I’m writing this essay in my home office on a Sunday afternoon while my husband holds our sleeping 3-month-old in the den, watching reruns of “Seinfeld.” As I type these words, I’m simultaneously calculating how much time has passed since my baby’s last meal. Part of my brain is alert to the subtle sounds he is making in the other room, and I nervously wait to hear the particular series of grunts and cries that signal it’s time to eat. When that happens I’ll rise from my office chair to answer his call and breastfeed.
I don’t mind the interruption; it’s become part of the flow of my days, and I’ve learned to work in chunks in between caring for my son.
I am lucky to be able to work from home while caring for my son. I often need to work at night or on weekends so I can hand my son off to my husband. But mostly this lifestyle is ideal for me, switching back and forth from work to parenting. In fact, I bring my son with me to an actual office once a week, because my supervisor, a fellow mom, understands that I need him with me to breastfeed. Everyone at work loves getting to see him, coming into my office to coo and smile at him. There is nothing weird about it, and there shouldn’t be.
The ways in which we include (or don’t include) infants and kids in our adult lives fascinated me even before I became a mom. I always felt our society too rigidly separates adult and kid spaces in a way that seems unnatural. Yes, some situations call for separate kid/adult spaces, but sometimes that rigid line unfairly excludes mothers, particularly mothers who breastfeed. That’s why I was excited to read Jade Sanchez-Ventura’s essay “My Baby Comes With Me.” Her portrayal of bringing her baby with her to teach—the way her students adapted to and appreciated the presence of a baby in the classroom, learning to absorb the interruptions of a baby’s needs (crying, diapers, feeding)—was revelatory.
There are many reasons women would prefer not to bring a baby to work, or any other public place for that matter, but that doesn’t mean it should be the default. Sanchez-Ventura wanted to attend BinderCon, a conference that supports women and non-binary writers, and was surprised to learn of their policy not allowing children under 18 to attend. BinderCon defended their policy, but I felt the case was closed too quickly. As someone who has always loved and supported BinderCon (I was a volunteer for their first conference in New York), I sincerely hope that they will reopen the question and consider changing their policy.
As some commenters on that piece indicated, there is a difference between infants, toddlers, and older children and how their presence would affect a conference. It seems reasonable to me that mothers who want to bring a baby under the age of 1 to a conference—especially one that aims to support women—should be welcomed with open arms. Designated spaces to breastfeed or pump should be a given. And I would hope if I pulled out my boob to breastfeed while sitting in the audience of a panel on balancing writing and motherhood, no one would bat an eyelash. If the baby cries, we leave the room—that’s common sense.
Reading Sanchez-Ventura’s essay reminded me that I had made the exact same assumption: This April I will be a presenter at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and I never questioned whether or not I was allowed to bring my baby—I figured of course I was. My plan all along had been to bring him with me (he’ll be 5 months old by then). But after reading the essay, I realized I should probably make sure he was allowed to come.
I checked the website’s accessibility page, and didn’t see anything mentioning accessibility for moms with infants. I emailed the festival to bring this to their attention and received a very quick response saying that there was no reason I couldn’t bring my baby, and that they would start a conversation about adding language to the accessibility page to address this, and that they would also look into finding spaces for moms to breastfeed and pump at the festival.
What impressed me most about this response was both its speed and quality: yes, of course you can bring your baby, and we’ll discuss specific policy later. I expected nothing less from a venue like Split This Rock, which was created specifically as a space to explore the intersections of poetry and social justice. Accessibility for mothers and children is a social justice issue. I’ve seen too many friends patronized by strangers for breastfeeding in public or given derisive looks for having a disruptive kid in a restaurant. (And I’m sure I’ve given those looks too—but never again!).
We need to make our public spaces more accepting and accommodating to the reality that babies and children exist. We should support mothers who dare to bring their kids with them out in public.
For myself, I wanted to bring my son with me to Split This Rock for a variety of reasons. One is that we are breastfeeding (he usually eats every three hours or so, and yes, we occasionally supplement with formula—nothing wrong with that). And why shouldn’t I be able to breastfeed while listening to a panel on women poets at work, queer Latino poetry, or rural children of color in literature?
Another, perhaps more important reason is that I want my son to be exposed to the poetry community, and to this poetry community in particular. Sure he’s just a baby and may not remember a thing. And yes, I’m nervous about my own ability to take care of him while trying to attend sessions and making sure he’s not disruptive to others. But I know his rapidly developing brain will thirstily absorb the sounds of poetry spoken aloud, and the sight of a beautiful, multiracial poetry community will make its imprint. I will be performing at a poetry reading, along with three other women and non-binary writers, on the theme of eco-feminism—I can’t think of a more appropriate place to bring my son along with me.
It is both a privilege and a necessity for him to witness early on what his mom does: weave truth into song, and speak that song boldly to her community. I hope we can continue to expand the spaces in which our sons and daughters can have this experience.