I was really looking forward to the annual meetings for the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS). They are taking place in a city I have never been, and the conference themes are #lit: Feeling Race and The New Black Sociologists. I am not on the job market and not attempting to sell my book idea to publishers, so I don’t have to deal with that extra anxiety. It seemed like it was going to be a fun, productive, and powerful conference season.
And then I checked the daycare and back-to-school schedule… and the frustration set in. 😩 Once again, the university daycare my youngest son, Myles, attends was closing for the same three days that I would be in Philly. The conference scheduling also coincides with the dead week in summer (a.k.a. the week before school starts so all summer camps are closed) and the start of the school year for my oldest, Jackson. My husband, an Assistant Principal at our local middle school was already scheduled to be back to work. These final days leading up to the new school are treated almost like black out days for administration, you do not miss. Extended family was also non-viable, as we live 2000+ miles away from our parents and siblings. In other words, I was stuck with no clear childcare plan for my 2 and 8 year old sons.
So here I am, once again, weighing all of the possible options on how to make this conference season work. Do I miss the conference? Do I fly the kids out with me? If so, do I find someone to fly out to watch them? If I don’t, who do I find to watch my kids?
This *Children-Conference Conundrum* is not new to me. As a mother of two, who had my first in graduate school and my second on the tenure-track, I have attempted to manage the children-conference conundrum in what feels like every different way imaginable. I know I am not only person stuck in this conundrum – this also affects most single parents, primary caregivers, and two academic households – so I decided I would write about this conundrum by outlining the benefits and drawbacks I have had to weigh when deciding how to manage a conference and childcare. I end with a short pitch for what I see as the best solution: institutional and financial support for conference attendance with dependents.
Option 1: Miss the conference.
Now, if your main goal is to attend the conference then of course this isn’t a viable option. But if this isn’t a crucial year and you don’t want to attend the conference, family commitments might be a great excuse for missing. I missed the conference cycle the year after my first was born and the year I was pregnant with my second. To make it work I declined any panels or roles requests for that year and encouraged them to reach out again in the future. Then I followed the Twitter hashtags with envy but also kicked up my feet with some adoration for a more relaxing start to the school year.
- Pros: The obvious benefits include saving money and time.
- Cons: The drawbacks include missing out on valuable networking, fun socializing, and opportunity for feedback on work-in-progress. This drawback is amplified, however, when you can’t attend for multiple years.
- Tips: Enjoy the break. Think about a smaller local conference if you really need to add presentations to you CV.
Option 2: Attend the conference with kids (and arrange your own childcare)
I have only attended one conference with my child alone and when there was no on-site childcare. It was ABS in Memphis in 2016. Myles was under 2 so he could fly for free and it was on this trip I learned I had reached expert level in public nursing by feeding him squished in my middle seat on a small airplane. I was rooming with a close grad school friend, and she was (thankfully) excited to see the baby. She also had her car at the conference and offered to help provide transportation. My biggest concern was how I would present and lead the session I organized with a small baby so I decided I would try to find someone to watch Myles during this part of the day. To do so, I reached out to the local conference organizer and trusted wonder woman who I knew had small children and asked if she had any sitter recommendations. She responded by saying that my son could join hers at the home daycare she used consistently and ran by a cherished granny. The plan worked pretty great for that day. However, I didn’t have as much success when I tried to bring Myles to the sessions with me the following day. He was a little noisy and I was stressed that he was distracting presenters. So I darted in and out of sessions for a bit until I reclined to hanging out in the lobby.
- Pros: This options allows you to attend the conference and be with children (added bonus when kids are still nursing).
- Cons: One of the more significant drawbacks can be the added costs. We all know conferences are absurdly expensive (a recent facebook thread suggests we spend about $2k for ASAs). So, in addition to the exorbitant fees of conferences you will may have to add additional airfare fees for children over two, and then and money to feed the children. (For instance, if I took the kids with me to Philly, the flights would be an added $1100 alone). An additional important drawback is the pre-conference work to arrange the specialized childcare and stress that comes with that, having to manage presentation of self + children during conferences, and not being about to be wholly committed or present during sessions. For these reasons, this is my least favorite option.
- Tips: Be creative and ask for help. I am super thankful to the conference organizer and my friend for helping out with rides and Myles.
(^ me, Myles, and grad school friends at ABS)
Option 3: Attend the conference with kids (and use onsite childcare)
I used it once and I was sold: the onsite childcare at ASAs is great! The staff was professional and friendly and my kids enjoyed hanging out with other kids. I was still breastfeeding, so I could pop in and nurse my son without any major interruptions to either of our schedules. I did this option when I attended ASAs in 2016 in Seattle. Since Seattle is on the West Coast, the flights were reasonable and my whole family attended, however my oldest and husband had to leave a day earlier to make it to the first day of school and the youngest stayed with me for an extra day.
- Pros: Can attend conference and be with children in the evenings. Having an excuse to travel and expose your children to different places can be an added bonus in this case.
- Cons: As with the drawbacks of Option 2, the costs can be the biggest deterrent. In addition to the extra flights and extra food, are the more significant childcare costs of onsite care (its $55 per child per day at ASAs). Another drawback is that the childcare closes at 6:30pm, which means you either have to miss out on receptions and dinners or take the kids with you.
- Tips: Inquire about stipends to pay the ASA childcare fees.
Option 4: Attend the conference with kids (and bring along partner or other family)
I’ve seen this option done fairly frequently – a partner who has time off from work can attend the conference and hang with the kids. I think it is a great option for those who have the availability. I actually did this last week when my husband had a conference in San Diego. He went to the conference and I took the kids to the zoo one day and Legoland the next. Sometimes it’s a sister or grandparent that tags along. Sadly, the timing of ASAs makes this nearly impossible for my family.
- Pros: The benefit here is that you get to spend time at the conference and with your family. This is really great when you can carve out time to explore the city as a family.
- Cons: Consistent with Option 2 and 3, the cost is a major drawback. Another drawback I felt when I did this was the work-life tug. When I was at the conference I wanted to be with my partner and kids. When I took time away from the conference to hang with them, I felt a little bad that I wasn’t doing things I had planned to at the conference. And when I was the person in charge of the kids – I was exhausted from exploring a new city alone and wanted to crash by the time by partner was done. Despite the cons, this is still probably my favorite option.
- Tips: Communicate with family about your schedule and make sure they are up to what it entails. Another great idea is to try to find a sitter so you and the partner/family member can get a little adult time together as well.
Option 5: Attend the conference without kids (and arrange childcare at home)
This year my Mom planned a visit to California when I had a conference. I took the opportunity to go to New Orleans for Southerns with my partner while she watched the kids. This was wonderful and I wish we lived closer to family so this could happen more. For ASA and ABS this is not feasible and, as I mentioned above, I really struggled to figure out a plan. I was finally able to arrange childcare ‘swaps’ with other parents. For one family, I will watch their child today and they will watch my kids on Friday when I am gone, and for another family they will watch my kids on Monday, and I will watch theirs the Tuesday I return. This means the week before the conference I am home with Jackson all week and one of the days babysitting his friend, and then babysitting two other children the day I come back. It works, but is a lot of work. (And if you wondering about other sitter options, the student sitters I use are gone for the summer and watching two active children is hard high school students for full days – I tried it last year – so this is the “best” option).
- Pros: Can attend conference and get uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room to yourself.
- Cons: Figuring out childcare plans in a pitch is never fun (and, once again can be very costly). For me this includes additional work pre- and post- conference. If you are nursing and leave your children at home, it can present additional obstacles. I remember the one time I pumped in a public bathroom was at a conference in Chicago.
- Tips: Plan ahead. And when you are gone try to enjoy the alone time.
No matter which option I choose, the work-family supposedly life balance tug-o-war is heightened when it comes to conferences. When I am away from my children, I miss them and often feel (undeserved) guilt for being away. This typically equates to me trying to attend the most minimal amount of days. When the children are with my at the conference the tug is also hard, as I worry about their temporary childcare plans or think of all the fun they are having without me. It’s hard to find the perfect balance, especially with the weak support system we currently have.
Many have begun talking about what we would like to see to improve support. One recent article in PNAS, authored by Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science, outlines their proposal for CARE and I want to amplify their proposal here. To me, this proposal hits nail right on the head for what caregivers really need:
- Childcare – financial support for childcare, either onsite or at home. Some conference offer a grant for just this. I think ASA should be added to this list.
- Accommodating families – this includes family friendly dates (i.e., NOT the start of the school year, and more conferences during the week) and conference scheduling (perhaps childcare in the evening).
- Resources – this can include further financial incentives and also physical resources such as ample closed spaces for nursing and changing areas, and better accommodations for children with disabilities.
- Establishing a conference-specific social network – this would provide more social support for parents and caregivers, where they can arrange child care swaps, schedule activities and provide support.
Bringing more CARE into conferences can help solve the Childcare-Conference Conundrum and open the doors for more parents and caregivers to attend conferences while attending to their dependents. This is especially important for diversifying the academy, as it provides support for women who are most harmed by the baby penalty. I hope that sociological organizations – who are full of scholars who understand the ways institutions can either harm or help those attached to them – can take steps to ensure more support and equity in conferences soon.