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?
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.