When I first wrote this post in October 2006, LilPnut was only a few months old, and didn’t even have his twitter handle yet. (Who can blame him? Twitter had barely been invented.) Almost five years later we have lots more experience traveling with the kids, and are much less ambitious about integrating business and personal travel. (Partly because it’s harder to keep a 5-year-old quiet, even in the era of iPads.) But I still had a couple new tips to add here, and I think the rest of the post is as relevant as ever, especially to parents with younger children.
I’ve recently become an adventurer in the world of business travel with baby — in this case, our son, now almost 4 months old. He’s now attended three different conferences, and from these experiences I’ve gleaned a few bits of wisdom that I wanted to capture and share:
- Think twice. Business travel is WAY easier without a kid, so don’t undertake it unless you really need to. That said, don’t let the challenges of business travel dissuade you from doing what’s best for your own work and family — particularly if traveling with your child will allow you to continue providing the benefits of breastfeeding.
- Start small. My first conference-with-kid experience was an informal, local, one-day event (let’s hear it for BarCamp Vancouver!) that let me alpha test our baby’s ability to quietly endure a meeting before I braved taking him on the road.
- Know your kid. Think about whether he or she can be quiet in meetings, and also whether you can meet her needs (for food, entertainment, and attention) while in a business setting. I happen to have a very easy and quiet baby, but I sure wouldn’t bring my three-year-old to one of these things. And since kids are constantly changing, you need to re-think your kid’s road-worthiness before each and every trip.
- Defer to your colleagues. If you’re attending a conference or client meeting with your kid, make sure to put your colleagues’ comfort first. Identify a location where you can nurse or entertain your kid if he starts to cry or disturb the proceedings.
- Buddy up. At the last conference I attended I was lucky to have a buddy — the lovely Katrin Verclas — who jumped in to lend a hand. Katrin volunteered to hold the baby at a few key moments, including dinnertime (my first two-handed dinner in months!!) Having the support of a buddy made all the difference to my experience.
- Forewarned is forearmed. Let meeting organizers or clients know if you’ll be bringing your kid, and give them a chance to tell you if their setting is not child friendly. When I attended the fabulous Online Community Summit, I checked with conference organizers before registering; their welcoming attitude helped me feel comfortable about participating. After the success of that venture, I didn’t worry about forewarning the folks at the Blog Business Summit; they’ve been fantastically accommodating, but I’m sure they’d have appreciated a chance to consider the challenges in advance.
- Scale your expectations. If you attend a conference with your kid, be prepared to miss big chunks of presentations and social events so that you can step out and attend to your kid’s needs.
- Scale your budget. Be prepared to spend more money than you usually would to make your trip as easy as possible — stay at the nearest hotel, get valet parking, order room service. And if you’re evaluating whether a conference or client visit is worth undertaking with child, consider not whether the event is worth the cost in and of itself – consider if it will still be worth the cost of a no-expense-spared approach, even if you miss half the conference sessions.
- Your kid is part of your presentation. Whenever you attend a conference or client meeting, you think about your self-presentation. When you’re attending with a kid, your kid becomes part of that presentation. So make sure your kid has a clean face, clean clothes, and behaves well.
- Connect with your kid. Don’t forget to interact with him. or there’s no point in having him along.
- Connect with your colleagues. If you travel with a well-behaved kid, you’ll find that many of your colleagues will be warm and welcoming — particularly the other parents in the room. Make the most of this chance to connect with colleagues on a personal level: one of the things I’ve enjoyed about traveling with my baby is the chance to hear from other parents about their own experiences juggling work and family. How else would I have left a business blogging summit with the URL of a great attachment parenting blog? I’ve really appreciated hearing from other moms who remember the challenges of life with a new baby, and whose support — whether it’s holding the baby so I can use the bathroom, or cheering me on for trying this juggling act — remind me that I’m not the only woman out there trying to combine work and motherhood.
- Accept non-acceptance. While the vast majority of your colleagues are likely to be encouraging and supportive, some people may not be happy to see a baby at a business event. Accept that some people aren’t going to like seeing your baby, the same way they might not like what you’ve got to say or what you’re wearing. Anticipate those reactions, and know in advance which accommodations you’re willing to make for others. But don’t let concern about other people’s reactions push you into sharing more information about your circumstances than you feel comfortable disclosing, or into a decision that jeopardizes your child’s well-being or your professional or personal integrity.
- UPDATE: Draw a line between work and family time. Combining family travel with business travel can be a great (and economical) experience, but it works best when you are very clear about how and when to draw the line. Maybe you’re unavailable to your family for the first three days of a conference, but the next ten days are family time; maybe mornings are for meetings and afternoons are for kids and fun. Just make sure that you, your spouse and your colleagues are all agreed on those limits beforehand, and that you communicate the expectations to your kids.
- UPDATE: Make room for your family. We’ve had terrific success lining up housing swaps in four different cities, mostly using Craigslist. Unlike a conference or business hotel — which may be only marginally welcoming to children, and crawling with colleagues who will give you the hairy eyeball if your kids go tearing down a hallway — a home exchange ensures your family has a home base while you’re on the road. If you can swap with a family that has similarly-aged kids, you’re likely to land in a setting that is well set-up for your needs.
- Cheer yourself on. When I first started using my laptop at conferences, about ten years ago, people used to ask me to put it away — they found the key tapping disturbing. Ten years later, everyone has their laptops out to take meeting notes (or check their e-mail!) That culture shift happened gradually — and a similar culture shift has to happen around children. The more that thoughtful parents include their well-behaved children in their professional lives, the more we’ll break down the cultural wall that separates the public and private spheres — a wall that has historically served to keep women and men in separate worlds. So give yourself a cheer for bringing baby along: you’re not just helping your family or business, you’re helping make our culture stronger, healthier and more human.
Originally published October 27, 2006.