Interview with Assistant Professor Anna CohenMiller on Traveling to Conferences with Kids

By: Laura Thompson
Assistant Professor Anna CohenMiller is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board. She is Founder of The Motherscholar Project. Since 2010, she has been researching, creating support networks, and providing resources for mothers in academia, in particular graduate students and early career researchers.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your work and family.

A family bike ride through campus at Nazarbayev University

Sure, I’d love to share about my work and family. I have two young children who are four and seven years old. As a family, we had been interested in moving abroad, and before my second was born, I was offered a position at a new Western-style research university in Kazakhstan, Central Asia. So, we moved from the United States to Astana, Kazakhstan. The position was a great fit and we lived on campus, so this combination allowed me to focus both on my work (developing research capacity and social justice) and also my young children. Now we consider Astana home and can often be found biking around town with our kids.

Q2. Do you always take your children to conferences and if not, why not?

Actually, yes, I’ve always brought them to my conferences. The way we parent makes this an important part of our life.

In Chicago with the family for the major education conference, American Educational Research Association (AERA)

Q3. What are the major challenges of taking kids to conferences and how do you address each challenge?

It is a struggle, financially and practically. I aim for one major conference a year, especially seeking out those that are located near family and friends, or one that could be taken over a holiday. But it is still different than attending alone. Evening networking events, for instance, don’t work well with young kids. At times I bring them for a brief period, or stop in quickly by myself.

When the kids were very little, I could bring them into the sessions easily, and nurse on demand. As they got older, different challenges have presented themselves, making it harder to bring them into the sessions, yet easier for them to be away from me for short periods of time. Fortunately, I have an incredibly supportive spouse. My husband is available and willing to take on the primary caretaker role (one we normally shared) while I present and attend sessions. We also try to stay close by the conference so I could run up and down to nurse when the kids were little.

Q4. What preparation do you do before taking kids to a conference?

The biggest preparation is about the travel itself. Once at the location, that part is much easier, as you can get whatever food, drink, supplies you might need if you happen to forget something (although the more prepared, the more I have found I can save on the costs of travel). For us, the travel means mostly flying long distances, taking multiple connecting flights including long international legs.

Flying with two young children, meant they often ended up on our laps even if they had their own seats

Q5. Are there particular items you always pack?

Yes! I have actually written a whole blog post about an essential guide to flying with kids! But the key things for me have been using a baby/toddler carrier so I can wear one of the kids easily through the airport and on the plane when needed, a lightweight (or double) stroller that can handle holding both kids, and lots of small containers of snacks to hand out little by little.

Q6. What health and safety considerations do you need to take into account taking your kids with you?

In general, the health and safety and cultural considerations are all part of the practical aspects of travel for us. I look into the city and area we are planning to visit. For instance, when we travelled to Croatia for a conference, the designated hotel was well outside what we could afford, but in doing some research, I found a hotel in walking distance. As a part of that process, I tried to learn about the area, the language we would need to use, and the safety for me and the family to walk around. I looked to see what local stores, supermarkets were available, and read about other families who had travelled to the area. This gave me a sense of what I would need to bring. For instance, how easy is it to get the type of diaper you’re used to in the international location or find a washing machine for cloth diapers or dirty clothes? We also have some food allergies, so knowing in advance what can be bought locally is very important for our health. So, this initial research plays a big role in my choice in attending a conference and its feasibility on all levels.

Of course, the research doesn’t always go as planned. There are times when we have arrived at our destination to find it very different than what we have found online. Fortunately, this has only happened in the US, where we had easy access to the internet and phones, and immediately left what felt like an unsafe hotel to find a new place.

Now that the kids are a bit older, I look both into the safety and cultural practicalities of travel, and also into the areas of town that have playgrounds or outdoor areas to explore. General online searches can help with the first items, but I have found going on Instagram and looking for hashtags about the location can be very helpful, which is how I found nice outdoor play areas to explore in Budapest. Also checking websites that focus on family-friendly travel, like Bebe Voyage, can be very helpful.

Q7. What are the organisational structures or policies that help academics take family with them to conferences?

Baby wearing using a ring sling and a blanket to keep my two-month-old warm while I walked 40 minutes to the conference hotel in Chicago. At this time, my husband stayed at our hotel with our 3 year old

This is a hugely important question. From my research and informal discussions with families around the world, there are limited organizational structures and policies in place to help academics with families easily attend conferences. The most frequently mentioned policies are backup dependent care and travel grants for dependents.

Q8. Do you have any suggestions for conference organisations to support academics wanting to bring family to a conference?

For conference organizers, there are a couple steps that can be taken to support academics with families to attend conferences. First it should be noted that when an academic chooses to bring their family to a conference, it is a complicated and costly decision that is often not a “choice” but a need. For instance, the single motherscholar I met who travelled internationally with her three-year-old to an important conference in her field, had no choice but to bring her daughter.

Considering that women and mothers are more frequently the primary caretakers for children, conference organizers can send an important message about creating an inclusive environment, by making it publicly known in advance that families are welcome at the conference. This sends an essential message to the profession as a whole and makes it clear to individuals that they will not lose social capital for their need/desire to bring their children.

One simple way to show your acceptance and inclusion of all academics, is to add public information on the conference website and through email about family-friendly resources ranging from recommended and vetted babysitters to restaurants and meet-ups.

Then at the conference, organizers can provide resources for academics with families. There are three basic resources that all conference organizers could provide to facilitate academics with families to attend conferences on a more equal footing to those without families:

1. Childcare room, with drop-in babysitting or full day pre-planned activities and care, with scholarships for graduate students and early career academics with fewer resources and greater need to network;

2. Private comfortable nursing / pumping space with refrigerator for storing milk or baby food. Ideally there would also be breaks in the program to allow time for nursing or pumping;

3. Family restroom with changing table. If this is not already provided in the conference hotel or center, a regular restroom can be temporarily changed for the needs of conference attendees.

While there is other support that could provide important help to academics with families, these three—childcare, nursing / pumping space, and family restrooms—would send the message that those with children are allowed and provided with necessary resources to attend and thrive at the academic conference.

Q9. Do you have any other comments?

While structurally conferences are not yet designed to include all individuals, such as academics with families, it is possible to travel with children to conferences. Although you might be discouraged from it (like I was), if it is what you need or even just what feels right to you, then explore the options available, seek out others who might be considering the same thing (this would be a way to reduce fees in sharing childcare for instance), and reach out to the conference organizers to ask how they are creating an inclusive environment for academics with families at their conference.

And if you’re a conference organizer looking to make positive changes to become a more inclusive environment for all, reach out to other organizations taking these steps already or feel free to contact me for guidance.