A Room With a View — and Baby Too

Making Space for Working Parents

A few days ago, I was asked to leave the TEDWomen conference in Monterey, CA because I had brought my nursing infant with me. The staff politely explained that it has long been a rule at TED that children are not permitted at the conferences. I had been looking forward to the gathering for months, and felt embarrassed and disappointed. I had little choice but to pack up my things, change my plane ticket, and get ready to leave. Sitting in my hotel room, feeling dejected and waiting for our taxi to the airport, I tweeted about what had happened.

A while later, just as baby and I (plus the accompanying three tons of gear mandatory for travel with an infant) arrived at the airport, I got a call from June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, inviting me back and promising to fix the situation. She could not have been kinder or more apologetic, but by the time we spoke, it was too late for me to turn around. It had been a long day. To June’s credit, by the time I landed back in Los Angeles, TED had already set up a lounge for moms, babies, and toddlers where they could be together and watch a simulcast of the conference real-time.

They’ve since responded in a blog post about the situation as well, and should be commended for changing course and fixing the problem so swiftly.

While I am thrilled that this incident has ignited a conversation about creating space for working parents, particularly nursing mothers, the truth is that TED’s corrective actions are an aberration. While social norms and even state laws say a mother can breastfeed her baby anywhere she likes, conferences, workplaces, and meeting venues don’t consistently make the effort to accommodate working mothers — or, fathers, for that matter. Why?

It’s Not About Disruption

One obvious reason is that children, and especially infants, can be a disruption at a carefully choreographed, professionally recorded event like TED. We can all agree that certain immersive events ought to be protected from possible interruptions, no matter whether those interruptions are from devices or descendants. Goodness knows I would never ask to be the parent sitting in the front row of the audience for someone’s TED talk — a truly remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime, “bucket list” sort of experience for many speakers, myself included — even with my preternaturally calm infant. Just thinking about it makes me nervous.

But let’s be clear. No one is asking for this. For what it’s worth, I never stepped foot inside the main auditorium at TEDWomen last week, where the talks were taking place live on the main stage; I stuck to the lobby and simulcast room only, where conversation, networking, latte-sipping, and lots of other such noisy activities are allowed. In fact they are often quite lively spaces. So this conversation is not about disruption, it is about making sure there is an accepted space in which to participate in an event like TED, while parenting.

It’s Not About Cost, Either

Another easy go-to answer about why so few organizations adequately accommodate working families is cost. Whether it’s for a conference or a company, creating a physical space costs money to build or rent, time to design, the commitment to slog through whatever liability issues must be addressed, and because of these things can snowball into a huge undertaking. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Working parents aren’t asking for lavish nurseries, or even that someone else completely foots the bill for their needs. In my anecdotal experience, many individuals just want a designated room, and would happily share or even fully absorb the cost for creating that option for themselves and other parents.

In fact, in certain situations, many people who end up making it work are already paying through the nose, and would be glad to put those dollars toward a common, shared (and likely much less costly) solution so everyone could thrive. At TEDWomen, for example, one participant I met flew in her mother to care for her 18-month-old while she attended the conference; another brought her husband, who presumably had to take the day off of work as well, to be with their 8-week-old while she ducked in and out to breastfeed. Yet another hired a babysitter through her hotel, at nearly $200/day. Many other women left their babies back at home — often hiring round-the-clock care for their children in their absence, easily adding hundreds of dollars to the cost of attending the already expensive conference — and interrupted their experience to step away to pump breast milk, sometimes as frequently as every three hours. (By the way, all of those examples came up in conversation naturally and before I was asked to leave the conference, because this is the kind of stuff that’s often discussed in lobbies and at lunches where hundreds of working mothers are gathered!) Since my experience last week, I’ve received dozens of additional messages from women who have attended TED and other conferences in the past, and who ran into similar problems, made similar trade-offs, resorted to spending similarly ridiculous amounts of money to do something like fly in a caregiver and book a second hotel room — or, who just give up and miss out altogether. These are the main unsatisfying choices parents (mostly women) have had year after year after year….

Nobody Puts (My) Baby In The Corner

Which is why what June and the TED team did truly should be celebrated — and copied. It would have been easy for them to simply help find babysitters for those who needed one. But they knew that providing a childcare option doesn’t completely solve the problem. It’s important that we also face head-on the challenge and the need to create space for parents to thrive in the very real, very blurry moments that exist between “work” and “life,” when we are neither solely working nor solely parenting. When, say, attending a conference with an infant, I’d propose that it’s very possible to do both, and do both well. Sure, some kids (and parents) are happier when the children just stay at home, but segregation isn’t always the best solution. I don’t think it’s too revolutionary to suggest that both parents and children can often coexist and be at their best together.

In fact, I’ve found that designing my work and life around being as close as possible to my kids especially in the first six months, while I’m exclusively breastfeeding them, is the most important factor in my ability to remain productive simply because it saves me so much time. That’s right, far from interrupting my work, when my babies are very close to me, I am freed to be more productive in everything I want to accomplish. Some sobering math: during the first six months of baby’s life, a mom can easily spend 15 solid days of her time breastfeeding. (I tend to linger, and I have an app to track this stuff, so I know my number is higher. And I went through this once before with twins; at this point months of my life have been spent nursing.) Because of this, multitasking is a must, and at least for me, it helps not to spend extra time pumping, washing bottles, etc. if I don’t have to. So, when TEDWomen’s response to last week’s incident was not just to offer to help find childcare but to actually create a space where moms could both participate and parent, all at the same time, I found it to be an especially exciting move.

Time For a Culture Shift

I am not naïve enough to think most others will act as swiftly as the TED team did. There’s a gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to shifting culture and ushering in new policies supporting working parents. Despite the obvious business advantages of doing so, change usually happens a lot more slowly than it did last week at TED. Many big conferences are a reflection of the corporations that make them possible, and whose cultures end up permeating even the most innovative, forward-thinking, well-intentioned gatherings.

And what’s so wrong about most corporate cultures and their effect on working families, and in particular, women? A lot, actually. For instance, many companies still don’t actually care enough to make obvious, relatively easy fixes, like offering more generous maternity (or paternity) leave. And most have done little to fix the longstanding problem of women being paid (read: valued) on average much less than men, an issue less and less easily explained away by factors other than discrimination. But even companies that do make these kinds of adjustments pay lip service to valuing working mothers when, for example, they are plagued by an aggressive culture of overwork. As a recent NYTimes article argues, they incentivize intense, always-on, 24/7 behaviors that, in aggregate, form the antithesis of the kind of flexible, friendly cultures that help working parents succeed, and in fact, these cultures “lock gender inequality in place, because the work-family balance problem is recognized as primarily a woman’s problem.” The article further suggests that companies “have little incentive to encourage their employees to work less” per se. On this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. As more progressive organizations know, making space for working parents to thrive, and to integrate their lives flexibly in and beyond the office, pays off handsomely in greater employee loyalty, lower turnover, increased happiness, and myriad other positive effects, all of which obviously have a major impact on a company’s bottom line.

Baby Steps Matter

In the meantime, what if you are an individual at one of these conferences or companies wishing your organization’s culture would shift? What do you do? We all — women and men, at every level of authority in an organization — need to ask for the change we want. Maybe it’s demanding better parental leave or creating more flexibility in your workplace. Maybe it’s bringing your child to work more than one day a year, or wearing your newborn (like Licia Ronzulli did at the European Parliament). Maybe it’s letting your daughter join you at a press conference or actually taking the paternity leave your company offers. Or, if none of these kinds of changes feel relevant to you, know that you can still make a huge impact by encouraging someone else to take action on what matters to them and supporting them along the way. The thing about blending work and family effectively that’s so challenging — but so special too — is that the right combination is completely unique to each one of us. One benefit or strategy may make perfect sense for one person, and yet be quite meaningless for another.

Regardless, be bold about the kind of change you do want to see, and even bolder about asking for it. Do it for yourself, and for your own family, but do it for the others around you too. Sometimes one person’s request to do something a little differently is the best first step to solving a widespread problem. This is true not only because it sets a precedent for what’s actually possible, but because it inspires others to dream bigger as well.

So take the time to ask envision the changes want, and voice those desires. Challenge the policies, and assumptions behind them, that no longer fit. Trust yourself to speak up in the moments that matter, and sometimes, to act. You can’t always know in advance what actions will be the most important, but trust me: some of the little decisions you make in the moment will end up making a big difference.