Conference Attendance as a New Parent

I recently returned from presenting a poster at this year’s Society of American Archivists annual conference in Washington DC. SAA essentially served as the bookends for probably the most eventful year in my life — right after last year’s conference in New Orleans, I learned I was having a baby, due in April; I finished up my graduate degree this past spring, and then gave birth; I proposed, presented, and chaired a seminar at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference in Las Vegas in June; returned to work full-time in July; and then attended and presented at SAA in August. All of my professional participation this past summer would have been stressful even if I weren’t recovering from labor and then nursing a newborn. If anyone reading is thinking about proposing conference sessions and then having a baby shortly before your conferences, I advise you to reconsider. It was really hard.

I put myself through it all because I felt I could not give up my chance to actively participate in my profession. Like many professional archivists and librarians at universities, I am regularly reviewed by my library for Continuing Appointment, the equivalent of tenure at my institution. It is a mandatory process that occurs on a schedule predetermined by my date of hire. Professional engagement, like my seminar and poster, is a critical piece of an overall assessment of my credentials and qualifications as an archivist. Getting selected to speak or serve at SAA or RBMS is very competitive, and so the fact that I had two projects chosen in one summer was very exciting. I wanted to participate professionally — it was just bad timing for me personally.

But, it happened and I was determined to make the best of it. In the process, I discovered how difficult it can be to attend our professional conferences as a parent, particularly as a nursing mother. Before I was in this situation myself, I had no idea what sort of commitment it takes to nurse a baby. You cannot just take a break from nursing for a few days; it is a relentless schedule. Furthermore, many women nurse their babies for up to a year. That means odds are high that those women will come up against at least one professional conference. They can either express their milk at the conference, attend the conference with their infant, or not attend. This year, SAA proactively addressed the need for a lactation room — the hotel spa rooms were set aside for nursing mothers, assuming that there was one available when they asked. It was still awkward, because I was essentially forced to ask the hotel staff for permission to pump. But it was better than having my boobs out in a public bathroom while I was attempting to be a professional, so, thank you, SAA. I know of nothing at RBMS for lactating women — I ended up spending about half of the conference back and forth between my hotel room and the sessions. Neither conference really seemed to address the issue well in advance; nothing was available in the program, or on the website, meaning that women like me who were considering whether or not to attend were essentially left with a best-guess make-it-work approach. I ended up finding out about the lactation rooms at SAA via Twitter.

It was also my first opportunity to consider how my future childcare needs would impact my attendance at professional conferences. I left my two-month old child at home with my spouse when I attended RBMS; logistically, traveling across the country with a baby that young seemed too hard. But for SAA, I wanted to bring my family; so, I followed with interest SAA’s deliberations about on-site childcare, thinking that it would be worth knowing more for future conferences. Their decision for this year was to offer no on-site childcare for attendees, but to consider a co-op approach (shared between parents) for future conferences. I looked into other conferences and found that ALA offers a $25/day reimbursement to assist with childcare. (This would cover *maybe* two hours of childcare? But at least they acknowledge the existing need.) Other professional groups, like the American Historical Association, have grants that eligible attendees can apply to receive. I found that the Modern Language Association offered onsite childcare during its 2014 conference (preregistration required; cost unclear). The fact remains that professional participation is out of reach for many parents of young children. There is no way that I would have been able to participate at the level that I did without the help of my spouse.

At this point, I’m still brand new at balancing my work life with parenting, but the past year has brought a number of things to light that I would like to put forward as action points for professional archives organizations. We may be a ways off from paid parental leave for everyone (although, at least Obama has said it was a good idea), but if organizations like SAA and RBMS began to proactively consider the needs of all their members, we could clear the path for people who want to participate in our annual meetings but are hindered by the logistics of parenthood. The archival profession is so invested in making our records accessible to all; I think we could do better to make our annual conferences more accessible as well. My wishlist:

  • Lactation rooms are key: women need rooms with a chair, a working electrical outlet, and a sink. It would also be helpful to know where the room is located. (Groundbreaking ideas, I know, but I’ve been amazed at how these rooms are often disguised.)
    • Side note: did you know that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, employers are legally required to offer breaks and lactation rooms (that are separate from the bathroom) for nursing mothers? Plus, there are additional protections for breastfeeding women offered by most states.
  • Conferences should be at facilities that recognize the potential presence of children. Did anyone else notice that there were zero changing tables in the Marriott’s public restrooms? I had to change my baby on a bench in the hall.
  • Conferences should be at budget-conscious conference hotels and locations (which will benefit everyone, not just people who might want to bring their families)
  • SAA and RBMS should make a real attempt to offer childcare or support childcare costs, rather than just talk about it during the conference registration period when it is too late to actually do anything. Doesn’t the fact that we just had the Largest. Meetings. Ever (both RBMS and SAA broke attendance records this year) mean we have some extra cash to throw at these issues?

How have other parents balanced attending professional conferences with their need for childcare or lactation rooms? I’m also curious how any single parents have managed it. What else should we add to the wishlist? Also, before anyone asks in the comments, yes! I did fill out my post-conference evaluations.

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3 thoughts on “Conference Attendance as a New Parent

  1. So many good insights in this post. As a member of this year’s host committee, I was on the fringes of the childcare discussion. I can say that it felt like concerns were being voiced too late in the process for anyone to really push SAA to take significant steps. What might be helpful is to create a checklist of items for SAA to incorporate into their decision making when booking a conference venue, setting the childcare budget, or deciding on room allocation. Changing tables, appropriate nursing rooms, and clear definition of the childcare options in writing on the conference webpage seem like some good basic steps. I really feel like this should be done now, as opposed to two months before the conference, in order to plow through the bureaucracy 🙂 As a mom who has been through everything you described, I’d be happy to partner with others to get it done.

    • I agree; it seems like there are easy changes the orgs can make but it does take time to get things in place. You can tell how big the SAA machine is just by how early session proposals are due!

  2. I attended my first conference post-baby this year as well (not a presenter, just an attendee). It was a tough decision because it was my first time away from my child overnight. I am a single parent and if I didn’t have family available to help I could not have made it work. The conference hotel contracted out with local nanny services, but that’s a little above my budget-level. So my child stayed home with his grandpa while I went – luckily only 2 hours away (because I was a weepy mess over being away from him for that long. Geesh).

    My job does not require conference attendance/participation, but it is something I am personally interested in to further my professional knowledge/connections so it would be fantastic to have the needs of parents more actively supported by these organizations.

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