In 2016 I had a baby. It’s not something that I thought I would write about, especially when there’s still such a noticeable disadvantage to being a mother in academia. But it is precisely because of this gendered discrimination that we need to talk about babies in the workplace, children on campus, and academics’ experiences of taking their offspring along with them to conferences, seminars, lectures, and meetings (see other Conference Inference posts on this issue here and here).
In my babe’s first year, we travelled across three states in Australia to attend three conferences and two seminars. Bringing a baby to these events was exhausting, but then so is having a baby! My attitude was, well, why not? Full disclosure: on one occasion, I travelled with my partner, and on another, with a family member who could take on most of the childcare; but for many people, this is not an option.
I am also incredibly grateful to my friends and colleagues for their willingness to help in big and small ways. Help includes things like pushing the stroller around the campus while I delivered my paper, or holding my baby so I could go to the toilet or quickly grab a muffin and a coffee. This went a long way in helping me feel like I had my various performative roles and subjectivities of the feminist-PhD student-mother-conference presenter under control. As Laura Rademaker points out, well wishes and positive attitudes are not enough to support academic parents’ participation and institutions need to do more to address this issue.
Many scholars have already raised practical steps that universities can take in order to reduce the ‘leaky pipeline’ (the number of women who leave academia before they reach the peak of their careers), which includes improving childcare on campus, providing on-site childcare or covering the costs of childcare at conferences, and scheduling meetings or keynotes after school drop-off times.
I must admit that when carrying my little one on my hip around campuses, I do feel self-conscious. I worry what people will think of me when I bring a child into academic spaces. Even if it has no effect, it can still be difficult at times to have a scholarly conversation when a tiny human needs your attention.
The first conference we attended, I spent most of the 3 days in the small enclosed space between the foyer of the building and the lecture theatre. In this enclave, I was between two worlds.
I’ve never fully felt the patriarchal power of the authoritarian-style tiered lecture theatre as much as I when I had to leave a presentation mid-way with a cranky baby, the only exit being up the front of the room right next to the lectern. In these moments I very much felt the spectacle. I was embarrassed for potentially having disrupted the distinguished keynote’s presentation. I felt like the gaze of the audience had stripped me of my professionalism. But for the most part, if there were disapproving glances at me and my disruptive baby, I was usually too busy to notice them.
We know that having children has a significant impact on academic women’s career progression, and that women also experience multiple pressures in combination with overt and concealed types of discrimination that consequently have an impact on their professional and personal lives. We need to do more to address the in/compatibility of parenting and academia, and by making conferences more inclusive spaces is one place to start.
After a year of combining conferencing with parenting I decided to write a research poem, which I titled ‘Conference Baby’. As I was spending much of my time in new motherhood reading children’s literature aloud, I decided to write the paper in the style of a children’s poem. My choice to write in rhyming couplets was a deliberate methodological choice. I wanted to illustrate the power of academic conferences as sites for invention and convention, inclusion and exclusion.
Soon after the piece was published it was trolled by an alt-right, anti-feminist account on Twitter. I was described as that annoying colleague who brings a crying kid to a conference and was mocked for my methodological approach in my use of poetry.
But I’ve also had some really positive feedback from colleagues across Australia and internationally. I have been so moved by the overwhelmingly candid and affective responses I received from others. This has prompted tears, laughter, and painful memories. Academic mothers continue to experience multiple pressures with little recognition and support. I am so pleased that this research has given voice to academic mothers through creative method.
Briony Lipton is completing her PhD in the School of Sociology at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Her thesis explores discourses of feminism, neoliberalism and leadership in the contemporary Australian university. Briony has recently co-authored a monograph with Elizabeth Mackinlay (University of Queensland) entitled We Only Talk Feminist Here: Feminist Academics, Voice and Agency in the Neoliberal University (2017) as well as having published her research poem ‘Conference Baby: Gendered Bodies, Knowledge, and Re/Turning to Academia’ in Qualitative Inquiry (2018).