Bringing a baby to a conference: The Australian Historical Association edition

Laura Rademaker reflects on the challenges of bringing a young baby to an academic conference which offers no childcare.

Laura Rademaker and her baby at the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference. Photograph via author.
Laura Rademaker and her baby at the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference. Photograph via author.

This year, I took a four-month-old baby to the annual Australian Historical Association Conference (AHA). The conference was excellent. Bringing a baby was exhausting. I don’t recommend it. But I’m very happy to report that our community of scholars were all friendly and accommodating, in fact, far more so than I expected. And if there were disapproving glances at a disruptive baby, I was too busy to notice them.

Well wishes and positive attitudes, however, aren’t enough to support academic parents’ participation. So, I’m suggesting we start a conversation around children, childcare and conferences.

Last year, early in the pregnancy, my morning sickness, dietary needs and exhaustion were enough to keep me away from the AHA altogether. So I was determined not to miss 2017. However, attending conferences as a pregnant scholar was more challenging than I expected.

I’m a small woman with a big baby. I was a whale. I couldn’t sit comfortably for any length of time. I couldn’t sleep. Government recommendations are that pregnant women avoid pre-made salads and sandwiches, cold meats and soft cheeses – that is, all the standard conference food. One can argue about the necessity of regulating women’s diets to this extent, the way the guidelines make motherhood fearful and all-consuming from the beginning and turn staying at home into an attractive option, but even knowing this I was always going to be nervous biting into the bocconcini. Next time you’re organising an event consider including some cooked options for women who might be pregnant, just as you would include a vegetarian option.

Before the baby arrived, I told a colleague of my plans to do some work while on parental leave. He told me not to worry about it, as my brain would ‘turn to mush’ once I’d had a baby. Trying to give him an out, I suggested that sleep deprivation could do this to anyone. No, he insisted, ‘it’s the hormones.’

The youngest member of the Australian Historical Association. Photograph via author.
The youngest member of the Australian Historical Association. Photograph via author.

I’m happy to report that childbirth did not damage my brain. Still, I felt I needed to prove there was no mush. So I was nervous, after four months, to emerge from baby-land – the world of constantly cleaning bodily fluids and of lolling on the rug speaking gaga – to the ‘real world’ of academia. Or perhaps academia is the bubble and baby-land is the real world.

The first challenge was feeding. My baby would not drink from a bottle. We were in training for a month before the AHA and tried it all: different bottles, teats, times, positions, people. Only the boob would do. I made plans with my husband, programming in the five breastfeeds a day around various morning teas, plenaries and round-tables. The rest of the time, baby and dad would go to the beach, the park (provided it didn’t rain), the corridor, the car.

I spent the AHA ducking in and out of a plenary, bringing a baby in to feed as Margaret Allen spoke about the creation of ‘female friendly spaces’ under a Christian cosmopolitanism. We were interrupting Jane Carey as the baby gargled, feeding through her paper on Maori anthropologists. But the baby sat quietly and attentively listening to Wal Slaven speak on the history of the orthodox church, impressing all at the Religious History Stream.

On Tuesday, we changed nappies on a desk in a hallway at University House. Students looked on, smiling fondly at the baby until they saw, with horror, the contents of the nappy. By Wednesday, I had discovered there was a baby change room. Unfortunately, it was located behind a door labelled ‘female’. I escorted my husband in and out. I’m yet to find a change table in a male bathroom.

I’ve got mixed feelings about bringing a baby to a conference. There was no time for the conversations I wanted to have. I was distracted. That said, leaving baby-land for only a few days did wonders for my mental and emotional health. And when, after being primary carer for a baby for three consecutive days, my husband commented that it was harder than he’d realised, it was worth it if only for that.

I hear that ‘back in the day’ feminist academics used to organise childcare at conferences. Nowadays, insurance and quality standards might make a formal childcare arrangement difficult. But surely not impossible, as feminist studies conferences in other countries continue to offer childcare options. Conference organisers could perhaps direct participants to local childcare facilities, if there are any, but I’m hesitant to load more work onto conference organisers. Still, it should be possible for single parents to participate fully in the academic community. So we need something.

Conversations on the conference’s #OzHA2017 on Twitter alluded to the fact that this was not my problem alone. Childcare does not end when a child is no longer an infant; it continues for years to come. The fact that the AHA also coincided with school holidays was an additional difficulty for others.

Another suggestion was to consider offering a ‘kids day’ at future AHA conferences.

For now, for those who have babies and toddlers, I would tentatively propose an informal babysitting collective. Members could get a working with children check and take turns to mind kids in a spare room (with Peppa Pig on repeat), based around each other’s conference commitments. I’d love to start a conversation around this, please be in touch for ideas.


rademaker-profile-picLaura Rademaker is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research covers themes of race, gender and religion in twentieth century Australia. Her work on Aboriginal missions in Australia has received numerous prizes, including the Australian Historical Association’s Serle Award for best Ph.D. in Australian History, the Australian National University’s J.G. Crawford prize for most outstanding doctoral thesis and the John Molony Prize in History. Currently, she is working with Tiwi Islanders to write book on the history of Catholic missions that foregrounds the memories and perspectives of Aboriginal people. She is also researching Australia’s ‘religious realignment’ (or ‘secularisation’) in the 1960s and 70s, focusing particularly on questions of gender and race.

Follow Laura on Twitter @laurarads.

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