Advancing the Value of Ethnography

The Motherload


An ethnographic film about motherhood during socioeconomic upheaval also demonstrates the intimacy possible with remote research methods.

The Motherload is a look at the realities of contemporary motherhood in the time of post-pandemic pressures, uncertainty and variable support.

Through our client-commissioned work of late, we couldn’t help but notice the theme of mothers, parents, and families struggling just to find a semblance of normalcy and consistency amidst such economic, educational and societal change.

So we decided to explore the topic on our own.

We chose to focus on motherhood, as opposed to parenting, because we wanted to explore the friction that women face between modern expectations, and persistent historical constraints to the role.

We spoke with mothers and families, across North America and Europe, as well as a number of experts.

We intended to meet in person, and quickly realized with the onset of the Omicron variant in the early stages of planning, that the safe and ethical approach would be to conduct all interviews digitally.

But this created the dilemma of building rapport, gaining trust, and capturing truly immersive stories around such sensitive and emotional subject matter. The Motherload turned out to be a universal story told through very individual experiences, with a result that’s bound to hit anyone in the feels, whether you’ve lived through parenthood or not.


This film was forged in friction.

Asking busy, stressed, scared, exhausted mothers to make time for us, to open their homes and hearts to us was a delicate and sensitive task to say the least.

We shifted our production timeline multiple times, just to ensure that we weren’t rushing our participating mothers arbitrarily. No better way to understand their reality than to have to shift our expectations to their life.

We realized that we couldn’t use traditional data collection tools. What mother has the interest or ability to log onto a computer to tell us about the midnight blowout she just changed?

So we created the mom vent line. We created a good old fashioned phone number that went straight to voicemail. A resource for our participating mothers to call in any time night or day, to vent, kvetch, confide and cathart. We didn’t know if it would work, but within days we were awash in calls. It became clear that it had been a long time since our mothers had not been offered an open ear, or a process for anything that acknowledged the constraints of their day.

The purpose of this film, aside from the value of the stories shared, was to demonstrate the achievable levels of intimacy and honesty without ever meeting someone face to face.

It was originally meant to be researched and shot like a traditional in-person ethnography and documentary. But in the absence of in-person interaction and conversation, we had to reduce friction in the process wherever we could, while reassuring our subjects that we were committed to receiving the full breadth of the friction of their lives, without asking them to simplify or sanitize their day to day.

It meant rescheduling when they needed to. And keeping the interview going when the realities of parenting were literally climbing over their shoulders.

It demonstrates the essential nature of researchers and filmmakers having flexibility, emotional availability, and a clear humility and humanity for participants to see.

And we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the skill and commitment of the moms and families in The Motherload to capture their own story. They are the cinematographers of this film. They documented the things, moments, and experiences that mattered, and made it possible bringing their narratives to life in film.

This is a film that we organized, facilitated and edited, but was ultimately visually captured by the very people that make it so special. That’s why the friction, and their incredible strength and power to move through it, are so memorable and impactful to anyone who watches.

The film was shot entirely by participants of the film.

We believe that this film is a special example of the importance of network-based recruiting, flexible research methods, and the ability to achieve genuine intimacy and trust through both, in the absence of face-to-face interaction.

By showing people that the constructs of the research were built around their time, their needs, their emotional constraints, only then could we ask people to fully immerse themselves in the project and ask them to spend time thinking about and executing the many shots and moments that make up the film.

We believe that by the end of the 14+minutes, the viewer will forget that all interviews were zoom based, with phone-shot support footage.

We hope you’re touched by their stories and enjoy watching. You can learn more about the project in this report.

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