The XX Factor

Baby Inside the Blast Walls

One of the most-viewed stories today on NPR was a reporter’s notebook from Baghdad correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about a baby shower held there for another war reporter, Hannah Allam of McClatchy. Allam is five months pregnant and is one of a recent string of women war correspondents who’ve spent at least part of their pregnancy in Iraq. The tone of the segment was that women can do anything men can do, including cover wars, and still have the option to have children.

I covered Iraq for the New York Times for six months in 2003 and 2004. About a year or so after my last assignment ended, I had my daughter in the United States. I never went back to Iraq, an assignment that I loved. When I was in Baghdad, I knew quite a few male journalists who had kids back home, but I didn’t know a single woman among the war reporters and photographers who was a mother. Later, I’d heard of a few women who’d gone for the Times, at least one of whom had older children, I think.

Allam says that she’s run into criticism for her choice to keep working in Iraq while pregnant: “Yes, it’s dangerous, yes, I am responsible for another life, but I don’t see how it’s that much different than a man who comes here while his wife is pregnant at home. You are still putting a parent at risk, you are still putting your child’s future at risk.”

But this is where it gets tricky. Once children are born, it is pretty much the same awfulness if their mom or their dad dies in a dangerous place. But being in a war zone while you are pregnant isn’t the same as being there while your spouse at home is pregnant. If you wanted to have a child, why take such an inordinate risk being in a place that’s not only dangerous, but where, as a Western reporter, you are a target?

I realize I’m edging toward the slippery slope where I might be accused of seeing Allam, or any other pregnant woman, as some kind of vessel. I also understand completely that it is her choice to keep working in Iraq, as well as it should be. But I feel like there’s a drive in her comments and the story that women can and should “do it all,” and having a baby shouldn’t stop you. I think that’s a dangerous myth. It fails to take into account that much of what is important in life involves difficult trade-offs. I think that’s what’s at the heart of this rash of stories about how parenthood is a recipe for unhappiness, this inability to set aside some desires, at least for a time. I’ve seen those men who go to war zones and leave their kids at home-I’m married to one-and the secret is they aren’t doing it all, either.