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.
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.”