Or: How to have a baby and keep one foot in academia
In April last year I attended the Nordic Translation Conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. More precisely, I was a delegate and my partner and 5 month old baby came too!
I’d been doing occasional freelance translation jobs so I was keen to keep in touch with the industry. I didn’t know at this stage that I would be heading back to uni so soon but I hoped it would be on the cards in future. This particular conference takes place only every 5 years so I knew I’d be kicking myself if I decided from the off that I couldn’t go just because I had a little baby.
The baby was exclusively breastfed, when she demanded it – this means she only consumed breastmilk (babies start solids at 6 months old, and milk is still their primary food source until around 12 months in any case). She had never taken to being bottle-fed (not that we tried very hard) so she needed to go wherever I went, and vice versa.
Before registering to attend I emailed the organisers to see how amenable they were to my idea of bringing the baby and also contacted a former lecturer who’d had a baby during my first degree, keen to see if she or anyone she knew had been in a similar position. Deep down I felt strongly that having a baby should be no impediment to participating, but theory and ideology do not necessarily translate into practice. I was realistic that my expectations might not correlate with what’s normally accepted at these events, so I told myself that if I got any hint of the organisers trying to put me off then I would just not attend, it wouldn’t be worth the stress.
As it happened, my former lecturer and the organisers themselves were incredibly positive and supportive! The organisers even insisted I let them know if they could be of any assistance during the event. In the end, a few attendees with older children brought them along, too (although this was not apparent to most delegates as they were being entertained elsewhere).
Accommodation was available on the university campus, which made everything much more straightforward. We booked a family room which would fit the travel cot. We rented a car – the amount of stuff you need to take for a couple of nights away when you have a baby is ridiculous! – and the drive from London to Norwich was surprisingly smooth. For a journey of that length with a baby that young it was inevitable we’d have to stop once or twice, but I still made it in time for registration on the first afternoon.
The venue was perfect – it all took place in one building, with seminar rooms and a lecture hall, and one coffee area for use during the breaks. For the first two sessions, while my partner was unpacking us into the campus B&B, I had the baby with me. As babies go, she is fairly quiet and contented, but in a well-attended seminar session, I was suddenly all too aware of her chattering and babbling – we’d never been in a scenario like it before. So for one of the sessions I kept stepping outside with her, which in hindsight was probably more disturbing than just staying put and sitting at the back with her would have been. But I felt self-conscious – I had never seen a baby in a professional context like that, and I didn’t know what people might expect. After all, they had spent the time and money to attend as well. During the break after this session I breathed a sigh of relief when another delegate approached me and cooed over the baby, saying how lovely it was to hear her happy burbling during the session!
For the next couple of days of the conference, my partner and I agreed that he would take the baby while I attended sessions, and I’d feed her in the breaks – but if she communicated that she needed me while I was away, he’d text me. In the end, I didn’t have to leave any session early… by a quirk of fate she was happy with our plan! From my partner’s perspective, there wasn’t much to do other than walk around with the pram (UEA’s campus is to be commended on being very pram/wheelchair accessible!), occasionally stopping back at the conference break area or going back to the B&B room. He couldn’t drive anywhere or get the bus into Norwich as that would risk taking her too far away from me.
It was excellent to be able to focus my mind on something not baby-related for the first time in 5 months, and I enjoyed livetweeting some of the sessions (#nordictranslation). I even attended the evening meals to socialise and catch up with attendees I already knew from my degree (the world of Nordic translation is rather predictably pretty small!). It was so uplifting that despite having a little baby so dependent on me I could still be participate as myself (the translator, academic, whatever, but not “just” a mother).
Breastfeeding didn’t pose any problems. I just found space in the coffee break area, even chatting to fellow delegates while doing so – hopefully doing my bit for normalising breastfeeding in public! After all, the baby would not have got fed at all if I hadn’t done it this way, and I wouldn’t have been able to attend if I couldn’t bring her.
Of course, I am lucky in many regards. My partner was able to take annual leave. The baby was going through a lovely phase of sleeping very well overnight, and still napping a couple of times in the day. She wasn’t yet crawling (she started that at 6 months) so she was happy being held or sitting in the pram (once babies start moving around they are less content with this!). As someone else put it, having a 5 year old running around would’ve been much more disruption, so it was a perfect time to attend. It can’t be played down either that if you’re looking for a family-friendly discipline, Scandinavian studies is probably one of the best. My story would have been very different in other disciplines, I’m sure.
I will (hopefully) never know if any delegates felt uncomfortable or irritated by the presence of a baby, but blissfully we only detected good vibes from those who did engage with us. I met some lovely people and made some great contacts – a baby is a good icebreaker!
I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on babies in academic settings like this, please add a comment below. And do let me know in the comments if we met at this conference, it was a really friendly event!