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'Mothering Can be More Demanding than War Reporting -- Where you Actually get a Break Sometimes'

03/07/2014 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2014
Siobhan Darrow

When she'd appear on CNN International reporting live from Moscow, I remember thinking, What a formidable journalist.

More than a dozen years later, I am happy to report I still find her formidable. But this time, my thoughts are very much, What a formidable mother.

Siobhan Darrow -- author of Flirting with Danger: Confessions of a Reluctant War Reporter -- was based in Moscow and London for CNN in the 1990's covering Moscow, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Northern Ireland. She currently lives in Geneva with her husband Seth Faison (author of South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China) and their 11-year-old twins. I recently met her and her family on a brief visit to Rome.

"Motherhood is the greatest achievement and most interesting job I have ever had," she told me.

Mind you, my years reporting for CNN were fascinating and I would never trade them. But I find raising children to be often more challenging than covering armed conflict, although sometimes one must use similar capacities. Children provide a tremendous opportunity to observe the human condition. They require enormous attention and a lot of deep thinking and pondering on the nature of being human. I love every minute of it.

Darrow says one of the greatest challenges is accepting that what she thought last month regarding her kids, may no longer apply. "A very wise woman once told me to spend 15 minutes a day with your child as if it was the last 15 minutes you'd ever be together. When things get tough, that's what I do and it is the most therapeutic and bonding practice I have with my children." She then adds: "It's also a good tactic to try on one's partner sometimes too!"

Speaking of relationship tactics, it's perhaps not surprising that this former war correspondent not only has a degree in Russian Language and Literature from Duke University, but also holds a Masters in Family Therapy from Antioch University. She started a career as a psychotherapist, but this being a mother very much dedicated to her children, she has put therapy on hold while she practices full-time mothering.

"As the wise Dr. William Sears says: 'If you meet their emotional needs when they are two, three and four, they hopefully won't have to spend the rest of their lives having to try and get them met'" Darrow says.

I look around at all the addiction, emotional dislocation and conflict and often think much of it stems from children not being properly mothered and growing up broken in ways that hurt themselves and the world at large. I see babies with mothers who barely look at them, so deeply engrossed in their smartphones, missing out on this crucial neuron building time with their babies -- all that eye contact is necessary for a child's emotional wiring, but it doesn't seem to be taking place. We send the message to our children that they aren't important and we leave them emotionally hungry. I believe children need our attention, even when that attention means letting them forget their book bag on the tram or not reminding them to do their homework so they deal with the consequences. Part of attachment parenting is knowing when it is in their best interests to detach and watch them flounder.

 
Another part of Attachment Parenting involves breastfeeding -- no easy feat with twins. But a challenge Darrow met full-on.

I was determined to do it. I had read so much on the importance to the babies of breastfeeding, not only nutritionally but also for attachment purposes. If one reads about the brain development of babies and all the neural connections being made at this age -- the kind of close contact between infant and mother that breastfeeding provides seemed obvious to me. Plus, it was my secret weapon to manage the stresses of two infants at once... an instant pacifier. Now I see women handing an iPhone to their 2-year-olds to pacify them. I preferred to comfort them with human contact rather than distract them with a machine.

The nursing relationship developed so well, the twins were not fully weaned until they were 4 years old. "As shocking as that may seem," Darrow explains, "Neither of them ever sucked thumbs or seems to have any other kind of oral fixation, having pretty much gotten it all out of their system!"

Although she spent many a year traveling around the world and covering revolutions and catastrophes, Darrow always knew she wanted children.

The bulk of my reporting career was during the1990's. I was based in Moscow for CNN and I had the incredible opportunity to witness and try to make sense of the break up of the former Soviet Union and the momentous transformation that ensued. I was always drawn to Russia, having studied the language and literature at university, so using my background in Russian studies to tell the stories of a superpower disintegrating -- and the enormous social, economic and emotional fallout that ensued -- was a great privilege. I also covered conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and in my native Northern Ireland. But I would often observe my older child-less colleagues, and vow not to become them; not to miss what seemed the most important adventure of all -- motherhood.

That said, Darrow says it was a vague notion and she always assumed she would continue working, and would have nannies to look after the children. She imagined she'd "float in at bedtime for a good night kiss," as she puts it.

Instead, things turned out very differently. Indeed, Darrow's pursuit of motherhood became so all-encompassing that she ended up leaving her prestigious position at CNN.

What nobody made clear to me was how difficult it might be to actually have children if I waited too long. At age 39, no husband in sight, I decided to conceive on my own. Somehow that decision sent a message to the universe because my husband showed up a few weeks later, having watched me on TV for years. We had a very hard time holding onto a pregnancy and lost three IVF babies before conceiving our twins. With that history, we took no chances. My husband, a former NY Times reporter, stopped working to write a book and wait on me hand and foot so I could manage a high-risk pregnancy. I had also left CNN by then, because getting pregnant had become a full time job. I was 43.

The twins were born full term and were a legendary size at Cedar Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.

It was during that time that Darrow went back to school to study family therapy. Often, when a war would break out, she'd find herself fielding calls from people asking if she wished she were there.

"I'd be out with the double stroller near the beach in Santa Monica and I'd always answer unequivocally 'No, I don't wish I was in Kosovo or Iraq' -- or whatever the war of the moment was. I guess I'd had enough of that sort of excitement to last several lifetimes!"

Plus, she says, "I have never experienced the boredom people talk about -- there is nobody I'd rather be with than my children."  

Darrow and her family moved to Geneva several years ago, when her husband accepted a job working with the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She admits she is not immune to the pressure society puts on mothers to maintain a career. "Of course, there are times when I feel 'less than' because I have no job identity -- just a mother. But that feeling is very fleeting, because I believe that how I am raising my children matters. It matters to them and to the world."

When asked to elaborate on that thought, she says:

Launching people that have been well-mothered gives them a strong foundation to reach their potential. I know how important career identity is to many people, and I guess I am lucky because I had it already. It feels less significant to me now than who I really am as a person and what I value. So I choose to spend my day in service to motherhood.

And, she adds, "It is such a short time really."
 

I certainly can't judge other people for the choices they make or are forced to make. For our family, the choice we've made for me to stay home has been the right one for our children. Children need a constant caring figure in their lives; someone who is in their corner and seeing them for who they are. Does it have to be their mother? No, it can be their father, grandparent, or a truly wonderful longterm nanny, but they need somebody consistently -- day in and day out.

And, as Darrow puts it triumphantly: "I wanted that job!"
 
That said, in the early years her husband also played a big role in the children's daily lives.

Seth stayed home for the first three years of our children's lives. That was a choice he made and has never regretted because of the unique bonding that takes place at that time in a child's life. While he has a very demanding job now, he remains very involved with our children making it a priority to get home every night for dinner with us. In this stage of our life, I do most domestic tasks now, but there have been other times in our marriage when he cooked and was equally involved in domestic chores and that day may come again!

Like most couples with small children, a certain degree of tension between them was inevitable.

Oh I remember a lot of snarling at one another when we were home together with the two infants. As I said, it is a grueling 24/7 job that can be more demanding than war reporting -- where you actually get a break sometimes. I think gratitude played a huge part in our managing these less-than-glamorous moments in our marriage. We had struggled so much to have these children. Plus, during my days as a reporter, I saw how easily life can be snuffed out, so I felt gratitude to have the children in a peaceful time and place and gratitude to my husband that we weren't missing this part of life.

What helped them, she says, was reminding themselves that it was a passing stage in the development of their family. That everything changes, and to hang in there.

My husband has a lot of generosity of spirit and I think that helped get us through in the end. I never felt my husband jealous of my attention to the children -- there was a period before they were born when I was jealous of his attention to the dog, though! Alas, these are just growing pains in a relationship, and I think if each partner always takes the time to see what part they play in the conflict -- instead of looking at what the other person is doing -- things can work out.

The former international correspondent adds wryly: "It's a recipe that could work well in international conflicts as well!"