On Thursday, the last day of the conference, after my poster was done and the babysitter left but hours before I had to be at the airport, I decided to go to one last session at the conference, something about NOAA's response to Hurricane Sandy that sounded interesting.
I waited in the back, with Mary on my knee, waiting for the talk to start, musing about how incredibly DONE I was with managing an infant at this meeting and so glad to be almost home when a woman in a Navy uniform approached me and asked "What is the baby's name?" "Mary" I replied. She said "Great, thanks." and walked off. Seeing someone so capable and professional somehow made me feel like a traitor to the profession, having all these kids and hauling one around a conference all week, but not really seeing a way out or wishing I could change anything about my choices. Just wishing I was smarter, more focused, more organized, more able to maintain my research at the pre-kid level, which would require some magical combination of a thirty-six hour day and a team of nannies, I realize.
That's when three-time Shuttle astronaut and first woman to walk in space Kathryn Sullivan took the stage.
I was too weighted down with baby to go all fangirl at that particular moment, but YES. I was a huge space nerd as a kid. We lived in South Florida and could see the smoke trail left behind by the Space Shuttle during launches. I devoured any space book I could get my hands on. Some favorite family vacation memories include Cape Canaveral and the Air and Space Museum. This was cool. This was very, very cool.
Mary started to squirm, but I really wanted to stay for the talk, so I threw a blanket over her head and hooked her on, hoping she'd fall asleep, but instead she wriggled and kicked and fought me. I was so tired. So tired, you guys. I couldn't decide if I'd rather be wearing a tailored suit and heels and answering intelligent questions and attending important meetings or ensconced in my house in flannel pants with my Kindle and a dozen chocolate chip cookies. As it was, I was trapped somewhere in the middle, in a denim pencil skirt, textured tights, a button-down and a sweater, with a baby in my lap. And also no lunch. It was two o'clock and I was starving.
I was brought back to the present when Dr. Sullivan said "I'd like to welcome all of you, educators, academics, forecasters, and my future successor as Director of NOAA, baby Mary in the back" and two-hundred heads swiveled around to get a look at what turned out to be Mary's stairmaster legs sticking out of the blanket and my very surprised face. Now THAT is some public breastfeeding.
But there were so many encouraging, warm smiles. I smiled back and relaxed. Dr. Sullivan's talk was excellent. I was so happy just to have been there. Afterward I took Mary and my camera up to the front to thank her for her nice opening remarks. She beamed when she saw us coming, "Oh HI!!" and gave Mary an astronaut coin, listing all of her missions and dates and her name. I asked if we could take a picture ("That's a GREAT idea!" she exclaimed) and she made a quick motion with her hand that made the woman in the Navy uniform from earlier come and take my camera.
As the camera snapped away, she told me again and again how glad she was to see me there, to see Mary was there. A small crowd gathered around us laughing and admiring Mary and saying things like "Hey! There she is! The future scientist!" She was so gracious and lovely. Mary was captivated--if she only knew!!
Then we took a picture together and I thanked Dr. Sullivan again, profusely, and we started to make our way home.
I skipped out of the convention center (metaphorically speaking, I had been trucking around downtown Atlanta in dress shoes for five days after all), filled with a calm sense of purpose to keep my head down and muddle through these chaotic years. Dr. Sullivan may never know how much her kindness meant to me, but I will remember. And if I am ever in a similar position (not the astronaut position, of course; sadly, I think that dream may have to be left behind), I hope I can encourage someone too.