Breastfeeding and academic travel

So, I have been the primary income earner in all my 14 years of marriage. And in that time, I have had three children. I breastfed my first two for around two years each, and plan to do the same for my youngest.

But my work requires travel. When I say ‘require’, I wouldn’t lose my job if I didn’t travel, but you can’t go for 10 years (the time between beginning breastfeeding my eldest and when I plan to wean my youngest) without travel as an academic, especially one who specialises in research in China (and is employed in NZ).

So when I consult Dr Google about the experiences of other mothers in this situation, I find it is all about pumping breastmilk while travelling. Everyone seems to assume you just leave the baby and pump the milk (because that is all you are, a milk machine!). I have always tried to take the baby and a caregiver with me, partly because my kids breastfeed over night for a really long time and can’t get to sleep without me. And I fully respect and embrace that, as an opportunity for connection when I am out of the home all day.

The reality is, plenty of academic women breastfeed and prefer/need to breastfeed an actual child over pumping.

So I am planning my travel for this year. There are a number of opportunities. An all-expenses-paid trip to an Italian monastery to work on my book. An all-expenses-paid trip to Berlin to work on an edited collection with others. A trip to Canberra for the Institute of Australian Geographers Conference funded by my new staff grant. The problem with ‘all-expenses-paid’ is that ‘all’ doesn’t include a breastfeeding baby and a caregiver. That is a ‘personal’ ‘private’ matter, and, as the UC Travel Policy states it will not fund “Any payments for family members or partners travelling with the University Traveller not on University business themselves.” Which, according to an email from the UC HR advisor for Science, implies that breastfed babies must be paid for personally. So the university clearly won’t top me up either.

I need to budget my work travel from my personal finances then. Can I afford to take up an all-expenses paid trip to Bolsena or Berlin? Probably not. Can I afford to attend a conference in Canberra? Maybe, but it will preclude actual family holidays with all my kids for that year. Unless I bring them too. But do I want a holiday in Canberra, and do they? Do I need to go to conferences?

Possibly I do. According to this study, female evolutionary biologists get invited to give talks less, and turn down talks more frequently, than male evolutionary biologists. This results in them having lower citations and their important, high quality research being taken up less by other researchers because of their resultant lower visibility in their field. If this is true across the disciplines, it highlights the necessity of women taking up invited talks, and for organisers to make an effort to invite women AND reduce the factors likely to result in them having to decline. For example, making allowances for breastfeeding women or women with young children who may not have alternative overnight childcare acceptable to their child. For the sake of good research and science and all that.

When I studied at the Australian National University, I paid the flights for my husband and baby out of my PhD fieldwork funds. I couldn’t leave a baby for a year. I needed someone to care for her. Simple. End of story. Payment made, receipts accepted. Etcetera. Likewise, when it became apparent during a housing crisis that the families of international students were suffering, the university waived the scholarship rule that required us to live in Australia. Or they at least looked the other way when we all went back to our home countries for up to a year. To me, it seems that if we are serious about women achieving in the workplace, these types of progressive policies and practices need to be considered not just for PhD students, but for mothers in academia.

6 thoughts on “Breastfeeding and academic travel

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  1. Great blog post, it raises a number of issues I’m facing at the moment too. We’re having our second baby in May and I plan to go to a conference in the US in November, but can’t afford to take my other half and our 3-year-old as we have to fund their expenses ourselves. Never crossed my mind to leave the new baby at home and instead I’ll ask my mother to come as support (we’ll pay for her). It was that or leave the 3-year-old at home so my husband could come, which we both decided against as we didn’t want her feeling rejected. But if breastfeeding doesn’t work out this time (took five months of hard work to establish successful breastfeeding with my first) I might rethink going alone. It would be interesting to hear from fathers in academia about their choices/experiences and any commonalities or differences (apart from breastfeeding of course!).


  2. I just got my email replied to from the Dean of Science — it had been forwarded to her for ‘resolution’ and she totally sympathised having been in the same boat as me at the same time in her career. Although no money forthcoming. I think like this article , once women are higher up they have all sorts of unhelpful ideas about how they made it that may or may not be true.

    Actually the father issue was raised in the session we held at the Devnet conference in 2012 — none of the fathers in the room felt the pressure to ‘be there’ except one expressed regret that he missed his son’s soccer game (how is that for stereotyping!).

    [The article written from the Devnet conference is available here:


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