Caregiving and Conference-Going
I sense what many of you are thinking: the title of this column is a contradiction in terms. Caregiving almost always means staying close to home, while conferences are about being away. For most of us, therefore, it’s difficult if not impossible to do both, or is it? Over the years the AAG and voluntary groups of geographers have tried to accommodate child care needs at our annual conference (and recently at our regional conferences) with varying degrees of success. We’re hoping that this year in Chicago we can come close to being both caregivers and conference-goers by supporting the best sort of compromise available between ‘being home’ and ‘being away’: on-site, professional, child care services. In this column I summarize the various child care strategies we have adopted over the past 15 years or so, discuss why these strategies have been less than perfect, and ask how best to move forward as a discipline that requires conference-going and as a group of people who only thrive through caregiving.
I recall my first (or was it my second?) council meeting, back in 1997 in Ft. Worth when the (then) AAG executive director Ron Abler and the executive committee were able to get onto the agenda a motion for the AAG to provide funds to support child care services at the next conference. I don’t think it was easy but nonetheless the agenda item moved forward and the following year in Boston the AAG arranged onsite childcare through a third-party company. The AAG rented two hotel rooms for the duration of the conference, as well as all of the necessary equipment (and those with children know exactly what is involved in that!), and paid for two staff members from the contracting company to be on duty the entire time. As Ron tells me, the costs were very high and the usage very low. To help solve some of the problems, the following year the AAG asked for folks to reserve in advance for child care needs that were then contracted out, but again few families did so and the costs to the AAG were high; over the next several years that ‘system’ petered away.
The issue, however, did not go away. Spurred on by suggestions of specialty group and committee chairs, AAG council members, and AAG staff, the council voted in 2005 to begin a new system of child care support. The new system provided reimbursement for child care services up to a set amount per family, while the ‘work’ of finding professional child care shifted to the AAG, with individual families selecting from a list of licensed and insured childcare providers compiled by the AAG. The results of a survey conducted by the AAG in 2008 of families who had received reimbursements suggested that the ‘system’ was working well: 75 percent of those who answered the survey said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the service. Importantly, however, at that point in time only 18 folks had actually used the service and of those only 8 responded to the survey. Six years later this is basically still where we are, though prompted by members’ input the dollar amount has been increased, and recently funds were made available to support child care at regional meetings.
Has this system enabled conference-going and caregiving? For some families it certainly has helped. Since 2005, 56 reimbursements have been processed averaging $222 each. But given that our annual conference attendance often exceeds 7,000, it is clear that the system is not working for most. As geographers who understand the importance of place and place-based networks we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Finding the right people to take care of our children is an emotionally-fraught job that requires familiarity with people and places. We need to know a lot about the people to whom we entrust our children, information that is only gained through personal networking and local knowledge both of which are in scant supply when attending conferences away from home. And even with the scouting and vetting work complete, where is the place of child care? A hotel room? The lobby? Let’s face it: unless you’re Eloise and you’re staying at the Plaza, hotels are not child-friendly spaces. All of this creates a far-from-ideal situation; in fact, for most families it is a non-starter.
So, armed with information from several of our peer organizations, and prodded by many of our members and committees, we are trying something new: full-time, on-site, professionally-run, child care. We also will be providing a lactation room in a convenient location. The costs to the Association are sizeable but do-able; some of those costs will be off-set by fees paid by geographers who register their kids, and we are considering in the future encouraging all geographers who can afford it to make small donations when they register for the conference. We know it’s not perfect, we know that there are issues about timing and money that need to be discussed and the system tweaked, and we know that there are an enormous array of other caregiving commitments that this new ‘compromise’ doesn’t even begin to address. A proposed new Caregiving Affinity Group is thinking creatively about possible collective solutions to some of these issues, important work that needs to continue in order for the Association to reckon fully with the professional demands of conference-going and the personal commitments of caregiving.
We urge all those interested to read the AAG updates about how and when to register for child care, and to take advantage of this opportunity if possible. We also invite everyone to visit the child care facilities in Chicago. If your conference-going experiences are anything like mine, I suspect it will be a real treat to step out of the intense and often anxiety-inducing world of conference talks and hallway encounters and enter the playful, imaginative, and in-the-moment space of children’s worlds. I’m looking forward to it.
— Mona Domosh