Dear Mentor: Should I take my child to the conference?

Dear Mentor,

I’m a post-doc scientist with a nursing infant. I travel several times a year to national academic conferences in my field and have been discouraged to find that none of them offer childcare options. Though I have a great childcare situation at home, I am not sure what to do about conference travel. My mother came with me last time and kept my daughter in the hotel, but she can’t come this time. My husband can’t get off work that week, and I don’t know anyone in the city I’ll be in. Have you experienced this challenge? What have you done in this situation? 

from guest mentor Stephanie White

This is such a tough issue — what to do about conferences just epitomizes for me the struggle of balancing motherhood and academic career! I've been thinking about this topic a ton during this, my first year of motherhood and first year of my first faculty position, and I could say so much about the topic, so instead let me stick to two points (oh hang on, I just need to get my daughter latched on... Okay, I'm back :).

First, I'm a firm believer in the value of academic mothers going to conferences with different expectations. When I attended a conference with my four-month-old last March, I went without my husband, but I went with only two goals: to meet with a colleague I needed to meet with, and to give my presentation. I constantly reminded myself that everything else was bonus. I was thankful to have one of my best friends, who was also attending, share a hotel room with me and help me out a ton (thanks, Anne!), including caring for my baby girl while I presented. But if I hadn't had my friend there, I would have altered my expectations even more and repeated to myself that it's good for people to see someone presenting with her baby on her hip. That option would take a lot of courage, I know, especially in some fields that are much less open to babies at conferences. And, no, it wasn't the best presentation of my life. And, yes, I cried a lot during that weekend (so. tired.). But, actually, it was a really empowering weekend for me. I had one senior scholar, for example, greet my baby and say "It's important that you're here." I almost burst into tears. And I learned that I was capable of changing my baby's diaper on a plane without my husband helping, for example, which I hadn't known before. It gave me much-needed confidence, knowing that I could care for my baby alone that way. And, ultimately, the line on my CV wasn't affected by a less-than-perfect conference presentation or the fact that I only went to one-half of another session the whole weekend.

But I'm also a firm believer in the value of academic mothers just skipping the conference. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to decide whether to bring my nursing 10-month old to a conference next month or whether to leave her at home with her dad. I Googled "breastfeeding and academic conferences" and came up with slew of stories that helped me picture what both options would look like. But — and I'm going to be straight with you here — many of these stories horrified me. One in particular, about a first-time mother going to a conference and leaving her nursing two-month-old, made me feel so anxious and sad for this amazing woman. She's doing everything she can to be a successful mother and academic, and even admits that she was naive to think it would work to attend the conference, but she never seems to fully consider the option of staying home. When I hear stories like this, I just want to yell "STAY HOME!" not because it's the right choice for each person, but because I don't know if we ever trust that option. I want to be sure that option is on the table for myself, and I hope it is so for you.

I am working to learn trust when it comes to these issues — trust that my career will be okay if I don't attend a conference or if I don't think I've given my best presentation, trust that I'll still be taken seriously (oh, the baby's done eating... okay, back again) while being the kind of mother I want to be at — or not at — conferences, trust that my baby will be just fine when I leave her at home for a weekend, as I've decided to do next month. 

But it comes down to this for me: every mother is different, and every mother/baby relationship has different needs. I hope we can do is share our stories and support each other's choices, and I hope we can be brave with our own choices, even if they go against the grain of academic expectations.

from guest mentor Julie Dahl

My heart goes out to you! I was able to skip conferences for over a year when my baby was born, so when I started attending again, I was no longer nursing. It is hard to know what the solution is, because frankly, I don't know if I could have gone to a conference that provided childcare and handed over my baby to complete strangers. I don't think we want academia to provide childcare. Caring and thoughtful are not two words that come to mind when I describe academia.

What I thought of when I read this was my grandmother. She used to watch my siblings running around struggling with childcare and comment that it was easier in her day, which I found fascinating since she did not have an easy life. She had six kids and never missed a day of work on the farm, but when she gave birth, a couple of her sisters would show up and before they left, they would have hired a neighbor girl to come and stay with her for a few weeks and then come regularly to help for perhaps months. Of course, this meant that the girls didn't go to school — my grandmother herself dropped out of school when she was about ten to go to work helping neighbor women after they gave birth. 

Of course we do not want to return to this, yet it strikes me that earlier generations had a system in place to help mothers. We threw that system out to allow us to go to school and to work, but we have failed to find a substitute system where other women, families, and neighbors help young mothers through those crucial early months and years. Government, academia, and the corporate world have failed to fill this gap, and I don't have a lot of confidence that they ever will, as truly caring about another person is very expensive. Perhaps it is time that the church take notice. 

Perhaps we need to be tapping into our Christian networks and asking them to step up. The Christian community worked hard to create crisis pregnancy centers, and it seems that perhaps the next challenge the church needs to face is helping all moms find safe ways to find care for their children. In this instance, I wonder if you could contact a church you may have connections to or local InterVarsity or Cru leaders to see if there is the possibility of finding local childcare.

I think this generation of academic moms needs to not only challenge the church, but also push back on their institutions and say, "This year, I'm not going to go to as many conferences or do as much x." We really need to challenge all of society to stop measuring production with just the short term in view. I produced less scholarship when Hans was a baby, but ultimately I am a more well-rounded, healthier person for having taken some time off and he will be a healthier, more well-rounded citizen of society. I know that some women are in a precarious situation with their institutions and can't take that risk, but little by little we need to change the discourse. At the graduate level — at least in the humanities  — at least at some institutions — it is beginning to change.


from guest mentor Joanne Marshall

I love what Stephanie and Julie have already said.

Did you happen to see the brouhaha recently from political science, where babies weren’t allowed into the conference exhibit hall because of the hotel’s insurance liability? Lively discussion ensued in the Inside Higher Ed comments section, with people divided into “Not being able to take my baby discriminates against women” and “Why would you want to bring your baby?"/"Skipping the conference won’t hurt you.”

What are the norms of your own field?  And, if they’re not Baby Friendly, how much do you want to push them to be more so? 

My own field of education, for example, has a strong thread of social justice running through it. But even one of my field’s Superstars — a White male — reported facing disapproval when he presented at one of our conferences with his one-year-old strapped to his chest. Perhaps he broke ground to make baby attendance more “normal.” Perhaps not.

I’ve talked before at The Well about taking my nursing infant to an academic conference. It was not the most pleasant professional or personal experience. I was only able to do it because my spouse could come along. I haven’t repeated the experience. 

My children are older now, but it is not as if they can stay by themselves. It is always a juggle with home and work.

There have been times when I have been able to be creative with my arrangements. I have two conferences, one in the fall and one in the spring, at which I am expected to present. Sometimes I have only attended one and not the other. The conference proposal deadlines are so ridiculously far ahead of the actual conference that I’ve also been able to write with colleagues, asking my co-author to give the presentation should our proposal be accepted. One year when I could not attend, one of my colleagues kindly used his cell phone to call me into the business portion of the meeting for which I was the treasurer-secretary, so I could take minutes over the phone.

If you are not able to attend the conference, you can also make your presence felt by connecting with the people you would have tried to connect with normally. I’ve sent emails before or after the conference along the lines of:

Dear Dr. Grand Poobah,

I regret that I am/was not able to attend your session at the conference (here you can give a reason or not), but would you please be willing to send me your paper? I’ve been working on a similar topic (describe the connection) and have admired your work from afar for a very long time. 

I’ll look forward to meeting you in person at (next conference).



[Signature with rank and all institutional information for the sake of future name recognition]

More questions:

Are you job-hunting? If you are, then the stakes might feel higher for your conference attendance as you seek to make professional connections. 

How important are conferences in your field, really? In mine they are important, but a publication is always more heavily weighted on the CV than a conference presentation is. Would you be better off to stay home and get a publication out the door?

Does your conference have a smaller interest group within it that you can be part of? One of mine, for example, has the Religion and Education special interest group, which is where those of us who do similar research hang out. It is about 100 people instead of the 13,000 who attend the conference. If you keep up with your affiliated peeps — via listserv, social media, email, receptions — you might feel more connected regardless of whether or not you attend the conference. And they will let you know if you have missed something vital, and will keep you in mind if there’s an opportunity to which you can contribute.

Only you know what’s best for you and your family. Choose and do not let others to cause you to second-guess yourself. Keep tinkering until you find a solution that works for you. We are all a work in progress (1 Philippians 1:6!).

Best wishes as you make your way forward!

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