Mom at war

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

In the second of three weekly excerpts from Between Interruptions, a collection of essays by Canadian women, Globe senior feature writer Marina Jiménez struggles to find balance between motherhood and the often dangerous demands of foreign reporting.

Foreign correspondent Marina Jimenez, right, in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

It was somewhere along the desert highway, just before the Jordan-Iraq border crossing, that I began to seriously question my sanity. The mother of an 11-month-old boy, I had just signed a waiver saying I would not hold the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan responsible if I was hurt on the “very dangerous” road into Baghdad.

I was crammed into the back seat of a van, the only woman in a group of six, which included a driver, translator, cameraman and two other journalists.

My son, Alvaro, was thousands of miles away with my husband and nanny. I missed him desperately, his soft skin and sweet smell, his almond-shaped blue eyes, his tiny, perfect hands. I should have been home rocking him to sleep, not rocketing toward Baghdad. Instead, I had exchanged my baby carrier and diaper bag for a flak jacket and a laptop. I was surrounded by grizzled war correspondents. Torn between two worlds. Heartsick and homesick.

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 restaurants.

Then there were the “cowboys,” young men hungry for adventure, growing beards to look convincing in their field portraits.

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 and happy.

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 foreign correspondent.

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, Mexico.

I have somehow juggled these assignments, and various others, around Alvaro's swim classes, birthday parties and school holidays.

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.

Our comment in the Globe and Mail

August 20, 2007

You (Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa, Canada) wrote: Marina Jiménez is a talented courageous writer and I love her essays. I hope she will look at the ongoing war in Canada against fathers that is rivals sharia law for its gender apartheid. I sincerely hope that Marina Jiménez will take the time to pay a visit to a family court. Kingston Family Court in Ontario Canada would be a good place for her journalistic baptism into the war against men. At Kingston Family Court with Judges Dunbar, Robertson and McCloud you can literally feel the hatred towards me oozing out of the court room walls. Its got to be a similar feeling to that of the last few minutes of life before being decapitated by a terrorist. Thousands of children are given a daddyotomy , that is their relationship with their father is removed permanently or deserving fathers are reduced to the role of occasional visitor. It rarely makes the press, you see because “it goes on all the time”, its normal. So are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just watch the American propaganda channels to see how concerned the American military are about one orphan. Makes wonderful video news for the Pentagon. A significant percentage of American casualties are not war related but family court related because they cant’ see their kids due to the ongoing promotion of hatred towards fathers in general. 613-797-3237