On a rainy midnight in March 2003, I found myself holding a trash bag containing my passport, a wad of cash, and a Dell laptop, all quintuple-wrapped in plastic, on the banks of the Tigris river. I was literally stuck in the mud between a huge, impassive Norwegian and a small, scrappy Brit, both named Paul. A few months earlier, I had quit my job as a DC-based opinion columnist for National Journal to freelance in Iraq during a war that I felt I was on the verge of missing entirely. Along with what seemed like every other journalist in the world, the Pauls and I had been holed up in northern Syria, awaiting official permission to cross the border into what was still Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Permission was nowhere in sight, so we decided to try floating. We’d spent the past few days preparing for the journey, acquiring a bicycle pump, some inner tubes, and a bunch of empty water bottles to make a flotation device. We pre-bribed a taxi driver to drop us illegally close to the border, but we hadn’t counted on the rain, which made two-legged puddles of us and a savage of the river. Norwegian Paul took one look at the rushing waters and declared, “We will drown.” Turning back, we assumed we’d be arrested, and in short order we were, by a kid who jumped out of nowhere waving an AK-47. At that moment, half of me hoped we’d get safely back to the dusty old guesthouse where we’d been trapped for days. The other half would have gladly been shot for a story.
As I type this close to midnight in March 2018, I find myself in a kitchen in Princeton, New Jersey. It is my kitchen, and so it is a mess. If you were coming over, I’d have to shove the Purell, sunglasses, Girl Scout cookies, and stray jar lids off the big granite island that looked very Architectural Digest at the moment we moved in, and not at any moment since. Appliances are whirring; the refrigerator, which needs replacing, is actually ticking. Everybody is asleep: the daughter, the son, the husband, the cat. When they wake up, they will all expect my day to revolve around theirs, and it will. In the 13 years since I left Iraq—for in the end, I did get in—I have basically become my own opposite. As a 36-year-old jobbing reporter, based some 18 months in Baghdad, I filed pieces for National Journal, the New York Observer, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, even O, The Oprah Magazine. Today, I write almost entirely for myself. My only brushes with the law involve expired parking meters. The only rifles I see are on TV. The only place I float is in my mind.
On my next attempt to get into Iraq, a few days after the raft to nowhere, I went through Jordan. There, I made the acquaintance of four men, all strangers to me and mostly strangers to each other. They had arranged two taxis to make the 17-hour drive to Baghdad and agreed to let me buy a ride. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they had a coin toss to see which car would have to take me. About a year and a half later, I married the guy who lost.
Clearly, neither marriage itself, nor the motherhood that followed, should have scuttled my career. It was the odd set of circumstances that surrounded my entry into both. Had I still been at National Journal, for example, it would not have entered my head to quit my job upon starting a family. Nor would I have cashed in my previous, four-year gig as a political writer for the New York Observer when Rudy Giuliani ruled the city and Hillary Clinton was just swooping into the state. Continuing to freelance in a war zone was, for me at least, out of the question. Just before our wedding on New Year’s Eve 2004, my fiancé and I had searched for a convenient base from which to travel to and from Baghdad. After the honeymoon, we settled in Madrid, a fantastic city where I had no background, no contacts, and barely a word of the language. What I did have, almost immediately, was morning sickness.
Far be it from me to suggest that pregnancy makes women stupid, but mine certainly did not mark my finest intellectual hour. At the time, I had a great assignment for Rolling Stone . . . if only I could stop with the throwing up and marathon sleeping. For the first and only time in my entire career, I just punted completely. I put the piece off and put it off in expectation of that later-stage surge of wellness I’d read about, but in the end, never experienced. That, in fact, was my strategy regarding the rest of my life: Once the baby was born, I’d figure everything out, career included. Meanwhile, I was way too tired, fat, and focused on learning to say “my water broke” in Spanish.
Retrospect is such a fickle frenemy. Sometimes, I chide myself for being so cavalier about tossing away a career I had worked so hard to build. Other times, I cut myself some slack, because back in 2005, I didn’t realize I was doing anything of the sort. I thought I was taking time off to start a family I never dreamed I’d have. What’s more, I had no idea what a shock-and-awe bombardment lay in store for journalism, or for me. Of course, I knew both were undergoing a period of profound change. But the digital age had yet to bring anything like its full force to bear on the media—and parenthood had yet to hint at its elaborate plans for me.
Only in being forced to slow down as a writer did I come to learn anything at all about my reader.
And it’s not as if I was bored. If you want to learn a new country, have a baby in one. It would be hard to imagine a deeper dive into the whole societal paella, from real estate to human rights—and of course, healthcare. In 2000, in the course of covering Hillary Clinton’s first Senate race, I’d prided myself on my immersion in the policy nitty-gritty of her signature issue. Healthcare, daycare, disability-care, elder-care—back in my political-reporting days, I used to take the presence of the word “care” in an issue’s appellation as a sure sign that nobody cared about it. But only when I had my own children did I realize how true that is, and how calamitous. Not that my foray into motherhood was particularly daunting. On the contrary, thanks to my husband’s very comfortable perch in the tech sector, it was infinitely easier than most women’s. I wasn’t even trying to achieve work-life balance; I just leapt from “work” to “life.” Even so, I could suddenly see how hard that balance is for parents to strike; what injustice it is for “parents” nearly always to mean “mothers”; what dimwit misogyny it is to treat its achievement not as an economically vital, systemically promoted outcome, but as a circus trick, meriting applause for those who can manage it, catcalls for those who can’t.
Time sped. Work faded further as life became voracious in its demands. My son’s birth, 21 months after my daughter’s, was brutal. Mathias nearly died, but he didn’t. On account of my husband’s career, we proceeded with plans to move to Ireland, where Mathias seemed fine, although he wasn’t. As he grew from baby to toddler, the sense of something wrong began subtly to stalk us—the words he didn’t form, the odd tendencies. But on a three-month family stay in China, he became both more manic and more mute. I hoped it was the total strangeness we were always strolling him into—the snapping turtles in the display cases at the supermarket, the hordes of people who’d spring up, paparazzi-like, to snap photos of both blond, blue-eyed kids. But back home, he fixed his gaze even further afield. It was autism.
It was, in fact, full-on, no-eye-contact, no-language, shreds-the-newspaper-and-eats-it autism. Mathias bit
and hit and ran away. He ate nothing but oatmeal cookies, Tic Tacs, and Pringles, also known as the “super-severe constipation diet.” For the first six or seven years of his life, he hardly slept.
I hate to say all that, even in the mercifully past tense, because it sounds as if I am a martyr and my son a monster, two notions you’d laugh out the door if you knew us. But it does furnish the second reason I left journalism: Motherhood put me on hiatus. Autism canceled the show.
For a while, I tried bitterly hard to make the show go on. Delighted to land an online biweekly column for The Week, I couldn’t even churn out that much. The only important-feeling pieces I produced, largely by way of blasting the special-needs apparatus of my otherwise-beloved Ireland, were about autism—the subject I had come to know best, but hate most.
Then, slowly, the wheel turned. My son started eating, sleeping, asking for an Oreo. After years of family-splitting trans-Atlantic shuttling in search of quality therapies, we all landed under one New Jersey roof. Mathias started going to a special school, every day, on a bus! For the first time in a decade, I started to settle back into writing. After Donald Trump was elected, Elle assigned me a profile of Kellyanne Conway. It felt like being thawed out of a cryogenic stupor and freed back into life. I write daily now, though rarely to deadline: fiction, plays, and blog posts. And for the first time ever, I know how.
Oh, sure, I used to know tons of things. I used to know all about voter turnout and swing districts; gaffes and polls and wedge issues. Later, I knew all about WMD, IED’s, RPG’s, the Sunn’i, the Shi’a, and multiple kinds of Kurd. But I had no concept of the blur into which such elements blend in the eyes of almost everyone. I had no idea how easy it is to get slammed out of the blue by an unforeseen force, how hard it is to maintain a sense of power or even personhood when that happens. I could not grasp how anyone could be so consumed by the business of getting through the day as to experience current events as noise. I grasp it now. Only in being forced to slow way down as a writer did I come to understand anything at all about my reader.
That is, if my reader still exists. For all I know, while I was achieving metaphysical mindmeld with the masses, they all swam off on the tide of Twitter. The industry has changed so fundamentally, but then again, so have I. Who knows whether journalism in its current form has a place for me in mine?
In case you’re wondering what happened with that muddy midnight in 2003, in the end, the Syrian authorities did nothing worse to the two Pauls and me than boot us back to Damascus. Before going, we had one last night in the guesthouse, and we drank it away with, among others, the legendary Marie Colvin, who’d turned up—eyepatch, cigarette, and all—on her own way to the war.
Nine years, two kids, and one autism diagnosis later, I was home in Ireland when I heard that Colvin had been killed by an Assad-regime bombardment of a media center in Homs. Not long after, I caught a BBC interview of the photojournalist who had been with her, and barely escaped alive. It was Paul Conroy. British Paul.
“He’s still at it,” I thought. “Good for him.”
Four years later, in the fall of 2016, while stuck in traffic on Route One after dropping Mathias off at school, I switched on the radio. NPR was introducing a piece about an amazing-sounding documentary made by an amazing-sounding journalist, who had spent a long time hanging out with suicide bombers in Syria, dispassionately interviewing them about their outlook and operations. The journalist’s voice came on, and suddenly the calm, Scandinavian tone combined with the lunatic bravery clicked for me in the car. It was Paul Refsdal. Norwegian Paul. “He’s still at it,” I thought. “Good for him.”
Both times, my very next thought was that I, of course, am not still at it—not by the longest possible shot.