‘Trust me, I know exactly how you feel’: Undisclosed thoughts on researching single mums when you are one

dogbod2017, blog

by Amy Andrada

Amy Andrada, CRFR Associate PhD student, provides her thoughts on reflexivity[i] during fieldwork

“Yup. Uh huh. Ok… Could you tell me more about that?” This is my side of the interview. I listen intensely, nod my head along, and utter some phrase along these lines. It seems rather monotonous, but it’s necessary. This does several things for me and the other person: it ensures active listening, encourages the conversation to continue, and keeps a flow and rhythm to our interaction. For a moment it builds a sense of trust between us, which is vital in my research. But it also serves as a much needed crutch, for me.

You see, there are times during the interview when I’m divided, between being the interviewer and talking to the other person as if they’re just that, another person. If I were to ask them about how many children they have and why, there’d be some dialogue, that would go smoothly. But I don’t ask these types of questions. I ask these mothers why they’re alone. I ask them how they manage being alone with their children. I ask them to tell me when being a single parent doesn’t work for them and how they deal with it.

Most of these interviews start the same – parents express an extreme amount of shame. And I know that all too well, because I’m a single parent. Though single parenthood is the focus of my research, being a single parent myself doesn’t remove how sensitive the subject matter is, or relieve any discomfort when asking people to describe how their children were abandoned by their other parent, their fears of failing as the parent present, and the incidents that lead to choosing their current lifestyle. Now, I didn’t know any of these women previously, but during the interviews I find that I know every one because I know myself. I know what it’s like to tell my child their other parent chose to leave, that we will manage as just us two, and that somehow I’ll make what was wrong into something right.

During these interviews, there’s tears, hand holding, pats on the back and tissues given. I do what any decent researcher would do, I ask if they want to stop. But I’m met with their determination and told discussing these things is helping. Although I’m asking for them, a part of me is asking for me too. Though I don’t live with shame anymore, it doesn’t mean I don’t relive it when asking these mothers to disclose their own. But there is hope as well. Women speak of agency, love, and choice. There are tears of joy among the pain. Though they’re telling me their stories, they’re actively living them. And I am honored to be the one sitting across from them, listening. Which is why I continue.

The more I spend time interviewing these women, the more I see reflections of myself: as I once was, as I am, and as I hope to be. To be on the peripheral, is something academic research doesn’t really pinpoint, but it’s there. It’s just undiscussed, hidden between the “uh huh’s” and “tell me more’s”. But trust me, I know exactly how you feel. I’m just not saying it. It’s your turn to talk. And it’s my job to listen.

[i] Reflexivity is the process by which the researcher reflects upon the data collection and interpretation process

About the Author

Amy Andrada is a CRFR Associate PhD student, based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Amy is researching the dynamics and developments of identity among mothers, in the context of in-group and out-group relations. Her research aims to explore the ways in which identity is shaped by parental, gender, and relationships statuses.