Then the inevitable follow-up: “I guess this means you’re going to be doing more studio work?”
It’s a gentle—albeit not terribly subtle—way of probing. The question they really want to ask is, “Surely you’re not doing dangerous assignments anymore, now that you’re a mother?!”
For more than 15 years, I have been covering conflicts and crises across the world, most recently as CNN’s chief international correspondent. From Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and Eastern Ukraine and the Central African Republic, I have been devoted to covering some of the toughest and most dangerous stories.
From my utterly biased perspective, it is the greatest job there is, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. In my loftier moments, I marvel at the privilege it has afforded me—witnessing history as it unfolds, offering me the chance in the best moments to give a voice to someone who might not have one or to tell stories that might impact a life.
Which is not to say that it comes without risks and challenges. In the course of my travels, I have been in many precarious situations. I have been blindfolded and interrogated and groped by pro-Russian separatists. I have survived numerous bombings carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq. I have run for my life from an onslaught of bullets fired by Syrian soldiers. I have been sexually accosted by the son of a prominent former Middle East dictator. Much more painfully, I have seen too many friends kidnapped or killed, or simply disappeared.
So I guess it should not come as a surprise or offense that people want to know if I will continue the same sort of work now that I am a mother. Yet every time I am asked, my jaw clenches involuntarily. “Well, I’m heading to Syria next week, so I guess things haven’t changed too much,” I reply, scanning their faces for a hint of shock or judgment.
What I really want to say is, “Would you ask that question of my male colleagues? Would you assume that being a father changed their approach to dangerous assignments? Would you feel that having a child means they should rethink their careers?”
But there’s no point in even posing such questions because I already know the answer. Despite all the changes and progress made for women, men are still held to a different standard. Being a father is viewed differently than being a mother. And our responsibilities are judged by different standards.
After giving birth to my first son, Ezra (or Ezzie, as we call him), I was determined to show people that I could still do all the same things I had done before—that the experience of motherhood had not changed me and would not change my career. One of the first projects I began working on was a trip to Afghanistan to spend time with the Taliban. Working with a well-respected Afghan filmmaker, we were able to secure an invitation from the militants, offering us unprecedented access to their territory. It is a world that has largely been shut off to Westerners since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and, having come of age as a journalist in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was desperate to see how that world had changed.
It took months to come up with a security plan that CNN felt comfortable with, but eventually I set out with my then producer Salma Abdelaziz and the filmmaker Naj Qureishi. From the moment we met up with our Taliban guides, I had the impression Salma and I were invisible. The men were intimidating figures, with their large turbans wrapped partially around their faces. Their eyes were lined with kohl. They did not look at us or address us and were reluctant to even answer our questions, unless we asked through Naj. It was jarring and unpleasant but, despite the hostility, I was not worried about the threat of kidnapping. Our invitation came from the highest ranks of the Taliban’s leadership, and we had brokered the terms of our visit through village elders.
It did not take long to see that there were other dangers to contend with. On our first afternoon, we were driving out to a clinic under Taliban control. Our Taliban escorts were on motorcycles ahead of and behind our two vehicles. Abruptly the lead bike pulled over and motioned for us to stop. We pulled up alongside the bike and Naj asked what was going on. The sound of nasheed (Islamic a cappella songs) and chatter on the large two-way radio the driver held blared from the motorbike. He looked at Naj and made a circle motion with his hand towards the sky.
“Planes,” Naj said. My stomach dropped.
In the distance we could see a chain of five helicopters flying. It was impossible to know whether they were Afghan or U.S. forces, but both had regularly been hitting Taliban targets. I looked at the militant’s white flag flapping above our escorts’ motorcycle and remembered being told that they no longer flew the flag in villages because it inevitably led to air strikes. With our convoy, we were certainly a conspicuous target.
Is there anything more terrifying than loving someone far more than you love yourself?
My mind flitted to Ezzie. The pit in my stomach deepened and I felt a sort of panic clawing at my chest. I had often felt afraid in war zones, but this was something new, something different. Is there anything more terrifying than loving someone far more than you love yourself?
After a seemingly interminable wait, the Taliban fighters motioned for us to continue, and the choppers eventually disappeared on the horizon.
One of the conditions of our visit was that we respect the deeply conservative rules about gender segregation. This meant that at night, Salma and I slept in the main house with the women and children while Naj slept in another building with two of our Taliban escorts.
Once we were safely ensconced in our sleeping quarters, Salma and I pulled off the long black abayas and niqabs that covered our bodies and faces from view. The room was buzzing with women and girls who clustered around and fussed over us, offering us food and making sure the small heater was pointed toward us, while peppering us with questions in Dari that we couldn’t understand.
When it was time for bed, the women pulled out mattresses for everyone to sleep on, and I rinsed my face and fished my moisturizer out of my backpack. A young girl with bright green eyes watched with fascination from across the room as I applied the cream. I looked at her and smiled before gesturing for her to come and take some. She remained frozen, unsure of how to respond, so I took a dollop on my finger and approached her slowly, then rubbed it gently into her cheeks which broke into a broad smile.
By now all of the women were watching with curiosity and excitement. I opened the pot again and began applying the moisturizer to all of their faces. It was strangely intimate, kneeling before them, one by one, rubbing the rich cream into their skin, smiling into their eyes silently, unable to communicate verbally.
How rare and beautiful to have this intimate glimpse into these women’s lives. How special to be reminded of this small, shared human experience. In that moment, I understood that I could never give up my work.
If I were to answer people honestly, I would admit that even I can see it’s often different for fathers doing this work. I can’t take off on assignment for weeks on end (two weeks is the maximum I have left my son, and even then I felt sick with guilt). When I am in the field, I am constantly fielding calls about playgroups and doctors’ appointments. My husband is an incredibly present and wonderful father, but I am still the one who knows the ins and outs of my sons’ schedules by heart. I am even more cautious than I used to be, more fixated on mitigating risk. I always felt fear, but now the fear is not just about me.
At the same time, motherhood has opened new doors for me emotionally and intellectually, and I see that reflected in my reporting. Indeed, as we enter an era with a greater diversity of voices telling a broader range of stories, I have come to believe that we need more mothers covering war.
Clarissa Ward is CNN’s award-winning chief international correspondent and the author of the upcoming memoir On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.
Originally Appeared on Glamour