I had returned from my maternity leave only three months
earlier, and my assignment at the time of the American invasion
of Iraq in March, 2003, was supposed to be covering the “safe,
easy” story in Jordan, where hundreds of Iraqi refugees were
expected to arrive.
But after I'd spent two weeks waiting by
the hotel pool for word of the refugees' arrival, they had
failed to materialize, and trying to capture the mood of the
“Arab street” had grown old.
With the Americans marching toward Baghdad, and the fall of
the Iraqi capital imminent, the 400-odd journalists camped out
in Amman grew impatient.
We scrambled out of the Jordanian capital to drive the
notoriously dangerous 900-kilometre highway into Baghdad.
That day, April 8, we made it only as far as the abandoned
border post. It was too dangerous to travel at night, so we
camped overnight in no-man's land in the freezing desert and
waited for sunrise.
I looked around at the other journalists tumbling out of
their vans and pitching tents in the dusk and realized I did not
fit any of the foreign-correspondent archetypes.
There were the “Papa corros”; Older, perennially single men
loudly sharing anecdotes about the last Gulf War, in 1991,
accustomed to living out of a suitcase and eating at hotel
Then there were the “cowboys,” young men hungry for
adventure, growing beards to look convincing in their field
Next came the “war babes,” gorgeous young women just starting
their careers, still single or hooked up with hunky
photographers, not always wearing sensible shoes and, in fact,
not always sensible period.
Finally there were a few grizzled war broads, women who had
never had children or had long ago bade them adieu.
Apart from CNN's Christiane Amanpour, mother of a
three-year-old boy and an archetype unto herself, there appeared
to be few if any others in my demographic: a 38-year-old new
mother in need of a haircut, with a knot in her stomach and a
lump in her throat.
I asked myself for the umpteenth time why I had schemed so
desperately to cover this dangerous story. It went against the
very essence of motherhood, which was all about nurturing,
protection, selflessness and love.
Every woman struggles with the work-life balance, and none
more so than careerists who have a first child later in life.
The scales always feel tipped in the wrong direction. Too much
time at the office, not enough bonding with the baby. Too much
time on e-mail, not enough time with building blocks. Too many
mommy groups, not enough foreign assignments. Not any, in fact.
I had imagined I would somehow tote my baby everywhere I
went, that he would experience every new adventure with me,
getting an up-close view of world.
At 37, I felt blessed to be able to get pregnant. It had
taken my husband and me a year to conceive, in part because of
constantly being on the move. A foreign writer for the National
Post, I travelled on assignment to places like Haiti and
Colombia, the world's kidnapping capital. It was exciting, but
it meant I was never in town on the “right” day.
I was also lucky to have such an easy pregnancy, my job for
the most part unaffected, except for an assignment to Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, which was abruptly cancelled by the U.S. military
once they realized I was with child.
But mostly, I carried on, working right up until my due date.
During my first trimester, I travelled to Pakistan and Lebanon
in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was in
Peshawar – in Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier province,
close to the Afghan border – the night the U.S. bombs started to
drop on the Taliban next door.
Covering demonstrations there, I was forced to take refuge in
taxis and alleyways to avoid inhaling the tear gas that was
inevitably sprayed at protesters during the daily
demonstrations. I hid my swollen belly under a shalwar kameez,
and no one ever suspected.
Discharged from the hospital after four days, Alvaro and I
adjusted to each other at home. He was a beautiful baby, with a
big head, a high forehead, a sweep of dark hair and a long, thin
body. Seven pounds, 10 ounces and 21 inches long. I never tired
of looking down at his sweet face and smothering him in kisses.
What I hadn't expected was the solitude of motherhood. Hours
spent breastfeeding in front of the television. The highlight of
my day was a trip to the drugstore to buy diaper cream and
wipes, or an outing to the pediatrician's.
To keep my sanity, I began madly planning adventures: how
many trips could I cram into my eight-month maternity leave? How
many outings could I organize in a day? How many new classes
could I join? I told myself that Alvaro, an oblivious newborn,
needed the stimulation. It was really his mommy who needed to
get out of the house.
By the time my maternity leave drew to an end in January,
2003, I was just starting to get the hang of motherhood. The
prospect of leaving Alvaro to go back to work was torture.
But once back in the newsroom, I was tortured again – by what
I perceived as my loss of status. With the United States
expected to invade Iraq, I was the only foreign writer not
assigned to the “war team.”
It may well have been an honest oversight, but to me it felt
as if I was being downgraded now that I was on the “mommy
track.” My editor probably didn't imagine I wanted to be away
from my baby. And I didn't. Except part of me wanted to prove to
my bosses – and my conflicted self – that I could do both.
By the morning of April 10, U.S. Special Forces had taken
over the Jordan-Iraq border crossing. We were among the first
journalists to come through. Looters had stripped the post of
everything – from the air conditioner and rugs to the
safe-deposit boxes. Food was left half-eaten on a grubby kitchen
table, and border files with lists of visitors were strewn near
the waiting room.
We knew that driving past the towns of Ramadi and Fallujah –
hotbeds of support for Saddam Hussein – would be tense. As we
passed Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold and support base of Saddam
Hussein 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, we were shot at. A
cameraman from another vehicle was injured by the gunfire.The
only room left at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel was a dingy office
on the 16th floor. I spent the first night there, hunkered down
on the floor beside my four male colleagues, one of whom proved
to be an exhibitionist.
Instead of waking up to the sound of my beautiful baby boy's
gurgles and his sweet scent, my Baghdad morning featured the
sight of my colleague's large, hairy posterior as he wandered
around the room. I dashed away in horror and brushed my teeth in
the filthy bathroom in the lobby.
“Please,” I implored the clerk at the front desk, “it is not
right, making a married woman sleep with four men.”
“Yes, I see your point,” he said, grabbing the crisp $100
bill I thrust at him. He gave me the sheets from an extra bed in
his own room, ripped a towel in half and found me another room.
Baghdad was a security nightmare, with pockets of fighting
breaking out on the streets. I spent my days driving around with
my translator, touring the bombed-out buildings, the looted
National Museum, the empty prisons. I visited the victims of war
inside the few hospitals that were still functioning. I could
scarcely bear to look at the faces of injured children, an
all-too-painful reminder of my own tiny son, so far away. At the
same time, I felt guilty crying for my baby when he was healthy
Alvaro's baby book reminds me, as if I needed reminding, that
he first said “Dada” and “bye-bye” at six months. For his first
Halloween he wore a white-and-pink bunny suit knitted by his
grandmother; for his first Christmas Eve a Santa suit and cap.
His favourite book was about a polar bear.
But between 11 and 12 months, there is a gap in his baby
book. I can never get back those four crazy weeks I spent in
Iraq and Jordan, proving that I still had what it takes to be a
Adjusting to motherhood has been, for me, a long and somewhat
mysterious process. My life has changed irrevocably. I cannot
simply pick up my childless life where I left off. Hard as it is
to admit, I can never be the roving correspondent I once was.
In May, 2003, I joined The Globe and Mail as a national
correspondent. No more month-long sojourns in war zones. From
then on, I was sticking close to home.
And yet, while I knew I couldn't stomach another Iraq, I soon
realized that I wasn't altogether ready to give up foreign
reporting. A few months into my new job, I was already lobbying
my editors to send me somewhere: Pakistan, Vietnam, Cuba,
I have somehow juggled these assignments, and various others,
around Alvaro's swim classes, birthday parties and school
Each time I leave, I cry, saying goodbye to my darling boy,
his eyelashes fluttering against my cheek, his soft breath
warming me as I struggle to explain where I am going and for how
long. Being away from him is still torture, but I know I
couldn't survive if I could never go anywhere again.
From Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About
Motherhood, edited by Cori Howard. Published by arrangement with
Key Porter Books.