The conference dilemma: To bring or not to bring your kid(s)
Choosing whether or not to bring your child(ren) to a conference is a classic loose-loose situation. You leave them, and guilt and yearning become your most annoying travelling buddies. While your body is attending talk sessions, poster presentations, and discussion panels, your mind is preparing lunches, organizing pickups, planning playdates, and thinking of ways to make your little one(s) giggle. You bring them, and you will feel like a double agent in a family drama. Torn between participating in conference activities and attending to the all important feed, sleep, and play schedule of your loved one(s), you will worry about your kid(s) throwing a fit in the hotel lobby while attending the keynote session, and you will feel as though you are missing out on networking opportunities while you are reading their favourite bedtime stories.
Sometimes though, you don’t have the choice of leaving your kid(s) behind. When I was part of the organizing committee of an international conference, I knew I wanted to attend no matter what. Due to Covid, we had planned and re-planned the meeting for four long years. But, unlike my academic life, my personal life hadn’t come to a halt during the pandemic, and my third child was scheduled to arrive just two months before the conference. So, the only way for me to attend was to bring my then 7-weeks old daughter with me, and the only way to bring an infant to such a meeting was to bring a support person. So, my partner and I decided to pack up our three kids and road-trip down from Ontario (Canada) to the conference site in Massachusetts (U.S.A.). This could easily be a story about the challenges of bringing young child(ren) to a scientific meeting, about the lack of infrastructure, and about the awkwardness of having your child(ren) at your workplace that is also your vacation place. But that is not the story I want to tell. Not quite.
Being a parent and a scientist – a change in perspective
As an organizer of the conference, I had selected and contacted speakers, read and evaluated abstracts, and designed talk sessions that aimed to balance scientific content and speakers’ diversity. In short, I had made a significant intellectual contribution. I was excited to ask research questions and discuss scientific topics that would push our field forward. Yet, as I was carrying my newborn around the conference site, a tiny foot or hand sticking out of the sling, I started noticing that most conversations would drift towards child-related topics. How old is your little one? Is she sleeping well? How are the siblings coping with the adjustment? And so on. Nobody seemed interested in me, the scientist and eager early career researcher. Nobody asked about my academic contributions or my deep and thoughtful scientific ideas. As the meeting progressed, I felt increasingly frustrated. Was this just another way I, a female scientist, was fading into intellectual invisibility? Was I becoming ‘the one with the baby and the kids’ instead of ‘the one with the sharp mind, creative thinking, and decisive leadership’? Had it been a mistake to put my family through the stress of traveling and adjusting to an unfamiliar environment? Was I asking for too much?
But then, one night, as my partner was telling me about some adventure he had had with the older kids, I suddenly I realized that how I was being treated at ‘my’ conference wasn’t about me at all. Instead, it was a reflection of the desire other conference attendees had to talk about their own loved ones. In fact, people were spilling over with the urge to share their stories about having kids in a child-foreign academic world. They wanted to talk about how it had been for them to bring their babies to conferences, and how it was to leave them at home. They were wondering how their child(ren) were doing at daycare or school, and how their partners were managing the double workload or their toddler’s fits. My colleagues were there as scientists, but they were also mothers and fathers, uncles and ants, grandmas and grandpas. I wasn’t becoming invisible; I was exposing an invisible part of people’s lives that was on their minds.
Towards a more family friendly academic community
In the past few years, many of us have recognized that our scientific community needs to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. As an early career researcher and mother of three young children I hope that—as we take steps toward a more open science—we do not forget about all the parents and caregivers. I am personally very thankful that over the past seven years I felt supported by my partner and my academic family, primarily my advisors and my funding agency. I feel thankful, however, I refuse to feel fortunate. I don’t think it should be ‘good fortune’ to receive financial and professional support as one starts a family, it should be the norm.
Earlier this year, when I was rolling along the hallways of my university, pregnant in the last trimester, a female colleague came up to me and said I was a role model. When I was carrying my 7 weeks old daughter all around the conference site, some of my colleagues again called me a role model. I am somewhat proud to be a role model for others that may be unsure or insecure about the fact that they already have or would like to start a family. But at the end of the day, I don’t really want to be a role model. I want to be a scientist. I am a parent. And I think it is ok to be both.