The title of this post is not meant to pose an existential or rhetorical question about my student status. Worthy though that would be (the existential aspect, at least), the question is far simpler – what is my reason for choosing this particular topic of study rather than any other? This has been a recurring question from right back at the beginning, when I went to an information session and was asked what my area of interest was, and what had brought me to it.
I haven’t had too much trouble answering the question. I work as a social worker in a role that overtly requires me to advocate for people diagnosed with a particular health condition, and their families. I am confronted almost daily by the interaction of carers and formal service providers. In a funding environment that is leading increasingly to carers picking up coordination roles that might previously have been allocated to a paid worker, with an assumption that this is ’empowering’ (a view openly expressed not only by providers but also often by consumer peak groups), I am keen to hear the views of people who might not be as articulate or politically savvy, or who might simply be too busy caring for their family member to poke their head up, meerkat-like, and see what they are going to be asked to take on. What more motivation could I need to embark on a social work research project that seeks to challenge possible power imbalances in the voices that are being heard?
A couple of weeks ago I went to Port Fairy, in south-west Victoria, for a music festival. We arrived a couple of days before the festival and set up camp, and then I had the rare joy of simply sitting in the sun reading a book and ‘processing’, free of the usual distractions. Maybe it was this thinking space that allowed a memory to pop into my head, seemingly out of the blue.
My memory was of a conversation – perhaps verbal interaction would be a more accurate description – when my then-7-month-old daughter was an inpatient at a large metropolitan children’s hospital. Having already been visited separately by the consultant and the resident (most junior doctor), we received a visit from the registrar, whose status falls between the other two. Let’s call him Dr R. The interaction went like this:
Dr R: I’m Dr R. I’m the registrar of this unit. I hear that you’re a nurse.
Me: Um, yes…? (My social work studies came many years later)
Dr R. Well just remember that here, you’re a mother.
That was nearly 24 years ago, but remembering it still evokes physical feelings of being punched in the abdomen. Had we had any sort of warm-up chat, rapport-building, etc, we could have perfectly happily reached agreement that I had certain knowledge and skills that were relevant to my daughter’s condition, but in this context were secondary to my concern for her as her mother. Instead, the message that I heard was ‘there’s a health care team here, and you’re not on it’.
Mulling over this memory as I sat in the sun at Port Fairy and read about conceptualisations of carers, it occurred to me that this memory has a deep and direct link to my interest in my chosen research topic, even though I hadn’t consciously thought of it for a long time. I might have considered myself a partner on the team that was caring for my daughter, but Dr R seemed concerned about my understanding of roles and boundaries. This cuts to the heart of interactions between parent-carers and formal services. How do services understand the role of parents who are carers? How do parents see their own role, of itself and in relation to formal services? What happens when there is dissonance between the two?
My memory confronted me with another issue, which is that of subjectivity and researcher bias. Until I remembered this incident, I had been feeling that I was ‘outside’ my proposed participant group, and to the extent that I am researching the experience of parents caring for a child with complex care needs, that is still the case. My daughter’s illness was short and intense, but with no long-lasting effects. However, my ‘outsider’ status is only partial; I have experienced interactions with formal services in my parenting role, and these experiences will potentially influence my interpretation of every step of my research, from developing my theoretical position to analysis and presentation of the data.
In order to meet my obligations as a researcher, I need to continue to reflect on these ‘hidden’ influences, acknowledge them both to myself and relevant others, and then be able to set them aside so that I can truly hear the participants in my study, whose experiences and views will certainly differ in some ways from my own.
Now that I’m back from Port Fairy, ‘real life’ is once again crowding in on me, and I’m back to the exciting but all-encompassing juggling act that we all know so well. However, I have learned a very valuable lesson – it is not only helpful but imperative that some spaces are found to simply sit and allow your thoughts to wander. When you stop stirring the pot and let it settle, sometimes good things float unexpectedly to the surface.