by Josephine McKelvy
One researcher’s experience as a participant highlights how easy it is to feel judged and what can be done to build trust so that we can turn voices into action.
Last year when we were visiting with moms on grocery shopping trips or doctor’s appointments, it was easy to wonder how we would act (and act differently) if we had a guest tagging along, peeking into our lives. Flash forward to today, we’ve been talking with moms for almost two months now about parenting, cooking, and making ends meet. Along the way, we’ve been fixing how we ask our questions to make sure that they make sense. And in both cases, the last thing we want moms to feel is judged as we poke our noses into their daily lives. As we train and practice our interviewing, I got to see what it’s like to have researchers asking questions about my life and I can say from experience that you can’t help but feel a little judged.
Recently, part of our team was practicing the “food recalls” over the phone. This phone conversation involves asking moms and their older kids about everything that they ate yesterday, as well as when they ate, how much they ate, who they were with, and what they were doing while they were eating.
Of course, the Monday afternoon that my office mate, Cassandra, called to do her practice phone call was the day after my family had “grazed” or eaten snacks all day…and completely skipped dinner! In my imagination, Cassandra has her phone on her shoulder, typing away at her laptop without any opinions either way about how my family spent our Sunday, but then maybe an eyebrow might perk up when there was no dinner to report. (I know we ate and Cassandra knows we ate, but there’s something about not eating dinner that felt wrong.) Something we learned from our first year of interviews is that a lot of moms feel that keeping kids fed was a major part of what parenting means to them. So I couldn’t help but feel like a bad mom for letting my nine-year-old kid fend for herself—and possibly go to bed hungry—instead of making her eat at a regular dinner time.
I also knew that Cassandra would find out my secret, that we skipped dinner. After she asked me her questions, she’d be having the same conversation with my daughter. But still, I couldn’t help but be vague around the fact that we did not have a sit-down Sunday dinner. And this was with someone I knew! I’d hate to think how a mom would answer these questions, asked by an almost-stranger, if she happens to feel guilty about a decision that she had made about feeding her family.
On the other side of this experience as the person asking the questions, it’s easy to avoid feeling judged. We control what is going to be asked. We remind moms about how important privacy is to us. We do not use anybody’s real names. We do all of this because we want moms to feel comfortable when they share their stories with us. Maybe something else we need to do is “turn the tables” and ask these questions to ourselves to see how it feels.
Talking with Cassandra has shown me that the questions we ask can feel intrusive, even if it’s just about when and what we ate, Sometimes, as an interviewer, the stories that moms tell me sound vague to me at first, but that might be because I’m asking things that they don’t want to talk about. It’s important to ask moms if there was something else they wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask and to feel okay with silences while they think through what it is they want to say. We also try to thank moms for sharing personal stories because we want to know about their experiences–from the proud moments to the everyday routine to the awkward situations–so that we can understand how moms make sense of food and health. After all, it’s their voices we want to hear and it’s hard to speak if you’re feeling guilty, ashamed, or judged—even it’s only about last night’s dinner!