Yesterday I descended upon Open Hack London, pram and all, to find out what it was like going to a technology conference with a baby, and also to join in and see what it was all about. Neither of us has ever been to a Hack Day before, and being the owner of some very rusty Perl and PHP skillz I was pretty nervous both as a Mum and a developer to even show my face at the event.
We decided to go to Open Hack London in the first place as a friend of ours, Tom Coates (who works for Yahoo!), was in town to speak there, and had invited a bunch of friends to come and visit. We thought it would be the perfect opportunity to test the waters of conference parenting when we knew there would be some buddies around to look out for. It also co-incided nicely with Mother’s Day weekend in many parts of the world (not the UK…) which was a cute co-incidence.
Taking Nemi to a tech event has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Some of my professional life is organising, sponsoring and consulting on events in the technology industry, and a question that frequently comes up is "What about childcare facilities?" – it’s often a heated debating point amongst Mums (interestingly, never had a Dad say it) and event organisers from my experience. Mums want to come to weekend or evening events, but often struggle with finding childcare, and from those I’ve spoken with, can feel let down and left out when there’s no option for bringing children along and thus missing out themselves. (My personal views are identify events you want to go to early, and arrange for childcare in your normal way if possible; but I realise for some people this isn’t always an option for whatever reason.)
In the past, I’ve struggled with the health and safety aspect of allowing children to the events I organise, as there has been access issues, or alcohol involved. I’m ashamed to say that it’s always been easier as an event organiser to just rule out having under 18s there than investigate ways of getting around that. From now on though, I will be taking the Yahoo! approach.. Which goes a little something like this…
I registered for Open Hack London via their website, and put in the special requirements box (great first example that made me feel bringing Nemi might actually be possible) that if I was accepted to come, I would be bringing my 6 month old baby daughter, Nemi, along, and would there be access and nappy changing facilities? I got a swift response from Anil (one of the organisers) saying we were in! And that both access and nappy changing would be no problem at all. His email then went on to ask if we intended to stay the night! I was fairly surprised and impressed at the fact they would even consider this, let alone how included it made me feel. I felt staying over would be a step too far for this new Mum on her first event-with-baby-excursion, so we declined the sleepover gracefully, and starting planning our trip out the following week.
With a buggy loaded to the hilt, we set off. Arriving fashionably late for the Tech Talks but just in time for the Hack Day, we were greeted by two super smiley chaps on the door who helped us find a lift down via an alternative entrance, and shared a few jokes about Nemi signing away her code rights.. 😉
Once in, we were again greeted very warmly and infact, made quite a fuss of by the Yahoo! staff on the event reception who genuinely couldn’t help us enough, and coo’d at and engaged with Nemi whilst telling me all the event details, giving us our welcome pack, and explaining about the nappy change options (one being, "Why not just do it on stage? Give the devs a dose of reality?" heh, a fun idea, but I’m not sure Nemi would appreciate knowing the dev community had seen her bum in 2009).
Once we were in came the hardest part of the whole day – walking into the lobby with a pushchair. Not because of any physical barriers, but mentally I found it emabrassing – "Why is that woman bringing her baby here?", "What the hell?", "Oh God, a BABY!" etc – none of these were in any way said or intoned, but they were the voices in my head as I glided Nemi across the room and found a corner to hide in whilst I found my nerves again.
A quick feed in the corner, and a scope of the room, and I was feeling a bit more confident. At that point, a very friendly and kind hacker came over (whos name I didn’t catch – if you’re reading this, do comment!) and said hello to Nemi and me, and was so welcoming and warm that we felt right at home within the conversation with him. The icing on the cake for me asking if he’d just take Nemi a sec so I could hoist myself up. "How do I hold a baby?" was the reply, "Oh, just under her arms like this" <holds Nemi at arms length smiling, whilst she gurgles and smiles at him/> "Great, thank you" "Wow, that was the first time I’ve held a baby, I’m really glad I didn’t drop her!" 🙂 This was great, Nemi had just taken her first baby-holding-cherry, and both Nemi and Lovely Hacker Man looked proud and slightly shocked.
Spurred on by our experience so far, we went into the Tech Talks to check it all out. At this point I realise a sling would have been good as well as the pram, as pushing a pram round a packed out event is much harder than just carrying your little dude/dudette – so if you’re planning on trying this yourself, do pack a sling. Once inside we hooked up with our buddies before they scarpered for lunch. We decided to take lunch inside, get chance to work out if we could join a hack team, and talk to some more developers.
Lunch was yummy, and Nemi had a play in her pram whilst I chatted to some devs and found out their plans. I worked out pretty quickly we were going to be more of a hindrance than a help to any team, so we decided to just be the mascots for the day and cheer everyone on from the sidelines. We also had a charming chat with a young hacker Dad who’s son was away for the weekend with Mum, and he came over for some baby hugs as he was missing the little dude. He showed us some photos of his son, who had the most *gorgeous* smile ever 🙂 If you’re reading this lovely hacker-dad, do say hi in the comments 🙂
After lunch, we did a quick nappy change, and then chatted to a few of the Yahoo! folk, who were genuinely really happy and glad that Nemi had come along, and frequently offering help, and checking in that we were ok and didn’t need anything. Nemi was loving all the attention, and thankfully, in a great mood – she had a lot of fuss and photos taken (even by a chap from Cnet at one point!) and was even videoed interviewing me by Y! Studios. Although by that point (it was late afternoon by now, and we’d been there 3 hours) she was getting hot and a bit tetchy. But still managed a raspberry and an attempt at eating the mini boom mic. (I’ll update with a link to the video and photos as I hear from people)
All in all it was a great day, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The Yahoo! staff really went all out to make us feel welcome, included, and confident from the minute I sent the first email asking to come, until we left the building.
Points to take away for any parents thinking of taking their baby (under 12 months) to an event would be:
- check with the organisers it’ll be ok, and if there are the facilities you need and if not, ways to work around that. I know, totally obvious, but thought I’d best put it in here.
- could be wise to check people you know are going, it was quite intimidating walking in – it was nice to know friendly faces would be there if I had felt uncomfortable.
- sadly, don’t expect to be able to participate as much as a non-babied up person. Again, obvious, but just want to point that out 🙂
- take a sling. Babies get heavy after an hour or so of constant carrying.
- plan ahead that baby may not eat/sleep as much during the event by stocking them up on both before going. I made sure Nemi had a few ounces more milk before we set off, and a good morning nap before getting to the venue (we arrived around noon).
- take toys. Perhaps not a Sophie Giraffe that we did, which made a very cute squeaking noise throughout some of the more quiet bits of the hack afternoon 😉
- be prepared to leave early, and don’t forget to listen to your baby – when they’re hot and tired, it’s time to go. Even if you’re not done yet, chances are they are. It’s a lot to take in for the little flump! This may mean planning to have whatever is the most important part of the event happen half an hour after you arrive, so you have chance to get there, do a feed and settle, and then having a happy baby whilst you see whatever it is you wanted to.
Also, a last point – I took Nemi along on the understanding there would be no childcare there, and although there were many willing baby holders, this doesn’t really help the debate around professional childcare at events such as these, which would in turn help the parent to participate whilst being able to check in on little sausage every so often. This is something we could do with addressing – with future tech as a leading economy, it seems only right to me we should perhaps lead the way in every facet we can. Perhaps if more of us do join in with our babies and children, the need will then become clear for a more structured approach and we can work with event organisers to provide the facilities that would help everyone who wants to, attend. Not forgetting single Dads, or even Dads who just want to make sure their weekend time (which is for a lot of Dads, their only time) with their child can be inclusive to their hobbies and professional lives (pretty much every hacker I spoke to (all were male) couldn’t wait to show us photos of their little one, and tell us how great they were).
Nemi and I are available to test your event for child-friendliness if you want us to – drop me a line. I’d also welcome any discussion on how to help events cater for parents and their children, and would be very interested in helping set up or find out about childcare options at events if you run an event and would be interested.
EDIT – TRAVEL – for interest sake to other Mums, we travelled in to London from Kent, which is an hour train journey, plus central London travel time, and back again all via public transport. You may find it easier to stay longer at events than we managed (3.5hrs) if you live more local to your chosen event, or if you own a car and are able to drive to your event.
FURTHER EDIT – I’ve been coming under fire from some people on Twitter and other places (sadly, not addressing me personally, but just bitching behind my back) that taking a baby to a conference makes me a Bad Mum. That I am Selfish. That I am Not Considering The Baby’s Needs. Utter rubbish. Nemi loves being out and about, and prefers to be with her Mum (and meeting lots of cool new people) any day than cooped up inside, or I would imagine (she’s never been, so I don’t know) being in childcare from 7am – 7pm which she would have to be if I wanted to keep my income coming in to support us.
As anyone at the Hack Day will validate, she didn’t cry once, was full of smiles, and other than guzzling a bottle of milk and a snooze on me was playful and engaged the time we were there. When she got a bit too hot and flustered around 3:30pm, we left to go and have a walk round Soho Park. So please, if you have an issue with my parenting, feel free to address me directly (with either @Thayer if you’re Tweeting, or email me) and I will be happy to respond and set your mind at rest.