As a journalist working in war zones, I’ve witnessed some intense situations. I entered Baghdad as it burned and I’ve been closer to more firefights and explosions than I’d recommend. I’ve been crushed as refugees struggled to get food aid, and I’ve made some hasty exits as protests turned ugly.
All of these experiences, however, pale in comparison with the onslaught that is motherhood — its intensity is only magnified by the fact that it’s so relentless. Fortunately, I’ve found that some of the coping mechanisms I learned in the field apply equally well to the front lines of family life.
1. Find your focus
There are days when things can change in a matter of seconds. Bullets can do that. So can bombs. You can’t fight chaos; you need to surrender to it and stay cool. The best way to do that is to focus. My work means that I need to report and get the facts. Concentrating on this allows me to find stillness in the midst of sensory overload and make smart decisions. Likewise, when I hear a thud, then a scream, and I find my child has wedged her finger in a drawer or fallen off the top bunk, I focus. Then I take a deep breath and assess the situation and how best to minimize the damage. Panic is never your friend.
2. Know when to follow
The unsung heroes of international reporting are the fixers. They’re people from the country you’re in who know the ropes and speak the language. You rely on them for everything, and listening to them gets you closer to the story you’re trying to tell. Their cultural cues can be the key to your survival, because they’re aware of things that you’d never pick up on. “Why do we need two cars to drive through the Panjshir Valley?” I wondered, balking at the extra expense. “Ah, because we have to cross a river and may get stuck, and we’ll need one car to haul the other out.”
Nannies, grannies, babysitters and friends are the fixers of parenthood. Take advice from those who have been in the trenches. My life was saved, literally, by a Filipina nanny. She helped me on the days when I wanted to hurl myself out the window. Yes, I was the mother, but she had the wisdom of experience.
3. Own your fear
There are two types of fear. One is the fear that tells you you can’t do something because you’re not good enough and shouts out worst-case scenarios. Then there is real fear, the physical kind that quickens your breath and makes you break a sweat. Real fear is a great internal GPS. I listen to the signals my body sends to me even when my brain can’t make sense of them. For instance, when I need to choose a taxi driver at an airport to take me somewhere unsafe, I go by intuition. Or if I don’t want to go out and report one day, I don’t question it — I just don’t go.
I want my kids to learn to trust their inner safety nets too. This means letting them try things out, like climbing a little higher than I might like or carving a pumpkin on their own. I’m teaching my children to assess people’s trustworthiness from the feeling they give off and not from smiles or words alone.