Intimate Narratives

Neelma Bhatti
Published in
10 min readOct 12, 2022


An assets-based approach to develop holistic perspectives of student mothers’ lives and their use of technology in parenting

This blog post summarizes the paper “Intimate Narratives: An assets-based approach to develop holistic perspectives of student mothers’ lives and their use of technology in parenting” by Neelma Bhatti, Amarachi Blessing Mbakwe, Sandra Nnadi, Geetha Saarunya Clarke, Aakash Gautam, D. Scott McCrickard, and Aisling Kelliher.. This paper will be presented at the 25th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2022) and will be published in The Proceedings of the ACM on Human Computer Interaction (PACM). The paper can be read here. (Disclaimer: All images used in this post are owned by the author.)

Technology plays a vital role in facilitating the care-giving practices of modern parents, and common methods of research used to understand contemporary parenting with technology include interviews, surveys, diary studies, and co-design sessions with stakeholders and observation of participants’ behaviors and practices in their naturalistic settings. While these methods are effective in engaging large groups of stakeholders, they tend also to focus primarily on existing patterns of technology use, with the aimed intention to develop more/better technological solutions for the target participant group.

Such approaches may neglect or even erode the participants’ sense of agency and control in the participation, and may not reveal an authentic biographical understanding of participants’ identities that could influence their attitudes and motivations for technology use.

Recent research of relevance to these personal contexts proposes an assets-based approach, where the focus is on participants’ strengths and capabilities which can be leveraged during investigations. We employ this approach to produce a biographical understanding of a particular subset of parents, which is the foreign graduate students who are mothers of young children. It is important to note that the focus of our work is on ‘engagement’, instead of eliciting the ‘needs’.

Our primary contribution to the HCI and CSCW literature with this work is to present our adaptations of assets-based methodology in an intimate setting, focusing on engaging participants by expanding on their distinctive assets to present deeply personal narratives. A secondary contribution of our work is demonstrating what it means to apply this methodology in a sensitive and highly personal context. We present the intimate narratives as the product of our methodological innovation, which provide insights into the lived experiences of the foreign graduate student mothers’ lives, bringing socio-cultural aspects of their lived experience to the forefront, and situating their use of technology in the broader context of their lives.

This paper details our collaborative approach in capturing a holistic understanding of parental technology use through an assets-based framework. We steer the focus away from the design of technology as the central force of technological innovation, and instead support participants to reflect and describe intimate details that highlight specific use-contexts of technology in their lives. We leverage a group of foreign graduate student mothers’ self-described unique strengths to gain an in-depth account of their lived experiences with technology. As research participants and co-authors, our collaborators elicit intimate narratives about meaningful events in their lives, bringing social and cultural aspects of their lived experience to the forefront, and thus providing broader context of their use of technology.

The authors of the paper participated in this research by taking on the roles of researchers, facilitator, and AG members . The role of researchers draws from the concept of communities of practice, where experienced members of a community assume a position of responsibility, and are expected to initially perform at higher levels of expertise than other members. Based on similar work where belonging to a community helped researchers to build upon an existing shared rapport with participants, the first author facilitated the research process between participating mothers and other members of the research team. While all of the researchers planned and executed the work, the first author in particular had a natural affinity with foreign graduate student mothers. Her shared circumstances fostered a certain level of trust among them, enabling them to comfortably narrate their sensitive narratives. In doing so, the first author assumed the role of a researcher as well as member of the group, as opposed to being merely a friendly outsider. Together, the first author and foreign graduate student mothers formed an affinity group (AG) with shared circumstances, assets, motivations, and research goals.

Three non-overlapping roles taken by the authors of the paper: Researchers, facilitator and AG members

It is worth noting that the AG members are graduate students who are experienced at writing academic articles. Their writing skills were an asset available to them, which was leveraged in this research. However, academic writing is structured and closely follows norms established within the domain of study. In this research, writing was an asset but the personal and intimate nature of writing meant that the AG members were engaged in a relatively familiar yet still removed or strange activity. This, we believe, helped the AG members to move beyond mechanistic writing and to thoughtfully reflect on their lives and parenting practices. The remaining three researchers/co-authors of the paper brought their experiences and knowledge about assets-based approach, participatory research, feminist HCI, and design methods in HCI to the table. Thus, the co-authors came together with their unique assets to make this research endeavor.

Intimate narratives

Instead of referring to the AG member’s experiences as findings, we refer to them as “intimate narratives”, in an attempt to respectfully position them as being beyond data. The narratives were organized in the form of vignettes,and Each vignette is titled to provide a summary statement of the section in a playful and meaningful way.

Some of these narratives highlighted the role of AG members’ partners during their transition through multiple life-altering experiences in a short span of time, and also give context to their choice for having children and moving to the United States for graduate studies. As these major choices made by the AG make them different from others, we consider them important in understanding their motivation for forging a new life.

Tinderbox: Becoming a first-time parent in a new country, with her spouse arriving roughly one month before her expected delivery date, with no social support and money, and a qualifying exam in two months while exclusively breastfeeding? Sounds fun. Highly ambitious. Except that their relationship became a tinderbox. They knew it was going to be difficult, but they were naively hopeful. The level of difficulty B faced was beyond her expectations, making her question the decision of moving to the US. Why was a PhD so important, why could she not be just a stay-at-home, rather stay-in-the-home-country-with-family mom? She fed the baby, pumped milk for the baby when she left for classes, bathed and put the baby to sleep, prepared meals, and studied. But was she really studying, or just barely making it to the next assignment deadline? On one of those nights, she burst and told the husband she doing all the heavy-lifting, and slowly sinking under a load of self-imposed expectations of being a good wife, a good mother, and a good student. In that order.

They further highlighted the tensions and conflicts that faced by the mothers in using digital technology in parenting, which can be perceived as being in conflict with “good” parenting practices. While there exists a large body of work on how parents engage with and seek help from parenting communities online, these narratives tease the intricate space where parent-child interaction is facilitated through technology in the absence of online and offline communities of assistance.

Boon and bane: Being an only child who met or saw kids only when they went outside to run errands, it sometimes came as a surprise to people how B’s baby remembered several rhymes and communicated what he wanted as a two-year-old, despite English being his second language which they did not speak at home. One time, while picking the baby up from a friend’s place, the friend-parent commented on how the baby was excessively active and too chatty, followed by “that must be because he watches a lot
of TV as you are busy”, the screen shaming too obvious to be hidden. Of course, her desperate circumstances lead her to adopt unwanted practices

Oh, I know these people: Born in a foreign land without family around, B’s baby recognized family only as a face on the smartphone screen. It was definitely not an ideal introduction, but they wanted to acquaint him with close relatives including grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. He did not seem to be as interested in the humans on the screen as he was for the cartoons, but that changed when they visited their home country six months after the baby was born. It was like having a 3D view of the 2D people he had been seeing all this time. When they were back in the US, the baby seemed more interested in hearing and engaging with the relatives back home, slowly starting to identify them according to their respective relationships as he grew older.

The digital devices also aided one AG member’s struggles as the only co-located parent of a child with special needs. The absence of her partner through her journey of adjustment in a new country brought out a new set of struggles, such as an unexpected diagnosis of her child with autism. She
described her use of technology to soothe and engage her child during times with challenging behaviors:

Tech bug: C could not explain why her baby always tiptoed or why he would laugh hysterically, or the reason why his speech was not forthcoming like other kids his age. Her baby was two years old when the doctor diagnosed him with autism. She wondered what the implications of the diagnosis would be on her studies, as she was just getting by trying to understand the American educational system which was very different from that in her home country. She had a steep learning curve to rise to the demands of being a graduate student, and the diagnosis felt like a square peg in a round hole. However, her baby loved music since he was a newborn, as this was one of the things that kept him calm during his tantrums or behavioral patterns. When he got tired of his toy instruments very quickly, C turned to technology for help, and there was so much it could offer, from music videos to learning apps. The baby caught the tech bug easily and could spend two hours watching a music video while she utilized those hours to catch up on assignments. It turned out that the educational programs he watched improved his ability to identify things despite the diagnosis, but this limited her parenting time with him. She wished she could be more available to play along with him, but deadlines had to be met.

As these narratives were written in an ongoing pandemic world, they also depicted life while navigating the challenges of COVID-19, where the AG members had to juggle their various identities of being graduate students and mothers in lock-down and at home with their young children. These narratives also advocate for giving credence to digital media devices for making parents’ lives slightly easier in challenging times.

Clash of times: Quarantine posed additional challenges for A as classes were online and graduate assistant duties had to be conducted via Zoom. While the baby enjoyed being near his mother every moment of the day, she used the tablet to distract the baby while she attended class. During one of the exams, she tried different measures to keep the baby restricted to another room to gain maximum concentration, but he preferred to use the tablet beside his mother. As a result, she set up her office meetings during her baby’s sleeping time. This resulted in a state of a quandary as the professor preferred having a particular time for all of his teaching assistants, whereas she was bound by the baby’s nap time to avoid disturbance.

Eliciting design needs like slow-churned butter

Siri with a conscience: Grandparents had gotten the baby an iPad when he was two so that he could FaceTime with his mother whenever he wanted. They lived in an isolated community in the US and books and the iPad were ways to claw out of boredom. Kids YouTube was D’s kid’s go-to app, where Peppa pig and Dora in Spanish were his best friends. She often thought what would she call a small AI-driven app or robot that curated videos and materials for her child and had all the attributes of an imaginary friend? Siri with a conscience.

These narratives present the AG’s nuanced perspectives on the use of technology as a digital childcare assistant, where they rely on technology as a positive distraction tool, enabling the AG members to chart time and space to balance the multiple responsibilities that accompany their multiple identities. The AG members described their vision of technology for their unique parenting challenges, which we communicate in the paper as future research directions worthy of exploration by our fellow researchers and designers of media and technology for children.

It is important to note here that while technological solutions currently provide support to the AG members’ parenting practices, they are band-aid solutions to systemic problems such as the lack of affordable childcare, inflexible schedules, and unsympathetic consideration of female students’ living situations.

Transferable learning

In a world where their merit is determined on different criteria — the number of children they have, their role in raising them, achieving academic milestones, and producing high-quality publications as a graduate student — the AG members looked at this engagement as an opportunity to define their vulnerabilities and strengths emerging from the amalgamation of these distinct identities.

Our adapted methodology has some transferable learning for similar work in a sensitive setting and with vulnerable populations. We envision our work to be useful for CSCW researchers who want to engage deeply with communities, particularly in highly-personal contexts. Future work in this research direction can also explore other forms of media such as audio-visual narratives, self-designed probes by participants, or parent-facilitated elicitation of technology use from children.

Picture with 4 AG members having a synchronous video chat where their identities were not concealed from eachother
AG meeting, where the facilitator and the remaining AG members had a synchronous video chat, where their identities were not concealed from each-other

As a possible next step encouraged by the interest shown by the partners of the members of this AG, we invite parents with different inter-sectional identities to utilize our approach of eliciting intimate narratives to give visibility to their stories of living with and using technology for and with their children.

Full citation: Neelma Bhatti, Amarachi Blessing Mbakwe, Sandra Nnadi, Geetha Saarunya Clarke, Aakash Gautam, D. Scott McCrickard, and Aisling Kelliher. 2022. Intimate Narratives: An Assets-Based Approach To Develop Holistic Perspectives of Student Mothers’ Lives and Their Use of Technology in Parenting. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 6, CSCW2, Article 522 (November 2022), 28 pages.



Neelma Bhatti
Writer for

NB is an assistant professor in Computer Science program at Habib University, Pakistan. She completed her PhD from Virginia Tech, USA on Fulbright scholarship