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Balance? Female journalists talk about covering violence and effects on family life

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam / Unsplash

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories about female reporters who cover violence. It is based on interviews with 35 women journalists working around the world. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms are used.

Natalie served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves before she became a journalist. She had hoped to deploy with her unit to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. When she found out she was pregnant, she couldn’t go. But, after her daughter was born, she went to Afghanistan as a reporter.

“It was one of the hardest things I had to do,” she said.

As a veteran, she felt a responsibility to tell the stories of members of the military. As a journalist, she felt “we can’t possibly tell the story unless we’re on the ground. I weighed back and forth.”

Before she left, she wrote a letter to her 5-month-old daughter and another letter to her husband in case she didn’t return. When she left, she thought: “I hope if anything happens, I hope my daughter will know I was chasing my dreams and respect me.”

Many of her friends understood, telling her she was good role model for her daughter. Other friends and her parents were less understanding, saying “I was the worst mother in the world, and they had no problem telling me . . . using these words,” Natalie said.

The decision to leave home was all the more difficult because relatives and neighbors living in the small town where she grew up thought “journalists sit around and make things up all the time.

“I’m risking my life to tell this story.”

Natalie, like many of the 35 female journalists interviewed in the series, struggled with the demands of her job and the desires to care for family. Female journalists say it can be hard to balance work and family life, whether they are raising children, living with a partner, or explaining to parents what they do for a living.

A University of North Texas study of male and female journalists in the United States found that women typically feel pressure to balance work and home life, and while men care for children and the home, women feel the pressure of the “second shift,” a term coined in the 1980s by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe women’s dual roles as workers outside the home for pay and workers inside the home as part of their traditional feminine roles as homemakers. However, the inequity is global and expands well beyond the journalism profession. UN Women reports that “women’s heavy responsibilities for unpaid care and domestic work limit the types of work they can undertake, which reinforces their socio-economic disadvantage.”

The impact of motherhood

For many women in this series, journalism and motherhood seemed incompatible.

Claire, a South African journalist, embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when she was pregnant.

“That’s an example of how much I didn’t want my life to change,” Claire said. “But as my children grew, and I came to terms with being a mother, I came to realize that . . . none of that would mean anything than for my children to have a mother who was mentally and physically present.”

She cut back on the hours she spent at work and gave up some assignments.

“I’ve got to be able to look them (children) in the eyes and say, ‘I gave you everything I had. . . . ’ With children it’s such a different dimension completely. Children are just so much more important than anything you are, anything you’ve ever done. It’s just that you are so important in their lives.”

Sarah, a Canadian journalist who covered violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), said now that she is married and has children, she thinks carefully about the assignments she takes.

“You don’t want to take the same risks when people are dependent on you. . . . I assess the risks differently.”

Natalie is glad she spent a few weeks embedded with troops, but she won’t go back.

“I went to school with James Foley. I didn’t know him, but now I don’t want to put myself in that situation. . . . Being a mom had everything to do with it. . . . I don’t think you can do this job without being willing to put yourself in danger and go downrange. . . . I don’t want to leave my daughter without a mother.”

Charlotte, a U.S. journalist who has covered domestic violence in South Carolina, said she is conscious of her own safety because she wants to make sure she can care for her children.

“How would it affect them if something happened to me?”

And Adira wondered if the fact she isn’t a parent affected the way she reported on violent events in her home country of Pakistan. “I think I covered these events with much more courage than if would have been a parent,” she said.

While some women said they did not want to take on dangerous assignments after they became mothers, journalists said women who do should not be criticized.

“There are women who’ve gone over there (to cover war) when they have kids, and I know they get attacked for being irresponsible, but give me a break,” said Anna, a U.S. journalist who has covered combat. “You can walk out the door and get hit by a bus.” And, she added, female journalists are “out there telling really important stories about how things affect kids.”

The long hours, the travel, the demands of conflict reporting discouraged some women from having children altogether. Some were concerned about raising children in a world they saw as unsafe, while others had made the personal choice that motherhood was not for them.

“I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t be bringing children into this ghastly world,” said Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist who has covered violence throughout Africa.

Emine, a Turkish journalist, had similar thoughts.

“Because of the conditions we’re going through in the country now, I’m happy I don’t have a kid. Everyone approaches the crisis in different ways, but that’s mine. That’s not to disrespect . . . parents. They are doing a fantastic job, but I would be too stressed,” Emine said.

Madeline, a U.S. blogger, said she and her husband have considered having children, but asked, “Do we really want to bring kids into a world with that much violence? . . . . The world is very scary.”

She said she would consider adoption because “there are certainly plenty of kids out there who need a home.”

But she added: “I work so much the idea of having a child and working the hours I do is unfathomable.”

Isabelle, a U.S. journalist who has worked in the Middle East, said she never had “that super-mother instinct,” but she too had thought about adopting children because there are “lots of people who are very uncared for.”

Rose, a U.S. journalist who covered crime in North Carolina, said if she had children, “I think it would be really hard to be in this career.”

For journalists who had children, their work heightened their awareness of the world as a dangerous place, and that knowledge affected their parenting decisions.

Emma, a U.S. journalist, said her coverage of domestic violence led her to caution her three daughters about their relationships with men.

“They’re grown women, so it’s hard for me to jump in and shield them, but I’m always reminding them, to the point where they put their hands over their ears, but I’m very cautionary about their relationships with men.”

She covered the death of Yeardley Love, a college student killed in Virginia by her boyfriend, who appeared to be an all-American athlete but had a history of abuse. She tells her daughters: “If you have a relationship when there is any sign of violence—does he grab your phone out of you hand—if there’s any evidence of physical control, you need to walk away. . . . The rattlesnake always shakes its tail before it strikes. You just be aware. . . .”

Hannah, who reported on domestic violence in Uganda, said she sometimes worried “when I see my relatives engage in acts that can lead to domestic violence. . . . I try to counsel them though it is difficult. . . . They do understand my work, but as you may know, it is not a simple job involving your own people.”

Denisa, a journalist who worked in the DRC, said: “When you’re an actor or a witness, you feel very uncomfortable because you can say, ‘Maybe this thing can happen in my family. . . . Don’t think because you’re a journalist, and you’re talking about something happening someplace else, it can’t happen in your space.”

Relationships with partners, parents

For female journalists, covering violence affected, not only their views of children and childrearing, but also their relationships with other family members.

Some women had supportive partners, who encouraged their careers.

Nora, a U.S. reporter who worked in the Middle East, was married to a press photographer.

“My husband did what I did, and I met him in Beirut. He was my rock,” Nora said.

Arina, a journalist from Estonia, Denisa, a journalist in the DRC, Jessa, a journalist in Myanmar, and Sofia, a journalist in Russia, married men who were journalists and understood their work.

Stella, who covered crime, married a probation officer, and “he kind of got my world.”

Most women said their own parents were proud of their work. This was especially true in cultures where women were not expected to work or travel outside their communities.

Alima, an Afghani journalist, said her family worried about her safety but supported her.

“My older brother was not happy with my job. When he listened to my reports . . . or read them, then he stared to argue with my father and said, ‘Stop her from journalism work. She can work as a teacher. . . .’ But my father can understand my work and my interest. He was great. . . . Then when I got married, my husband and his family also could understand my value of professional work.”

Esin, a Pakistani journalist, said: “My family was quite understanding. I had a wonderful relationship with my father. Each time I would do a story, and it would go on air or print in the newspaper, he would give me a buzz and say, ‘You’re the best.’ Other family members, too.” They told her, “Come back home alive.”

Denisa said her parents were surprised when she became a journalist because she was so shy. But when she reported her first story in the DCR, they were pleased and excited.

“When my father heard me the first time on TV, he said, ‘Is that (you)? My father shook my hand, and he was so proud. . . .”

Adira said her parents and sisters understood her work, which had led to her success.

“Particularly in Pakistan, women do not get enough support to purse their non-traditional careers but if one has family support, then it becomes easy to learn and grow,” Adira said.

Other women said they also received support from family members.

“I am a wife and a mother of two daughters,” said Audra, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. “It was difficult balancing between the roles of mother, journalist, a wife and student, but my husband and my mum gave a hand all the way.”

Jessa, a journalist in Myanmar, also said her family was very supportive of her.

“My parents and my daughter understand my passion toward my career. The only thing they do is, whenever I went out to cover protests, is remind me to be careful,” she said.

Caroline, a U.S. journalist, described her family as a “wonderful, warm, loving, generous, fantastic family that has always supported me.”

And families also could be a good barometer of journalists’ well-being. When Caroline returned from reporting in Afghanistan, her family members said, “You’re being edgy.”

Some journalists began their careers because they were encouraged by their parents.

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, said both her parents were journalists and “I always wanted to be one. My father said you don’t study to be a journalist, you either are one or you aren’t.”

Audra said she wanted to be a journalist because her parents talked to her about current events, and Esin used to talk to her father about the Balkans war, which convinced her she wanted to be a war correspondent.

Anna said: “I have great parents, and they always taught be I could do what I loved, so I thought I could be a journalist.”

Worrying about each other

However, journalists’ work sometimes elicited tension as parents worried about their daughters’ safety or questioned why their daughters would take such risks.

Anna covered the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York. She took her mother to Ground Zero, the site of body recoveries. Her mother “freaked out. ‘This is what you’re doing?’”

Later she was aggravated by her mother’s attempts to help her after she returned from combat— an angry outburst she regrets. “I said something like, ‘I was in a fucking war zone! You think I can’t take care of myself? I’m fine . . . . I yelled at her so bad. She’s my best friend.”

Stella, a U.S. journalist who reported on sexual assault and other crimes, said her father had a difficult time understanding her work. “My dad would be like, ‘Why don’t you cover the flower show?’” said Stella. “And those stories bore me.”

And while journalists said their families worried about them, they also worried about their families.

“I kept a lot of it from them—how bad it was. You don’t realize what you do to other people when you go,” Anna said.

Julia, a Belgian journalist who covered violence throughout Africa, said she had “developed a very strong protective instinct” for her family.

“I tell them what they need to know if something happens, but I don’t tell them everything. . . . I do not want my choices to reverberate in a brutal, frontal or direct way on the people I love.”

Alima had a different concern. She received threats that if she didn’t stop reporting, her daughter would be killed.

“That time it was really hard to continue,” she said.

Emotional distances

For some journalists, their work created, not just a tension with family, but an emotional distance.

“My sister would rather not know (what I do),” said Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist. “She’s tied up in weddings, and babies, and teas—a life that is very alien to me.”

Lillian said her family is from a small U.S. town, and “they really don’t get” why she’s chosen to work in Mexico.

“My family never understood it,” said Emine. “I hardly had any private life. Work occupied almost every part of my life. . . . Journalism is a serious business. . . . My family never understood why I’m covering this stuff, working these long hours for this little (money).”

Falak, an Armenian journalist who photographed transgendered people, said her family didn’t understand why she choose to devote time to individuals who were shunned in her culture.

“I had difficulties in my family because my husband didn’t want me to photograph these people,” she said, although her husband is now more supportive. “So many people in my husband’s work place, they told him, ‘How did you allow your wife to work on these kinds of topics?’ We had this conversation every evening, and I was crying. Even my sister, when she saw the (photos), she said, ‘This is very shameful for our family.’”

Journalists said that family members could not always understand their career choices or their experiences. And while some relied on friends, friendships could be hard to maintain.

“The weird hours that I’m working have made it harder to keep up with friends,” said Rose. “People want to talk about work, but not everybody wants to hear about murder. I forget this sometimes. A lot of my friends work in the news business, but for a lot of my friends, it’s (my conversation) shocking.”

Elizabeth, a U.S. journalist who worked in the Middle East, observed: “There is a tendency to feel alienated from anyone who hasn’t gone through violence.”

Next in the series: Does being a woman make a difference?