Attending academic events as a parent should be so much easier

There is no shortage of ways for universities to make it easier for those with children to attend scholarly conferences, says Rachel Moss

July 26, 2016
A baby bottle full of milk
Source: iStock

In May, I did something I’ve not done in about a year – stood up in front of a room full of people, cracked a couple of bad jokes and then subjected them to several thousand words of my research.

I was giving a paper – “Swyving the miller’s daughter: patriarchy, homosociality and rape culture in late medieval England” – at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Southampton. It was a really lovely evening: the sun shone, I got lots of good questions, and then I was taken out to dinner, where I ate lots of food and various important things were discussed – Kate Bush, house rabbits, the EU referendum.

It was also the first night that I’ve spent away from my daughter in the nine months and five days she’s been out in the world.

It all went very smoothly: on Monday morning my in-laws, who live 30 minutes’ drive away, came over to look after her until my husband came home from work, and on Tuesday they came over very early in the morning to help with her morning routine while Kieran got ready to go back to the office, and stayed with her until I got home. I was away for 26 hours, and things went pretty much precisely as they were meant to do.

I didn’t particularly pine for her, and indeed enjoyed having a two-and-a-half hour train ride to read and drink coffee, and to have an evening out without needing to get back to relieve babysitters. It did feel quite physically strange, though, particularly since I didn’t breastfeed for more than a day. I felt slightly off-kilter in my body in a way that’s hard to describe.

Motherhood seems full of curiously ineffable bodily, as well as emotional, experience. Overall, though, my first trip away was a success.

Nonetheless, this was an occasion that required forward-thinking and relied on the availability of nearby family as well as a sympathetic spouse. These are privileges not all parents have. And, as an invited speaker, I was travelling a relatively short distance with my train fare paid by my hosts. Again – privileges.

I started thinking – as I have done on and off since I became pregnant – about how institutions, or at least event organisers, could make primary caregivers feel more able to attend academic events. Instead of simply coming up with a list of ideas, though, I thought it was much better to ask people who’ve got a bit more parenthood experience than me. So I put questions to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship: what makes it more feasible for you to attend a conference or other academic event away from home (e.g. research trip)? What issues hold you back? What can be done to make your visit easier? Have you ever been made to feel unwelcome as a parent at an academic event?

I got some great responses.

Again and again, the point came up that most people rely on a partner either looking after the children at home, or coming with them and looking after them there. I noticed that often this depended on partners either taking annual leave, or being fellow academics who could take advantage of the summer break.

Cathy Hume (University of Bristol) provided a good example of this: “I took my small daughter to conferences twice: NCS Portland, and Kalamazoo 2013, while I was living in the US. In both cases I had my husband with me (also a medievalist), and we swapped in and out of conference attendance.” For those of us married to/in a relationship with someone who is not in our line of work, things can be trickier, as Christine Ekholst (University of Guelph) noted: “I…often need additional support because my partner works irregular and long hours. I also prefer conferences that are not on weekends (my partner sometimes works weekends) because during [the] weeks we have childcare.”

There can be an assumption that a supportive partner should be willing to take time off work while we go to academic events.

Certainly this is ideal, but it’s also a privilege; as Kirsty Bolton (University of Nottingham) pointed out, “my partner has to take days off work if I go away, as we have no family nearby and nursery doesn’t cover his hours (he commutes to London). As I’m a PhD student and he’s the wage earner, it’s rare that we can justify me taking the time/money to attend anything.”

The other option, if you don’t have family or friends nearby who can help out, is paid care, but as Dot Porter (University of Pennsylvania) says, this can be yet another financial strain: “We end up spending additional money on care (we have someone to pick up our son from school and stay with him until hubs gets home – my usual responsibility) or my husband takes days off work (which in his line of work – he’s a bank manager – is frowned upon).”

It’s usually only feasible for a partner to take time off work if they have generous annual leave and a sympathetic boss. My husband has both, so we’re lucky – but wherever possible I prefer him not to take annual leave when I’m away, because, well, I prefer us to spend our annual leave together.

Some people try to make their conference trips into a family holiday for just this reason, and Shiri Fozi Jones (University of Pittsburgh) had the great suggestion that “since conferences tend to compile lists of hotels and restaurants, etc, for people coming from out of town, it would probably be easy to include a list of specifically family-friendly options”.

Some respondents found the idea of bringing their family along too distracting and liked having a break by themselves; others only wanted to take a longer trip if family could come with them. So, conferences hosted in places with affordable accommodation for family, not just single people, are ideal – especially if it’s in a place that has good facilities for children, and even better if the conference itself could provide some family-friendly events (Leeds IMC, for instance, has had a falconry display).

What about at the conference itself?

As well as basic but essential features such as baby change facilities (this should seem obvious, but it’s shocking how many universities lack them – which isn’t exactly helpful for undergraduates with children, either), many people stressed the necessity for a lactation room if you are a breastfeeding parent.

This is a simple request – all it requires is a room with an electricity outlet (for a breast pump) and a comfortable seat. And privacy – someone said that the room set aside for pumping was also being used as a coffee room! Which would be fine for some women (I’m pretty happy to get my boobs out to get the job done) but not everyone, and privacy should be built in as a matter of course.

One respondent's idea of a playroom particularly struck me – not only would it be a great way to meet fellow academic parents, but it also makes children feel part of the conference rather than simply as a problem to be taken care of. I’m not suggesting that everyone start bringing their kids to all their conference sessions and letting them run riot, of course. But having dedicated spaces where families are welcome definitely helps more people attend events – not only for practical reasons, but because they feel welcome.

A couple of people pointed out that traditional conference dinners can’t be attended by people with small children. I wouldn’t want to do away with conference dinners, but maybe there could be some alternative events, such as a lunch – or even an early-evening cocktail (or doughnut) hour that was family-friendly.

Some of these ideas – such as providing a crèche, which necessarily require insurance and trained staff – cost a lot of money. Some – such as putting aside a small room where nursing mothers can feel relaxed enough to nurse or pump – are free. But I think that there is scope for all event organisers to consider the needs of parents before and during their events.

As a side note – I started this post an hour ago while my daughter slept. Since then she’s got up from a nap, breastfed, and had a dirty nappy changed. She’s now cooing and bouncing extremely vigorously in her Jumperoo, but giving me a look that suggests I should really be admiring her instead of typing on this boring old thing. So I’ll stop here, and hope that this quick post has provided some food for thought and discussion.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford. The full version of this post originally appeared on her blog, Meny Snoweballes.

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