by Sombo Muzata-Chunda:
My children are in middle, and elementary schools, and I do not need to bring them to the academic conference with me. As a mother and one who has experienced a different reality around caregiving, I am sharing my lived experience because I believe this will enrich the present conversation. I am also sharing because I care.
My childcare experiences outside the academe
Motherhood is a great joy. Yet it brings with it many challenges, some that one never imagined existed. The challenging experiences can be mitigated by deliberate individual actions and institutional policies. The level of income and type of society are all factors in what kind of motherhood experience one gets to have. I gave birth to my daughters when I lived and worked at home in Zambia, sub-Saharan Africa. I worked for two different institutions, both in the nonprofit sector.
When my older daughter was born, I worked at a national nonprofit and took four months of paid maternity leave. Upon returning to work and serving for some months, I needed to attend an advocacy skills training workshop in Mozambique. That was going to be my first international trip, and the first time I would leave my one year + daughter at home for more than a working day’s hours. Fortunately for me, I had support from my mother who traveled 135 miles to the city where I lived to help look after my daughter while I traveled to the training workshop. I was still breastfeeding and needed to manage not only the guilt that comes with leaving a child at home but also the flow of breast milk. I had mentioned to the lead training facilitator that I needed more time after lunch to express the milk because I wanted to continue breastfeeding when I returned home in a week’s time. Also, that I would step out if my breasts were too full and I needed to express to reduce the pressure. I got accommodations for this.
I had my second daughter when I worked at an international nonprofit; a Swedish development organization. I am mentioning the country of origin of the organization because place and type of society is important like I indicated earlier. Sweden has some of the best policies on childcare in the world. With this organization, I had 6 months of paid maternity leave. I was able to take care of my daughter, and like the older one, exclusively breastfed her. I had a break to express breastmilk if I needed to.
What is similar in both experiences is that the institutions I worked for paid for parental leave for four and six months respectively. If I had chosen to travel with my daughters, I would have got the support that was stipulated in the policies on childcare. Both institutions were deliberate about promoting and respecting women and the right to childbearing. Policies were developed with women in full participation.
My observation of childcare in academic conferences, and conclusion
Living in the USA, as I attend my graduate studies, and participating in several academic conferences has exposed me to a different reality. This reality has had me wonder why I have not seen in the conference programs any information about where nursing mothers can take their children or who they can contact to arrange for caregiving. I have wondered if it is the types of conferences I attend? Or is it that women in public policy and public administration are not bothered by this?
To present a business case, I can imagine academic conference organizers thinking that expecting them to make such arrangements would be costly and asking for too much. I would imagine though that the individual cost to make childcare arrangements and complexity is a potential deterrent to women who would need this kind of support. I can imagine as a graduate student with limited resources, one would have to opt out of academic conferences to take care of their children at home and not have to go through additional stress. Many questions arise here including (i) does the academe expect childbearing women to choose between their children and attending conferences? (ii) what kind of support should academic conference organizers have or give to childcaring women? and (iii) beyond the academic conference sponsoring organizations, what policies do institutions of higher education have around childcare during official travel for their graduate students, professors, and faculty?
I hope that institutions in the academe will rethink their policies to ensure no woman has to make the tough choice to stay away from an academic conference which could have been the opportunity to link them to a network or information they needed to succeed. In my childbearing time and space, I had the opportunity to benefit from the policies institutions that I worked for had in place. I attended the advocacy training and been able to speak up on many issues that affect women, children, and marginalized people. I am not sure I would have been writing this post if the institutions I worked for didn’t give me the right kind of support to take care of my children and at the same time do my work.
About the author:
Sombo M. Chunda is a Ph.D. candidate in the. L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Prior to pursuing her graduate studies, Sombo worked as country representative in Zambia for the Swedish international nonprofit, Diakonia. At Diakonia, Sombo was responsible for leading the organization through a phase of uncertainty and raised funding to resume operations. Sombo is a trained accountant, a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). She holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School, Heriot Watt University. Her research interests include international development, anti-corruption, and women entrepreneurship. Sombo is a 2020 Section for Women in Public Administration Suffragette scholarship winner.