Anyone who is a mom and an academic has one of these stories of academic travel from hell. I can say with a fair amount of certainty, though, that my story of traveling to a conference as a new, nursing mom is the worst. Unfortunately.
My daughter was just two months old, not sleeping for any discernable length of time at night and pretty much nursing nonstop, when I decided it was a swell idea to leave her at home with my husband and travel across the country to California to present at the WAWH, the Western Association of Women Historians. The WAWH is a great conference filled with wonderful women who focus on issues of gender and women’s history, so it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. As a new mom, I had that lack of understanding of what I was getting myself into brought on by denial, lack of sleep, and general delusions of supermomness. I thought the fact that my daughter took bottles without a problem and that I would bring my trusty breast pump meant that it would go okay, at least. It probably does not surprise any veteran mom to know that I was dead wrong.
Basically, everything that could have gone wrong did. First, my plan was to pump during my layover, but my first flight sat on the tarmac forever before taking off, causing me to almost miss my connection. That meant running from one terminal to another to catch my flight, with zero time to pump. By the start of my second flight, I was really feeling the pressure. My pump had to be plugged in and, of course, there was no place to plug in. So I sat fidgeting on the flight, feeling my breasts filling up with milk, having no way to get release. By the time my flight landed in California, I was practically running to meet the shuttle that was supposed to pick me up. The shuttle driver took my carry-on and my breast pump, which thankfully comes in a discreet, black case and doesn’t scream, “I use this to milk myself,” and put them in the back of the van.
Riding to the hotel, my breasts felt like they were about to explode, but I was comforted by the thought of the sweet relief that would come from finally pumping them, not to mention my plan to use my time away from my daughter to the fullest by enjoying a couple of glasses of wine and “pumping and dumping,” as it’s called. I was supposed to go out with some friends that night for dinner, but I had already texted to bow out. I just wanted to pump, drink my wine, and go to bed.
But when I got to my hotel room and opened the breast pump, it was busted. Completely useless. The pumping mechanism had shattered, I guess from getting thrown in the back of the shuttle van.
Let me tell you. The nursing-while-traveling-from-hell story ends with a woman, standing in line at Target in a strange city, which she had to take a taxi to at 9:00 at night, crying uncontrollably, her shirt front flooded with milk, desperately trying to convince her credit card representative that yes, in fact, she was making a sudden, $300 purchase in a state several times zones from her own, and no, her card had not been stolen, while the checkout person, and everyone in a ten foot radius, desperately tried to avert their eyes. It was not a pretty sight or my finest moment as a mother, academic, or even human person.
Of course, my husband, who had to spend the weekend with a two month old who was none too happy that her full access, all-night snack bar was suddenly absent, was not too keen on hearing about how terrible my weekend had been. You’d think that after this experience, I would have learned my lesson, but here I sit as a I write this, nine months pregnant, with a conference that I’m scheduled to attend in October. At least this time, I know to bring a back-up pump!
The reality for women in academia is that despite the fact that many marriages in academia strive for equality in childcare, the physical realities of pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum recovery, and nursing continue to affect the sexes very differently. My husband also has a conference this fall, and while it will certainly be difficult taking care of my young infant and four-year-old child on my own for three days, it will be much easier for me — the baby will still have access to her all-night snack bar — than for him. And his conference experience will not involve the physical logistics of dealing with lactating and pumping while traveling. In other words, he will more easily escape the bonds of home and children than I will, simply because of our biological differences.
The biological reality of mothering haunts the contemporary feminist ideal of striving for equal parenting from both parents and is a hard one to reconcile with the goals and values of feminist parenting. I’ve written before about the problems of the “breastfeeding police” and the pressures women face to breastfeed despite the fact that our society does not support nursing mothers very well at all. Women in academia certainly have advantages that women in other fields — such as the service industry or manufacturing — do not, including often having access to a private office to pump or flexible schedules. And yet, I hear many stories like mine.
Too often these women are also struggling in silence, worried about how pointing out an unfriendly policy or an unsupportive department chair might affect their chances for tenure or even for a job. Threads for job-seekers at The Chronicle’s online forum often pose questions like, “I’m currently nursing and have a campus visit. Should I let the committee know that I’ll need breaks to pump?” The fact that women have to crowdsource this question, to worry that revealing their nursing status might negatively affect their job prospects, reveals that academia is far from enlightened when it comes to gender norms and expectations. One thing we can do to improve the situation would be to normalize the biological realities of childbirth and childrearing by refusing to hide breastfeeding as if it were a shameful, furtive activity that must be kept hidden.
So, what’s your horror story of mothering-while-an-academic? Does it involve travel, as mine does? Job-searching while pregnant or nursing? Pregnancy-related horrors in the workplace? Unsupportive chairs or colleagues? Or maybe it involves a lack of maternity leave and coming back too soon after the birth? Please share your own story in the comments.