Archaeology and Family Life – The Joy of the Summer Holidays!

As you may have guessed from the fact that my Day of Archaeology post is a day late, my Day of Archaeology was pretty chaotic and to be honest I had completely forgotten it was the day for the blogs!

I work in the commercial archaeology sector in the UK, and things are far less glamourous than the view which many have of us sweeping away with a delicate brush in a far flung exotic location! This week, and for the next few months at least, it is very unlikely that I will be doing anything at all which is site based. I am working my way through a pile of illustrations and the desk based elements of a number of projects – whilst trying to balance being self-employed with family life. Family life at this time of year (those lovely, long summer holidays) is predominantly concerned with childcare – or perhaps more to the point arranging childcare!

To this end my day starts just after 9, having just dropped off the wee one in a sports club for the day. I make a cup of tea – because caffeine is pretty much what I run on, and check through my emails. I sort out a few queries and tenders before tackling the next childcare issue. My partner and I run an archaeological company together and share both work and childcare, and with the help of grandparents on both sides and some school/sports clubs we just about get by. Sometimes things don’t come together as hoped, and yesterday morning was on of those mornings! Checking through the jobs for upcoming week, I realised we had a day where both of us were at all day meetings on the same day in different places – so frantic checking with grandparents ensued! Luckily the wonderful Mamgu (granny for those not from South Wales) has come to the rescue and will be child-wrangling all next week so we can both work full time. So 2 weeks down and only 4 to go!!!

After the minor crisis has been solved it’s a day at the computer, digitising some building elevations for a Level 3 Building Recording which we have recently undertaken, followed by making a start on the phasing, analysis and building description. Lunch is eaten at my desk (which looks like a bomb has exploded near) as I have to knock off by 3 to pick up the little one from her club, and spending a few hours hanging out with her.

It feels a little odd thinking about the impact of the school holidays as our daughter turned 4 last week, and has only been at school for the mornings (9 – 12.30) since last September. I had not really though about how much we had both come to rely on that block of time to cram in as much work as possible before one or other (or a grandparent) would pick her up, (work would them more often than not resume for a few hours in the evening after she has gone to bed). Before this we used to split childcare between us with one or other out on site or working on desk based elements – and again this would result in a lot of work being done in the evenings after the little one is in bed. Hopefully this will get easier again when she goes full time in September, with the option of breakfast and after school clubs.

This post has veered somewhat off topic towards parenting as an archaeologist, but I am just going to run with it as it is something that we have only recently started to talk more seriously about in British archaeology. It has long been known that despite slightly more women entering archaeology in their early 20’s there is a large drop once women hit their 30’s and, although the reasons discussed are complex and there are a number of factors in play, parenthood is seen as the key reason behind this. For a large number of women working in archaeology is fundamentally incompatible with raising a family – particularly the field work element.

There has been a raise lately in the number of articles about women still digging whilst pregnant, including some which have been picked up by national papers like the Guardian which can only be positive, but for some reason most of these focus on pregnant academics who do one field season a few weeks long whilst visibly pregnant (usually somewhere hot and photogenic). The accompanying narrative is “women having it all” and “look I can still do things even though I’m pregnant” but they fail to look at how this differs from the experiences of those who work in the field day in day out through their entire pregnancy because it is their job. Things like how do you deal with morning sickness when people don’t know you’re pregnant and think you are hungover, avoiding areas where there are sheep, the fact that you have to go a bit easy on the lifting/barrows, sites with contaminants or the risk from needles, over zealous risk assessors who don’t bother to discuss things with you first or the opposite – people who refuse to make any concessions whatsoever because it is your choice to be at work and you’re being paid aren’t you (not all my experiences but drawn together from the experiences of female archaeologists). Then throw in short term contracts and the fear of being laid off/contract not renewed so to avoid maternity pay, the assumption that you will not be returning to work after having a baby or the fear of even telling your employer you are pregnant and things look much less rosy.

Even after listing these things when pregnant, it feels somewhat depressing to say that it is actually after you give birth that things get really difficult for women working in archaeology. For me I had an emergency cesarean so even had I wanted to go straight back into the field it would have been physically impossible – then there is breast feeding and simply not wanting to be separated from my child, childcare cost and, well you can see where this is going……

For me I was lucky in a way because although being self employed meant I wasn’t entitled to any maternity pay, it also meant I could work from home and set my hours around when the baby was asleep. As mentioned in a few other blogs, I used a sling to keep the baby close and she would happily sleep snuggled up to me whilst I was typing reports/drawing/washing finds. Her Dad did similar and apart from breast feeding (which he wasn’t much cop at) we could both share all baby related responsibilities, and we were both able to work full time for the first few months with relatively little adjustment. I know this is not the case for everyone – we were just very lucky that once we were out of hospital she was just a very healthy, very chilled baby.

Things got much more difficult as she got older and by the time she was a few months old the only time to both work was when she was asleep – which was getting less and less, but was still allowing us to do a reasonable amount of work. As she grew up things got harder to manage work wise as we had pretty had to resign ourselves to only one or other working at a time – partly because sharing childcare worked for us as a family but also because we simply could not afford to pay for childcare. Being self employed meant a massively fluctuating income so having large regular outgoings – especially as we would have to pay for childcare to keep the place whether we needed it or not, was simply not an option. Childcare costs are a massive issue for many families and although as a graduate profession archaeology is considered to be poorly paid there are many families worse off – but what these costs do mean is that as there are fewer (read very, very few) part time jobs in archaeology it is often not worth the family member earning the least to go to work. In my experience that family member is the archaeologist so we see an exodus from the profession.

Now I am going to digress further again here and talk about the difficulties faced by parents of young children when they are employed primarily or exclusively in fieldwork because again when archaeologist blog about having children in the field with them when they are digging these people are working on university or occasionally community excavations. There is no way whatsoever you could take a child to work on a commercial site – it is simply too dangerous so the pictures you see of children on sites are on open days not work days.

The way that commercial archaeology works in Britain (I am unsure about Northern Ireland as I have never worked there) is that although companies are based somewhere, most cover a massive geographical area and you can be called upon to work anywhere in the country with little or no notice. Away work is not great when you have a family as it is hard on everyone not to be there at night during the week, but even if there is work in the local area site hours which generally start at 8 am make getting childcare almost impossible, and if you can get it it is even more expensive. So basically it is virtually impossible to stay primarily in the field unless you have a partner who is able to take over all early morning childcare and drop off, and that your family is able to deal with the absence of a parent during the week – or sometimes for weeks on end if the site is a great distance from home and you simply cannot get back on weekends.

This is the reality faced by families of archaeologists and by parents who are archaeologists – some are able to make changes and stay in the profession but a lot are not. With the massive upcoming infrastructure projects like HS2 there is a shortage of archaeologists, and more worrying a major shortage of experienced archaeologists. We have a lot to do as we change and grow and it is worth reflecting that PPG 16 only came into being in 1990 and in effect the sector has largely grown from this. It is now time to reflect on how we got here, is it a good place and how do we move forward in a more inclusive way? Staff are going to get older and their family situations will change – can we really afford to shed staff in large numbers after they have worked for ten years or do we need to think how to retain them, and how to allow then to return to the profession after taking time out to have children? Do we want a profession where women are underrepresented at senior level? Can relatively small changes such as enabling parents with young children to work from home (obviously only applicable for non site based work!) and more part time options allow more parents, especially mothers, to keep their hand in and stay connected with their company? Change is needed and now would seem to be the time for it.

Finally I am also going to add in a cheeky plug for a Facebook page that I mange with two other archaeologists with kids (the lovely Vickki Hudson and Shelly Bull – one of whom took around a decade out of the field to raise and family and one who has been forced to leave the profession) called “Diggers with Kids”. It is a group founded because of the need to talk to other parents in similar situations and to support each other as much as we can. Archaeologists with children can feel very isolated because so many of our contemporaries have left the profession or conversely the archaeologist may have left and is feeling left behind and frustrated. Since it was launched a few months ago it has grown to 240 members so if you have recognised your situation in any of the post above or if you are interested in the issues raised then please join us. P.S although we originally started off as “Diggers with Kids” we have recently added the tagline “for parents working in archaeology and heritage” as it is not a group exclusive to digging staff!