"Milk machine" (Elizabeth/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Parenting in Academia: New Mom + Nursing + Academic Conference = Weekend in Hell

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.

(planet_oleary/Flickr | CC BY)
(planet_oleary/Flickr | CC BY)

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!

Nursing area sign
Even when space is available, it still takes time. (Pete unseth/Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA)

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.

About the Author

11 Comments

kfoxhall

Commiserations – mine involved a sick & jetlagged eight-month old who refused to do anything except feed from me. So after 3 nights without a lot of sleep (and some interesting lessons about the difference in Australian & UK policies regarding the provision of inhalers/ oxygen to wheezing babies) my 2 days of conference-while-husband-&-son-enjoyed-Sydney-harbour, became 2 days of husband hanging out at the venue, begging food from the buffet, while I breastfed my little boy at every panel break instead of chatting to other attendees. Plus a last minute and very expensive 2-night booking of the only hotel room left on site… Like you, I think I was in denial, but thankfully the conference was brilliant, and the organizers very accommodating!

Lara Freidenfelds

Oh, I can’t tell you how many times I winced reading this. I was going to suggest that if it seemed feasible, you might consider taking your family with you. I had the whole crew along for several conferences, when I had nursing babies. It’s expensive, but at least it’s only for a year or so now and then. But then I read the previous comment, and it’s clear that there’s no foolproof solution. And there is professional risk either way. I was perfectly comfortable nursing in front of people in hotel lobbies, but I did wonder which colleagues would decide to take me less seriously if they saw me breastfeeding at breaks. I occasionally had the odd problem of trying to explain to breastfeeding-sympathetic colleagues that I couldn’t pump. I have been an at-home and work-from-home parent for much of the time since I’ve had kids. 99% of the time, it was much easier to feed my babies directly. But then my body wouldn’t respond to the pump when it would have been convenient, so I was locked into being near the baby every few hours. It was depressing to learn that many professional women who breastfed were impatient with me because I didn’t/couldn’t pump.

sarahhandleycousins

Oh, my boobs hurt just reading this! Thankfully I haven’t had to travel too extensively while I was still nursing, but the trips I did have to take with breast pump in tow were really tiring and frustrating. Worrying about whether there would be a fridge in my hotel room to store all that expressed milk, and then making sure I could get it all home again was an added stress, not to mention all that hiding in my car in library parking lots to pump! I’m already worried about dealing with all this at this year’s AHA, if I decide to make the trip!

Ashley

I pumped three days worth of milk, only to leave it all in the hotel room. I got to the airport and realized it, then paid a total of $100 in cab fairs to go back and get it … nearly missing my flight. Because my travel funds were so low, and this was really the best conference for my research on an orphan disease, I cut costs by getting a hotel a mile and a half from the conference, which meant pumping at the conference and trying to get it back to the hotel room and/or walking or taking a cab back and forth to the hotel each time … in the lovely humidity of Atlanta … through some pretty rough streets.

Jennifer

I am not a pumper. Hate it. Kudos to all of you brave ladies who pump! I’m an advocate of baby wearing and normalizing public breast-feeding. I don’t have any horror stories, but many challenges. I have given birth to three children in graduate school. (Oldest is now 4.) I’ve missed flights due to changing diapers and navigating babies through the airport. I’ve left conferences when the baby is crying. I even moved a heavy mattress to the floor of a hotel room to ease co-sleeping. I’ve also been threatened by librarians for bringing my kids. My biggest challenges have been 1) older male professors who like to make their own rules about deadlines (then again, some have been very supportive of letting me nurse in class) and 2) dependable childcare. In the face of the multiple challenges, I continue to fight.

desdemona di gorgonzola

My mother-in-academia story was simply not being allowed to take a fairly important but non-mandatory class because I was pregnant and the professor felt that the possibility of absences definitely precluded the possibilty of me being able to make adequate contributions to group projects. Not taking the class has shaped my subsequent opportunities, mostly for the worse, and marginalized me for several years in my doctoral program.

I hear that in the intervening 7 years, there have been changes in Title IX so that this is not supposed to happen anymore. Let’s hope that the new policies have some teeth!

Ann conrado

I’m currently sitting in a hotel room nursing with my newborn attending a conference alone because with husband has to be at home with the other two kids starting school. It was too expensive to bring them, she still young and I couldn’t pump enough to store to last the conference, and I wouldn’t even of come other than the fact that I had to present a paper. So here I am pretty sure person crazy enough to bring a newborn to a conference. Well someone did help me out by babysitting her in the hotel room while I gave my talk, I have tried to attend a few talks but it’s been incredibly difficult. Thankfully I’m a designer and the vibe is a lot more casual and people have been really supportive at least to my face. Not sure what they think behind my back but at this point don’t really care.

Erin

Using a hand pump in airplane bathrooms during takeoff is as worst as it got for me (it took way longer than I anticipated!). Also showing up after three days away with sore, lumpy, clogged up boobs. Fortunately my baby was so happy to see me when I got home (her fresh food source had returned!) that she sucked those clogs right out. Good times.

Jasmine

Two experiences to add here: 1) I had low milk supply with my firstborn. While I pumped at work and all was fine, I wasn’t willing to go 3 days at a conference only pumping and jeopardize my already low supply. So I brought her with me. She was 9 months old and just about to start walking. I had her wrapped up in the Moby, asleep, at the start of the general session but she woke up when everyone clapped for the keynote speaker. We were ideally seated in the back next to a door just in case. I thought we were safe as I sat on the floor and played with her while she walked between empty chairs. Unfortunately, she tripped and bumped her forehead on the metal leg of one of the chairs. She screamed her typical high pitched bloody murder scream, which I tried to muffle in my chest as I scooped her up and headed for the door. Of course, this all happened in a quiet, pause-for-effect moment in the talk. And too bad the door I was seated near led to the inner workings of the hotel and the workers wouldn’t let me stand in there or walk through. Ugh. I got a lot of looks on that one. But the people who knew me and my daughter had looks of sympathy, so I didn’t feel completely destroyed by the moment. And 2) which happened yesterday. Baby #2 is 4 months old and spiked a fever Wednesday night, 102.6. While not bad enough to head to the hospital, it certainly led to both of us being up all night and non-stop nursing. School started this week and I was scheduled to teach my first grad stats class at 10 am on Thursday. There was no way my son was going to let anyone hold him except me. So I did what I had to do. Took him to school, nursed before class, wrapped him up in the Moby, and walked in to my class like I owned the place. Luckily he was a little milk drunk and the fever was making him exceptionally sleepy. So he gave my students googley eyes for a few minutes and then promptly fell asleep. I haven’t heard any negative comments or anything yet, and we have a pretty baby-supportive department. Needless to say I was still a little worried about doing that the first week of class.

But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

swithycombe

Ginnny, thanks for the article and for starting this wonderful conversation! I have no horror stories (yet), but am in definite agreement about the inescapability of the biological ties to my infant. My husband and I both teach in the same department (a pretty family-friendly one), teaching on alternate days so one of us can be at home with the baby. While we strive for equality in child care, my days at school are not really “free” of child care. Somehow pumping has become the center of the day – when will I be able to do it (maybe there’s time after office hours but before my second class, if I can eat lunch at the same time)? can I figure out how to use the manual pump and finish my slides for class at the same time? did I bring the black cooler bag so that no one has to actually look at my breastmilk in the department fridge? will the milk go bad during the 15-minute bike ride home in the blazing sun? Even the mundane has become fraught – I can’t imagine going to a conference.

Krista McCracken

Commiserations! And thank you for sharing – this always feels like an under discussed topic. I have my first conference well breastfeeding next month. My partner and daughter are coming with me for a portion of the trip, but leaving part way through to visit family nearby. The fear of leaking while chairing a keynote session or not being able to find somewhere to plug in my pump is already causing me anxiety.

Comments are closed.