best laid plans · broken heart · emotional labour · having it all · jet lag · kid stuff

A conferencing we go!

I find myself in the unusual position, this week, of parenting solo while my husband is on a business trip. This has never happened. There are business trips aplenty in this household, but it’s always me traveling. And I always go alone. Solo. Like a wolf.

Well, that’s not strictly true, but the exception clarifies the rule: once, when my girl was six months old, my department sent me on a graduate recruiting trip to my alma mater, and I said that since I was breastfeeding I could only do it if my daughter came, and if my daughter came I could only get any work done if my husband came too.

Can you believe they paid for all of us? We saved on hotel costs by all staying with my husband’s parents, but really! Three of us flying thousands of kilometres to do a recruiting trip! It was crazy, of course: my daughter fussed for the entire flight, there AND back, the time change was hell, my boobs were like rocks every time I left my daughter for more than 90 minutes, my husband was solo parenting in someone else’s house, out of our collective routine. Nobody slept. I hardly remember a thing. I barely knew if I was coming or going, it was 40 below, and I was worried about everything. Good times!

Yeah. So now I travel alone.

I’ve been to Denmark, England, Alberta, British Columbia (yearly), Northern Ontario, Maryland, California, and Michigan (three times) without my family. I’ve ordered room service and luxuriated in hotel robes. I’ve done yoga on pebble beaches. I’ve plucked oranges from trees growing along the sidewalk. I’ve slept in. I’ve done audio tours of historic buildings. Of course, I’ve also cooled my heels in what feels like 50 versions of the same awful, soul-sucking airport, having my dignity and shampoo alike confiscated. I’ve sat through innumerable presentations in uncomfortable chairs with very poor coffee to sustain me. I’ve crammed myself into hotel rooms the size of my bathroom. I’ve had jet lag and panic attacks and indigestion.

I do know that I get a lot more work done, and that I’m better able to manage the various stresses of traveling when I’m alone. I know I’m freer to network, to devote myself to conference sessions and meeting colleagues, and making the most of the book fair, then getting enough sleep and alone time to do it all again the next day. But I really do wish I could share the Viking Museum in Roskilde with my husband, bring my girl to see the tulip festival in Ottawa, lie on the rock beach at Brighton with them both so we could all have the sense memory of that incredible sound of waves and pebbles ebbing and flowing. I have one particularly pitiful memory of a four hour layover in Amsterdam where I set myself up in an airport bar and closely examined all 2000+ family photos on my computer, in chronological order, a sped-up version of This is Your Life that seemed to rip my heart in two.

Academics have to go to conferences. It’s an inescapable fact of professional life. If you have a family, there are two ways to play it. Either you turn that conference in England (say) into a family vacation, bringing everyone with you, and staying some extra time before or after the working part of the trip–or you don’t. I don’t. And if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s probably the best arrangement for me and my family.

What do you do?

6 thoughts on “A conferencing we go!

  1. I love this post. I totally identify. I was interviewed for an academic job when my twins were three weeks old. I had to ask for extra breaks and a private office so that I could nurse my twins throughout the day. I remember looking for a suit to wear to the interview, and I actually didn’t know whether I would still be pregnant or whether I would have two newborns. I found out about the interview before they were born. I ended up buying a maternity outfit and then taking it back. It was totally ridiculous! Talk about no sleep… I didn’t get that job. (Nor did I get the job for the interview I had, before the twins, in which I threw up at the dinner—food poisoning!)

    The interview was in my home city, so I didn’t have to travel. That was lucky because they don’t actually allow you to fly with two babies. I know this because I ran a half-marathon in a different city when my twins were six months old. I begged a girlfriend to come with me so that she could hold one of the babies on the flight, and so that Air Canada would allow me to go. Bless her heart. Would an institution pay for two flights so that two adults and two babies could attend an academic interview? I doubt it. (Never mind the child minding that we would have had to arrange for our two year old).

    Since my husband and I are both academics, we often go conferencing together. My parents fly to our place and work with our nanny to look after the kids, and my husband and I actually get time together, get work done, and enjoy our time. Since we share hotel rooms, our allotted conferencing funds go further. It’s great all around. We’ve never taken our family on a trip. With three kids, the expense would be a big hit. But who knows, maybe someday we will.


  2. One more thing… Besides the expense, I can't imagine conferencing with the kids. It would be crazy. Like you, it's better for us, when the kids are young, to have them looked after at home. But I'm sure that all sorts of arrangments are possible. (For instance, Congress offers childcare options–more conferences should do that.) Also, besides going conferencing together, my husband and I also conference alone sometimes–and leave the kids with the other parent. That can work too.


  3. My husband and I must be some of the crazy ones. We take our two children (now 16 and 12) to a lot of our conferences and other types of work, all of which started with our youngest child’s first trip at 6 weeks. Yes, it is busy and yes, there is juggling involved. There is often tag team and child handover in the conference lobby; we are often distracted answering email in the hotel; and even a session or two where the kids sat in the back row of the session. And there was the once or twice when the two children walked back to the hotel with their pizza while we went to a conference dinner. And don't ask about the family budget. Let's just say that our bank and credit cards will get special mention in the acknowledgement in my first book (whenever published) as the part of that special group who showed great interest in my work.

    On the other hand, our children have been to 16 countries, can debate the merits of various hotels, two star and otherwise, have favourite bookstores around the world, and can navigate the Japanese subway system. They have also eaten raw fish, reindeer, and other local foods and can talk with adults. They have also been able to supplement their education with an opportunity to use their French in Paris, see artefacts from Captain Cook’s voyage to the Pacific Northwest to complement a unit on explorers to British Columbia, see the Berlin Wall and Hiroshima which was then discussed in a World War II history class, and many other things. They are also now at an age where they can roam a foreign city on their own while my husband and I enjoy the conference. And just don’t ask about our state of personal finances. Luckily, life is long…..


  4. Great comments! I think my experience has been a lot like Laura's, but I always feel like I should be Lynne — Lynne, your kids are so lucky! They are getting fantastic experiences and it will certainly shape who they are and what they believe themselves capable of. Me, I never got on an airplane until I was 23 years old, so their life is kind of unimaginable to me. I imagine your credit cards must be fairly melted by now, though.

    Laura, I never thought about what traveling with two babies would be like: holy smokes. And you're right that not a lot of places are going to fly a family of four out in order to interview one woman … yikes.


  5. I don't have children (yet), so I haven't had to face this dilemma, but I do think about it quite a bit. My partner's mom was an English prof and a single mother, and she took him just about everywhere, including fellowships in Montreal and Australia that lasted for up to a year. He really appreciates having had those experiences, and I'd like to do the same for my kids. But I must say that I love conferencing with my girlfriends or on my own, and I wonder if I'll be willing to give it up.


  6. Melissa: if I'm honest, I would say that while bringing my family with me on trips would be wonderful and heartwarming in the ways that Lynne described above, it is also true that I really cherish that time to myself, to fully launch into Traveling Work Mode, whole hog, you know? It feels selfish to admit it, but it's true!


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