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Lessons in fieldwork self-care

(an ongoing area of study)

This summer is my fifth research trip to Oaxaca, and over the years I’ve developed a few ways to remedy stress and homesickness. To be clear, I love Oaxaca. It is a pleasure and a privilege to come here every year. But fieldwork is hard, and because the essence of my research is so tied up in my daily life, I need to be really conscious about taking breaks and de-stressing.

Some of my self-care is in the little things that I pack. I always bring some nail polish, because it encourages me to take little moments for myself. My packing list also includes a craft project — I just finished knitting a pair of socks, and my next project is a shawl — and some comfort books. A new addition to my packing list this year is nice mints. A friend introduced me to these excellent rose-flavored ones, and they’ve been very helpful for calming myself down when I get stressed out about my research process. These are all small things that are easy to pack but make a big difference.

Another key I’ve discovered is maintaining communication with friends and family. I make a point to tell my boyfriend about my accomplishments each day, no matter how small, because telling someone else makes them feel real. I’m also part of a WhatsApp group with all of the other students in my department doing fieldwork. We talk about our wins and loses, ask questions about research methods, share pictures of lizards, and generally support each other through the summer. Another way I stay in contact is by playing Words with Friends with my mom! Obviously, consistent communication isn’t feasible for all people and all field sites. But for me, at this stage of my research and of my life, it’s important to maintain those connections.

But perhaps the most important self-care strategies I’ve developed over the years are the ones that are specific to Oaxaca. While having reminders of home makes me feel comforted, it’s crucial to put some of my focus outward and to remember to take joy in my life here as well. One example: as a reward on a warm day, I get myself nieve (somewhere between sorbet and Philly water ice) from one of the stands by the market. It’s a special Oaxacan treat, and it never fails to remind me how lucky I am to visit this lovely place.

Of course, these strategies are not right for everyone. Self-care in the field — like self-care anywhere! — is a slow and steady process of figuring out what works for you. But I do think that in planning for fieldwork, it’s worth considering these three categories of self-care: small comfort items from home; social connection with loved ones; and local activities to keep you grounded.