Baby on (Poster) Board? conferencing with a kid

This month I’ve presented at two conferences. This would not be noteworthy, were it not for the fact that I have a one month old. The first conference allowed me to participate remotely, and the second conference was within driving distance, so I attended in person (along with baby and husband). Insane? Possibly. Tiring? Definitely. So I’ve been reflecting on whether or not it was worth it, especially as a cash strapped graduate student, and the accommodations that made going possible.

There is a huge range of accommodations (or lack thereof) for mothers and parents at academic conferences. From a quick survey of 3 random academic conferences happening in 2014, I found the following*:

AGU has childcare onsite at their annual meeting (for a fee) and a nursing mothers’ room.

AHA has competitive/limited childcare grants for attendees of their annual meeting but no childcare available and no mention of a nursing room.

AAA has childcare onsite at their annual meeting (for a fee) but no mention of a nursing room.

Let’s break those down.

On-site childcare: The childcare at AGU and AAA sounds reasonably priced for a babysitter ($10-12/hour). However, that cost would add up if you wanted to participate in multiple hours or days of talks. And if one of the goals of attending a conference is networking with peers or potential employers, you’d potentially want to be baby-free at a happy hour or luncheon for a few hours on top of whichever panel you’re presenting in.
Neither conference that I participated in this fall had on-site childcare. With a nursing 1-month old, I wouldn’t have used it anyway but would be open to it when the kid is older. Some conference childcare will not accept kids under 6 months (AAA included), so those parents would have to find alternatives even if it was available. If you’ve used conference childcare in the past and have thoughts on how it affected your conference participation, I’d love to hear.

Childcare grants: Both Conference A and Conference B, which I attended, had competitive/limited childcare grants for attendees. I did not apply for one, since I had a travel grant from my university, but would consider it in the future. What seems most critical for these to be useful is for the definition of childcare to be broad**, to award as many as possible, and to make the funding decisions before or during registration. I was disappointed to see that neither Conference A nor B made it clear before participants had to register that they offered childcare grants. It wouldn’t have changed my decision to attend this time, but potentially could in the future. Having childcare grants available for graduate students, adjunct and contingent faculty, and other low-income scholars is one critical component to ensuring broad participation in society meetings.

Nursing/ “mothers” rooms: This is something I did take advantage of at Conference B, and I heard it was available at Conference A (although again, they didn’t advertise this until registration ended). When navigating a conference with baby, it was incredibly helpful to have a convenient place to duck into where no one cares if they’re crying, need a diaper change, etc., especially if you’re not staying in the conference hotel. It was also nice to have a place to nurse without bothering to care if others cared – or if any of those folks were potential future employers. It’s important to be sensitive to this concern: a mom I met with her 3 month old explained that she was on the job market and worried about doing anything that might offend those on the hiring committees.

Remote participation: I took advantage of this for Conference A, but it was not presented in the registration materials as an accommodation. While it allowed me to present remotely, I was not able to really interact with other participants or see other panels at the conference. So I’m not convinced I would do it again in the future. If others have gone this route and considered it worthwhile, do share.

What else might parents with kids in tow need though? As a graduate student on a tight budget, I kept coming back to money. Increasing the pot of money available to help cover travel costs would allow new parents (and folks of all stripes) to choose which accommodations best work for themselves and plan accordingly. In my case, my husband coming was incredibly helpful, so travel funds to help cover his cost as a childcare provider would be great. For others, using the funds to cover childcare at home might be the best solution.

Of course, resources are limited for most people going to conferences. But graduate students (and contingent scholars) are least likely to be reimbursed for their expenses by their university. Even though I have funding for my research through a federal grant, faculty advisors vary widely in whether or not they let students on their grants use this money for travel (mine doesn’t – a story for another time). And with conferences costing an arm and a leg between registration, lodging, and food, travel grants can really help. Yet I keep seeing travel grants for graduate students stipulate that grant recipients share a room with at least one other graduate student. This is poor form on multiple levels. First, treat graduate students like the adults that they are, whether or not they have kids. We don’t expect faculty to share rooms. Sharing a room at a conference should be the choice of attendees to save money. Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons a graduate student might want private space. Frankly I can’t imagine anyone would want to room with me and my crying infant; not sleeping would be a terrible prize for them. But more importantly, friends who don’t identify along the gender binary expressed extreme reservations about this room sharing model. Wouldn’t it be much more reasonable and compassionate to host conferences in more modest settings, splurge to cover the entire cost of a room for travel grant winners, or simply let them decide how best to spend their grant?

You might be saying Squirrely, if going to a conference with a kid is so fraught and resources are so scarce, why bother going at all? And that’s a fair question. But there are so many reasons to go to a conference as a graduate student. Here are some of mine:
– Present your work
– Public speaking experience
– Meet colleagues from other schools who work on similar topics
– Network with potential postdoc supervisors/future employers
– Socialize with peers/colleagues from other institutions
– Line on CV (let’s be real)

Those don’t change just because I had a kid! But realistically, instead of trying to get to do all of those at a conference, I had to pick just one or two off that list. For Conference A, I focused on presenting. For Conference B, I focused on presenting and socializing with peers from across the country, some of which were friends who wanted to meet the baby. All in all, I went into them naïve about how constrained my participation would be while traveling with an infant. But I’m glad I did it and feel much better equipped to conference with a baby in the future.

*I’ve never attended any of these conferences nor do I belong to these professional societies. If you’ve attended and/or know that they have additional or better resources that I missed, please add it in the comments! Part of the problem with accommodations for parents is the lack of transparency on what is or might be available.

** Some organizations allow these grants to be used for childcare in a very broad sense, including funding care for kids who stayed at home/with a caregiver while their parent is at the conference. That’s fantastic and more realistic for many families.

***For those of you embarking on similar travels in the future, I dug around the internet for tips and found this one to be very helpful, although I didn’t agree with all of her advice.

16 thoughts on “Baby on (Poster) Board? conferencing with a kid

  1. I’ve done this, and really found it not to be worth it. I felt like I couldn’t focus on the baby or on the conference. With my second child, I just didn’t travel until she was well past a year, and then I left her at home in her routine, with my husband, and I was much much happier with that decision. It’s easier to do that since I’m a bit more established (tenure-track), but wherever you are in the pipeline I do think it’s not such a big deal to miss out on a few (i.e. a year or so’s worth) of these sorts of things. I’m sure others wouldn’t agree, but for me it’s just not worth travelling with the kids, even if Grandma comes for free and provides optimal childcare.

    As for travel grants, I totally agree, just let the grantee spend it how they think best, requiring room-sharing’s a bit archaic. There are a lot of variables in deciding where/when to hold a conference so they do have to balance that somewhat, it’s not always possible to host them in economical places. (AGU for example is too big to hold in most cities.)

  2. I just got back from a regional archaeology conference that amazingly had FREE childcare at the conference hotel. The organizer’s rationale was that if childcare was offered, more folks would come, meaning more people would pay to register, and the resulting extra registration cash could cover childcare. It’s not clear that this will work for the long term; if the “extra cash” supplied by “extra registrants” becomes the new status quo, the money might get allocated differently. Also, I’m sure this was possibly because there weren’t a ton of kids. Not being a parent, I didn’t take advantage of the service so I can’t report directly, but the look of relaxed satisfaction of the faces of friends and colleagues who did use it made it worth it in my book.

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  4. Thanks for this post! I’ve traveled extensively to conferences with my second child when he was under 12 months old. In all cases I hired a local baby sitter (via a reputable sitter agency) who would take care of the baby for about 9 hours per day in my hotel room and bring him to the conference at regular intervals for nursing and cuddling. This arrangement was very expensive (it cost about US700-1500 for each conference, depending on the location) and it was only possible because I’m a prof in Canada and my NSERC grant would pay for this.

  5. I went to a NOWSA student conference a few years ago – was held on campus between Semesters – very brilliantly the campus childcare centre was made available (as it was nearly empty at that time of year). Costs were absorbed by registration. They also had some events each day that were kid-friendly. Note that this conference was run by lefty feminist types (YAY!) so inclusion was built in from the beginning, rather than an add-on or after thought (which is maybe why childcare arrangements are not well advertised at other events). It was rather wonderful to fully participate in all of the events and know that my kids (aged 5 and 8 at the time) were also having a ball. 🙂

  6. This past fall I brought my 9-month-old to a conference that offered child care at a reasonable hourly rate, though only during daytime hours. Most of my obligations were for evening events, so I ended up conscripting the grandparents to travel with us. This worked ok, but I agree with others who have said that conferencing with baby is not really worth the time and effort involved unless you have obligations to attend for other reasons or really need another line on the CV. I would like to see professional organizations partnering with vetted local babysitting services in addition to offering a daytime child care room, but this is probably a lot to expect when we are as yet unable to depend upon even a nursing room being provided.

  7. I’m a first-time mom who just finished grad school, and I have to say, it’s amazing that you even went to a conference 1 month postpartum. I would have stayed at home. I don’t know how competitive your field is, but I don’t think it’s a big deal to miss one or two conferences as a grad student – I was still on my maternity leave at 1 month! (Yes, I’m lucky that my institution grants maternity leave, although 6 weeks isn’t nearly enough.) When my daughter gets bigger, the plan is to leave her at home with my husband and a full-time nanny, but we’re lucky to have the resources to be able to do this. Childcare at a conference sounds awesome and should definitely be a priority, though. Thanks for bringing this up!

  8. I made the decision to skip conferences for the first year for baby 1 (while a grad student) and now baby 2 (who is six months old and I’m now a postdoc). My reasons are more for the complexity and drain of pumping every few hours for days at a time — and having to stock up on all that milk ahead of time. I’m bummed to be missing some excellent conferences this year, but in the long run, a year of missed conferences is no big deal.

    I did attend a conference (ESA) when my first kid was just a year and half old, but that was by luck because it was in the city I was living in! It was still complex, though. My kiddo was in daycare, but dad had to do both pickup and dropoff, affecting his working hours. And I had requested a nursing room, been told there would be one, and when the conference came around, nobody had ever heard of the concept of a nursing room. Instead, I pumped in the rooms being used for daycare and stored my milk in the refrigerators the daycare folks were using. (And I can tell you that the service is only very lightly used, at least at ESA — just a couple babies and maybe a dozen toddlers/preschoolers. But having been at many daycare facilities over the years, it looked like the care being provided was high quality.) And I only went out one evening, because really my kid was really young and we needed to see one another each day. I’ve heard similar things from others who’ve brought kids: the evening socializing, which is more important than one might imagine, is often compromised when bringing kids — and conference supported daycare is usually closed then.

  9. I decided not to attend my field’s big annual conference since I was 1 month postpartuum, and that was the one negative remark I received on my annual tenure review (my school does not expect a great deal of research, but they do expect “active participation in the scholarly community”). If I could go back in time, I’d try to go, since the conference was in driving distance and I could bring my husband for little cost.

    Needless to say, since that review I’ve dragged my husband and baby to countless conferences – when my baby was younger my husband would stay in the room and text me when the baby needed to nurse, and once the baby could go longer without me my husband would go out on the town with him. If you are on the tenure clock, if conference attendance/presentation is valued by your institution, and especially if you plan on having more than one child, to me there is no option (sadly) to take time off from the conference circuit.

    With my next child, I think I might try to less obsessed about breastfeeding so I can leave him or her at home and go on my own.

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