The MLA convention in San Francisco this year is spread out over two hotels, one on either side of Market Street, near Union Square and all the good downtown shopping. Conference attendees rushing from one hotel to the other for interviews or panels get quizzical looks from the crush of slow-moving post-holiday shoppers taking advantage of sales; why would you look so tense on a Sunday afternoon when there are such bargains to be found? They are tense because they are hunting for scarce jobs, presenting their research and, perhaps, having their children cared for by strangers.
The MLA child care is less than a mile from the crowds, at a third hotel, the Fairmont (a San Francisco landmark). It's so far up hill that it might as well be in another world. As I hiked up a sidewalk grooved with the deep ridges that keep winter rains from making it too slippery, I couldn't help but think the conference organizers intended to shunt the kids off as far away as possible, where they couldn't possibly be seen nor heard by conference participants.
I'm no big fan of childcare centers, personally (ask me sometime about the time I left my toddler son blithely at a YMCA childcare while I tried to work out), but I absolutely understand their necessity and believe that they will only improve with more use, and more options. Still, the seeming exile of MLA childcare made me prepare for the worst. I was pleasantly surprised.
The childcare center was spread out over several large rooms of the hotel's mezzanine level, watched over by two security guards (they checked my badge as I entered and as I left) and a staff of over a dozen from Kiddie Corps, a professional convention and hotel child care provider. The registration area was an oasis of calm, furnished with buffet tables of sandwiches, cut fruit and vegetables, crackers, and pitchers of water and milk – good for hungry kids and their weary parents. I sat in the baby and toddler room a while, watching the kids while I caught my breath from my climb. One little girl, probably about 10 months old, was wailing in a calm babysitter's arms while a couple other babies (also being held) studied her worriedly and chewed on their fingers. Two toddlers sat on a clean white blanket with a fourth caregiver, playing with shape sorters and blocks. They all wore nametags, some with additional little poignant notes, like "Michael, 17 months, needs snacks often."
I was given permission to wander around a bit, so I visited the napping room (no one sleeping at the time) which was cozily furnished with full-sized cribs (not pack n' plays) for the babies and big pillows and blankets for older kids needing some downtime. An art room was furnished with one long table, spread with markers, paints, pipe cleaners, beads and other supplies. The walls were festooned with pictures and puppets the kids had made. In the snack room, four or five grade schoolers had just finished lunch and were watching a movie; when they were finished, they were planning a scavenger hunt in the "gross motor room," where I found two girls happily jumping rope, wearing big costume straw hats.
The MLA reports that it has around 9,000 participants this year, and I wondered, as I watched some of their children playing, how many of them had cobbled together complicated arrangements with friends at the conference or friends and family at home to care for their kids. How many had come with breast pumps so that they could leave a bottle of milk with the childcare providers? How many had brought their pumps but not their babies, so they could keep up their milk supply and nurse their babies when they got home? (The bathrooms in the childcare area happened to be the largest and most peaceful I found anywhere near the conference). How many couldn't swing the $45 daily childcare charge ($25 for graduate students) on top of travel, hotel and conference registration, or, on the contrary, calculated the cost as too low to indicate competent care? And aside from all that, I just wondered: how many were preoccupied by thoughts of their kids?
I thought of the essay in Mama, PhD by Anjalee Nadkarni (a former IHE blogger), where she speaks of attending a conference without her baby and breaks down sobbing, overwhelmed by missing him and wondering how she can possibly continue in her profession and mother him well. I thought of the essay by Nicole Cooley and Julia Spicher Kasdorf, who write "We had attended so many academic conferences with our kids that the memory of each event seemed more marked by milestones in their early development than by our own intellectual or artistic exhibit—they were strapped to our chests in Baby Bjorns, wheeled in strollers, sitting on our laps with sticker books while we listened, and participated in, readings and panel presentations. In one particularly vivid moment, Nicole stood outside a panel on the confessional poets with her fifteen-month-old fussing and crying. Another woman, a writer with children of her own, walked by and said, "are you trying to remind people of why Sylvia Plath killed herself?" And finally, I thought of Leslie Leyland Field's essay, where she writes of giving the keynote address at a conference and being asked, "How do you stay grounded? How do you keep yourself in the world of actuality instead of the realm of theory?" and she weighs carefully the consequences of her words before leaning close to the microphone and saying, "I have six children."
We all know higher education does not generally make life easy for its parents; it would really prefer, as Libby Gruner writes in Mama, PhD, for each of its members to be a disembodied head on a stick. But in fact, despite the challenges, we are better teachers, more focused researchers, more balanced and patient and poised people generally for being parents. The academy might be too slow to recognize this, but here at this year's convention, at least, the MLA seems to be doing right by its parents.