Mum Guilt, Fieldwork, and Immigration Detention



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Alice Gerlach, Lecturer in Criminology at Oxford Brookes University. Alice completed her Dphil at Oxford University in 2018, while pregnant with twin girls. She took a full-time lecturing job at Oxford Brookes when her children were 6 months old and has continued to conduct research 'in the field' on immigration detention in the United Kingdom since. Alice tweets @AliceGerlach. This is the third installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth

When discussing a deadline for writing this post the wonderful Border Criminologies Blog editor, Andriani Fili, let me know she wouldn’t enforce the deadline too harshly, because she knows I have young twins. I really appreciate when people acknowledge how family life can impact on work, because it does. This blog post is a testament to the challenges of juggling family and applied research, particularly when fieldwork involves travel and emotionally challenging interactions.

In May this year the Home Office granted permission for Mary Bosworth and I to run the Measure of Quality of Life in Detention (MQLD) across all seven of the immigration removal centres in the UK. The opportunity to gather the first complete data set across the estate was too good to refuse. It was, however, not as simple as ‘before twins’ when I could simply drop what I was doing and head out.

The practical challenges of organising seven research trips over the three months of summer ‘break’ (and a fleeting visit to a workshop in Australia) was a logistical nightmare. Conducting fieldwork in immigration removal centres is rarely straightforward. Permission for each centre needs to be sought before attending, even though there was a blanket approval from the Home Office, and this rarely happened more than a week in advance. Complicating things, my husband works away two nights a week and I need to be home on those evenings to pick up our girls from nursery, likewise he needed to be home to care for the girls when I was away. I will spare you the details, just know it was tough.

The Exercise Yard of Colnbrook IRC's Short-Stay Unit. (Photo: Immigration Detention Archive, Border Criminologies)
As tricky as the logistical side of things were though, it was nothing compared to the emotional turbulence of conducting emotionally difficult research alongside being a new parent. I must caveat here that these feelings are minute compared with the challenges faced by people in detention. But, at the same time as I recognise the gravity of detention for individuals, I must emphasise how important it is for researchers to speak openly about the emotional challenges of conducting research around borders, because if we don’t then we won’t be well enough to continue doing it. I have discussed before the difficulties of conducting emotive research (see Gerlach, A. 2018), and the importance of taking care of yourself when doing fieldwork. This is, however, much more difficult now that I have children. 

The thing with parenting, is that you never stop being a parent and it was this that was the trickiest aspect of fieldwork post-twins. You may have a temporary break while away on your fieldwork trip, but the moment you walk back in that door you are a parent, and I can assure you one year olds (thankfully) have no conception of the misery you have experienced over the last few days in the course of your fieldwork, they just want you to play with them. The problem with this, is that it is much harder to find time to recover, de-stress, and deal with the stories of the men and women you met in detention that week. I spent most of the summer ill with colds, coughs, and a sore stomach and I have no doubt the inability to decompress after detention was a contributing factor.   

To conduct the research I had to spend time away from my twins, who were aged between 11 to 13 months during the time of the fieldwork and I grappled with feeling bad about it. For anyone who is not a mother, let me introduce you to the concept of ‘mum guilt.’ Mum guilt is not simply something that people talk about on ‘mumsnet’ or other social media platforms, it is a real phenomena whereby Mother’s feel guilt about their choices to work, or not work, or how much they work, or any other decision they make that impacts on their child (see Sullivan 2004, for an academic take on mum guilt). Essentially, it is a societal problem that whatever we choose to do as mothers with regard to our work we will be made to feel guilty for it. I have been at work full time since my twins were six months old and I know that is the correct thing for me and my family, but that doesn’t stop me sometimes worrying that I should be spending more time with them while they’re little, because people keep asking me if I shouldn’t be, or telling me how they couldn’t do what I do. I feel further guilted by inquisitive people, who on hearing that I had small children, and that they were not with me during the fieldwork, asked  me who was looking after them then. I quizzed my husband, who works away every week, and has done since the babies were very small, if he was ever asked this question, and the answer is no. The expectation is that their mother is at home, always, and it is considered unusual that a mother would be travelling away for work. We still face such gendered assumptions when it comes to childcare and it is doing nothing for women who want to continue working in the field post-children.

I haven’t offered much in this blog in the way of how to tackle these additional challenges, and this is mostly because I am still working through them myself. I learned towards the end of the fieldwork, for example, to add additional nights to my trip in order to recover from them before going home. This goes alongside trying to not feel guilty about taking a night post-detention away from home, knowing that I could, in theory, be home to see the babies if I didn’t. But I think the take home message is that though continuing on to do fieldwork post-children is exceptionally challenging, it is possible and if you want to do it, you should be able to. Perhaps ask yourself if a father would be able to take that trip, no questions asked, no guilt applied. If they could, then we should start challenging why a mother should not be able to as well.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gerlach, A. (2019) Mum Guilt, Fieldwork, and Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date])

Found within

From the Field
(Field) Research and Methods
Detention centres


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