Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To travel with the kid or without, this is always a big question.

Every mother has her own unique path through navigating career and parenting. I am sure that many women maintaining a career while caring for children struggle with the issue of professional travel. Up until now, my nursing relationship with my child dictated (for me) that I take her with me, but now I am finding I can get away with a few days away and frankly, she is now running and napping slightly less. At 17 months, she isn’t the portable person she used to be.

So, I have just decided recently that I am not bringing my daughter with me at all to the AAS High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) meeting. I had thought that I would spend the first three and a half days of the meeting running around like mad (I am an elected officer), attending sessions and meeting with people on all my breaks. On day four I was going to meet my husband at the airport to bring the family to the meeting. I’ve been traveling a lot recently, and bringing my daughter with me (as I type, the kid is in my office taking paper out of my recycling bin, we’re headed out to the Metro station soon to head to Chicago). I am that person on the DC Metro with the toddler in the backpack, two bags over her shoulders and one larger roller bag headed for National airport.

Ironically, I am part of the executive committee that brought childcare grants to HEAD to help people travel with their children. I realize that a $400 grant is just a step in the right direction as the full cost is much greater and is not measured purely in financial terms. One of my colleagues told me “no one should expect raising kids to be free.” I certainly didn’t expect that, but I think before I had kids I didn’t realize the impact of traveling with (or without!) a kid. You still have to pay the daycare back home in either case. If you leave the kid behind, chances are you return to an exhausted spouse after having exhausted yourself at a conference/review/etc. If you take the kid with you, just try going out to dinner.

Okay, it is possible to go out to dinner. One option is of course that you bring a family member with you (my mother-in-law and my parents have both been wonderful about traveling with me) but generally if you are spending all day in the meeting/review/etc. you may not want to ditch your family member and your child in the evenings every evening as well. You might have one negotiated evening out, and to be clear, the negotiation is as much with your conscience as with any family member.

Those dinners out are of course very important. We all know this, but I think when you suddenly can’t go out as freely at night you really realize the impact. Let’s include happy hours too. Oh heck, let’s throw in coffee breaks. When I travel with the kid, I generally am spending all those breaks checking back in with the kid and the caretaker. Many of the most important discussions at a conference occur during those casual interaction times. There is a cost associated with missing this informal interaction time that is difficult to quantify.

Granted, there is a cost in missing your kid too. I do like my daughter. She giggles when I do silly things like chase her around the house or hold up a scarf in front of my face. She is now attempting to put her own shoes on and says the word “shoe”. At 17 months she still nurses a few times a day, which is a peaceful connection between us (that also transfers protein, antibodies and hydrating liquid!) that both of us enjoy. When I travel, I often end up dumping a bit of that liquid gold down the sink after pumping, a true waste (but it isn’t practical to carry back more than 48 hours worth of milk currently).

However, for the first time in those 17 months (17.5 by the time I make the trip), I find I “need” to have 4 days to just be an astronomer and do my job. I will check in via Skype. I will miss her. I’ll return before the last session ends.