Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

As a follow-up to our post of reflections on the American Studies Association annual meeting, we’d like to feature AMS assistant professor Dr. Cary Cordova’s reflection on attending conferences, including ASA, as a mother, and the professional challenges this creates. For more great words from Dr. Cordova, check out our interview with her a few weeks back right here on AMS::ATX.

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Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

Starting with the American Studies Association annual meeting in 2009, it got complicated.  I organized two panels for that year, one for myself and one for the Minority Scholars Committee, but then learned I was pregnant and that my due date practically coincided with the conference.  I hear the panels went well, but I was not in attendance.  In fact, the meeting convened within a day or two of my leaving the hospital with my newborn son.  I have no regrets about having a child, but I do admit the professional challenges have been profound.  I knew life would change, but I did not foresee the specificity of these changes, including how difficult attending conferences would be.

Most conferences do not offer childcare.  The organizers anticipate that participants will be adept at setting up childcare in cities where they do not live.  If one is lucky, the conference takes place in a city inhabited by a family member, or a friend, whom I can ask to take time off of work to help, or who knows someone that I can trust to babysit.  On more than one occasion, I have helped friends in return who are coming into my city and who need help locating a babysitter they can trust.  But if you do not have a contact in that city, exactly how do you vet care for your child?  Perhaps you turn to the various childcare websites, though these sites and the subsequent virtual interviews of babysitters may not instill a parent with the greatest confidence.

The predominant expectation is that you leave your kid at home, but with whom, and for how long?  Thanks to my specialized training, I live far from my family and cannot call on just anyone to watch my son for days at a time.  I have felt more than a twinge of jealously when I see colleagues who live near their families drop their kids with the grandparents for days at a time, free of charge.  For one conference, I opted to fly in my mother to meet me and help me watch my son.  For this, she had to take multiple days off work, and I had to buy three plane tickets to attend a single conference.

Most obviously, the expectation is that I turn to my partner to watch my child.  The presumption that I have a partner to turn to is enormous here, much less that my partner might be free from his own professional commitments.  But yes, I do have a partner, and our relationship makes conferences both easier and more complex, since I am partnered with an academic who works in similar intellectual terrain.  I appreciate that my partner and I like similar conferences and can trade-off childcare when we attend together, but this guarantees that at best, each of us will have a fifty percent chance of participating in the conference.  In the last few years, I think my conference participation has been most visible via the frequent image of me chasing after my son through the halls of meeting rooms and around the lobby of the conference hotel.  This, of course, is not the professional image that one strives for, but it is a reality of my life in academia.

Since my partner and I like to attend the same conferences and engage together with our academic friends, we struggle over who gets to go to which conference, much less which panel.  Often, we try to bring our son to something that is clearly not playing to his interest, which at the moment is everything that does not correspond to Superheroes and Legos.  One year, my partner wanted to hear my talk, so he tried to come and sit in the back row with our son.  The visit lasted all of five-minutes, as our son kept calling out for “mommy” to step away from the podium and come play with him.

This year my son is older and a little more self-entertaining, which helps a lot.  Nonetheless, I can’t tell you how distracting it is to try to have a conversation with a former colleague, and suddenly realize that my son has built himself a fort of furniture in the hotel coffee-shop and then stripped off all of his clothes.  Or I can recall the rush of embarrassment I felt when a waiter at one of the receptions scolded my child for wriggling on the carpet, just as I was revisiting with a beloved mentor.  But I also can laugh at my son’s decision to show-off his superhero underwear to a colleague and accidentally pull down all of his pants in the hotel bar.  I think it is safe to say that my son was the first to get naked in the hotel bar and coffee-shop this past ASA.  Of course, I’m not sure how things went the next few nights because I was not out hitting the town, but instead, calling it an early night with my son.

One year, I thought I might take advantage of the American Studies Association’s “Childcare” provision in the program, which states that the meeting will reserve a room for participants to gather with their children.  Participants are encouraged to bring their own toys to share.  Nothing, other than physical space is provided, which is perhaps convenient for nursing mothers, but otherwise a laughable accommodation.  When we attended, no one else was present, so my son and I sat in a meeting room with his toys for approximately twenty minutes before both of us went mad.  As a general note to all conference goers, if you need some quiet space, this room might serve your purposes, since its usefulness to children is minimal at best.

This year, I am lucky that my son is getting older and a little easier to manage, but it is worth pointing out that these are my pre-tenure experiences just relating to the art of attending conferences.   Everything, including prepping my presentations and planning my participation is more complicated.  This year, my university instituted a new travel program which requires that I buy my airline travel through a single website.  However, I struggled with how to buy a ticket for my son (the site did not think to offer any such proviso).  Fortunately, because my partner was also attending the conference, and because his university is more flexible in its travel reimbursement policy, I was able to ask him to buy the plane ticket for our son.

Clearly, I am not the only one who struggles.  I feel a small camaraderie with other conference participants with children.  It is that small exchange of knowing, a few glances, or the look of understanding from people that I can see are familiar with the problem.  Children navigate toward each other, and their guardians follow suit.   For instance, my partner joined up with another colleague with child in tow, and the foursome took a trip to the zoo, while I had a little time to give my talk and attend a few panels.  We have managed the problem as best we can, but this is an institutionalized problem that few conferences address with any seriousness.  Moreover, the professional expectations that I face as a junior faculty member never take childcare and conference participation into account.  Conferences are perhaps the least of it, but they are symbolic of a larger blindness to the ways that academia and caring for children do not mix.

This past meeting, I treasured a few fleeting minutes with another female colleague, who was able to leave her four-month-old child with her partner, while she flew to the conference in D.C. for her presentation and then back to Seattle in a single day.  We sat over a scarfed-down lunch in the hotel lobby, sharing as much information as people possibly can in forty minutes between bites.  She then raced to her presentation, while we raced to catch our plane back home.  So, “how was the conference?” people ask.  And I say, “It was good.”

5 comments on “Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

  1. Amy says:

    Thanks so much for this post! It’s really good to know I’m not alone! I have done all of these things–the leaving the baby behind (pump and dump– aka, how long before I get mastitis), flying in grandma to take care of the baby, and bringing the baby. None are easy. Last year I went solo to a conference with my baby. No child care. I mostly stood outside the meeting room and tried desperately to listen in on talks. My “networking” involved trying to hold my almost mobile infant still and quiet while attempting to have an adult conversation, or whispering while I prayed he’d stay asleep in his carrier. The best was right before my talk, I nursed him, sitting on the floor outside the meeting room, handed him over to a colleague, snapped up my nursing bra and made sure my clothes were all still on (!) and then marching right up to the podium. My husband joked that I should have nursed him while giving a talk — supermommy!!!

    I really appreciate your perspective and sense of humor. I definitely feel like an odd woman out, so it’s amazing to read from another academic in the same boat!! Thank you.

    • Cary says:

      I love your story of making it work! Of course, it’s also helping me realize how pervasive the experience is and how ludicrous the expectations are that we make it work. Thank you so much for reaching out and sharing your struggle. I would like to think the responses I have encountered are all informing my future practices and participation in the world…

  2. Well said. I’ve had a similar experience as an academic mom.

    Since the author is a conference organizer, I would suggest using that position to survey parents about exactly what kind of childcare they would find most useful at conferences. If a spare, empty “play room” doesn’t cut it, what would? If that room had a kind of babysitter so parents could watch panels or get coffee, would they use it? I’ve seen these set-ups before at various events and sometimes the babysitter ends up alone in there, waiting for children, since the adults either don’t trust them or the kids won’t stay with a stranger.

    What about rooms that look out onto the sessions, but are soundproofed, like church “cry rooms”? Or a separate room where the panel presentations are piped in so parents can still follow some of the discussion from a separate location? A TV room? Sometimes hotels help with babysitting referrals, so I’m guessing the conference hotel could do this. I also wonder to what extent the participants are willing to pay for the childcare and preregister.

    • Cary says:

      Thanks for these provocative, constructive ideas, though I’m actually not a conference organizer — just someone who regularly proposes panels and attends conferences. I agree that it would be hard to leave your child with an unknown babysitter, so that’s a real struggle and part of the fundamental problem, especially since different parenting often means different preferences for care. I know that some conferences have managed to give some guardians a sense of confidence in the options, so that is to be emulated. I’m increasingly convinced that childcare should be organized and budgeted in line with other conference costs, though the shape that it should take is not entirely clear to me. I am, however, committed to thinking creatively about this issue, even as my child gets older…

  3. Myrtle says:

    I think it’s great that you have all these suggestions about how to handle childcare better. As someone who has been an (unpaid volunteer) organizer for a professional association meeting, I would like to suggest that the concerned parents not only put forward suggestions, but actually _do the work_ to make this happen within your own professional organizations. If you take a close look at the organizational structures and leadership of academic associations, you will find that there are very few professional associations that aren’t entirely run by unpaid volunteers. For their many hours of labor, these volunteers (your colleagues) are lucky to be comped a room at the conference hotel. Those of us who do the organizational work are already overwhelmed making sure that your conference experience is as professional edifying as possible. I know _we would welcome_ more volunteers who would implement the brilliant ideas that would further improve everyone’s conference experience. Or, if that doesn’t work for you, you could work on accepting the fact that we, as faculty members, are incredibly privileged professionals who occasionally have to make some compromises in service to our families or our jobs.

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