No Country for New Mothers: A war reporter’s first post-baby trip to Iraq.Maria Jimenez
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 eleven-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. Vultures flew overhead. Not a good omen.
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, being cared for by 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 four-hundred-odd journalists camped out in Amman grew impatient. We scrambled out of the Jordanian capital to drive the notoriously dangerous nine-hundred-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 didn’t 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 thirty-eight-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.
I told myself that Alvaro would one day understand, and promised myself that this would be my very last foreign assignment, that I would quit my job if I came out of this unharmed. Alvaro was a dream child, who rarely cried and slept through the night at six weeks, his head always in the same position, as if he was looking off to the left. He had a sunny disposition and an adorable dimple in his right cheek. He crawled at seven months and loved banana puree and blueberry yogurt. What kind of a mother would leave such a beautiful baby and sign up to join the convoy into Iraq? What kind of a journalist wouldn’t want to cover biggest story of our times?
At thirty-seven, 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.
At forty weeks, I took my final trip – to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto , where Alvaro was born right on time. He was a beautiful baby, with a big head, a high forehead, a sweep of dark hair and a long, thin body. In the hospital, I was euphoric, unable to grasp that my new and very different job had just begun. I soon became the ”project” The prospect of leaving Alvaro to go back to work was torture. of an overbearing Cuban nurse who informed me that I wasn’t breastfeeding properly and ordered me to supplement with formula. “¡Hay que suplementar!” she barked. The hospital”s lactation consultant immediately issued contradictory advice. And from the haze of my sleep-deprived state, I became trapped between these two warring camps and quickly discovered that the politics of breastfeeding were every bit as complex as Iraq’s Sunni-Shia conflict.
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. I cried as he and the wonderful nanny I was sharing with another mother waved from the living-room window, wondering how I would survive without him.
But once back in the newsroom, I was tortured again – by what I perceived as my loss of status. With the U.S. 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.
Though my husband was wholly supportive, my employer didn’t initially plan to send me to cover the war. I was relegated to doing rewrites and television hits for Global, describing a war thousands of miles away. I was only dispatched to Amman after a colleague there requested a break. I was supposed to stay put and cover the Iraqi refugees – the refugees that never came.
As we entered Iraq, our translator told us to zip up our flak jackets. The road ahead was perilous, filled with bandits and Fedayeen, fighters loyal to Saddam. I fought off tears as we made our last telephone calls on our Jordanian cellphones. I called the news desk and then my husband, who told me to buck up. This was, after all, the assignment I had lobbied for. Alvaro was just fine, he reassured me. He would never even remember Mommy being away. Still, I was consumed by guilt about the dangers that lay ahead.
The city had quickly fallen to the Americans, but Baghdad was by no means secure. Fighting continued, and the streets were tense as the air filled with rounds of gunfire. Tanks and a razor-wire fence surrounded the hotel, and the marines, who had installed themselves in the once-grand salons on the ground floor, made everyone submit to full body checks. The hotel itself was in a state of chaos, with rumours that guerrilla fighters had infiltrated. The employees had all but lost control of the facility. American bombs and missiles had wiped out Baghdad’s phone lines, electricity and water stations, which meant no functioning elevator, no clean sheets or towels, and hard crusts of bread and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast.
The only room left was a dingy office on the sixteenth 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 The only upside of the “Baghdad diet” was that I lost the last of my pregnancy weight.sleep with four men.” “Yes, I see your point,” he said, grabbing the crisp U.S. $100 bill I thrust at him. Being in a Muslim country was not without its advantages. He gave me the sheets from an extra bed in his own room, ripped a towel in half and found me another room.
Just in time, as it turned out. The next morning, U.S. Marines stormed into my colleagues’ room, shoving m-16 rifles in their faces, demanding to know if they had weapons. They were searching for Fedayeen fighters, who had infiltrated the hotel and were rumored to have stockpiled munitions. Baghdad was a security nightmare, with pockets of fighting breaking out on the streets and the sense that at any moment the war could all be over. I spent my days driving around with my translator, touring the bombed-out buildings, the looted National Museum, the empty prisons. I spoke to Iraqis who swore they could hear the voices of their relatives inside the jails, begging to be let out – though we never found anyone inside. We interviewed many Shiites, a persecuted majority under Saddam, who had come out of the woodwork to demand a role in the new government. 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. Back at the hotel, desperate Iraqis pushed up against the security perimeter, shoving scraps of paper into my hand with the telephone numbers of overseas relatives. They begged me to call them on my satellite phone and let them know they were still alive.
A severe bout of food poisoning a week later sent me back to Amman with the cameraman, who was also ill. I lay in the back seat of the minivan, sick as a dog, moaning and hallucinating processions of little men in bowler hats clutching umbrellas. I later joked that the only upside of the “Baghdad diet” was that I lost the last of my pregnancy weight.
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 eleven and twelve 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. Hard as it is to admit, I can never be the roving correspondent I once was.
On May 5, 2003, I threw a party in a room at my parents’ condo building for Alvaro’s first birthday, inviting a handful of other babies and their parents. I set out fish crackers, cake and apple juice for the babies and wine and cheese for the parents. The children crawled around, blissfully oblivious to the occasion we were celebrating. The following Monday, 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 Now four, Alvaro knows the names of many of the places Mommy has visited. him is still torture, but I know I couldn’t survive if I could never go anywhere again. It’s a balancing act that seems impossible to get right.
Now four, Alvaro knows the names of many of the places Mommy has visited. He coloured in a map of Venezuela when I was there recently. He is curious about the flak jacket that sat in our hallway the night before I flew to Haiti to cover the February 2006 election. “It’s a special jacket for journalists,” I explained. He didn’t press the point. The truth is, being away is hard on both of us, especially now that he is older. While infants have no sense of time, four-year-olds really don’t understand why they can’t come with you. The best part of every foreign trip is walking back through my own front door. Alvaro usually regards me with some suspicion until I haul out the presents and win back his affection.
Sometimes I wonder: should I chuck in this career and do something else? With each passing year, my career seems harder and harder to justify. But for now, I have decided that for as long as I can, I will try to be both: a doting mother and a journalist, willing to go, if not anywhere, at least to most places. I just can’t kill the traveller inside me. And it seems I may have passed along the bug. Already Alvaro loves to point out the continents on a laminated map of the world that hangs on the blue wall of his room. At his Montessori school, his favourite table is the one with the flags of the world. He knows all the names. “Mommy, I want to go to the Antarctic to see the penguins,” he said recently. A child after my own heart.
Excerpt from Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood. Pre-order it here.