Monday, January 9, 2012

Bringing babies to conferences

As I proudly announced about a month ago, I had a paper accepted to the prime conference in my field. It is the conference I always attend and have attended since starting my PhD, so I have been going for almost 10 years. This year the conference is in Texas in May, starting exactly the day after Zoe's second birthday. Which means that, opposite last year, I am not considering bringing her. She would be an international full flight fare. Non-expensable. Luckily, my mom has graciously offered to look after her for the week it takes to travel, attend for 4 days and travel back. Another reason I am not going to bring her is due to last years experiences of bringing a baby to conferences:

Being part of an academic couple that actually publishes and attends the very same conferences presents a few perks and a lot of complications. The perks are that we save on hotel money, travel together and then of course, generally have someone to go home with at the end of the evening (yes, conferences are great for hooking up, in fact we initially hooked up at a conference ourselves, albeit one that Mark actually didn't attend but sneaked into to chat me up...). The complications before we had Zoe were negligible but now we are facing a whole new set of factors. Last year we had two conferences where we both wanted/needed to go, one in China when Zoe was 10 months and the conference described above, in Canada when she had just turned 1. Because of her age and since we didn't live near family in California, the only choice was for one of us to stay home with her or for us to bring her. We decided to bring her for both trips with remarkably different outcome.

It turns out that 10 months is the ideas travel age for a baby and now that I know this, I cannot stop recommending parents to take a trip (if that is a possibility) at exactly this time. It is also the ultimate 'bringing baby to a conference' age, especially if the conference is fairly small and is mostly attended by close colleagues/friends. We had an amazing time, Zoe got all the right attention and I actually felt I was able to attend the conference. A few key highlights include Zoe sleeping through two sessions in my wrap, while I attentively listened to my colleagues' presentations and her sitting in a high chair munching rice and fortune cookies while we ate lunch and chatted with same colleagues. She was small enough to still be carried on my front easily, she could fall asleep there and she was still mainly breastfed, making the stress about food non-existing.

However, it turns that 12 months is the worst time to take a baby to a conference. At this time she had started scooting (hopping on her bum to get forward, something that especially bright babies do just before they learn to crawl and then learn to walk...), which meant that she was not happy just sitting down. She needed action around her, preferably right now and if it didn't happen she made sure to let me know her annoyance. Loudly. She was not sleeping easily in a carrier, in fact I had to roam the hallways for hours to get her to go to sleep in her stroller, the mode of transportation that we had now adjusted to. She had found her temper and stubbornness and did not take a "wait one minute" very lightly. I spent an hour in the conference center's medical room where they had let me in to nurse her because all other comfy corners seemed full of colleagues that I would like to be able to look in the eyes again later on. But most of all, I felt like a mom at this conference. Zoe had taken over my professional personality. Where she at 10 months could be sitting quietly in her carrier on me, and still be just an accessory, now she was a full fledged proof the I was a Mom with capital M. Gone was professional Dr. B, the author of several well-cited articles and known for insightful research within interesting subfields. Instead was a Mom who had crashed an academic conference. Some people talked to me, even with Zoe scooting at my feet, but others clearly avoided me, as if they didn't want to succumb to the Mom-ness. It didn't help that Zoe had recently decided that Mommy was best. Leaving her with her dad would introduce a fit of screaming, of course only until I was out of sight, but this was enough for me to hesitate handing her over. The end result was that I got to see one actual session the whole conference. The remaining time, I either rolled Zoe around in her stroller trying to find the new exciting thing that would entertain her (escalators anyone?) or roamed between three sessions because when I finally had an hour, I hadn't had the time to check the program and walked into the wrong session but didn't realize for 10 minutes. Then of course there was my own presentation and a session I was chairing, neither which included topics of great interest to me (including my own presentation, yes).

After Zoe finally fell asleep an hour into the conference reception I left her 
in her stroller in a corner with a this note: "If I cry please call my mom or 
dad [phone numbers]". It was the best hour of the conference.

Although, or perhaps because, my field is largely male dominated (however my subfield is closer to 30/70), we have frequent discussions about bringing children to conferences. Opinions are generally openminded and encouraging, but also cautious of directly accommodating parents and children. In fact, when the conference is located in the US, insurance issues dictate that we are not allowed to bring children into the conference centers (a problem I obviously wasn't faced with last year). I wish I could be wholeheartedly arguing for parents always bringing their children if they need to but my personal experiences illustrate the ambivalent issues at place here: when is it possible to bring a baby and still remain professional, still feel that you are being taken seriously as a colleague? (because we all know that screaming "No, you cannot eat that plant/take off your clothes/throw that muffin at the nice senior professor who I always hoped would respect my work" at your toddler does not improve one's professional look.) And when is this just not possible and you need to actually skip the conference if you cannot find suitable childcare? Well, I found the fine line between the two, but the hard way. However, I hope to at least pass on my experiences to new academic mothers who have to make the tough decisions of what do with their baby when attending a conference.


  1. Love this post. OK this is a bit strange maybe but I just stumbled on it by typing 'babies at conferences' into Google and whatdoyouknow!
    Things became weird when I read that you are also a couple where mom is Danish (hey - get er jeg også) and dad is from the UK (here too!)
    Anyway we are going to our first conference with 6 months old Bess in a couple of weeks so I just wanted to look for some good advice. Luckily it's only mom who is going to the conference - dad and baby are just tagging along so I hope to just have her on my arm looking cute at receptions maybe - the rest of the time she's daddy's!
    Thanks for the advice - I will keep it in mind.

  2. What a coincidence! Glad you could use the advice. Please keep me posted on how it goes with the conference. I am always looking out for potential guest posts.