Leaning Out

By Kelly, Mary Louise | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Leaning Out


Kelly, Mary Louise, Newsweek


Byline: Mary Louise Kelly

My son needed me, and I was in Baghdad.

I suspect that for every woman who's ever tried to balance work and family, there comes a day when you hit the wall. I don't mean your run-of-the-mill bad day, when the baby barfs down the back of your suit as you're racing out the door. I'm not even talking about the stress-hive-inducing, babysitter-calls-in-sick-on-morning-of-crucial-client-presentation kind of day.

I'm talking about The. Day. You. Hit. The. Wall.

This is the story of the day three years ago when I hit mine. I am a journalist: for two decades now, I have made my living reporting, editing, and anchoring the news. On the day in question, I was in Baghdad, covering a visit of the U.S. secretary of Defense. As NPR's Pentagon correspondent, I took nothing like the risks my colleagues based in warzones take. Traveling overseas with the Defense secretary means traveling in a security bubble. Still, it's safe to assume that any job that requires you to wear bulletproof body armor is not going to be exactly family-friendly.

This particular trip had started in Jerusalem. Then it was on to Amman, followed by a stop at a military air base near Nasiriya, in the scorched desert of southern Iraq. By the time we arrived in Baghdad, a sandstorm was blowing in. The city was not safe enough to drive through, so a swarm of Black Hawk helicopters was organized to whisk us from the airstrip to a press conference at the Iraqi Defense ministry.

It was as we were strapping in for takeoff that my phone vibrated. I fumbled for it under my flak jacket and pushed back my helmet to answer.

"Hello, Mrs. Kelly?" came a voice.

It's not easy to hear over the roar of half a dozen helicopters, and I had to ask her to shout. It took a moment to grasp that the caller was the nurse at my children's school back home in Washington, D.C. Apparently, my youngest son was sick.

"I need to ask you to come get him," the nurse was yelling.

"Oh, no," I yelled back, my chest tightening. "I can't right now. You see, I'm in--"

"I don't mean to bring him home," she cut in. "He's really sick. Alexander's having trouble breathing."

"OK, I ..." My mind raced. My 4-year-old had looked healthy as a horse when I left home three days earlier. But he'd been hospitalized twice before with respiratory infections. He was born early, and very sick. I'd already taken a year of unpaid leave from work to oversee his medical appointments.

"I think we need to get him to a doctor," the nurse shouted. "Or to the hospital, even."

I was trying to answer her when the line went dead. The Black Hawk lifted off. My son needed me, and I was in a helicopter halfway around the world, gazing down over the snarled traffic of Baghdad. Just like that, I hit the wall.

There will be those who read this and judge. Who will shake their heads and say that mothers of young children have no business jetting off to warzones. Believe me, you wouldn't be saying anything I didn't tell myself that night. In my defense, I could point out how hard I worked to earn my spot in the Pentagon press pool. I could point out how much I loved my job. Or I could point out how many fathers of young children were on that trip. In fairness, they don't wear their guilt at being away any more lightly than the women. The press section of every military plane I've ever been on was filled with men passing around pictures of their kids. (Still, one can't help but notice that school nurses never call them first. Sometimes the problem isn't the demands of our bosses but the expectations of our society. As one friend--a high-powered NPR journalist herself--puts it, "Mothers remain the default for everything.

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