Blog Equitable Conferencing: Caregivers Perspectives and Prospects

Conferences and Nursing Mothers

loving woman with baby and dog
by Elizabeth Berkowitz, MA, PhD:

In February 2017, when my second daughter was three weeks old, I pulled myself out of bed, downed several cups of coffee, showered, stuffed my postpartum body into something approximating professional attire, and went to present at my field’s big professional conference (College Art Association (CAA)). Thankfully, I had my mother at home, and, equally thankfully, my daughter had (mostly) taken to bottle-feeding the day prior, so I could rest assured that, at the very least, she would be cared for and fed for the 8 hours I would be away. However, I was nursing a newborn every two-three hours, and needed to pump to keep up my supply up. That year, CAA offered a fantastic service to nursing mothers—a lactation room.

The conference was held in a hotel, and nursing mothers were granted special key access to a large room on the lower level. The room contained two comfy chairs divided by a curtained partition, as well as a mini-fridge to store milk, ice water, and cups. Without having to huddle awkwardly in a bathroom stall while noisily pumping (which I did for other professional events during her first year) or having to sit in public with a nursing cover while I pumped (another fun experience), CAA’s available and well-thought-out lactation room ensured that I was comfortable, that my daughter could be fed, and that I was still able to advance my career and give the presentation.

Since then, CAA has added babysitting services (though, due to low enrollment in 2020, they are providing $250 childcare grants instead) to ensure that attending or presenting child caregivers are able to further their professional ambitions without having to worry about childcare demands.

However, this being said, there is always room for improvement. While I remain grateful for access to the lactation room during CAA 2017, the standard time between conference panels was too short to ensure that I could pump without missing a session or arriving to a panel quite late. During the short panel breaks, I would have to run down to the hotel lower level, get out my equipment, pump, store the milk, clean the materials, and then run back upstairs to make the start of an important session. Increasing the time between sessions might necessitate eliminating at least one potential panel from any conference’s (admittedly, overstuffed) roster, but perhaps it would be a small price to pay to further ensure that the need to pump or nurse wouldn’t impede a parent’s chance at professional advancement or networking.

Alternatively, “nursing pods” might be a solution. If every conference floor had at least two nursing pods, and if each conference room or floor was equipped with a mini-fridge for storage, then nursing mothers could quickly pump adjacent to their conference room, and then store their milk and equipment in the next panel’s space.

As a working mother of two children, I feel that this dialogue about improving conference support for caregivers is a wonderful first step and I believe that organizations have made tremendous strides to ensure that caregiving is not a professional penalty. I look forward to seeing how such support and advocacy continues in the future! 

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About the author:

Elizabeth Berkowitz is an art historian specializing in modern art historiography and pre-World War II European avant-garde painting. She received her PhD from the Graduate Center, CUNY; and also holds an MA in Modern Art from Columbia University and a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from Tufts University. Currently, she works as the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Outreach Program Manager at the Rockefeller Archive Center. In addition to a background as a museum and university educator, Elizabeth’s writings on modern art history and museum display have appeared in both popular and academic publications.