Why taking my baby to a conference is different now

My “baby” is now nearly 2 and a half. Gulp. That is probably the main reason taking my “baby” to a conference is different now (so you can stop reading here if you like). In fact, I didn’t really take her along to the conference as such at all!

At Edinburgh station - travelling light!

At Edinburgh station – travelling light!

I attended a Nordic conference for research students and postgrads in Edinburgh in February. As I’ve said before, we don’t use a typical full-time nursery, so initially the plan was for me to travel and attend the conference alone while my partner took annual leave from work to take care of the toddler at home in London. But then a good friend with a little baby (3 months old!) decided she’d attend the conference as well as a delegate – inspired no doubt by my success when I attended a conference in another city with our (exclusively from-the-breast-fed) 4.5 month old! The conference in Edinburgh coincided with the holiday available to her husband, so the plan was for him to take the baby while she attended sessions. Our friends have more flexibility with their baby as they are mixed feeding (definition for non-parents: bottles of formula alongside breastfeeding) which meant the mum-delegate was able to attend the conference in longer stretches away from her baby.

Why taking my toddler to this conference was so different from my previous experience taking a little baby:

  • The journey was FUN! Well, fun might be overstating it, but the 4 and half hour train ride either side was pleasant enough. The four/six of us chatted and read and looked out at the view. We had snacks. We had toys. Two things stick in my mind about driving to the conference with a baby in 2013: 1) stopping and feeding in a dreary service station car park and worrying whether I was doing the right thing by going at all; and 2) missing the motorway junction for Norwich which meant a rather convoluted route to get back on track, which made us all stressy.

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  • I barely saw her! So in a way, I did attend the conference on my own. I attended all the sessions I wanted to. I could freely chat to people in the coffee breaks and at lunch. I tried to get the most out of the event for the benefit of my studies – that had to be the point of us spending time there. My partner and our friends got to see Edinburgh and pop to a museum, whereas I didn’t go out beyond the remit of the organised seminars and conference dinner. This time I wasn’t known by all as the person with the baby. I’d spent every break at the first conference breastfeeding ostentatiously(!) so – whether I liked it or not – I was soon identified as the delegate with a little baby. It was admittedly a good icebreaker and made me rather memorable, but this time being a speaker on the first panel with a slightly unusual format of presentation was the icebreaker, and I much preferred that!

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  • I felt more like me! Four and a bit months into first-time parenthood is not me. I was shell-shocked, sleep deprived, hadn’t had an academic conversation for months, let alone attended seminars or even read a book. I was still adjusting and – in hindsight – so far off feeling like myself. Sixteen months into a PhD is me. I felt happy with my presentation (very glad I went on first and got it out of the way!) and I was keen to talk to people and learn. I got to chat about research and meet new people and not constantly wave a baby in people’s faces. (I’m not sure I even got much better sleep though this time round as we stayed in dead central Edinburgh and I was only blessed with earplugs for our last night away!)

My two experiences of taking a child to a conference have been very different, mostly for practical reasons relating to her age and related needs. Given my experience this time, despite it being very positive, I probably wouldn’t drag my partner and child along to a conference again, even (or especially) in an exciting new place, because I’d get so little time to enjoy the visit with them! We spent the most time together on the journey and in the evenings. By extension, because I was with them (and our lovely friends, to be fair), I didn’t arrange to meet anyone else I know who lives in or near Edinburgh as there wasn’t a minute to spare. And I missed out on visiting a few places I probably would have gone to if I’d been kicking around on my own with time to fill. But I still attended a fantastic, welcoming conference and had a great trip as a little family with some good friends.

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