Bringing baby to a conference

I'm back...and semi-dug out. Minnow and I survived the conference, though not unscathed. There was an unfortunate incident in which Minnow tumbled off the hotel bed and ended up with a carpet imprint on her forehead. But otherwise, it was a successful conference. That said, I don't recommend bringing a nine-month old to a conference alone. Here's how it went and what I learned:

On our flight to Conference City, Minnow and I were jammed into a middle seat. She wiggled, she made faces at the other passengers, she spilled my water, she banged on the tray table, and mercifully, she slept for 1/3 of the flight. So far, so good.

Our luggage arrived and I lugged it all over to the shuttle van, where I discovered that (1) the van did not have LATCH, making easy installation impossible and (2) the carseat did not fit in the middle or back seats of the van because of the (short) distance between seats. After making all of the van passengers get out and rearrange, I got her carseat installed in the front row of seats, but with a shoulder belt and lacking the shoulder-belt clip (which I forgot to bring), her carseat was spectacularly unsafe. Then the van driver got lost trying to find an out of the way hotel, and Minnow began to scream. She was hungry, and there's just no logistical way to breast-feed when both you and child are strapped in (especially not in front of 8 other -ologists). Her cereal puffs were way in the back of the van, and so we were serenading by screaming baby for 5+ minutes until I had a realization...I can ask the people in the back of the van to help me. Strangely enough, they were only too happy to fish around in my luggage, find the baby food, and pass it forward. Fed, Minnow returned to her normal angelic, non-screaming self. Lesson #1 learned: I don't have to do everything myself. I can ask for help.

After checking at the hotel, baby-proofing the room and installing outlet covers as necessary, I decided to order room-service rather than try to take her out for dinner. One $22 dollar hamburger later, Minnow and I went to bed at 6:30 p.m. local time. Lesson #2 learned: Sometimes, you pay for convenience. But sometimes, it's worth it.

The next morning I snuck out of bed, got a shower and got ready for the day before waking up Minnow. I loaded her into the stroller and headed to the convention center, where I found that the conference child care had just opened. Feeling horrible about leaving Minnow with strangers for such a long period, but feeling proud that I had carefully written out a schedule and instructions to ease their jobs, I joined my short course group for the day. It was a good short course, and I'm glad I went, though I did miss out on some of the networking opportunities (and food) because I had to pump. I'd let the course leaders know ahead of time that I'd need to pump, so one had brought her van with tinted windows. Lesson #3 learned: Breast-feeding shirts are a wonderful thing if you have to pump in 45 degree (Fahrenheit) weather. And you don't have to worry about refrigerating the milk.

At the end of the day, when I picked Minnow up from the child care, she was the last one there. But I was relieved to discover that one teacher had "adopted" Minnow as her own, giving her lots of attention and even letting Minnow nap in the teacher's arms. She was well-fed, well-rested, and up for a dinner out with a grad school friend of mine. Lesson #4 learned: Conference child care is actually OK.

The following day, I attended sessions, visiting Minnow during breaks, and taking her to lunch. She made a huge mess of rice all over the restaurant. I haven't the foggiest idea what the morning sessions were about, but I took notes, so theoretically I should be able to recall them if I review my notes. The afternoon sessions were less successful, as I kept dozing off. I'd like to say that the talks were less interesting, but it was probably just that I was tired and full. Lesson #5 re-learned: Don't go to talks immediately after lunch.

That evening I found a successful dinner/evening strategy. After the conference activities had ended, Minnow and I strolled back to the hotel, stopping to get a sandwich to-go along the way. Back in the baby-proofed room, I could eat my sandwich while she flung the contents of my wallet all over the room. Or put things into and out of dresser drawers, whichever amused her most. After dinner, I'd get ready for the next day, while she played. Then she'd take a bath, and when she was ready for bed, we'd both go to bed. Ten or eleven hours later, we'd get up. So I should have gotten plenty of sleep. But I didn't, because Minnow was a terrible sleeper the whole trip. I don't know if it's teething or what, but this past week has been horrible. She's been running a slight fever off and on, and she's waking up whimpering every hour or so. Tylenol helps, but I'm reluctant to keep her drugged all of the time. And of course, things seem to be worse at night. Lesson #6 learned: If ever again at a conference by myself, with a baby, I can just forget evening social activities (like blogger meetups), because they will all start too late for the infant.

The third day, Minnow fell asleep in the Ergo on the way to the conference, and woke up during the first talk I attended. (First time anyone's ever woken up during a scientific talk!) I moved to a less stimulating session (at least by her terms) and she slept through 4 more talks. I had lunch with a great group of women, introduced to me by a blog reader, and in the afternoon Minnow and I hung out in the exhibit/poster hall. This turned out to be less successful than I had thought it would be, because Minnow got tired of being cooped up in arms, pack, or stroller, and really wanted to go exploring and crawling around. Of course she couldn't do this because she would have been stepped on. The highlight of her afternoon, playing with a 6-month old in a similar situation. Total posters seen: 0. Lesson #7 learned: If the baby is mobile, the baby will not take kindly to hours of poster and exhibit viewing. Conference daycare might be preferable for both mother and child.

The fourth day, I attended talks in the morning and presented my poster in the afternoon. This day, I forgot to bring the bottle of breastmilk to the conference center so I had to take a break from presenting my poster to go nurse Minnow. Of course the child care was the far end of the convention center from the poster, and when I got to the child care center she was asleep. I left instructions for the teachers to call me when she awoke, hiked back to my poster, and my cell phone rang... So I missed a fair amount of the session, and never got a chance to see anyone else's poster. Plus, I was stuck next to a bitter grad student who insisted on recounting his drunk late-night adventures. But I did make one contact that is potentially very useful for establishing a research site in Mystery state. Lesson #8 re-learned: It's not the quantity of poster visitors that count, but the quality of the interactions you have with them.

And then we returned home, after getting up very early in the morning, safely installing the car seat in the return shuttle van, being cramped in a window seat, and waiting for Fish to pick us up from the airport. Last night I did laundry, and wrote a 60 minute lecture in 80 minutes. (Fortunately, we were scheduled to talk about my subfield and I had slides from last time I taught the class.) Today, I graded exams, fielded emails and phone calls, and tried to remember what a normal work day was like. And I read a lot of blog posts. Minnow was actually quite content to be left at her normal daycare, and I was able to leave without any sort of fuss. I think she was happy to see the familiar faces. Lesson #9 re-learned: The day after a trip is a huge relief, until you are reminded how much things have piled up in your absence.

Would I do it again? No, not in the same way with the same age child. I think I would make more effort to convince Fish to attend or to hire a nanny for the week, so that I would have some help with the morning, lunch, and evening hours. With a littler baby (

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Wow! What a trip! Talk to you soon!

By Writer Chica (not verified) on 01 Nov 2007 #permalink

As always I'm impressed by the way you deal with the work and baby combo. Welcome back and good to hear you had a succesful conference after all and found a contact for a future field site.

I'm so happy it wasn't a disaster for you. I really appreciate that you post your experiences in such detail. It's comforting to have an idea of what it's like to have kids and an academic job. Thanks for sharing, because now we learned 9 things too.

By ecogeofemme (not verified) on 02 Nov 2007 #permalink

I love your parenting posts because...they make me stop whining about the difficulties of being a single academic with a diabetic, neurotic, arthritic overweight cat on prozac!

By Academic Vixen (not verified) on 02 Nov 2007 #permalink

Congratulations! You survived! I am very impressed that you did it. I took my daughter to a conference alone when she was just under 6 months. We drove (it was about 5 hours away) and I roomed with a friend from grad school who was a huge help. I didn't attend many sessions (I was afraid to leave her in daycare because I was still at home with her then). My friend watched her during my talk, so the trip wasn't bad. Of course, my participation in the conference was also seriously lacking. I never flew alone with her until she was five! I don't know how you managed to drag all the stuff with you! Kudos to you- I am seriously impressed!

Good job SW. Whew -- your post made me tired. I have found that conferences+kids means very little opportunity for the social networking aspects of a conference, which is a bummer. But in a few years you'll be able to leave Minnow at home with Fish while you go to meetings, and life will be, well, not easier but different!

Congrats on a job well done!

You must be made of steel, Sciencewoman. I am worn out just reading about your conference trip!

Excellent post. Should be required reading for every male academic.