I hate leaving my kid, especially when I’m going to a conference. While presenters mingle in the lobby, I smile, imagining how my 14-month-old would drool on their shoes. The hotel room, without the crib and four extra bags of unnecessary baby swag, is extra lonely. Sipping cocktails reminds me of sippy cups.
So last weekend, when the opportunity arose to attend a conference with my family, I was thrilled. I packed a stroller, a Pack-N-Play, and a baby backpack. I fantasized about how I’d plop my son in his pram for the opening session, hover around a networking table with him strapped to my back, and mingle in the lobby while my boy cooed from a portable crib. I joked about printing baby business cards. I wasn’t entirely joking.
Of course, I knew it was a terrible idea. I’m the kind of guy who can’t even focus on a conference when I have my phone on—how was I supposed to keep my head in the game with a baby wiggling in my lap? But I wanted it to work. And besides, there was always the distant possibility that it would go great—that my baby’s charisma would capture the hearts of my colleagues, and that his occasional whine or whimper would be answered with a knowing smile. I’d be the first father in history to discover that babies and conferences are natural allies. I’d tell my friends. I’d tell you.
But I soon discovered the disappointing truth—you can’t bring a baby to a conference. Or, more accurately, you shouldn’t.
I learned this the hard way. My wife and I run a small synagogue in upstate New York on the weekends, so we registered for a local rabbinical conference. Rabbis tend to be family people, so it only made sense for the meeting to be child-friendly. And it was. There were sessions on fundraising and counseling for my wife, sessions dedicated to ethics and education for me, and a complimentary babysitting service for parents to use when their sessions overlapped. There were early dinners for children, a room full of toys crawling with bacteria for kids to put in their mouths, and even a moon bounce (possibly for children, but nobody was going to stop me).
I was not, however, going to squander the opportunity to spend the conference with my kid. Especially not a conference of religious leaders who embraced and understood fatherhood. I believed in my gut that I could bring my baby to every single session and, if there was ever a conference fit for testing that theory, this was it. I told my editors at Fatherly that I’d be writing a story about it. I told my wife to have fun and catch up with her buddies. I unfolded my baby backpack.
The opening session started promptly at 2:00 PM. I figured I’d begin with the stroller and take it from there, so I wheeled my son into the packed auditorium. I sat in the back near a door, like a pro, spare diapers in one hand and a notepad in the other. The session had barely begun when my baby began to fidget. You know that thing babies do when they don’t want to be in a stroller and they’re not strapped in super tight, so they slip low in the seat, put their feet on the ground and use the leverage to arch their backs like tiny yoga instructors? Yeah, he did that, while grunting, clearly annoyed. Ten minutes later, he was crying. The room was a sea of understanding looks from frankly understanding people. They never would have asked me to leave. But I felt we needed a moment outside.
As soon as we hit the lobby, he was fine. We took a beat, and then went back into the room where someone was saying something about the rabbinate, presumably. I’ll never know exactly what he was saying, however, because just then the baby began to sniffle. Out we went. A few minutes of cooing and tear-drying (his and mine), and we were back. Now they were mid-powerpoint (related to sermons, possibly?). I scribbled quick notes until the fidgeting started again. It was an hour-long opening session, and I might have spent 15 minutes in the room. None of them productive.
But the baby was close to his nap time, so I figured that was the problem. It wasn’t that babies don’t belong at conferences, I reasoned, it was that tired babies don’t belong in hour-long sessions. I ran upstairs, tossed my son in the Pack-N-Play, hooked up his baby monitor, advertised “Do Not Disturb” to all interested parties, and rolled into the main lobby just as he relaxed into a sleeping position on the screen. Finally. But as soon as I walked into the conference room, the baby monitor lost reception. I paced. Nothing. Stood near a window. Nada. I walked back out into the lobby. Clarion sound, vivid image. The session began, and I compromised. Every 10 minutes, I ducked into the lobby to check the baby monitor and make sure he was still sleeping. It made for an awkward session, but I was there. Sort of.
When the baby woke up, I was ready with a new strategy. Why would a 14-month-old sit quietly in a stroller for an hour-long session? Amateur mistake. What my baby needed was an interactive experience. I strapped him into a Phil&Teds Metro backpack, strolled into my next session and, coffee in hand, joked with some friends about baby-wearing. When the speaker started his presentation, I stood in the back. When the baby got fidgety, I paced and rocked.
He loved it. Too much. Every time I stood still, he fidgeted, warning me that he could cry at any minute. When I paced, he got excited and started yipping happily. When I stopped, he fell back into the pre-cry fidgeting. I rocked, he trilled. As far as I could tell, I had two options: a loud, happy baby or a loud, sad baby. But there was no way to keep him quiet. We walked out again, but only after he pulled my glasses off my face and dropped them on the floor, giggling.
This wasn’t working. I texted my wife, chased my son around the lobby, and introduced him to automatic doors. (He’s a big fan.) When my wife finished her session, we regrouped over lunch and, as our son rubbed pasta into his hair, discussed our options. We agreed to switch-off, one of us attending each session while the other played with the baby.
And you know what? It was delightful. While my wife networked, the baby and I ran together through carpeted hallways, chortling obnoxiously. While I attended a roundtable discussion, my wife sent selfies of her and our son crawling under tables. We sat together at meals and, in the evenings, went to galas with baby monitor in hand (always line-of-site from our hotel room). It was, all at once, a family vacation, an informative conference, and an opportunity for me to spend more time than usual with my wife and our son. He slept most of the ride home.
Would I bring my baby to a conference again? Absolutely. But I’d probably hire a babysitter (at least to keep an eye on the room during nap times and evenings) and I’d certainly keep my expectations in-check when it comes to a baby’s attention span. Rabbis barely sit through hour-long sessions without fidgeting—why did I ever think a baby would?