photo credit: @surrealiasunn

How to host speakers who also happen to be parents of young children

In the last nine days, I’ve given three different talks at three conferences, taken five plane and three train rides, visited four cities in four countries, accompanied by my four and a half month-old daughter who won’t take a bottle (which, for those of you who haven’t had a baby, means that I am tethered to her).

‘Are you insane?’ you ask. Well, partially. In the haze of late pregnancy I agreed to all three without piecing their synchronicity together. I feel strongly about gender equality and have a hard time saying no to opportunities to speak on the subject if the event looks interesting and I feel I would have something different to add. In the past I’ve had hectic speaking seasons (why is September such a pain?), but doing this all with a jolly but demanding little accomplice in tow added a whole new dimension. Not only do you need to worry about your talk, but you also have to worry about the baby as well.

A tiny human shouldn’t get in the way of a great talk though. And it turns out that a lot of great speakers also become parents. As a conference organizer, what can you do to help make your event more accommodating for a speaker with a baby (and thus get a kick-ass presentation)?

1. Pay for the partner/in law/sister/close friend/etc. to come along to help with child minding.

If you really want someone to speak — they will only speak well knowing that their offspring is in good hands offstage. Adding an additional person’s travel costs to that speaker’s budget may not be that much and solves the problem of who minds the child.

Having my husband present at the Nordic.js conference in Stockholm two weeks ago taking care of her while I rehearsed and presented made the whole event so much more enjoyable — plus — he got to see a slice of my life which he normally wouldn’t. It was wonderful to be able to share my speaking experience with him and our daughter. Spread the fun. Spring for an additional person.

2. If the speaker can’t find someone to come along to help with the baby, get a baby-sitter.

Now this is tricky, you want someone really good with babies. Not — ‘I baby-sat a bit in high-school’ — but someone *really* good. Someone who loves babies, even when they cry. Choose someone from a reputable agency with a long CV of childcare and possibly a few personal recommendations.

Don’t just pay for the baby sitter to care for the child when the speaker is on stage, but for a few hours beforehand at least so that the baby has some time to get used to him/her with the parent there. Remember, the baby has to get used to the babysitter, but more importantly the speaker has to build a trusting relationship with them.

If the speaker wants to find someone themselves, let them, but offer to pay the costs. In the grand scheme of the conference, it’s not much. It’s a gesture that shows that you care about their and their family’s wellbeing while at your event. If the speaker is good enough to speak at your conference, the cost of a babysitter should be worth it.

3. Book the right hotel

There are a few points here, which may seem minor but can have a big impact:

  • Room service is a must— The speaker likely won’t be able to do much in the evenings as they have to take care of junior. Make sure there is half-decent room service so that they can be pleasantly nourished in the room while doing so.
  • Ensure a safe sleeping situation for baby — Ask the parents if they want a cot in the room (make sure the hotel offers this!). If they don’t want a cot, ask if they co-sleep. In this situation make sure the hotel room has a big double bed, not two singles apart, or even worse, haphazardly stuck together so the baby could slip down between them.
  • Confirm early check-in — if people are traveling with a baby (and the moving truck of accessories needed to do so), having to wait four hours before they can get into their room could be a ticking time bomb. If you can get early check-in, do.
  • Make bath-time possible — Get a room with a bathtub, or a sink big enough to wash a baby in. Babies poop. Sometimes they poop all over their clothes and body and it gets into their hair…oh god. Washing your baby in a design-hotel rain shower head sounds really romantic but its terrifying as the baby tries to squirm out of your soapy arms potentially onto the hard floor below. While a bidet is fancy and European, and in a pinch could be used as a baby bath, lets try to avoid that, yes?

In short — don’t just book a cool hotel, book a good hotel. The details matter.

4. Quiet room

Babies need quiet, they especially need quiet to feed. Get a small room with a comfortable chair that is reserved for mum/dad and baby. This room would be used for feeding and quiet wind-down time for the baby as an alternative to all the stimulation of the conference. Be militant about keeping it clean and quiet for the speaker with the baby as you never know when the baby might need to settle.

Also — if the venue doesn’t have change tables in the bathrooms, make sure to have a table and a garbage bin in the room with a plastic bag. The garbage is key, you really don’t want someone running around backstage with a diaper leaking feces. Is a speaker so important that they need a green room? Probably not, but their baby is.

5. Speaker Activities

One of the conferences I was at had an amazing speakers dinner where we had to cook it ourselves (under the watchful eye of exceptional cooks). It was great because the speakers got to know each other in a far less awkward manner than the usual light banter, we learned something, and it was family friendly. My husband had our baby while I cooked and jumped away every so often to tend to our little one.

Unfortunately there were a lot of other thoughtful and really fun activities that I just couldn’t take part in because of the baby. That’s ok, those are the sacrifices you make to have a literal bundle of joy. (It’s worth it!) But know that the speaker may feel somewhat left out. If you want all the speakers to develop a sense of camaraderie, try to create at least one activity that is family/baby friendly.

That being said, just because they have a baby doesn’t mean they won’t be able to make the party. Don’t assume they won’t come to all the events. Invite them to everything you’d invite the others speakers to. Even if they can’t make it, the speaker will greatly appreciate not being forgotten.

6. The baby isn’t a prop

My baby has entered the ‘separation anxiety’ phase — so while I had great child-care support, I did wear my baby on stage at one event. It was much easier to have her on me, than offstage with a relative stranger. I did not wear her as a statement, though some interpreted the action as such.

While yes, I am proud that I was able to bring my daughter along to the conferences, my baby’s well-being was my primary concern. If it had not been in her interest to be on stage or travel with me, she wouldn’t have been. I wish we were at a stage where people didn’t see speaking with a baby as a statement. I definitely wore her at my own risk (and luckily it worked out).

7. If the speaker says no, take their answer (after you’ve pushed a bit).

The thought of entering the world with a baby is terrifying. If someone says no because of a small child, demonstrate that you’ll do whatever it takes to make them comfortable while at the conference.

Give them some time to consider the options. If they still say no, leave it.

The first few months with a new baby are incredibly fleeting and magical (so sorry to use such a twee word but it fits). They should decide how to spend it. At least show that you’re a thoughtful event host, and maybe they’ll be more likely to say yes the next time round.

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