Pregnant and Covering the Crisis in Haiti

As a journalist who'd covered war, I got a kick out of rushing into danger. But would reporting on the earthquake hurt my unborn baby? Could I be a mother and a journalist, too?

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Theola Labbé-DeBose in Haiti.

Shortly after the earthquake, I stood in the open courtyard of a badly damaged downtown Port-au-Prince hospital in Haiti, in a makeshift maternity ward pushed outdoors by necessity, taking in the crying newborns and the laboring women moaning in pain. I scribbled in my notepad, taking detailed notes as I interviewed a Haitian-American nurse, a volunteer from New York. Dressed in blue scrubs, the nurse talked as she worked, pointing out what they had (bare-bones equipment) and ticking off a list of what they didn't have (lots and lots of medical supplies).  

Suddenly, I felt three hard thumps in my belly. Surprised, I placed my right hand on my stomach.

"Are you pregnant?" the nurse asked.
I nodded yes.
"What are you doing here?" she said.

It was a natural question, one I had posed to myself throughout the 12 days I reported on the aftermath of the massive earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12. I was, after all, nearly five months pregnant. Among the other questions I asked myself: Is the baby going to be OK? Am I crazy? And the one that filled me with a special dread: What kind of mother would willingly choose to bring their unborn child into a dangerous disaster zone?

I was thrilled last fall when the double line showed up on the stick. I rubbed cocoa butter on my growing bump and consumed baby Web sites by the dozen. Meanwhile, I carefully researched my prenatal care options, picking a D.C. neighborhood midwife practice instead of an obstetrician; I wanted a more holistic approach to the birth of my first child. The small circle of family and friends who knew I was expecting told me that parenthood would bring irrevocable change to my life. But aside from losing a taste for broccoli and sometimes feeling a little nauseous, I didn't feel much different. This baby business was new and didn't feel real yet. I lacked a burning urge to tell everyone that I was a mom-to-be.

Still, in early January, I did tell my supervisor at the Washington Post that I was pregnant. Then the earthquake hit Haiti. Another editor remembered that my parents were from Haiti: Would I want to report on the disaster? She didn't know that I was pregnant. And as I mulled over my answer, I didn't tell her.

Normally, I would have jumped at the chance to go overseas and confront danger. Seven years ago, I eagerly agreed to cover the war in Iraq.  There was no question the war zone would be dangerous, but that's what made the assignment singular and exciting. Plus, I was single, not yet 30, with no one to consider but myself. So I packed my bags for the Middle East.

And I loved it. But ultimately, the nonstop work made me realize how one-dimensional my life was. Since then, my life had taken on some added dimensions: I'd gained a husband--and a stepson. And now, I had a baby on the way. Being asked to go to Haiti brought up those old, familiar--exciting--feelings of wanting to run into the heart of a big, international story. But now, those exciting feelings clashed with my equally strong desire to be safe and domestic. To nest. Being a journalist had defined me for the past 11 years. Being a wife and expectant mother were new roles, roles that I was still adjusting to. I felt stuck, like I had to choose one over the other: Mom. Journalist. I wondered if this was the moment where I would finally understand what people meant when they said that having a baby changes everything.

I wasn't ready yet for that reality.

In the abortion wars, there is endless debate over when a fetus becomes a person. But when does a pregnant woman become a mother? Once I found out I was expecting. I got a plethora of medical advice: Take your vitamins. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Ignoring this advice meant hurting my child-to-be. But there was nothing in the prenatal handbook about visiting a post-earthquake disaster zone in a developing country. I knew plenty of people struggling to get pregnant, and there I was, making a calculated guess about how much stress my unborn child could stand. No matter what my decision, I would also be making a choice about the kind of mother I would be. .

Of course, I wasn't the first pregnant journalist to take on such a risk. Elizabeth Rubin, who embedded for months with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and kept her pregnancy a secret from military officials. (And got no shortage of flak for it, either.) I understand her decision. Faced with making the same decision, I wavered.

"How can I say this," my midwife said, flipping through the pages of my chart. I urged her not to mince words. Her verdict: At four-and-a-half months, I was past the potential miscarriage three-month mark. But not far enough along that if the baby were in distress, sophisticated medical interventions would make a difference. In other words, if there was ever a good time to take my baby into a natural disaster zone, where the availability of food, clean water and air quality were in serious question, well this was it. She wished me luck.

My husband, on the other hand, wasn't sure what to say. Having worked as a national politics reporter for more than 10 years, he knew all too well the call of the story. But I could tell he wanted to be supportive and was perhaps suppressing his own reaction in an effort to assist me. I think I was secretly hoping that he would forbid me to go. I was the one carrying our child--but I didn't want all of the responsibility. I wanted him to protect me from my own decision.  But he left it up to me. And with a green light from the midwife, I was on my way to Haiti.

I boarded a plane to Atlanta to meet with the international non-profit group CARE, which was flying out the next morning to the Dominican Republic. At my hotel, I tried to enjoy my shower, knowing it would likely be my last time with running water and soap for many days. I caught a glimpse of my naked self in the mirror. I looked like a high school science textbook, my rounded stomach seeming to smack me in the face as a stark reminder of what I had been trying to avoid thinking about since leaving Washington: Yes, you're pregnant. The rest of the world may not know, but you do.

On the bus taking us from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, I watched the sun set and made small talk with the other passengers, about eight other fellow journalists traveling with the group. Only two of them were women. I didn't dare tell them or anyone else of my condition. I didn't want scrutiny--or pity. As we traveled later into the night, I read e-mail dispatches from colleagues already in country. Bodies lay in the streets. Food and water was scarce. The descriptions were heartbreaking. And frightening.

I started to feel a genuine panic, silently cursing myself for not buying more food during one of our roadside stops. My marriage won't survive if something happens to this baby, I thought. My husband would blame me; I would blame me; we'd be caught in a vicious cycle and would split up. Choking back tears, I felt very foolish and powerless. I was used to having a steadiness and stoicism even under severe stress, a trait that served me well when I reported from Iraq. But now, I was a pregnant, scared journalist; those three things didn't go together.  

Then a small thought, almost like a flutter, entered my mind: there have to be pregnant women in Haiti, women struggling to cope with the disaster. I would find them and write a story. That idea stopped the swirl of fear and fright and I drifted off to sleep.

Theola Labbé-DeBose, a local reporter at the Washington Post, is due in June.

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