Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The cost (and value!) of breastfeeding and doing astrophysics

Only now do I realize that while folks were sharing stories with me about breastfeeding and working, no one said it would be easy. My own mother, who has been an elected judge for over 30 years, breast-fed all three of us for a year. For some reason I figured it wasn’t too hard. The answer is, it isn’t too hard (it is possible to do this).

I also remember reading quite a bit about how much less expensive breastfeeding is than formula-feeding. This is quite true, but those figures don’t take into account the real cost of traveling with an infant. Disclaimer: I am traveling with my daughter. I know it is possible to pump and bring the milk back, but I made the choice (an expensive one) to keep her with me. This is an account of things you need to consider if you want to do the same.

I just embarked on a major international trip for a 10 day astronomy conference. We spent substantial additional money to pay for my husband and daughter to attend with me to keep breastfeeding going during the trip (note: children held on your lap are not free on flights, you have to pay hundreds of dollars in airport taxes/fees). Since I needed my daughter nearby, we didn’t find a cheaper hotel, we stuck with the conference hotel, which was a larger drain on my research grants. I was harassed a bit by airport security in Athens, Greece about my breast pump (what is this? Can we take it apart to scan it! Answer: NO!).

The expense and headache did yield results: I got to ask questions about accreting X-ray binaries, pop into the coffee break to chat, pop into the hotel room to nurse a fussy Anya, and then pop back into the conference. I nuzzled my daughter at lunchtime and I nursed her at night. So, it was a real pain and our bank account is now depleted, but I am very glad we did it that way.

Next up, I head to Cambridge, MA for the Chandra User’s Committee meeting. I am learning about day care in other cities. I had no idea how expensive this can be! Rates in Boston and Chicago (the two cities I’ve checked) range from $12-$20/hour and if you’re using a service there is an agency fee ($20-$40/day). To do the math, it can cost you a cool $140-$160/day for reliable child care in another city if you have to make a ‘cold call’. Lucky for me, I have a grandmother that I could fly in for $190 for a Southwest ticket. At these prices, it becomes worth it to call everyone you are related to and that you know well to find out if there are other options. However, all those phone calls and emails cost you time. Again, no one said this would be simple.

Part of the solution is to turn down some of the travel, which I have done too. However, my decision at this stage of my astrophysics career is that it would be detrimental not to travel at all. I also feel (my opinion!) that being separated from my daughter for more than an overnight right now is not good for the breastfeeding relationship. So, my decision is to do both.

Luckily, it is not too hard.