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Conferencing with a Baby: ACPA 2016

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Originally posted on www.ryersonstudentaffairs.com on April 4, 2016.

I did it. I took my 9-month-old baby with me to a conference and lived to tell the tale.

Attending ACPA 2016 was a relatively simple decision that I made about my professional development in April of 2015. I was approaching my second maternity leave from work, but my supportive manager let me know that I would still be allocated PD funds for the year I would be away. I chose to invest them in ACPA. At the time, my parenting experience made me confident that I would be able to leave my 9 month old at home with my partner. Fast forward to February 2016 and you would find me anxiety-ridden as I grappled with the reality that my baby who was still refusing solid food would have to accompany me on a 5 hour train trip and during 4 days of conferencing. And my partner would not be able to come with me to help.  But, I knew that this was something I wanted to do for myself, and to prove that mothers can still be engaged in their careers while being good parents.

Taking Marcus with me taught me a few things.

1) The Idea That Women Can Have It All Is True. We Just Can’t Have It All At The Same Time.

I had resigned myself to not being able to participate in the conference as fully as I would have had I not had my baby with me, but I still struggled with my #FOMO as I watched my colleagues and other conference go-ers heading to evening events as I rushed back to my hotel room for bedtime. I have come to realize that the worst pressure I ever put on myself was to force myself to fully invest in all parts of my life simultaneously. Women are still struggling for equity, and I managed to internalize that struggle into the belief that all the doors have to be open at once. It’s a recipe for mental health disaster. We should be able to make our own choices, but the reality of choice is that some paths are sacrificed, even if just temporarily.  I’ve finally stopped beating myself up for slowing down in certain parts of my life while I deal with the daily needs of my children. I know that I have time to make more choices down the road.

2) Flexibility Is A Muscle You Can Train.

My baby is an extroverted, adaptable rockstar. As a lifelong introvert, I am baffled by his ability to be handed to stranger after stranger without even a pouty-face. By the end of the conference, I had let go of my anxiety about keeping to his schedule and figuring out logistics because he just made it so easy for me. It’s made me realize how much of my life has been spent thinking about all the possibilities I can plan for and how few of those plans I actually end up using. Planning is important, but I was a lot happier when I just sat back, enjoyed the present and dealt with the problems as they came up. It’s made me decide to consciously practice spontaneity and challenge myself to avoid the worst-case scenarios. After years of managing risk as part of my job, I’m not worried about losing my ability to plan, but I think I can find a better balance between being planful and flexible.

3) Accessibility Can’t Be An Afterthought.

I live a privileged life that does not usually involve having difficulties with mobility. It’s so easy for me to forget what barriers mean when I’m used to strolling up a set of stairs, walking through snow drifts, or riding up an escalator. Getting around at the conference took a lot of extra thought from figuring out where elevators were, to allotting extra time to maneuver a stroller along snowy, gravelly sidewalks. By the end of the day, the smallest issues made a huge impact on my mental well-being and subsequently my desire to remain engaged. Trying to get into a coffee shop to meet my colleagues only to find a set of stairs, or a floor plan that didn’t have room for the stroller made me want to turn around and go back to my hotel. What this would be like every day overwhelms me. We need to do better than shrug our shoulders as we try to find ways to support students with disabilities. We need to be committed to finding solutions.

4) It Really Does Take A Village.

Uncle Troy watches Marcus while mom attends a session.

Uncle Troy taking his turn watching Marcus while mom attends a session.

I am beyond grateful that I work in Student Affairs at Ryerson, and within the field of education. With over a dozen colleagues there to support, I had the confidence to stretch myself and engage in ways that would never have been possible if I had tried to do this alone. Sure I was tired, sometimes cranky, but I could be my authentic self and I knew I had my #RyersonSA family there with me. It made a huge difference. I’m also really grateful that I work in the field of Student Affairs. The number of #SAparents who engaged me to cheer me on, give me a wink, or just express solidarity was moving.

The highlight of my conference came during my presentation with Jen Gonzales, as during our last 10 minutes Marcus just couldn’t last without food any longer. So I strapped him in the carrier and nursed him as we finished talking about our transformative relationship and how it has impacted how we see women in leadership. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal since I’ve been doing it for 9 months, but one of the participants in the session gave me some very positive feedback about how seeing a mother breastfeed while presenting at a professional conference affected her. On one hand, I wish that this wasn’t something so out-of-the ordinary, but I’m also really gratified that the effort I put into attending with Marcus did seem to have an impact. Given the choice, I would probably ask my partner to look after the kids for future conferences, but I hope I see other moms and dads bring their babies. And if they do, I’ll be first in line to take a turn in supporting them.

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography