One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chilly support at all-women conference

What follows is a letter to the CRA-W Grad Cohort staff and organizers about my experiences at the CRA-W Grad Cohort in 2008 and 2009.

I am writing this letter because my experience at CRA-W Grad Cohort in 2009 still weighs heavily on my mind, and I would like to share my thoughts with you in the hopes that other women will not have my experience. At the end of this letter, I include constructive recommendations for future grad cohorts.

I will preface this letter by saying that my first CRA-W Grad Cohort in 2008 was an amazing experience. As a result of attending, I switched to the Ph. D. program; I met several women that still advise and mentor me to this day; I felt empowered as a woman and as a student to boundlessly pursue academia. It was with great excitement and purpose that I applied to attend CRA-W Grad Cohort again the following year.

In 2009, I attended CRA-W Grad Cohort for the second time as a second-year grad student, and a brand-new mom. The conference was an out-of-town Friday-Saturday endeavor and I brought with me my six-week-old infant son. Because of the conference's proximity to my university, and in order to cut costs for CRA-W, who provided generous scholarships to all its attendees --- me included --- I did not stay at the hotel, but instead stayed with family that lived in town.

There was no real breastfeeding room set up, and certainly no child care, and I was the only one who had brought a child to the conference. I contacted one of the organizers in advance and mentioned that I would need a space to breastfeed and/or pump, and she said I could use her hotel room. (I did not; instead I breastfed in the back of the seminar rooms and in the hallways -- anywhere the baby wanted to nurse. Because, after all, aside from the conference staff, we were all women, so I was not concerned about societal pressures to hide my infant eating.)

The baby slept through the morning seminars in my front-pack like a champ. However, after lunch, he became less patient and more fussy. It was a challenge... but we would leave the seminar room when he started crying, and everywhere I looked I got encouraging, understanding, and kind smiles. Several women approached me during the conference curiously, and asked questions about having a child in graduate school ("There is never a great time," I replied, "but it's always a good time"). Some women who had had a child came to speak to me, and gave useful advice from their own experience. Not one conference attendee, including both students and professors, said anything negative.

In lectures, I did everything possible to keep distractions to a minimum. I sat in the back or near the door. If leaving in the middle of a lecture, I would approach the speaker later and apologize. She would say, "Oh, don't worry, honey, I have one at home. I think it's great you brought your little one!"

Near the end of the first day, the organizer, the one that had offered me her hotel room earlier, came up to me as I was nursing my grumpy baby outside the main lecture hall.

"Do you plan to bring your baby tomorrow too?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "Why?"
"Oh..." she said, "one of the other organizers was wondering. They find it kind of disturbing to have a baby here."
"He's just six weeks old," I said. "I don't have anywhere else to leave him."
(There was a pause as I died a little on the inside.)
"Well, it's OK, don't worry about it. It's fine." She said, blushing.
"I'm sorry," I stammered. "There is no other way."

She went away and chatted with the other organizers, and for the first time at any Grad Cohort, I felt terribly alone and awfully unsupported.

I have been thinking about this encounter for a long time. I wish I could have said something more. Something about how we as women should support one another, and how this support and encouragement is exactly the reason I came here with a baby. The glass ceiling is enough to struggle against; we should not bring each other down as well.

Life does not end when you have a baby. It is unfair to assume that graduate student women that have a baby either stop coming to these kind of events, or find offsite child care for their too-young infants. When women stop attending events, and stop doing their job as graduate students and as women in industry, they admit defeat. They set back years of work that other women have undertaken that would enable them to continue their career, despite personal setbacks and family situations. On the other hand, offsite child care for a six-week-old undermines the breastfeeding relationship between mother and child, which is, at times (including for me, at the time), painstakingly difficult to establish.

I came to the event expecting unilateral support from the other women (which I received, except for this one case). I used the baby as an icebreaker, because graduate student women frequently have questions about starting a family.

Instead of feeling empowered as a new mom and a continuing student, I left feeling undersupported and underrepresented. I felt like a minority, and like I nearly was asked to leave. Unfortunately, instead of remembering the multitude of positive encounters, I remember this one best.

In fact, many women are pressured by society --- and, unfortunately, by family and friends --- to give up their education, career, and accomplishments, even before they have children; the prime childbearing age is the same age at which women can make the most professional progress in life. Women need support from each other before, during, and after this critical time in their lives. Children are not incompatible with academia and professional careers. Graduate students with children are particularly at a disadvantage because university parental leave policies for employees do not apply to them.

I recommend careful consideration for women in the future. I recommend encouraging graduate students (and faculty, and other attendees) who are also new mothers to attend CRA-W Grad Cohort and other events by providing a breastfeeding room, providing an on-site child care option, and, most importantly, providing positive reinforcement to continue in academia. I recommend a positive attitude towards children in an academic environment. I recommend listening to the mothers, and listening to the participants, and making it easier for women with children in general and newborns in particular to attend CRA-W Grad Cohort in the future.

I wish the CRA-W Grad Cohort program luck in the future.

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