Field Notes: Reflections on a Mother’s Career

A summer spent excavating graves with my archaeologist mom helped me truly understand her.

My mother, like many female archaeologists, had to fight her way into her chosen discipline. Early on, Dr. Patricia B. Richards defiantly resisted her advisors’ suggestions that motherhood and academia were an ill-suited combination.

She took us in the field with her, she plastered her office walls with pictures of us, she kept spare cots under her desk for the days we were too sick to go to day care, she enlisted her older children to take care of us younger ones, she mended her relationship with her mother, so our grandma could do the same. Because she was always working, and involving us in her work, I took the examples she set for her children, especially her four daughters, for granted.

Indeed, I had a stunted, narrow vision of my mother’s personhood even into my early 20s. She was after all, my mother, so my understanding of her identity was wrapped up in her relation to me. I was incapable of seeing the wholeness of her.

The summer of 2013 changed this.

AS I WAS finishing up my last semester of undergrad at UW-Madison, I had a job doing inventory at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Before I graduated, my mother, who was a senior scientist in the UW-Milwaukee Anthropology Department, called and asked if I’d like to move home and work for her instead.

Though I’d done a field school three summers prior, and I’d worked for her before, the job she was offering was much different. The Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery Project was a hugely exciting project, a Phase III investigation involving the excavation, analysis and curation of human remains. I wanted the opportunity, but I also knew I didn’t have the experience. My mother wouldn’t hear it; she said other people were learning on the spot. She said the only way you got experience excavating human remains was by excavating human remains. She said she’d pair me up with someone who had more experience. At the time, I had assumed that would be her.


 

 

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But the first time I stepped on site, I realized my mother was much too busy to be my dig partner. I’d had no real sense of the magnitude of her responsibilities until I began working there. She was in charge of about 50 crew, field techs and machinery operators. She was legally responsible to uphold complicated state and federal laws regarding the handling of human remains. She reported to UWM, to the State Historical Society, to the construction company and to Froedtert Hospital execs who were constantly pushing her to provide updates on progress.

Dr. Patricia B. Richards leading the Poor Farm Cemetary excavations in 2013 with children Willa (left), Nick and Emma; Photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia B. Richards

She also felt a duty to the individuals who’d been buried in this forgotten cemetery, whom she routinely referred to as “her people.” She believed it was her responsibility to care for this population whom Milwaukee had emphatically tried to forget, whose links to the present had been severed, and who had spent much of their interment being driven over. She saw our work that summer as capable of not only restoring those individuals’ humanity, but as bolstering Milwaukee’s connection with its own past.

I had seen my mother take control of our family, and I knew that she could be both tender and fearsome. It was somewhat of a surprise to see that she operated this way in her professional life, too. I could tell people on the project deeply respected her, some liked her, some loved her, and almost everyone was a little bit afraid of her. I could relate.

She was capable of making whole crews of construction workers shake in their boots, but she could also crack jokes with them, and would laugh at their winding stories. She also vigorously defended us against anyone who suggested that “little girls” couldn’t really work 10-hour days in the field. She was especially tender with her female field techs and the ones who had young

children waiting at home. Watching the way my mother watched over the mothers and young people on her crew was revealing. I could see her in the field two decades ago, wishing one of her supervisors had cared for her as a young scientist who was also a mother.

THAT SUMMER was the first time that the whole, awesome, messy, roundness of my mother’s personhood, outside of her motherhood, became truly visible to me. I hadn’t appreciated the impressiveness of her career, particularly her refusal to give up the fullness of her whole self in pursuit of this career.

I saw how she refused to give up her temper, her doggedness, her sexuality, the ferocity of her love, her tenderness, her toughness, any of it, for the career she wanted. I didn’t understand any of this until I spent those three months working for her. Years later, it’s impressive to me because women so often feel that they need to be so much more or less of something to fit into the professions they’ve chosen. Our visions of success are so shaped by men that it often feels we have to be more of that shape to succeed. Sometimes this means shaving off rough edges, or making sharper edges, building up “toughness” or a cutthroat persona. What I loved and deeply respected about seeing my mother as a leader that summer, about observing her at the peak of her profession, during the culmination of her life’s work was that she was just so … her. And this meant so many different things.

Undoubtedly, this experience complicated my vision of my mother and her life’s work. But it was also a profound demonstration of the ways mothering, so often cast as an impediment to our careers or a usurper of our identities, can instead nourish our professional lives and deepen our sense of self. I am indebted to my mother for the many, messy visions of motherhood she manifested over the course of her career.

Milwaukee-based author Willa C. Richards is author of The Comfort of Monsters.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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