Twice since returning from maternity leave, I've attended work conferences with my infant daughter, Hope. The first time, Hope was two months old; The second time, she was five months old. After the first go-round, I instagrammed the picture above. It features an exhausted me, crashed in our hotel room, nursing my daughter, eating a hotel s'more, with the comment, “Attending a conference with a newborn is not for the faint of heart.”
Indeed, it's not.
But it can be done.
Here are a 9 tips for conferencing with a baby.
1. Arrive early. Everything will take you two to three times as long to do with a baby than it did before. Getting to your conference early allows you to scope out the venue, set up camp, and stake out your ground.
2. Stake out your ground. When conferencing with an infant, do what works for you. At both conferences I attended, the plenaries were held in a sanctuary. While beautiful, hard pews didn't work particularly well for Hope and I. So I pulled a chair to the back, laid out a blanket on the floor, parked my stroller, and made myself at home. When Hope was content in the stroller, she stayed there, allowing me to sit on my chair and take notes. When she got a little fussy, I laid her on the blanket and gave her a toy. Sitting on the floor with her allowed me to attend to her needs while at the same time allowing me to keep my laptop open in order to jot down a few notes and ideas. When she started screaming, we walked to and fro in the back of the sanctuary. When her screaming became ear-piercing, we exited to the cry room, where I could still hear the conference speaker but not worry about disrupting other conference attendees.
3. Remember: Your baby's cry sounds louder to you than anyone else. While I can honestly say Hope's cries and screams during worship in our own congregation no longer bother me, they did at the conferences I attended. There, I was sure they were ruining everyone else's experience. A kind mom and fellow conference attendee must have seen the worry etched on my face. After one particularly loud outburst, she sought me out and lovingly said, “Her cry is louder to you than anyone else. Relax. She's not bothering us.” I took her comment to heart and relaxed. Doing so gave me the freedom to stop fearing what others thought and instead, start making decisions based on what worked best for Hope and I.
4. Ask for help. At the first conference I attended, the bathrooms were not particularly stroller friendly. They were small and old, with a diaper changing station attached to a wall outside the stalls, none of which were large enough for a stroller. As a result, I literally could not use the bathroom unless I asked someone for help. So I'd strike up a conversation with a fellow conference attendee while waiting in the restroom line and then ask her to watch Hope for me while I quickly used the restroom. Likewise, I relied on other people to get plates of food for me and to open doors. What I learned is this: People are ALWAYS willing to help, even if they don't always volunteer to help. So unashamedly ask for what you need in order to get the most out of your conference experience.
5. Don't worry about what other people think. The mommy wars have, I think, left us all paranoid that other people are constantly judging our parenting. And maybe they are. But the truth is, you know your baby better than anyone else so be confident in your parenting choices. For me, this meant unashamedly breastfeeding my baby at the conferences I attended. The first time I did so I was horrified. I mean, how could I breastfeed my baby in a room full of mostly male conference attendees? But I did... Again and again. And eventually I realized it really wasn't a big deal unless I made it a big deal.
6. Make decisions based on convenience, not cost. I constantly strive to be a good steward of my church's resources. I'm also pretty cheap by nature. When it comes to conferencing, this means that my default position is to choose the cheapest available option. You can't do that when you conference with a baby. Then, convenience trumps cost. Stay at the closest available hotel so that it's easy to get to and from the conference venue. If possible, book a suite rather than a room. That way you can have room to spread out, a refrigerator to store breast milk or formula in, and maybe even a kitchenette to eat in rather than out (if that's easier than taking the baby to a restaurant). Likewise, park your car in the closest available spot even if you have to pay for it. That way you can store extra baby gear in your car and still have easy access to it throughout the day.
7. Bail when you need to. Conferences are supposed to rejuvenate you. So don't wear yourself out trying to get to everything. It's ok to bail on a session, an activity, or even a full day if you need to. You need not feel ashamed. At the first conference I attended, I skipped the final morning because Hope and I were, quite simply, done. Bailing on that final morning didn't lessen the experience I had earlier in the conference. I still got what I needed from it.
8. Give yourself grace. Although it's worth doing, conferencing with a baby is hard. So give yourself grace... And plenty of it. Be flexible and willing to adapt when things don't go quite as planned. Be quick to laugh – at yourself and the ridiculous comments you might hear from others. For example, at the second conference I attended, a woman stopped me and said, “Oh honey! Where's your husband? Why are you here all alone with your baby at a conference for youth pastors?” My mouth dropped in horror as I realized this woman assumed that as a mom, I couldn't possibly BE the youth pastor at my congregation. So I gently corrected her... And have since learned to laugh at the absurdity of her assumption.
9. Remember: Your baby is a blessing. I know you know that, but sometimes – especially at a conference – it can be easy to forget that. I had a sheer moment of grace when a woman at the second conference I attended came up to me and said, “Thank you for bringing your baby with you. It gives me joy to see a mama doing ministry with her baby in tow. It reminds us all of what's important.” Your baby and your family are important. So, too, is your ministry. There's no shame in blending the two. And who knows, in addition to allowing you to attend a worthwhile event, conferencing with your baby in tow might just give others hope and encouragement to do the same.