Baby on board

A seasoned foreign reporter suddenly finds she can't compete on equal terms with men.

Topics: Brazil, Latin America,

I didn’t travel to the ends of the Earth so I could breast-feed my babies. It just turned out that way. I was working in Rio de Janeiro in 1995, as South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald, when my first son, Joe, was born. Like other members of the midlife mothers’ cult, I’d read reams of literature on infant care long before my baby’s birth, so I never doubted he’d nurse for his first year. Everything I’d learned about breast milk’s superiority over formula convinced me I’d be failing him by doing anything less. Besides, nursing mothers are such a common sight in Latin America, where I’ve lived for the past decade, that I assumed they were common back home.

Of course, I was wrong.

In my own mother’s day, most women didn’t breast-feed because it seemed confining, unnecessary, even revolting — and doctors advised against it. Today, despite the doctors’ turnabout, most women don’t do it because of their jobs. Only 12.5 percent of full-time working mothers manage to keep nursing even for their baby’s first five months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s not hard to understand why. Few can imagine the difficult discipline of what Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci once called “the torture of breast-feeding” until they embark on its obstacle course of hazards, from cracked nipples to engorgement to choosing among the world’s ugliest bras to low milk supply to teething. Add to that the burden of either managing to find work that somehow allows you to be with your baby for half an hour every three hours or so during the day (good luck) or expressing milk so someone else can give it to your child — while you’re pumping away, feeling like a pervert, in an office bathroom stall.

But I had some rare advantages. My job makes it possible for me to do most of my work at home or in hotel rooms. I live in what has been called “the nanny belt.” And my bosses at the Herald were surprisingly supportive enough to pay for a baby sitter to travel with me for Joe’s first six months. Copacetic, I told myself. The only real challenge would be managing the travel logistics, since covering my turf of six South American countries normally means taking two or three trips a month from my base in Rio. But I felt up to that. So I registered the baby sitter on a frequent flier program and embarked on the experiment.

During Joe’s first year, he came with me on flights to Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and the edge of Brazil’s Amazon forest. I worked out the details as I went along, since I had few role models. While the number of foreign correspondents who are also mothers is increasing, there are still so few of us that at the Herald I was the first to try to combine the two. Doing so gave me new insight about why I’d had so few predecessors. Foreign correspondence naturally demands great amounts of freedom and aloofness — “keeping in touch from far away,” as my psychiatrist brother once described it — while the essence of motherhood, and especially nursing, is sitting in one place, taking care of someone else.

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At 38, I knew I wanted less of the former and more of the latter. Yet even as I eventually shelled out the price of a new Toyota Camry on tickets for Joe and his sitter, I guiltily second-guessed my choice. Was I being a fanatic in having Joe breast-feed exclusively for his first six months? Would it have been better to have left him at home with formula once in a while? Would he catch some rare disease from the noxious vapors circulating within crowded planes on long trips? Would he get jumpy from the occasional squeal of my laptop modem as he nursed?

My normal stock of paranoia bloomed at the chance to include someone else. I worried that Joe would be nabbed by the baby-selling racket I was reporting on in Asuncisn or permanently traumatized by watching, from our hotel window in Santiago, mounted police thrashing protesters with clubs. I also worried about the toll on me, and there, my fears were more well-founded. From someone who used to dash around Latin capitals in a black miniskirt, Walkman and Coach bag, I morphed into a woman dragging a diaper bag, in an ankle-length Motherwear dress with a nursing bra strap exposed. Joe also detracted from my professional image, showing up at disaster scenes in his jammies and mouse-eared hat.

But I anguished most of all about the impact on my work. Just a few years before Joe’s birth, I’d won a shared Pulitzer Prize for a complicated probe into Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ illegal fortune. I’d interviewed presidents in Spanish and Portuguese, covered wars and economic havoc. But during my first few weeks with Joe on the road — after one particularly bad night when his hunger seemed insatiable — I awoke from dreaming that I’d heard space aliens had landed in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, and couldn’t decide if it was worth covering. It wasn’t only lack of sleep that was messing with my synapses. The very act of nursing every two to three hours — slipping into that decaffeinated (when I was disciplined) alpha state — blurred my focus. Imagine stopping work to make love three times a day — or simply switching from conversing in Portuguese about the effect of high interest rates on the automotive industry to ask, “Where’s that little burpie?” and back again — and you get the idea.

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of seven books, including "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter" and "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." She lives in northern California.

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