By Frances Harrison –
For the first eight months, I hid my pregnancy from my bosses, terrified it would spell the end of my career as a foreign correspondent. I simply didn’t know any other women in the field with children. I flew to London for job interviews wearing loose-fitting clothes to hide my burgeoning bump. Being based in Malaysia for the BBC at the time made it a lot easier to keep secret from my employers, though I had to be careful about inhaling too much teargas in the weekly opposition street protests. Only when I was offered a role as a roving reporter in Europe did I come clean, since by then I was no longer legally allowed to fly.
The reaction from colleagues was a little disturbing. One male journalist admitted he’d always assumed I couldn’t have children because I’d left it so late (34 years). Female colleagues muttered in corridors, asking how I was going to manage such a demanding job and a child.
I had indeed delayed getting pregnant because it seemed impossible to combine with foreign reporting, but a rebellious streak in me felt missing out on having children was too high a price to pay for an exciting career, and not fair on my husband.
Two months after giving birth, I was posted as the BBC correspondent to Sri Lanka, which was in the midst of a vicious civil war. I’d seen my fair share of horror, poverty and bearded men with guns, but this time I found myself packing milk bottles and washable nappies as well as a flak jacket, helmet and first aid kit. It was the start of a double life as foreign correspondent and mother.
We arrived in Sri Lanka in 2000, just after the BBC’s local reporter in Jaffna had been killed in a grenade attack on his home in a government-controlled town. It is a murder that remains unsolved, like many others in Sri Lanka over the decades. One of my first tasks was to work out what to do about his widow, still numb with shock, and her three young children. My baby grew into a toddler while my colleague’s terrified family waited to escape abroad to start all over again on icy shores.
Having just created life, it was strange to spend so much time dealing with death. As a mother, I found it harder to fathom the extraordinary cruelty otherwise gentle people are capable of in wars. At night in Sri Lanka, I would sit under the ceiling fan and rock my tiny baby to sleep in my arms, haunted by the stories I reported by day: tales of torture, mass graves and the agony of the missing fighters’ mothers who never received a corpse to mourn. Both sides reeled out casualty statistics like cricket scores, forgetting the people they talked about were once someone’s baby, loved and protected. It made it hard to get excited about the military hardware side of war – it didn’t matter much if it was a T56 or AK-47 that did the killing. In the male-dominated world of foreign reporting I never admitted it, but motherhood did bring a new perspective to the story.
The capital Colombo was full of soldiers and the talk on the streets was of suicide bombers, but it was an otherwise safe city where normal life continued in spite of the war in the distance. The violence was both random and targeted, but my baby was at home so unlikely to be caught up in a bombing on the streets – and in a targeted attack it would be me, not him, they’d be after.
Because of my job, we had bomb film plastered over our windows lest someone lobbed a grenade over the walls. The BBC sent a retired MI6 officer to check my security arrangements. He placed video cameras on the gate and barbed wire around the perimeter, and hired round-the-clock guards. Only once did I feel worried for my son’s safety, after strange people had been calling and lurking about the house at a tense time politically. To be on the safe side, my husband and I took him with us to a dinner that night, full of journalists and politicians. The media minister, who clearly thought me a pain, mellowed when he saw I was a mother.
I set things up so my office was in the garden, and employed two nannies who took it in turns to be with my son for 24 hours at a time. It was a bizarre arrangement, but it gave them time to sort out their own lives and enabled me to be permanently on call. My bosses never discussed my unusual status as mother and correspondent. An obsession with equality made it impossible for them to know how to navigate such uncharted territory. Managers regularly asked me at very short notice to travel for weeks at a time; not once did it cross my mind to refuse, convinced that I’d never be asked again. I missed my son when I travelled, but the trips were exciting and I knew he was well looked after.
When the rebels attacked the country’s only international airport in 2001, I was on air almost solidly for three days. My child would cry when I dashed into the house to get something to eat, because I didn’t have time to spend with him. But there were slack periods that compensated, and when I travelled abroad he would sweetly kiss the TV screen when he saw me on air.
My husband was a roving correspondent for CNN then, often away, too, but we agreed one of us would always be with our child at night if the other was travelling, and we wouldn’t take the same flight to war areas lest the plane be shot down. One parent was not ideal, but better than none.
If my husband was already abroad and I was given an assignment, my son came with me. After 9/11, when he was one year old, I took him toIndia on an open-ended trip. When the call came from London, I’d just that day sacked the nanny. Somehow I found a replacement, got her a visa and left the next morning. In Delhi, the wives of colleagues generously invited my son to join their playgroup and kept an eye on the new nanny. The hotel filled our room with balloons and the chef made special meals that we mashed up in a small food processor, spreading a large sheet on the floor to protect the carpet. At one point my husband flew in from Iran, where he was reporting, just to babysit for a weekend so I could go off to Kashmir, which was not a place to take a child at that time. Three months of living in a hotel gave my son a lifelong fondness for room service; unable to talk, he learned to point at the telephone when hungry.
Twice I took my child and nanny to Pakistan, where I worked for a month at a time. On the first trip, when he was 16 months old, we were put in a communal guesthouse the BBC had hired in Islamabad for the influx of reporters. Surprisingly, female colleagues seemed more uneasy than the men about the baby’s presence. When a Pakistani reporter overheard women reporters and producers backbiting about how ridiculous it was that I travelled with my nanny and baby, he invited us to stay with his family instead.
Occasionally, my husband and I did leave our son at home when big stories broke. In 2003, when an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Bam, southern Iran, we both ran out of the door to the airport, leaving the child in Sri Lanka with my stunned mother, who’d been visiting for Christmas.
In 2004, when my son was four, I became the first female BBC bureau chief in Iran. He was very upset about leaving Colombo and in the month we spent in transit in London, refused to eat food that wasn’t Sri Lankan. He felt he belonged there, and when strangers asked where he came from he would answer that his mum was English, his dad Iranian and he was Sri Lankan. We lured him to Tehran by promising skiing and snow – a thrill for any child brought up in the tropics.
Being a woman reporter in Iran was difficult enough without being a mother. As a woman, you lived the discrimination every day. In the president’s office, journalists were taken to the canteen for lunch while waiting for a press conference, but as the only woman I was escorted away to eat on my own on a different floor. The hardline Basij militia wouldn’t allow me inside their bases. Lowly security officials at the Iranian foreign ministry delighted in ordering me to pull my headscarf tighter around my forehead.
Some Iranian officials seemed to know childcare was my achilles heel. I had struggled to find any Iranian who’d work the hours I did, so eventually I brought our Sri Lankan nanny to Tehran, flying her home three times a year to keep her sane. After Ahmadinejad came to power, the Iranian immigration department abruptly decided not to renew her work permit. She was given a week to leave. The government said it would provide a nanny to live with us – or rather to spy on us. I made a huge fuss and somehow ensured her stay.
The authorities in Tehran also refused to give my husband a press card to work as a journalist, even though he was originally Iranian. This put pressure on all of us. Children find it very hard to accept such unfairness. I told my worried son that the government didn’t like Daddy because he told the truth. Then he quite logically asked why “they” didn’t have a problem with me, too.
There were of course people abroad – as well as in Iran – who didn’t like the fact that the BBC had sent a woman to Tehran. A picture appeared on the internet of a woman with a noose round her neck that was supposed to be me. The accompanying article implied I was a traitor to Britain and claimed my husband routinely beat me up to make sure I reported stories favourable to the regime.
I worried terribly about what would happen to my son if one of us was arrested. Being married to an Iranian, I had to work on an Iranian passport, which offered no consular protection. If I got into trouble, I wouldn’t be deported; at the very least, I’d have my passport confiscated. One week, my son’s swimming teacher told me the word on the grapevine was that I was in the notorious Evin jail after a particularly risqué story. On another occasion I was taken to a revolutionary court as the criminally accused in a libel case that had nothing to do with my reporting. I had sleepless nights imagining how my child would cope if I was found guilty and put in prison. In revolutionary Iran, any minor court case could quickly snowball out of control if it involved a foreigner. The judge wasn’t reassuring; his first move was to ask me what religion I was. Later, after the disputed 2009 elections, it felt as if almost every journalist we’d ever interviewed ended up in prison or exile.
In 2007, we returned to London, needing a dose of normal life. I looked for foreign postings that would work for my husband’s career and our child. A BBC manager asked if I’d contemplated Kabul. When I said I needed a place with a good school for a seven-year-old, he told me I’d limited my options by having a family. So I left the corporation, did another degree and stumbled into writing books.
After me, a few more women correspondents have had children – one even as a single mother of two in Uzbekistan. But since the BBC appointed its first woman to the job in 1986, most have been unmarried and/or childless.
Like any working mother, I feel perpetual guilt, always wondering if I have done my best for my child. Umpteen bedtime stories were abandoned as the phone rang with a breaking story. Quite a few holidays were cut short, and countless family lunches and outings cancelled because of a new development that London was getting excited about. Recently, a stream of refugee journalists from repressive regimes have eaten up my spare time, which my son sometimes feels should belong to him. When I explain their stories, he understands why I want to help them. These sacrifices are nothing compared with those of some people I’ve met through working.
For me, what it means to be a good mother is defined by the women I interviewed for my book on the horrific end to the civil war in Sri Lanka. At the height of the fighting in 2009, hundreds of thousands of civilians were shelled and bombed while hiding in flimsy earthen ditches. Mothers used their bodies to protect children from the flying shards of deadly metal. Dying women gave their babies one last breastfeed, knowing they’d otherwise starve in a place where milk cost more than gold. And some discussed suicide together because they couldn’t bear to be separated.
One Tamil widow I met has a daughter the same age as my son. The child lost half her body weight in five months from starvation. Surviving against all odds, the mother crawled under barbed wire in the middle of the night with her children to escape an army detention camp, only to get lost in the jungle. She hid in different safe houses every night, dodged rebel informers and somehow reached the unlikely sanctuary of New Malden in south London, where she immediately settled down to prepare her eldest child for the 11-plus school entrance exam. By day it was verbal reasoning, but by night she would comfort her daughter when she woke up screaming because she feared she was back in the war zone. These brave, strong women put the trials of motherhood in perspective.
• Frances Harrison’s book, Still Counting The Dead: Survivors Of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, is published by Portobello Books at £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.
Courtesy the Guardian