I walked into the darkened auditorium of the conference center at nine in the morning, with my baby girl Olivia strapped to my chest in her wrap. Linda Gray of Dallas was speaking to a large audience of women. I stood at the back of the room with Olivia, while my friend Angela, who had come to the conference to help with Olivia, went to find a place where we could set up for the day ahead.
Olivia made a few baby peeps in her wrap, and I ducked out of the room behind someone else who was to take a call on her ringing phone. Through the open doors, I could hear Linda talking about becoming a successful actress at age 37, how her children were proud of her for her work. No woman should ever give up on her dream, she said. I felt reaffirmed as both a professional and a mother—like I’d been right to think my ambitions didn’t have to be postponed.
My friend, a former TV producer now in her seventies, had asked me to speak on her panel while I was third-trimester pregnant. I’d been happy to say yes. We were both humor writers and bicoastal entertainment industry expats in our small beachside town, and our age difference—I’m 35—had never been a barrier to our friendship. After I had Olivia, she came over bearing gifts. We talked about the panel again. I could go to the entire event, she said, for the networking opportunities, lunch, and wine hour at the end. Great, I thought. I’ll strap Olivia on and stay until the sun goes down. Angela had agreed to hold baby while I spoke on the panel or take her out of the room if she fussed, so it seemed like no problem. Many women can’t afford childcare. Why not be all about my career with my newborn strapped to my chest?
When Linda left the stage and women shuffled toward the book-signing table, I met eyes with my friend and walked through the event space toward her to say good morning. She looked stressed. The panel will be great, I hoped I could reassure her.
“Where is the babysitter?” she asked without a hello. And I realized the stress was about me.
I looked down at Olivia, on the verge of falling asleep in her wrap. Taken aback, I pointed toward the back of the room, toward the spot we’d found next to a back door so Olivia could be rapidly removed should crying happen.
“I heard the baby during the talk,” she continued. “I can’t have her interrupting the speakers.”
“She made two peeps and I took her out,” I said.
“You can’t have the baby in here.”
“I was going wear her in the wrap and hand her to Angela when it’s time for the panel.”
“Oh, no, sweetie,” my friend said. “No, no, no. The babysitter is supposed to stay outside with the baby and bring her to you in the breastfeeding room. This is a day for people to get away from kids.”
My head filled with thoughts I didn’t know how to say. It was an all-women conference; I didn’t understand why I needed to stay in a breastfeeding room to be with my baby. I obviously had no intentions of staying at a talk if Olivia was fussing. I was—obviously!—going to be courteous. My friend knew I wasn’t an asshole; I was just a new mother. But that wasn’t acceptable at the women’s conference.
So Angela and I absconded to the “breastfeeding room,” down the end of a dusty hallway in a room with old furniture that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the era of first-wave feminism. Olivia, meanwhile, was sound asleep. The only man I saw in the event location that day, a maintenance guy, made his way up and down the hall, going about his work.
I felt truly taken aback. I hadn’t had the slightest idea that Olivia’s presence would stir up rancor. My job as a writer, editor, and university adjunct allowed me to work mostly alone (and now, with Olivia) in a room or café, taking assignments remotely. I’d been naïve to the finer calculations; I’d thought I could, rather than drastically altering my career or lifestyle, bring baby along for the ride. Now I questioned my decision to have a former student babysit Olivia while I taught, to breastfeed in my office between classes, to speak at two more conferences that fall and spring.
In the “breastfeeding room,” Angela and I went over what my friend had said. “Maybe in her day feminism was about entering the world of men, hiding your babies away,” said Angela, who is in her early thirties. “And now it’s about doing what we believe in. We don’t have to automatically reject liking cooking or having babies.” She added what I couldn’t stop thinking: “How can this happen in a women’s forum of all places?”
“Especially after a speech on how we should pursue our dreams,” I said.
“Sometimes members of a group that’s been oppressed continue to oppress each other,” said Angela.
I emailed my feminist author friend, Kassi, from my phone for her perspective. Also in her thirties, Kassi has toured the country and appeared on national news speaking on women’s issues.
“Older feminists,” she wrote, “carry so many scars from braving the front lines and barely making progress. Older feminists had to disassociate women from children in the public eye in order to make the vision of women in the workplace a reality. Men didn’t bring kids to work, and the feminists had to emulate men to earn respect, so their chillens were invisible, hidden, nowhere.”
Kassi added that she thought “every single old feminist deserves a year-long stay at a remote spa and a white male Republican butler scrubbing their toilets ’til they sparkle.” I thought about this, talking to Angela about dusty old paradigms in that dusty old room, and tried not to feel angry. There are still so many forces asking women to compartmentalize motherhood and professional life; I wanted to feel empathy for my friend, who had likely heard a more stringent version of this, exclusively, when she was my age.
Angela and I dragged the stroller down the stairs, back outside to a table by the beach, where I breastfed Olivia in the sun, a light breeze cooling us in the midday heat. I returned for the panel without my baby, and my organizer friend praised my books, speaking about how successful and talented I was. She had no idea I’d spent the morning feeling like anything but. I answered the questions and left with more of my own.
Why had I been asked to keep my baby away from an all-woman conference? What was really happening there? And how could any of us make it better?
Later, in a café, writing while Olivia napped in her wrap, I returned to an article I’d read recently about Washington State agencies allowing parents to bring infants of up to six months to work with them. This should be true everywhere, until we can get paid leave for at least that long, like European countries. And I re-read Kassi’s advice:
Even if that were an all-male conference, baby Olivia should have been welcomed. [...] Doing feminist work is hard enough without having to worry about which room you’ll be welcome in.
I wondered, also, if things might have paradoxically been better at an all-male conference, where the participants wouldn’t have been reminded of so much of their own professional baggage by the presence of a baby. (As far as I can tell, when I rush from the other room upon hearing Olivia wail to find my husband still immersed in BBC news, it’s easier for men to ignore babies altogether.)
I always think about the story of old feminists, a ferocious and tough and heartbreaking story. They worked their bones brittle throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. They went big for women. You went big for women, too. I’d take this as a supreme gift to move the feminist conversation forward.
But I hadn’t gone big. I went gently into that good night by doing what I was told. I acted the way my conference-organizer friend’s generation fought for us not to: the quiet, agreeable people-pleaser. I missed an opportunity by obeying an authority figure when I could have created a moment for change. And, if there had been a man in her position, telling me I couldn’t have my baby there, it’s likely that the organizer would have said I should have told him to fuck off.
I’ve since decided to do things differently next time, in order to help create the kind of world I want for my daughter, one where she can truly make all of her choices. If—when—this happens again, I will stand up for myself, for mothers who find themselves in similar situations, for our girls. I won’t feel ashamed and leave, baby in tow. I’ll say, “I respect your wanting to get away from children for the day, but it’s become important to me, once I became a mother and realized how much women have had to sacrifice, to have Olivia with me. If she makes noise, I’ll see to it that she’s removed from the space with minimal disruption. It’s because of my feminism that I brought her here.”
The women’s forum ended up giving me a whole view into how short of a time it’s really been, and how much things have changed—and how they haven’t. It was a defining moment for me as mother, feminist, and human. It was, ultimately, more than I expected to get out of the day.
The next time we met for coffee, my producer friend said she “felt terribly” about what happened. She explained her stance: babies simply don’t belong in a professional environment. We talked about her life as a successful TV producer raising children. She had live-in help. She never would have brought her kids to a workplace, Marissa Mayer-esque in-office nursery setups be damned. I calculated hiring that kind of help on my adjunct’s salary. It would make more sense to stay home.
I asked if she considered herself a feminist.
“Honey,” she said, “The only thing I consider myself is old.”
Age is just a number—I have many friends of different generations—but I realized her mindset might be prevalent, even among people closer to my own age. As I returned from postpartum to professionalism, I wondered: where else might I encounter this outlook? I hoped it wouldn’t be at my adjunct job at UC Santa Cruz, where I taught writing classes that kicked off with a unit on feminist thought. Classes started the next day, and Olivia was coming with me.
With trepidation, I packed her car seat, stroller, wrap, blankets, toys, diaper bag, and change of clothes into my VW Beetle, along with my laptop, books, and 40 syllabi copies. Though far from the echelon of Marissa Mayer, my office too would have a nursery setup. Would I be reprimanded, scorned, or even fired for bringing Olivia to be babysat by a former student while I taught?
Clad in a white onesie patterned with gray ducks, Olivia came to class with me—as an “exhibit” for a writing exercise.
“Based on your reading of ‘Learning to Be Gendered,’ and the video we watched about social construction,” I wrote on the board, “what gender would be commonly ascribed to this baby and why? Quote from the text to back up your argument.”
As my students began scribbling in their notebooks and clicking on laptop keys and Olivia’s babysitter pushed the stroller out to return to my office down the hall for the remainder of class, I felt cautiously optimistic, and grateful for the allowances of this particular career and location on the liberal left coast—allowances that all women deserve.
When the provost saw me carrying my baby around between classes, I tightened up, all prepared for my speech—it’s because of my feminism that I brought her here—but then I saw he was smiling.
“How’s your first day going?” he asked.
Liza Monroy is the author of the memoir The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took To Keep My Best Friend In America…And What It Taught Us About Love (Counterpoint/Soft Skull) and the debut novel Mexican High (Spiegel & Grau/Random House). Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine,The Los Angeles Times, O, Marie Claire, Jane, xoJane, Poets & Writers, Self, Psychology Today, and Bust. She has taught writing at Columbia University and UCLA Extension, and now lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, baby, pug, and a potbellied pig named Señor Bacon. Currently, she is working on her next book, Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire, a collection of essays.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.