Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education



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Becoming a mom is one of the most wonderful things that have ever happened to me, and I had a long and exhausting path to it, so I am grateful for it every day. But that does not mean i am not frustrated by how it impacts my life and my career.

The thing is, it’s often not my child who’s standing in my way, but the patriarchal society that doesn’t allow me the space to grow as a person while being a young mom.

As someone recently said in an email – academic conferences that don’t have childcare facilities automatically discriminate against young moms like me. The options for a young mom are all equally difficult:
1. Go alone to the conf, leave kids behind. This requires “favors” from partners, parents, or payment to nannies. Not to mention the worry and endless guilt (as if we didn’t constantly feel it anyway)

2. Go to conference with another caregiver e.g. Dad, grandma, nanny. That’s cool if you can afford it and the other person can take time off from work, and is willing to do it for you. Both my mom and my husband came with me to my PhD thesis defense so I wouldn’t have to leave my then-two-year-old (couldn’t have left her anyway, she was still breastfeeding; didn’t have the strength or heart to wean her while i was stressing over finishing my dissertation).

3. Not go anywhere. Remain frustrated. Stay “behind” on our careers, and suck it up.

What does it mean that some academic conferences have childcare options as routine while others do not?

What do you think?

There is a heck of a lot more terrible injustice that happens to women every day. But this one has a simple (ish) solution. I am starting a #NoMomLeftBehind movement and happy to extend to NoWomanLeftBehind (because i was a valuable person before i became a mom, too, and patriarchal society also managed to restrict me).


  1. What I find odd is there are so many women in education yet this isn’t considered. Most of these “oversights” are the residue of dumb cultural tradition. I used to think there were intentional causes but after re-reading Ellen Langer’s “Mindfulness” this could be just another un-thought-of problem no one has taken on.

    Because we live in a participative society rather than a male dominated crap’o’garchy it should be entirely natural that child-minding be a common feature of the civilized landscape. Also, we are going to train women in order to benefit form their educated presence in society we need to accommodate their fairly well established reproductive peculiarities or develop some way to have men bare children:-)

    A very talented young woman I used to work with is going crazy being a stay-at-home Mom. Aside from having her skills withdrawn for a world that needs them, she feels guilty about feeling incomplete which is damaging to her spirit. At $800 each per month, daycare for her two kids both monetizes her simple need to be a more complete person and causes her to have to justify herself as if she was asking for the moon.

    We’re going to the SOTL conference this week. If there’s no daycare I’ll let you know.

    For Ashley on Mindfulness:
    Mindful Experiential Learning by Bauback Yeganeh!etd.send_file?accession=case1163023095&disposition=inline

    • I love the way you put things, Scott. Can I ask if you were always so understanding, or did it come with age and being a dad of girls?

    • Scott, I wish I could believe that it was simply a lack of mindfulness, but Maha and I have seen at least one case where the issue was raised explicitly and the response was, essentially “too much trouble and not that important”. So those of us who understand why it matters have to keep explaining why it’s important.

  2. Also something that needs to be considered is how the childcare is handled. Conference centers are often horrible set-ups for child care. My wife sometimes won’t go places that do offer childcare if the facilities don’t look safe or secure. Often we try to travel with each other to conferences to avoid having to worry about it; but just offering childcare is not enough if you aren’t going to get input from mothers about the set-up and then describe it fully on the website. I don’t know how many times I have been someplace that offered childcare and then found the set-up to be a joke of an after-thought.

    • Hi Matt, thanks for commenting here, and sharing your experience. I only looked up one provider of childcare for kids, called KiddieCorp… Used by AERA (huge organization). They have a pretty cool website and they provide some detail about what they do and how. They are pretty clear on how many adults per child, types of activities they do, etc. I feel that if more places offer this, then people would start to know which organizations they trust or their child might enjoy, and they’d be better equipped to decide. If I had to be completely honest, as I have told some folks privately, I don’t think my husband would trust any childcare provider he does not know (and how would he know them all the way from Egypt anyway?) and it’s understandable. But even if I am able to fly my husband or mom over, the childcare option might help them cope with the long day and the child enjoy her time with other kids (even if not the full day)

      • That’s really good to know – I will probably be attending AERA next year, so its good to know that.

        We also need to take international attendees into consideration. Are we creating childcare that is ready for language barriers, differing cultural norms, dietary requirements, religious respect, etc? My wife is half-Indian, and I have heard many racist comments about India at conferences. So are the conferences also creating Codes of Conduct and then making them major components of the conference? And are the childcare providers agreeing to those codes and conducting their services accordingly? All big questions to consider.

        • Good points Matt. I definitely had dietary concerns (but since i have lots of Muslim friends who manage well at daycares in the US i was less concerned). I also understand all the cultural concerns esp if other ppl’s kids aren’t used to a multicultural setting. My child speaks English abd goes to daycare w ppl who don’t all speak Arabic or have same ethnicity so it helps.
          Kate makes an imp point about personalities too. Until recently my kid would have HATED something like this, but she has become hypersocial (if still a bit cautious for first 5 mins or so). But yeah, all important points. And the daycare providers are NOT the conference so there may be a disconnect of values there. Thanks for engaging on this topic! Glad the info on AERA is gonna come in handy. Ooh maybe i can keep a database of all such confs?

  3. Being a father of girls sure makes a difference. Listening to arguments against women in the building trades from other males (usually when I had female apprentices) always seemed personal after the girls were born. Why would someone invest time in having lists of limitations directed at others they didn’t have any reason to dislike?

    My Mom as department head struggled with being paid less than the males she supervised and wasn’t shy about mentioning it. For sure by high school I found strong females interesting, exotic and in some ways a bit dangerous. I think some guys see women as a sub-species of males and I find it terrifying to contemplate something that potentially dumb:-)

    It might also be that I’ve never really fit in. As a teenager it was important and it still hurts to be left out but it’s important that things be personal between people–not distanced or based on rules.

    And this isn’t to say there aren’t rotten women around. But I think they are pretending in that role. A person should be nothing more than the person they are.

  4. Hi Maha

    Just coming here from our Twitter conversation. I’m in complete agreement with the idea that child-friendly professional events help very much to broaden options for equitable participation, and as a feminist I think we have to keep pushing for everyone to recognise our assumptions about the careers of both women and men who are primary carers of children.

    But flipping the question for a moment and thinking about who also pays the cost of this: from my daughters I’ve learned that my going away for work has had much less impact on them than my pattern of work when I’ve been home.

    I believe kids learn good things about reciprocity from working parents. But realistically this means thinking about when the gesture is returned. I’m not sure I’ve always done this well. I’ve worked evenings and weekends and missed more events in their lives than I’ve attended. The social and online dimension to global academic work mean that unless I’m careful, their everyday experience of me is as someone who is more or less persistently more interested in what’s happening somewhere else. And I’m not sure, as they’ve got older, that I’ve always recognised the boundaries of my home as also being the boundaries of their home.

    On reflection, I’ve gone to conferences and asked my family to manage that; and at other times I’ve chosen not to go because they asked me not to. And I think that’s been the thing that’s turned out to be important, and the thing that has changed most as my daughters have grown from being little ones into teenagers: does everyone get a chance a fair chance to ask for what they need, and a turn at getting it?


    • Thank you, Kate. I really appreciate the convo we’ve been having on Twitter, and that you’ve brought it here with many of its dimensions. So much to think about…
      I wonder… Just thinking again now… I often said that I am hyperconnected because I have all this excess energy from my time on maternity leave when i was lonely and understimulated. If I knew I could have my time to “be important” as you said on Twitter, to focus fully on work, would I be then able to “let go” more at home, focus on family, and allow the online to wait a bit (since I would be getting the f2f?). Then again, as we were saying on Twitter, it’s not the tech, but the whole letting work into home thing (which tech enables, but still…)

      Because, you see, when I don’t go to conferences, I attend the virtual ones and that’s exactly the problem! I let the work get into my home because the confs are on US timezone, so afternoons for me and often weekends too! Or for another event, the people MOVED the workshop to Cairo, so I had to work the weekend because, you know, they MOVED it here for me. So it ended up both occasions that NOT traveling meant my being not-really-present here anyway!

      The difference w taking my child with me is that I am really really really uncomfortable letting her sleep without me. May be my fault for co-sleeping but it helped a lot at first because she was born underweight and needed to nurse a lot at night and she was a high need child. Also with long trips across Atlantic, the time of the trip itself is like 2 extra days away from her that I could be spending with her. Granted, on a plane, not too comfortable!

      But the point Bon made on twitter is also important: cost of air travel for kids is ridiculous. I think They must be trying to discourage kids from traveling coz they hate the sound of wailing on airplanes 🙂

      Last point: a friend emailed me privately about how in earlier societies, kids were just part of life. People did not dedicate time off just to spend with kids, they took them with them to the fields, etc. granted, fields are much healthier and more fun for kids than hotels, but my kid loves hotels, too 🙂

      But I am not undermining your point or your concerns. They’re all well-taken. Thanks as always for your thoughtfulness

  5. I think you’re right, it depends a bit on why you want your kids with you — and why they would want to be there. I have a very introverted daughter who would have found it really nervewracking to be hauled to a conference only to be thrown into childcare with strange kids; and another who would have loved the experience. And all this changes as they get older.

    Where I get really tetchy is when the profession normalises the participation patterns and output of people with no dependents and then penalises those who really have non-negotiable other things to do that they must do in their lives, including the care of others. Enabling child-friendly conference participation is a good step, and still doesn’t fully address the huge other systemic problems that I think cause many academic parents just to give up.

    I went away when my kids were little, and they remember these trips vividly and generally pretty positively (airport gifts! suspension of mum’s rules in the home! hotdogs for dinner every night!). By contrast they’re candid about the everydayness of the stuff I was never fully there to share. This has really got me thinking hard about the fact that it’s not work that’s the problem, it’s overwork.

    This is such an important topic, I’m so glad you’ve raised it.

  6. Our daughters have different personalities and being self employed I often felt as if I was cheating one or the other by being in my office at home and not in the living room with them. As they grew up, their needs changed and things settled out to our house being a place open to all their teenage friends who seemed to need the security of a home environment that was both neutral and safe, but not indifferent.

    As kids grow they seem to need to shed the history of relationships or behavioral miss-steps that can trap them in the negative expectations of others. Guess I’m saying being supportive and trusting can sometimes substitute for being “there” always. The nature and knowledge of caring travels with the child and can sustain them when parents are away. But strong needs can arise without warning and to not recognize our primary obligation to our kids and NOT our careers is to not understand us as humans.

    Not understanding the “chemistry” of parenting and the resulting push and pull on early career academics–or any committed person really–cheats all of us of their contributions. That makes this a social issue and not “just” personal.

  7. A male partner who stays home with a child while his/her significant other attends a conference is not providing a “favor” to her. I think women must insist that this long-held view is outdated (the view that men staying home with a child is somehow a “favor” to the mother). When a woman provides childcare while her male partner is away, is that considered a “favor?” Most business conferences don’t provide childcare, because men leave their children at home with women (partners, wives, nannies). Women should be able to expect the same childcare from their partners as well. Child-care is an equal opportunity business.

    • Agreed, Bonnie. It’s how it *should* be. But unfortunately isn’t.
      Whenever my husband does his (minimal tho we had agreed to more) childcare ‘stuff’ and asks for ‘thanks’ (usually when i criticize) i tell him “i should not thank u, just as u should not thank me for having breastfed her, woken up w her every night since she was born, etc, because it’s our job as parents”

      Motherhood takes sexism to a new level and patriarchal society kicks in suddenly. I noticed it then saw it written somewhere (either bell hooks ‘A will to change’ or in this book called Why have kids? – was reading both at same time so confused) basically book was saying even not-very-sexist ppl become a bit more patriarchal once a woman becomes a mom. Definitely seeing it happen to me. Big time

  8. What a timely conversation to join up in! I have to chime in here, because I’m currently at a conference with my infant son in tow. There is no childcare, and it was not even considered as an option by the organizers prior to my informing them that I would be bringing a child. Upon hearing that news and my question if there is any childcare available for when I present, one organizer said, “Well, I wouldn’t even know where to tell you to start trying to find someone to watch him.” I’m not faulting him, or this conference for not considering this in advance, because, as you say, this is not yet the norm (in the States, that is) – I’m using this rather as an example of just how true that is. It is far more the norm for the primary caregiver, when faced with this type of situation, to either give up days with her (or his) child, plus the money, stress, and potential health effects of arranging these details, or to just not attend.

    I’m here with my son. I’m attempting to normalize parenthood. We can have multiple facets to our lives. I can be a mother and a thinker. I’m writing this as my son naps on my lap between panel sessions in the back of the auditorium.

    In the airport, no less than 20 people commented on or asked me about my travels with an infant, and, when they asked where we were going, expressed sincere shock that I would think to bring a (healthy, well-adjusted, hearty 5-month old) baby with me on a plane or to a work conference. One man asked me, upon hearing our travel plans,, “So, you just couldn’t stay at home any more?” Were I a man traveling alone with an infant, the comments would likely have been much more along the lines of “Where’s Momma?,” “Uh-oh – Dad’s babysitting! Watch out!,” or “I’m so sorry you have to do this.” My partner has heard variations of these themes nearly every time he has ventured out to Target or the park with our son alone. These comments are just as harmful, too, though, to efforts to normalize parenthood, shared childcare responsibilities, and gender equality. Fathers watching children are not babysitting, they are parenting. Mothers taking their nursing children when them (anywhere) are not always “getting out of the house” for fun – they are living their lives, which happen to include the lives of others. When did we become a world (nation) in which we don’t value our future generations? Why must we always see children as an obstacle to “real lives” rather than a part of them, and our shared experiences, as we live them?

    • Thank you for this Jennifer! I know someone who has on her twitter profile photo (the big one not small one) herself presenting at a conf w her infant child. I loved it.she said it was like her 3rd child or sthg so she was comfortable enough to do that

      I admire the way you’ve laid it out here and that you decided to take your son with you regardless. Would love to hear back about how it went for you. I, too, have written a lot (including parts of my thesis, published articles and blogposts) with my child on my lap (awake or asleep).

      I think finding ways that work for us and our kids are important and society soooo needs to back off in some ways.

      You describe US Society. Strangely similar to Egyptian although we are a much more patriarchal society in general. Wonder if Europe is better?

  9. Parenting is a shared activity with some fixed roles like breast feeding which saved us a fortune in Kraft Macaroni and cheese for two girls times 2.5 years:-) But the rest is an agreement that’s not about favors. My introduction the being responsible was changing, washing and folding thousands of cloth diapers in my spare time. Basic gender non-specific start to parenting.

  10. Sixty years ago we shopped at a CO-OP grocery store that offered “baby-sitting” while shopping along with employee daycare. A lot of people vote against school funding and other next generation aids that include women’s participation in the workforce (since they are expected to withdraw form society while “raising children.”) Sadly these are usually the same people who defend “family values.” There’s obviously a persistent disconnect here. Any ideas?

  11. Sixty-five years ago I recall my aunt (a maths teacher and a good one) defending unequal pay on the grounds that ‘men had families to support’- she never married. I think around that time, or maybe before the war, a female teacher had to resign if she married. These were deeply entrenched social attitudes and change is still ongoing but (among many other things) I’m sure it helps when pressure for change is persistent – eg always contacting conference organisers to regret being unable to submit a paper or to attend due to the lack of childcare facilities.

  12. Gordon, my Mom coordinated the alumni department for a small art college in the 70s and was paid less than the males she was in charge of. Plus she hosted all weekend fundraisers for no pay. My father was self-employed and but work was occasionally slow so my Mother’s job was not a frill nor did she deserve other people making decisions for her–culturally accepted or not. I think the “policy” of no daycare has become a HABIT because it hurts people who go unnoticed–kids and women.

  13. As a note from a short conference we just went to, Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Western Canada). About 125 people were there. Organizers said there was no demand from the participants in our district of the national organization, but to try at the head office for a policy. Since the organization is doing outreach that includes the student voice it seems likely child care will have to be included.

    There are other issues here too. With cutbacks in educational funding some people had to withdraw as the hotel, travel and event registration costs were too high. As we seem headed to an era of society being an unrelated batch of individuals all struggling alone to survive it may be necessary to form gangs of feral educators traveling in self-sustaining, family group based convoys and let education industry rot in its own cheapness.

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