“I am a mother. I am a scientist. I am a survivor of postpartum depression. I am determined to help close the gender gap and make things better for my sisters who come after me. Today I took on conferences. Tomorrow, what will you take on?”
That’s the concluding paragraph on Rebecca Calisi’s stirring article for Scientific American. The neurobiologist, associate professor and mother of two had just returned from her first work conference, without having to pump breastmilk, or her children in tow.
For Rebecca this was a huge deal. After years of studying, climbing the academic ladder and existing on a student income, while struggling to also care for her young children, she had finally “arrived”; attending a notable conference on her own with nobody but herself to look after for the duration.
But on the first day of the conference, while delighting in her cup of “hot tea”, she had an epiphany - she felt compelled to to check out the mother's room facilities on offer. Just, you know, to see what had changed.
I recently published an Opinion piece in Science on my horrible experiences pumping breastmilk in a bathroom stall at a conference: “Got Milk, Must Conference” http://calisilab.ucdavis.edu/uploads/9/6/9/9/96999766/calisi_et_al._got_milk_must_conference___science.pdf . After my horrible experiences as a new mom in academia, I'm determined to make it better for those who come after me. I've got your back. . Read a follow-up piece of mine inspired by this and other related events, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, called How to Tackle the Childcare-Conference Conundrum: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/03/01/1803153115
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Her disappointing and stressful experiences of being a working mother at previous conferences had given her a powerful combination of empathy and curiosity.
Yet what she found was depressingly familiar:
“Inside, I found three pop-up curtains. Within them was a standard conference chair, a changing table and a handful of extension cords strewn about. At a conference with one of the highest registration fees in my field, attended by tens of thousands of people, with hundreds of presentations on the science of maternal health, this is all the organization provided to support the lactation needs of their participants?”
“With clenched fists and flared nostrils, I closed my eyes and took deep breaths to calm down. Perhaps getting so upset about a lactation room at a conference might seem silly to some. But for me, these meager accommodations represented a much bigger problem about how women are treated in this country. They represented all the physical and mental pain and suffering I had gone through after having my children while trying to succeed in what was already an extremely competitive environment.”
But this time, without the pressing needs of her own young children to tend to, she had time to do something about it.
“I felt a maternal protectiveness for my sisters in science trying to stay afloat in a sea of inequity. At that moment, pushing fears aside of career retribution, I publicly called out the society hosting the conference and demanded better. I used social media as my megaphone, posting pictures of the paltry offerings for all to see. Other mothers, parents and allies responded, posting their own pictures, grievances and demands for change.”
Empowered by the online support, Rebecca decided to meet with the conference organisers and handed them a list of practical suggestions to make the room more comfortable for attending mums.
Listen to Robin Barker's advice for breastfeeding mums:
The results were tremendous
“Within the hour the power cords had been wrangled and tamed, large sofa chairs had replaced their small, standard conference counterparts, and an additional lounge was created outside the curtains, equipped with tables. Later that day I walked in to have a look. The lights were dimmed a bit, providing a more soothing environment. Multiple women were in the room… pumping or nursing. It was quiet and peaceful, with only the faint whoosh-whoosh sound coming from breast milk pumps…
“I smiled, feeling a small sense of therapeutic relief and accomplishment… And that’s when it occurred to me. The conference organizers wanted to support the needs of their nursing attendees—or at minimum avoid negative attention. They just didn’t know how.”
Rebecca’s experience kickstarted her advocacy. She began a list of all the ways conferences could be more family-friendly and invited a group of 40+ female industry colleagues to add their own experiences and suggestions. It became a living, breathing document that was eventually edited and submitted to a range of high profile science journals. And after a series of disappointing rejections, the piece was finally published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“I felt a sense of relief the moment it went online, not only because of the changes I wanted to see implemented at conferences, but because I didn’t want others to feel the pain and loneliness that I had suffered. I wanted mothers and those considering starting a family to know that forty-six of us were willing to speak up for them and demand change.”
Rebecca’s idea is powerful because it’s so simple
If you visit any other kind of facility you’re not happy with, you don’t think twice to make a complaint. Yet every mother’s room I have been in has been small, smelly, dirty and distinctly too bright, and I’ve never said anything about it to anyone that matters.
Why not? Truthfully probably because as a breastfeeding mother you’ve got enough on your plate to worry about, so you just take it on the chin. A bit like a horrible public toilet – you just kind of do what you need to do and move on.
But a mother’s room is NOT just a toilet. It’s a place to feed your baby in privacy and safety and quiet while you’re going about your day, or in Rebecca’s case, doing your work.
Why shouldn’t it be a haven? Or at the very least, make you and your baby feel completely at ease.
So next time you’re invited to a public event, why not take a leaf out of Rebecca’s book; snap a photo and tag the organisers and demand better – for everyone’s sake.
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