Annual Meeting , Perspectives Daily

Kids and Conferences

Balancing Parenthood and Professionalism

Devon Reich | Dec 13, 2019

Conferences are a crucial nexus of scholarship, networking, and career advancement for both burgeoning and established academics. Yet many academics are also parents, and those responsibilities can’t always take a backseat. Our community of historians has chimed in with some of their tips navigating conferences with kids by your side and share how they balance infants, toddlers and teenagers with expectations and assumptions about their careers.

Aeva Rendina plays with Lego during the AHA 2019 annual meeting in Chicago.

Aeva Rendina plays with Lego during the AHA 2019 annual meeting in Chicago. Marc Monaghan

The biggest takeaway? According to one historian, “OWN IT. Do what you have to do to make it work.” One woman fondly recalled attending a conference as a council member on partial bed rest, reclining on a sofa during the day-long council meeting. As much as your children require attention, sometimes they attract just the right amount of it too. Two parents shared stories of their children making valuable impressions on book editors with pitches such as, “Have you talked with my mama? She's writing a great book on birth control. She'll tell you more about it ’cause that's all I know.”

Many confessed that being thought of as unprofessional for bringing kids to a conference is a concern. Attendees noted that even when colleagues are understanding and empathetic (one even had her coworker offer to watch her child during a session), the conversation often seems to come back around toward the kids in attendance. Another parent admitted that she tried to downplay that she had brought her child, “[not hiding] her exactly, but [not losing] track of why we were there,” while making a deliberate effort to keep the focus on her historical work. When faced with the choice, however, Naomi Rendina, a Ph.D. candidate at Case Western Reserve University, explained, “I do think it's probably also taken a toll on my future career, but I also don't want to work for someone who can't accept balancing a kid with work. Once I got over the idea that it was unprofessional and unacceptable for her to be with me, I really enjoyed myself a lot more.” 

The financial burden of childcare at conferences can be high. For single parents, it can be the first, only, and often prohibitive determinant in attendance. In absence of a co-parent, Karen Graubart, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, has creatively invented a “sitting time share,” where she joins families with small kids for trips to museums while one adult presents or attends a session. Those fortunate enough to have a willing family member, friend, or partner come along on the trip still foot the bill for their airfare and accommodations. Even those generously funded by their universities are often prohibited from using such funds for childcare or a companion’s travel. While several people highlighted making the conference trip a mini vacation, factoring in potential use of paid time off and the costs of sightseeing adds to the grand total. Ultimately, it still takes village, or at the very least, a solid support system spanning several cities. Their personal networks privilege conference attendance. On occasions when conference attendees could afford to hire babysitters for a few hours, they still relied on local friends’ and contacts’ recommendations.

Here’s more advice we gathered from historians who have taken their children on conference trips:

DOs:

  • For those breastfeeding, get a pump that can double as your conference bag. 
  • Accessorize. Scarves are parents’ best friends for covering up spillage, spit up, and other unexpected stains.
  • Stay in the conference hotel. Baby hand-offs, mealtimes, and naps (for you or the kids) are made that much easier by being only an elevator ride away. Several parents noted that since you often sacrifice evening networking events, staying in the hotel ensures that you can maximize your daytime availability for lunches and coffee meetups.
  • Request adjoining or nearby hotel rooms if your bringing a babysitter, partner, friend, or family-member with you.
  • Bring Lego! Lego doesn’t officially sponsor academic conferences, but you might think otherwise based on the number of parents suggesting them as the ultimate conference amusement. Coloring books (with pencils, not markers) were a close second.
  • Double check ahead of time about if your hotel room will have a refrigerator for breastmilk or a microwave for baby food in your room. 
  • It was unanimous—Review the conference program before going so that you know which panels are most important for you to go to, when you can take breaks, and when you may have to work around an assistant caregiver’s schedule. If you’re a two-historian household attending the same conference, this is paramount.

DON’Ts:

  • Don’t trust spotty conference Wi-Fi. Most parents agreed that screen time rules go out the window at a conference, but make sure to download books, TV, or films ahead of time.
  • Don’t prioritize politeness over pumping. One historian shared that she felt guilty leaving longer sessions early to pump, only to spend three hours uncomfortable, distracted, and absorbing almost nothing from her colleague’s presentation.
  • Don’t rely on hotels to have proper crib fitting sheets. Hotels are legally required to provide a crib upon request, but many use a standard size sheet, which is a suffocation hazard. 

So is it worth it—are kids the next conference accessory? Parents must weigh the financial costs of bringing the kids against not be able to attend at all, a cost less easily quantified. “One of the perks of academia is flexibility,” maintains Rendina. For many parents, it’s important that their children know what they do, how hard they work, and what they have achieved, and what better way to witness it than firsthand? Nor should we underestimate the importance of visibility of parents and their children at conferences. One historian wrote to us that watching her colleagues with their children at conferences was encouraging. As she considers starting a family, seeing these kids is “a welcome reminder for the rest of us that everyone has a life beyond the often insular space of an academic conference.” 


Devon Reich is operations and marketing assistant at the AHA.


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