Conferencing with an infant

I went to the ACS Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting (MARM) at the beginning of June, and, since she’s still nursing and refuses to take a bottle, Sweet Pea came along. My husband did not. The conference was Sunday to Tuesday, and he wasn’t able to take Monday and Tuesday off. Sweet Pea has a wonderful daycare, but we still don’t have a babysitter, and arranging family to babysit was a challenge because of distance and scheduling. So I just took her along and spent three days solo parenting.

Having walked three days in a single parent’s shoes, I have a lot of sympathy for the challenges they face. Pushing a stroller also continues to highlight for me the ways that the spaces we inhabit are designed without regard to accessibility.

Some observations:

  • Placing an order in the hotel coffee shop meant waiting in a cordoned-off line – that was too narrow to navigate with the stroller.
  • Conference signage was placed along the route you’d walk if you could take stairs. Elevators were not a part of that path.
  • The hotel had a rather nice nursing room, but it had only one, and it wasn’t particularly convenient from the conference center. To reach it from the majority of the sessions I attended meant taking an elevator up one floor, going down a hallway, around a bend, down another hallway, and taking another elevator down one floor.
  • The women’s restroom nearest most of the sessions I attended had a nice changing table, separate from the toilets and sinks, but the nearest garbage can was by the sinks, on the other side of a pull door. To use the bathroom with a stroller in tow meant pushing one door open, turning a bit, and pulling another door before reaching the toilet and sink room. If either door opened while we were between doors, we got sandwiched in the middle.
  • To see as many talks as possible meant timing nursing and diaper-changing with the breaks, which is to say, missing some or all of the social hours and coffee breaks.
  • The meeting rooms were set up with as many chairs as they could – and no place for wheelchairs, scooters, or strollers. In a few rooms, I rearranged the seating to fit in a row without blocking the aisle. Other times I just parked the stroller in the very back of the room.
  • I heard most talks from the back of the room, the floor, or out in the hallway, looking through the door. Folks, you have got to speak up and make your slide text larger!
  • A “family friendly” restaurant that asks you to stow your stroller far from your table is not actually family friendly.

I anticipated some push-back for bringing a 9-month old to the sessions. I am happy to report that anyone with negative comments kept quietly to themselves. In fact, multiple people said things like “I’m so glad you brought your baby,” and “It’s great to see the next generation.”

On the other hand, I dressed Sweet Pea in her science onesies (beakers on Sunday, atoms on Monday, DNA on Tuesday), and noted that, though people were happy to adore the baby, they mostly called her “him.” Assumptions, people!

Despite the challenges of keeping a baby sufficiently quiet to hear the speakers (and minimize disruptions), I was able to attend about as many talks as I would have on my own. I was not organized enough to take as many notes as usual, but I noted key citations, and during breaks (e.g. while nursing) I jotted down what I could recall of my other thoughts on the presentations.

Listening from the hall seemed at times a literal interpretation of being outside “the room where it happens.” I felt neither excluded, nor made fully welcome. The end-of-session conversations that happen spontaneously as people leave the room had to be intentional on my part. I had to enter as they left, and seek them out if I wanted to take part.

Sitting outside did present a happy opportunity, though. While listening to one presentation through the door, a graduate student approached me with questions about being a professor, and specifically about finding a job. Though I often feel like I don’t know the way forward, I do know about the things behind me – when and where to look for job postings, what to highlight in a cover letter, how long the process takes, what pitfalls I fell into the first time around. I’m so glad she said hello!