Lena Oden and her husband both work in academia and use their flexibility to travel jointly with their baby and their toddler to conferences and important project meetings. She kindly agreed to share challenges encountered, her experiences and tricks with others, who might be wondering how this interface actually works out in practice.
Prof. Lena Oden already worked in several interesting places, both in academia and industry, including Texas Instruments, Fraunhofer ITWM, Argonne National Laboratory (USA) and the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. She studied at RWTH Aachen and got her PhD from the University of Heidelberg. While working at the JSC, she received the positive note on her application to become a junior professor at FernUni Hagen, where she now has a full professorship since 2021. She still works with a few hours per week for the JSC to continue her contributions to the EU-funded Human Brain Project.
Lena’s husband also works in academia. They have a baby and a 3-year old son. While the first years with her older son were dominated by the pandemic (when everyone having to attend meetings and conferences remotely came in very handy with a little one), she has already travelled twice to important project meetings and conferences bringing her kids and her husband along since her second son was born end of 2022.
Lena with both children at the entrance of the ISC 2023, which took place in Hamburg.
Lena, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview! I would love to hear about your experiences in travelling with young children for work. I bet that many young, female colleagues are thinking if and how to handle such situations if they decide to have children.
At which stage in your career did you decide to have your first child?
Capturing it is challenging. Throughout my personal journey, my partner and I endured a significant period of maintaining a long-distance relationship (occasionally spanning across the Atlantic!). As we eventually began cohabiting (when I assumed the role of a PostDoc in Jülich), and our relationship continued to thrive, the longing grew increasingly intense.
Looking back, do you think it might have been easier at a different point in your career?
In my personal case, it wasn’t feasible. On one hand, there was the long-distance relationship, and on the other hand, it was financially challenging since I was pursuing my doctorate with a scholarship (which doesn’t provide parental leave benefits). I believe that in academic relationships, it is generally difficult to find a point where both individuals can reside in the same location, and even harder to have job security. Even when that moment finally arrived, certain aspects were not ideal: we both had fixed-term contracts. However, I don’t think I would let that deter me anymore, and I would like to pass on this mindset to my colleagues. For example, that taking parental leave during the doctoral studies is not an issue. Unfortunately, this is far from being a given or commonplace.
You sometimes bring your entire family along to conferences or project meetings. How does this work for your husband regarding his work?
Currently, it’s less of a problem since both of us are not working full-time and are on parental leave. To balance it out, he gets more time to work either before or after taking care of the child. It’s always a compromise. Fortunately, both of us can do many things from anywhere. So, he can simply open his laptop in the evenings or mornings to get work done.
Have you ever travelled alone with just one child (for work)?
No overnight stays yet, as I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid that situation thus far. I primarily work from home, but sometimes I need to be present on-site, whether it’s in Jülich or Hagen. I have been alone with the child there many times. In Hagen, there is excellent emergency childcare available, which I can utilize. During exams or dissertation defenses, I try not to have the little one present, as it wouldn’t be very respectful towards the examinee.
Do you prefer travelling with your family or, e.g., staying for a shorter duration but travelling alone?
That also depends on the situation. When traveling with family, there are additional obligations towards them. The children may not appreciate it if one were to attend a social event in the evening while they stay at the hotel with their father. Being alone provides more freedom and allows for a more enjoyable conference experience, but one also carefully considers what truly matters in such situations. Therefore, if the social event is the main focus, it is indeed easier to travel alone, although that may not always be possible.
Which tips and tricks do you have for travelling with young children to a conference? What do you try to avoid? What is a game changer?
What I try to avoid is flying. Trains are often more affordable when travelling with family since children don’t have to pay, and it allows for more freedom of movement and space. But even when I travel without children, I prefer taking trains. On-site, vacation rentals or Airbnbs are often more convenient than hotel rooms. They provide a kitchen, sometimes even a washing machine, and you can take care of the children during breakfast. It can be tiring when constantly encountering people in hotels. Although I do miss the hotel breakfast experience a bit.
What are, from your point of view, important aspects to consider as organisers of meetings or conferences? What should any larger event offer to participants who bring their families along? Is there anything that sounds nice but doesn’t help at all?
Another helpful tool is a baby carrier, which allows for breastfeeding while on the go. It made it much easier to take our second child everywhere, and you can climb stairs without having to search for an elevator. For our older child and the luggage, we have a handcart that also comes in handy when transporting both the child and suitcases. It has proven to be helpful at train stations as well, although it does bring back the issue of dealing with stairs.
From your experience, were the announced services for families (child care on site, quiet room for nursing/breastfeeding etc.) easy to find and available? Did the staff on site know where to guide you?
Unfortunately, my experiences in that regard were not very good. Generally, there were such facilities available, but I always had to find someone who had the time to let me in. Fortunately, I don’t have much of a problem breastfeeding in public, so I simply do it (or use the baby carrier). What really bothers me is when there are no changing facilities. Of course, I can change my child’s diaper anywhere, but I understand that some people are bothered by the smell when you change a stinky diaper in public. And using the floor of a women’s restroom is simply not an alternative for me.
Have you ever used child care offered during a conference? Does this work with your kids (who only speak German)?
No, not yet. With our first child, it wouldn’t have been possible as they were very attached to us and experienced separation anxiety. With our second child, it might be more feasible, but we haven’t needed to use such services thus far. However, I generally think that such offerings are very good. If I attend a conference this year, I will likely take advantage of them. I believe that language is not as important for children under one year old.
Can you tell if family-friendliness/support at conferences has changed in the past years, or is that hard to tell due do the pandemic?
That’s difficult to say because I didn’t have children before the pandemic. Online conferences have made many things easier, although being physically present is more enjoyable. However, the option for virtual participation is becoming more common. Generally, I do notice more people bringing their children to conferences, but it could also be that I’m paying more attention to it.
Which experiences did you have at the events when bringing a baby along? Have you ever felt excluded or did you get “strange looks”?
Fortunately, no! Overall, people have been friendly and helpful. For example, someone once held the child for me so I could use the restroom, or they reacted kindly when the child started crying during a presentation. It’s difficult to say what people truly think, though 🙂
But I have also received extremely positive feedback from people whom I didn’t expect it from.
Have you met other conference participants who also brought their children along?
Yes, last year at the SC conference, I met a former colleague who also had her son with her. They even had a Family Day on the exhibition floor, and they were busy collecting promotional items. Some people have told me that they have also attended conferences with their children, but, for example, using a baby carrier is only feasible up to a certain age!
Did you ever have to change or cancel travel plans because a child got sick? Do you always have a “plan B” for such cases?
Fortunately, no! When I attended the SC conference last year while being heavily pregnant, my other child fell ill for a week. Luckily, my partner was available to take care of them during that time. However, there have been instances where I had to cancel appointments or commitments in places like Hagen, which is always particularly frustrating, especially when students have made arrangements to attend. In such cases, I always strive to find suitable compromises.
How did your line managers and colleagues react when you announced that you were going to bring your family?
So far, most people have been delighted that I could attend at all because they didn’t expect it. Fortunately, in my circle, most people have families, so overall, it has been received positively.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Two things: firstly, I believe it is important for conferences to be flexible. While childcare services are great, what has been more helpful to us are passes that allow my husband to enter the conference premises with the children. The effectiveness of this may vary depending on the children’s needs.
Secondly, I am in a privileged position where I have my own budget and, if necessary, enough money to cover the additional expenses myself. However, this is often not the case for doctoral students or postdocs. There should be standardized rules in place to provide support, at least for very young children, without compromising funding in other areas.
Thank you very much for taking the time and sharing your experiences! 🙂