and a warm hug.
There is a proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child” and while the proverb implies the need of a community of people to provide an environment for children to experience and grow, I take this on face value as well. I am indebted to the people in Kibber village who gave me all the possible support and affection to raise my daughter. My colleagues in NCF were equally supportive and often helped in babysitting on several occasions in the field. Their assurances have always raised my spirits at times when I would doubt my abilities. My intuitions have also been my strongest aide. First-time moms often face the snide of other women who are brimming with advice on how to raise a toddler. While I respect the fact that their intentions may be pure, as a mother I have always believed in my own intuitions and learnt to take responsibilities for those decisions as well. As a mother, I do not believe in making sacrifices but believe in making conscious choices. I also believe that one should not have a schedule depending on the child, in fact, it’s the other way around. You make your routine and the child will automatically adapt to that. In the course of my research, several people have asked me as to how I have been able to manage being a single mother as well as continuing my research and all I say is that “I do not want myself or my daughter to ever say I could not do it for you”
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Dear madam, you are an inspiration for many women. Thank you for what you did . Hats off !