Can archaeological field techs get married? 3

Can two archaeological field technicians get married and start a familyOf course two archaeological field technicians can get married, but they’d better be ready for a rocky road. My spouse, who is not an archaeologist, is well-aware of how difficult it can be to be married to a cultural resource management archaeologist.

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As soon as I learned my unfortunate fate, I picked up the phone and called my wife. “Honey, I’ve got a cultural resource management report that has to go out this week. I thought I had another month to get it done, but I was wrong.”

We’ve been together for more than 12 years so she already knew what I was going to say. “Okayyyyy,” she slowly replied. “What are you going to have to do?”

I spoke into the phone, “I’m going to have to spend the next few nights working late at the office. Can you get the kids and make dinner for the next few days?”

“Sure, she said without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m sorry this happened.” So am I,” I said.

*             *             *

I’ve been with my wife since the earliest days of my career, back when I was an archaeological field tech who was expected to dig at the drop of a hat anywhere in the state whenever they asked me to. Even though my career has always been precarious— ebbing and flowing like the tide— we’ve never stopped our pursuit of the American Dream: kids, house, cars, and everything that goes with it.

After more than a decade working in cultural resource management archaeology, my wife is pretty hip to the way things go for us CRMers. She has watched me try to be a good student, husband, father, and archaeologist and has been there through all the ups and downs. My wife knows all about:

  • Trying to sleep through your husband’s alarm clock that is set to go off at 3 A.M. She’s tried her hardest to keep snoozing through me quietly making breakfast and lunch in the dark.
  • Attempting put an infant back to sleep after her husband’s 4 A.M. goodbye kiss wakes up the baby.
  • Watching him come home exhausted after having to keep digging until the sun went down, but still doing his best to be interested in her day at work and play with the kids.
  • Those unanticipated discoveries that meant she’s going to have to get the kids from daycare, make dinner, do bath time, and put the kids to sleep for the next couple weeks.
  • Hearing him tell you he’s going to be coming home a couple days early only to find out that he’ll actually be staying out of town for longer than expected.
  • Watching him try and be a daddy and husband even though he’s only home 3 days a week.
  • Making dinner most of the time because her husband is huddled in the corner of the living room writing on a report he already spent 8 hours working on at the office and will spend another 6—8 hours working on at home.
  • Going to bed alone because he’s still writing and won’t be done until 4AM.
  • Finding out that your husband only has 10 more days of work—one more paycheck— before he’s going to have to file for unemployment…again.

She’s lived through all these things, day after day, knowing the next month is probably going to bring more of the same. It hasn’t been easy for either of us, but my wife is the glue that keeps our family together.

The other day, I was talking with a new graduate student about his reasons why he left his job as a cultural resource management field archaeologist to go back to school. There were a number of very valid reasons—breaking through the glass ceiling, getting a chance to do more writing, more job stability—but there was one reason that embedded itself deep in my mind: He wanted to be able to get married and have a family.

Cultural Resource Management and Marriage

Parenting is one of the hardest things anybody will ever do. You’re expected to be an example, a teacher, a provider, and a protector. On top of that, you’re also expected to be there for your kids. The future of the entire world depends on how you raise your kids. There is a lot riding on every parent’s shoulders.

Being a CRM employee/business-owner or archaeology professor makes parenting that much more difficult. I’ve written about this before. In my experience, most CRM companies and university anthro departments do not make it easy for archaeologists to be both employees AND parents. It’s almost as if archaeologists aren’t supposed to even have kids. I’ve received a lot of comments on previous blog posts I’ve written about this topic, which have allowed me to realize that walking the tightrope between archaeology as a profession and being a good parent is a tough act that many are pulling off on a daily basis.

There are hundreds of archaeologists in the United States that do have kids and they are raising them well. These folks have families and are constantly finding ways to be a quality parent and follow their personal dream of being an archaeologist. However, in my own personal experience, the most successful archaeology parents have several things in common. In general, they:

  • Have supervisory positions or are professors.
  • Are permanent staff.
  • Are not required to stay in the field all of the time (at most, they rotate between the field and main office).
  • Have more control over their work schedule (for instance, they can come into work early and leave early to get the kids).
  • Have graduate degrees.
  • And, many are older parents who had their children in their thirties. This is long after 26-years-old which is the average age of first-time mothers in the United States.

Many CRMers with families (including myself) married spouses in other industries that are considered “stable”. This is, perhaps, the most important observation I’ve made regarding the most stable married couples in cultural resource management. Both parents are not archaeologists. For example, my wife works in human resources at a large public university. We’ve been together for more than a decade (during which I have derived most of my income from doing archaeology). Sometimes I had the job that paid the bills; other times, she was the primary breadwinner. We just make it work, but I believe our lives would have been much harder had we both been CRM archaeologists—especially if we were both techs.

Is it possible for two field techs to have a successful family?

This is the question thousands of young archaeologists are trying to answer. Can I do the whole American Dream thing while married to another field tech? Can two field techs raise kids and make enough money to own their own home? Is it possible?

Obviously, the answer is yes. It is possible for two field techs to have a family, home, and career. As is true with all things worthwhile, it will take work and part of that work will be focused on overcoming several realities of being an archaeological technician.

Archaeological field techs are the most important part of our industry; however, they are the most underestimated and underappreciated group in our industry.

Cultural resource management would not exist as we know it if there were no field techs. They do the physical work (survey, excavation, testing, monitoring, ect.) so the project managers and PIs have something to manage. Every CRMer has to start somewhere and that place is usually as a field tech, so the field tech stage is one of the most important parts of our careers even if we don’t realize it. Every field tech is an incipient principal investigator, project manager, state historic preservation officer, and university professor. Field techs are the backbone of the industry.

But, being a field tech is also one of the most difficult phases in every CRMer’s career. Work is tenuous to say the least. The pay is low and the job requires frequent travel. There is also a rampant culture of denigrating field techs as something less valuable than middle and upper management. Worst of all, the low-balling culture within the CRM industry forces techs to jockey among themselves for positions, motivating them to take crappy projects just to stay employed.

Being an archaeological technician is somewhat like playing the game “Mortal Kombat.” No matter which character you choose, you’re going to have to fight and win. The only difference is in the video game you get extra points for executing bloody fatalities, whereas in the CRM industry you get bonus points for bloodying yourself.

You are rewarded for undergoing suffering without complaining too much. Staying late in the field. Doing #freearchaeology in your hotel room after work. Keeping your mouth shut about staying in flea-bag motels. Having to give back part of your per diem because you guys came home early is considered part of the deal. Techs are expected to silently suffer these indignities all the time. Saying something about these workplace conditions will get you marked as a “whiner” or worse, so many techs take it on the chin.

(NOTE: I would like to make one thing clear. Egregious workplace violations like getting cheated out of pay, unsafe work environments, discrimination, sexism, and harassment should not be tolerated at all. These things have no place in cultural resource management archaeology and you should not think they are part of the industry. This stuff needs to be outed every time it is encountered. No career is worth being degraded, robbed, or injured.)

A field tech’s work life is tough. Most CRM techs are in it just to make it to middle management where there is (possibly) more stability. The strictures of being an archaeological field technician are what makes it hard to be a spouse or parent while working in that position.

How much alcohol does an archaeologist need at her/his wedding?Two techs as spouses

(FYI: I’m not a marriage expert because I’ve only been married once and live each day by the skin of my teeth. If you want to know more about how to be a good spouse, ask my wife.)

I really don’t know how I came to marry my wife. I’ve never been good at dating and don’t know much about what it takes to create a good marriage. My marriage is a work-in-progress. Stay tuned.

One thing I do know is: Being a spouse takes work. Both people have to be committed to making their relationship work regardless of what happens and you have to keep working on your marriage even when you are not sitting right in front of your spouse. Absence can make the heart grow fonder or make the heart wander, so being in the field strains any marriage, relationship, or partnership. Unless he’s out there with you, your spouse is left home alone while you’re in a hotel room alone. Your relationship will be strained unless both of you can handle being alone for extended periods of time. Some relationships cannot withstand this strain.

Could you spend every waking hour with your spouse/partner; be in the field, office, home, and hotel together? I don’t know very many people who can handle that, but it’s something that could happen to field techs who try to maintain a relationship. Working on the same crew can be even more damaging than being left alone. I’ve worked in the field with techs who were married or dating. It isn’t always pleasant, but I’ve seen a few couples that work well together.

My point is: Being in the field strains marriages. Because techs spend a lot of time in the field, you can imagine the strain a marriage between two techs would have to endure. I’m not saying two techs should not marry. I am saying they should be ready to deal with the strain of frequently being in the field.

Two techs as parents

Let’s face it, marriage is our culture’s way of establishing parameters for the ethical birth of children. Anybody can have kids, but, before the 20th century, western societies really shunned children born out of wedlock. Marriage is an antiquated idea but it is still considered important in our society. If marriage and children are related, it only stands to reason that two married techs might consider having kids.

Financial considerations should not be the deciding factor in whether or not two field techs can be good parents. Poor people around the world raise good kids. Poverty does not prevent one from being a good parent, so not making much money is not an excuse for two field techs to not have children.

The nature of being an archaeological technician is, however, adverse to the needs and demands of being a parent. For one thing, you have to actually be physically present in order to raise a kid. Unless you’re carrying your infant in an Ergo Carrier out on survey, being in the field is going to prevent you from being there with your child all the time. This is exactly the reasoning behind the discrimination some field techs might face if they have kids (especially women). Employers might be less likely to send a parent in the field so having a kid might end your career as a field tech.

Children also thrive on routines. They need to know when to wake up, when to sleep, when to eat, and what to expect from daily life. They learn this routine from their caregivers—daycare, teachers, relatives, and parents. Field techs are sent out to the field at the drop of a hat and for an indefinite period of time. This means somebody else will be taking care of the kids, someone that may not do things the way you do. Your kids will be pulled between two different routines which will make things that much more difficult. The insecurity from capricious parenting can cause behavioral problems that will make your job as a parent more difficult and, once they’re school-aged, get them maligned by their teachers.

Finally, the needs of children change throughout your parenthood and you need to be a different parent at each stage of your children’s lives. This is not easy if you work as a field tech because you won’t be available all of the time. An infant has different needs than a 7-year-old. The needs of a teenager are different still and you need to lay a foundation for a good teenager early in your kids’ life. Parents need to cultivate the skills and abilities necessary to create a thriving adult who can think critically and solve problems when their kid is still in diapers. Parenting is a long game and you have to be there to do it from the time your child is born.

You can imagine how being the child of two field techs might complicate your upbringing because of the time their parents spent away from each other. Both child and parent need to be familiar with each other in order to improve each other’s lives (BTW: Parents are always learning from their children. It’s not a one-way street.) They need to interact with each other as much as possible in order to learn. It’s hard to do this from the field. It is even more difficult if both parents are in the field.

I’m not saying you have to be present with your child every single minute of every single day, but being away from your kid for extended periods of time is not conducive to parenting.

The only way two techs can raise children is if they have an excellent support network. Someone will have to be there to take care of the kids in the event both parents are in the field. Family and friends have to step up and fill in the gap.

Buying a house with little or no money down

Aaaaah, the material manifestations of American life. How can you own a car, home, and all the fixins on archaeo tech wages. To me this is a moot point. Obviously, you can’t live in Beverly Hills if you make $20,000—30,000/year, but that is enough to eventually buy some sort of dwelling or land in most American cities. It’s also enough to buy and maintain a motor vehicle. You’re not going to be rich. It’s not how much money you make, but, rather, how you spend and invest that money.

Working as a field tech isn’t going to buy you much anything in Seattle, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., but a sufficient nest egg invested in the right stocks/funds/investment will grow over time. Compound interest is a powerful force that makes most dreams possible. Even the lowliest field tech can shuck away a few dollars that can grow into a sum large enough to buy a home. Two financially savvy techs who are married can save/invest even more money and reap significant tax benefits.

The real question is: Should a field tech even worry about buying a house? What’s the use of having a home when you live out of a hotel room or tent for 20—40 weeks each year?

That’s a personal question that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, but, when I was a tech I invested and saved most of my extra money. The fruits of those investments was used as a down payment on the home I’m living in now. But, for the mobile field tech, a wad of money or ripening stock portfolio might be more beneficial than a house somewhere.

Money should not keep two techs from getting married. Poverty isn’t bliss but it doesn’t mean the death of a fulfilling marriage.

Change can happen, but only from the bottom

When I think about it, it’s kind of insane that our industry makes it so hard for two entry-level cultural resource management professionals to get married and start a family. It is that much more disheartening when I think about the fact that most of the CRM company founders of the 1970s and 1980s got married, raised kids, and bought homes but they haven’t been able to provide these opportunities for their current employees (I’m not judging, I’m just keeping it real). A lot of the long-time CRMers who are now PIs have also been able to do the same, oftentimes starting off when they were still field techs. I know a couple PIs who went back to school after being archaeo techs for a long time because they wanted to break through the glass ceiling in order to feed their spouse and children.

Where did we go wrong? How come this is so much more difficult today? Or, has it always been difficult for two archaeological field techs to have families and attain the American Dream and I’m just too young to know?

It is disheartening to think about how hard it is for two field techs to have a family. However, things do not have to be this way. Because techs are the backbone of the industry, they are the ones with the true power to change the way things are.

The easiest way to change is for those of us who used to be field techs to remember how it felt to live that lifestyle. Not just the “all-fun-and-games”, “devil-may-care”, “party-all-the-time”, aspect of being a young tech. I mean, remember the insecurity and angst associated with not knowing what your career is going to provide in the near future or how you’re going to fix your truck without taking a payday loan. The best PIs and company owners remember what it was like when they were coming up. They do their best every single day to provide employment for all of their employees.

It’s the publically traded, “full-service” conglomerates that are making work conditions worse for field techs. The one and only goal of these companies is to make money. They are not in the business to help improve communities or protect cultural resources. Employees are only there to improve the bottom line and when they cease doing that, they’re let go. Unfortunately, these companies are getting a large share of the total quantity of cultural resource management consulting dollars.

The only way for these “one-stop-shop” companies to change is through the persistent efforts of the CRM managers who have been there and done that. Seasoned CRMers can do their best to keep the profits rolling by convincing corporate heads to invest in human resources (i.e. keep quality techs employed and re-tool them to do other tasks when there aren’t any holes to dig). It’s cheaper to keep a skilled employee than to train a new one. It’s even better to cultivate a “T-person”—somebody that knows a lot about a specific topic (such as archaeological fieldwork), but knows enough to be dangerous at other tasks (ex. GIS, database management, Adobe In-Design, ect.). This needs to be emphasized if there is to be any future for archaeological field technicians.

Field techs will never be able to eliminate fieldwork from their careers because that’s a central element to their job description. The best we can do is provide career stability so they can stay in one town long enough to get married, start a family, and (maybe) buy a house.

Let’s keep this conversation going. What do you think? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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3 thoughts on “Can archaeological field techs get married?

  • Archaeomom

    Well done, Bill. I also enjoyed your contribution to the CRM Podcast covering this subject and hope you follow up on myriad related subtopics. I am a mother of a 5-year-old and ABD, and have taken an academic-ish tack on my career while my husband (also ABD -yes, we’re nuts) developed one focused in CRM.
    I have pumped breastmilk in the field under the moonlight while listening to coyotes, brought my then-baby to excavations I directed as contract holder (otherwise impossible), and into the lab while I completed analyses. My daughter’s bipedalism made subsequent inclusion in archaeology-related activities, especially conferences, impossible. Please keep writing about this topic and discussing it on the podcast. Families in all their forms, of course, created the archaeology -and the archaeologists!- in the first place. I’m listening for advice about staying IN archaeology and specific possibilities I may not arrive at on my own. Cheers.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      I’ve long wanted to see an archaeology reality show. Most of America would actually be interested because it’s way better than chopping lumber or wandering through the woods eating grubs

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