The physical changes that occur to a woman’s body during pregnancy attract a lot of attention from friends, acquaintances, and the curious -- especially at conferences. Attending academic and professional conferences with a baby bump was one of the biggest identity challenges and shifts I have experienced. I have always been a private person – keeping some separation between my personal and professional identities. But pregnant, my body no longer allowed that same comfort of separation. Being in my mid-30s, I spent over a decade of my career as a childless professional only knowing what the literature said about academic pregnancies and rarely thinking about pregnant conference-goers because there seemed to be so few around.
By the time spring semester conferences came around, it was obvious I was six months pregnant. While some women may choose not to attend conferences while pregnant as to avoid any devaluation of their professional identity or for health reasons, others attend for many reasons including the need to network, to present their research because their annual evaluations require it, or they are on the job market. I chose to conference out of habit and because I had made commitments to do so, but I had some real worries about how I would be treated with a baby bump. I attended two student affairs conferences in March, presenting and serving on panels at both. When presenting, I worried whether the audience still valued my work or were they thinking more about me as a mother than as a scholar. While standing in front of the room, I made sure not to touch or rub my large basketball belly as if that would lessen any attention given to it. Here are some of my takeaways after those experiences.
Manage the conference schedule while pregnant. At one conference, I arrived a few days early for some all-day meetings. With a six-month pregnant body, sitting all day, no matter how comfortable the chair, was a killer on the bladder, back, and other body parts never thought about. I had to plan time into my day to go for a short walk even if it was around the block or hotel. I got comfortable with the idea that sometimes I just needed to stand against the wall while others sat around the table. I had to build in time during my conference schedule to rest and possibly nap. That was hard for me since I am not a good napper and there were many events I was expected to attend. This made me realize that busy conference schedules, where sessions are packed in one after another and void of time in the day that is unscheduled, really are not planned for the fatigued body, pregnant or not. Conference planners would do many a favor by creating a centrally located lounge space for attendees to rest.
Know the importance of conference location. The second conference I attended while pregnant was held at a more family-friendly resort hotel in Orlando. The schedule was still packed full and even more challenging because it was larger -- therefore the sessions were more spread out -- but I only had a couple sessions to present and there was a faculty lounge room on the first floor between the two areas where sessions were held. As I walked around, I crossed paths with other pregnant colleagues and the families of colleagues who had come along for a vacation.
The Orlando location, compared to one of my fall conference’s location of Las Vegas, did change the dynamics quite a bit and allow for more comfort as a pregnant attendee. Location, conference venue and hotel, is important for conference planning committees and maybe even more so for those with families. Pregnant women or families may not be a priority for conference planning committees, but they might consider their needs when selecting sites. Or at least realize that without accommodations, such as lounge space, and other family friendly planning, individuals are left to decide if they belong at academic and professional conferences when it can be challenging and even unwelcoming.
Prepare for the public nature of pregnancy. Questions about my pregnancy, asked both behind my back and to my face, were inevitable. In all fairness, many of the questions came from people who I believe were genuinely interested in me or the baby or who used the pregnancy as a way to engage in small talk. But there were other occasions when friends would tell me how they overheard other attendees talking about my pregnancy in a gossipy intonation. I had people ask me directly how old I was (because there was a debate in a group over my age). This would be something I had to deal with being an “older” mom-to-be of 35 at the time. I had people ask if the pregnancy was planned. I experienced people being upset with me for not wanting to know the sex of my unborn child. I was asked if I was having twins because I looked huge already and I was asked how much weight I had gained – both bringing my body image and self-esteem into question in a society that judges a woman’s ability to bounce back to her pre-pregnancy weight after delivery. And there were people questioning my physical body instead of my mental contributions. It was a surprise that these comments came from student affairs and higher education professionals and faculty who I thought would have been more sensitive and inclusive and a little less judgmental.
Have a women’s support network. To manage the emotions that the conference experience and all the questions, I had an amazing, global (thanks to social media) network of women for support through pregnancy and into motherhood. These women, while I have not met many of them in person, supported me and helped me manage the emotional rollercoaster of conferencing while pregnant.
Have some prepared responses. Had I been better-prepared, I would have developed witty retorts to these questions in advance to let some people whom I did not know well know they were overstepping boundaries. Instead, I often answered their questions, thanked them for their interest, and excused myself from that conversation. What I wish I had done more of was to turn the questions on them, asking about their kids and families. In doing that, I might have developed more friendships or weeded out those who were only being nosy.
Reflecting back almost a year later, I hope my baby bump sent a message that a woman can be pregnant without losing her scholarly and professional identities. If you are attending a conference this season with a baby bump, be proud and know you are role modeling for the next (and current) generation of women scholars and professionals. You are supporting the fact that academics can have families. If you have attended conferences while pregnant, what strategies worked for you?
Tamara Yakaboski is associate professor of higher education and student affairs leadership at the University of Northern Colorado.