Preamble: the title of this post officially "gives it away": I'm ABD with a B-A-B-Y. Most everyone I interact with professionally knows this, and I wasn't keeping it secret from the internet, but there's still a disadvantage to being a mother in academia, and many hesitate to talk about being parents publicly. I think that's unreasonable, and I hope that this and similar posts can be helpful to other academic parents facing similar issues.
Last week my family attended HSS/PSA in windy Chicago, and it was a great example of a conference that took families with babies into consideration. My next post will be about the good choices those conference organizers made, but this one is directed towards the parent(s) conferencing with a baby in tow (note: some of these tips may not apply to multiple/older children or other types of dependent care, areas in which I'm not experienced).
1. Be baby-travel savvy.
There are plenty of useful resources out there for parents traveling with babies. In general, give yourself extra time to get everywhere, pack the right things (but be prepared to pay for things you aren't bringing/didn't think of), and research your destination beforehand for baby-friendly activities/restaurants/attractions. Find out whether your hotel offers cribs or highchairs, and your airline's policies about baby travel (maybe you'll get your own security screening line and a chance to preboard with all of your gear, or maybe you won't). These tips are good for baby travel in general, and will form the bedrock of your conference-travel plans.
Conferences can be very enjoyable, but you're at work, and you're most likely going to need someone to watch your baby while you're giving/attending talks and lectures. Some conferences help you connect with local childcare, offer a childcare subsidy, or set up a designated space for childcare. Take advantage of these if you can. If there's a family member who can travel with you and handle the bulk of your childcare, even better, but this isn't the case for everyone. If you're part of a dual-academic couple at the same conference, you'll most likely need to trade off conference and baby care. And don't underestimate friends' and colleagues' willingness to help in small ways, like pushing the stroller around the block or watching a sleeping baby while you take a coffee break.
3. Plan, plan, plan...
You'll need to spend extra effort planning how you'll spend time during the conference. When will you hand the baby off to caregivers? If your spouse or partner is an academic and traveling with you, how will you divide up conference and baby time? Think about which sessions you'd like to attend vs. how many you need to attend; you'll likely have to prioritize. How can you be reached if there's an emergency? Will you need to take more frequent breaks from the conference for feedings? Is your baby bag prepped for a full day away from the hotel, with enough extra clothes, food, and distractions? How will you handle the competing demands of evening socializing and bedtime?
Despite your careful planning, things may go entirely unexpectedly during the conference itself. Babies don't always cooperate, and an unfamiliar location may bring out more tantrums or insomnia than usual. You're going to have to be open to the possibility that you won't be able to do or see as much as you'd like to. On the other hand, things might go smoothly, and you'll be enjoying cutting-edge research while baby sleeps peacefully in the stroller beside you. Your own experience will fall somewhere in between.
It sounds unlikely, but it can be wonderful to attend a conference with your baby. You can take advantage of opportunities to enjoy your time together. As new parents, we often found ourselves stuck at home, so it was refreshing to experience an entirely new city. If it's walkable, take an afternoon off for a stroller tour. Or just walk around the book fair or poster session and point out the bright colours. And be sure to talk with other conference parents, who will likely have useful tips to share with you. In our case, I got wonderful advice from women further along in their careers about their experience with parenting/work balance. Despite the hard work, it ended up being a lovely time, and the conference organizers and our friendly colleagues made us feel entirely welcome. I really look forward to the next one.
Stay tuned for Part II: How conferences can be family-friendly