Does Your Professional Conference Welcome Mothers?

I spoke at the AltFem magazine launch while wearing - and rocking -  my newborn (the federalist.com).

I spoke at the AltFem magazine launch while wearing – and rocking – my newborn (the federalist.com).

You’ve decided to off-ramp while raising young children, but you don’t want your professional muscles or networks to atrophy. So, what do you do?

The best solution this independent writer has found is attending conferences. Many organizations talk a good game about work-life balance, but professional reality often clashes with parenthood. There is little understanding or flexibility for the competing demands parents juggle. Conversely, the short duration and opt-in nature of conferences makes them manageable commitments.

Every conference design sends different signals, though. Do organizers want mothers to attend and, if so, how do they support us? When we attend, do other professionals welcome us?

Mothers are natural multi-taskers. For instance, I’m typing this article one-handed while nursing my two-month-old daughter. We innovate because we must. I always appreciate clients, membership organizations, and others who understand and accommodate that truism.

I have toted Baby Braunstein to several recent professional outings, altering my view of what otherwise might have been unremarkable networking events. In September, we attended a political conference. I liked that two speakers gave my daughter shout-outs rather than complaining about her presence. The new father seated beside me also kindly offered to snap my baby carrier when she needed to nap. Only one woman in the overwhelmingly male crowd glowered at us.

That month, I also spoke on a panel about motherhood’s empowerment. I appreciated that the conference organizers let me speak while wearing—and caring for—my daughter, and that the audience similarly supported my decision.

MollieTweet

Not Every Conference Is Friendly to Working Moms

By contrast, I recently attended a large gathering of public relations professionals at a massive local hotel. The event, like the public relations profession, skewed decidedly female, and while attendees included many mothers—plenty of whom outed themselves when they approached to kvell—I was the only woman who attended conference sessions with her child.

Several men went out of their way to offer help with my bags and precarious plate at lunch. Numerous women applauded me for attending the conference with my young baby, who contentedly slept or listened quietly to most presentations. One even clicked our picture. Only one woman curtly snipped, “Go outside,” when my baby cried momentarily as I swiftly slipped my nursing cover over my head.

I also met a number of breastfeeding mothers schlepping pumps. One mother confided she’d pumped in the hotel spa’s locker room, because there was no designated pumping room. I was surprised. I’ve come to expect a private pumping space, after having attended both BlogHer and a small speechwriting conference, where planners accommodated me after I mentioned needing one.

Welcoming Mothers Includes Minding Conference Venues

The hotel’s physical space also posed problems. Of the three ladies’ rooms I visited at this conference-oriented hotel, none had changing stations. Only one even had a ledge wide enough to safely double as a changing table—although it was clearly designed to hold tiny purses.

Do Americans expect women with babies to stay home, or are we allowed to venture out? My brain likes regular exercise, and my breastfeeding baby expects regular meals. These recent outings represent me simply doing what I must to strike my own work-life balance. Based on my experiences, a minority of women may disdain my balancing efforts. However, most reasonable adults would seemingly support easing burdens on mothers trying to maintain their professional identities.

Why can’t membership organizations and other businesses make minor accommodations at conferences, like offering pumping rooms or selecting only venues with changing stations? Such changes, along with some reserved back-row seating for parents, who might need to dash with a suddenly fussy baby, and ideally, on-site babysitting for children old enough to crawl could significantly help. Women shouldn’t have to compartmentalize our desires to be both good mothers and competent professionals.

This article appeared in The Federalist.

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