The value of researchers’ international mobility has been progressively enhanced by universities and funding agencies for the purposes of knowledge exchange, and by researchers for improving their skills and boosting their careers in academia or related sectors.
Furthermore, transnational research – study conducted in more than one country, with the aim of understanding and solving social issues through comparison – is appreciated by many institutions. In funding schemes like the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, international mobility and transnational research are often intertwined and researchers usually move abroad for between one and three years.
Being a researcher with a transnational research project funded by a mobility scheme, and at the same time being a parent means residing abroad, conducting research in the host institution’s country and/or in an additional country or countries, and bringing children and sometimes relatives with you. Researchers who agree to enter into a mobility scheme are often at the beginning of their careers, and are expected (or even considered) by funding and hosting institutions to be single and childless. Therefore, the effort and costs of an international relocation with a family are often not properly taken into account. By accepting these schemes, researchers know that they will work to develop knowledge, skills and networks, but they are often not completely aware of the struggle, cost and time they will need to spend understanding how to relocate, how to live abroad and how to familiarise themselves and their relatives with the cultures and languages of their host countries.
All these tasks require additional effort if a researcher is a single parent, the bread-winner, often without relatives or friends in the new country of residence. Whereas parents in a couple can divide the burden of absorbing this new practical information and obligations – renting an apartment, finding a school, applying for documents, understanding the health and tax systems – a single parent has to shoulder it alone.
When the ordinary routine is compounded by the extraordinary challenges of a pandemic, everything becomes even more complicated. The intertwining of family and work obligations is much more exhausting when one adds layers of extraordinary duties in comparison to colleagues who live in their home countries, in their own homes and cultures, with a stable network of relatives and friends. Furthermore, as the literature shows, single parents are often single or lone mothers, and a career in academia is more difficult to develop when you are a woman and a parent, even in ‘normal times’.
As a former Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow and a lone mother, I can testify how much more difficult it is to make ends meet and manage the practicalities of day-to-day life when you are a researcher conducting a transnational research project funded by a mobility scheme during a pandemic. In other words, you are an immigrant woman and parent, alone in the precarious world of postdoctoral jobs and in the unpredictable situation of a pandemic.
In September 2019, I moved with my seven-year-old son from Italy to my host institution, the University of Antwerp, to start my EU-funded project. In January 2020, we moved to the UK to start a part of my research project, which would last five months; after that we would return to Belgium and organise the next step of my research in Spain. It was while we were living in Scotland that the COVID-19 outbreak hit.
As a transnational researcher within an international EU-funded mobility scheme, my work and my personal and family life were governed simultaneously by different governmental agencies (like health and education agencies), universities and the European Commission. My research was to be conducted in four different countries (Belgium, Italy, Spain and the UK), all of which had different legislation, rules, administrative procedures, COVID-19 restrictions and varying media representations of the virus threat.
These countries also had different reaction times from the first announced case of COVID-19, and this affected not only my activities and expectations, but also those of my research participants who were lone mothers and professionals. As they were locked down at home like me, I worked to switch all my fieldwork from face-to-face to online mode. This delayed my research activities by several months, especially with the home education necessary while schools were closed ‘until further notice.
While some countries launched national schemes for paid postponements of post-doc research projects to cope with delays due to the COVID-19 crisis, some funding schemes did not. As a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow, I was among the researchers who had only two possibilities: an unpaid suspension of projects for the months of the lockdown or the conversion of the contract from a full-time to a part-time one. This would have meant converting a tax-free fellowship into a high-taxation work contract in order to obtain a part-time contract, resulted in a conspicuous cut in my salary. As a lone parent (with rent to pay for my apartment in Belgium as well as my temporary accommodation in Scotland), I could not afford a suspension or reduction in my salary. I therefore started working during the night and home-schooling during the day, a situation which lasted for a long period with periodic recurrences during subsequent school closures.
However, my very difficult journey through this two-year research fellowship has been worthwhile. Firstly, I have had the opportunity to show how the sociological approach I was using for my research – institutional ethnography – has great potential in explaining the disjunctures between my everyday experience (like my family’s needs, etc.) and how governments and institutions represented and controlled me as a researcher and a parent. Furthermore, institutional ethnography permits an analysis of the competing interpretations of the virus offered by different institutions and how they affected our everyday lives. By privileging the standpoint of common people and analysing people’s requirements and institutional discourses and rules, institutional ethnography collects knowledge that is useful for developing policies more appropriate to people’s needs.
Secondly, I have experienced how the COVID-19 crisis has made many pre-existing issues more visible. For example, it has become evident that some restrictive measures appeared to be gender-insensitive in the absence of ad hoc policies for women and lone parents at different institutional levels. If some issues have been caused by the pandemic in itself, other issues are structural and need more attention from academic and non-academic institutions.
In conclusion, the hidden costs of transnational research and research mobility schemes should be better considered by both funding agencies and awardees: people’s wellbeing is still and always should be a priority. Therefore, there is a need to investigate how transnational researchers live both alone and as parents. However, these enquiries should be carried out from a neutral perspective, without some funding agencies using it as an opportunity for self-promotion. We should not be told that everything is all right, when in reality not everything is all right.
Morena Tartari is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southampton and was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Antwerp, Department of Sociology until October 2021. Also see this blog post by the author.
Read the author’s article ‘Being a transnational researcher and a mother amid the COVID-19 crisis‘ in Families, Relationships and Societies.
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