Most children, whatever their age, have an unerring sense of how to sabotage their mother's work. They do this out of love, the way a man, a lover or a husband whose passion is up will put his hands over your eyes when he's decided that you must stop seeing, thinking or doing anything else and devote yourself to him. Children, whose love for you is more reliable, are cleverer in their tactics.
One of my colleagues, an American newspaper correspondent in Peking, describes how her young children would start to sing as soon as she began the morning telephone calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. As she tried to get clarifications from Chinese officials threatening Vietnam with invasion, the chorus would grow deafening. The officials, whose sense of propriety was as polished and as easily scratched as the surface of their limousines, would break off with the suggestion that she might call again when "better prepared." b
In some respects the professional world now accommodates the working woman without demur. She will have to struggle for equal treatment in many situations, but so long as she conforms to the maleness of professional behavior, she can get on. It's another thing to try to work as a woman whose femaleness is confirmed, not by the allure of a bowtie that in negotiations rises and falls with her breast, but by the plangent evidence of her fecundity -- a baby, a child. The professional world is intensely hostile to the working madonna -- the mother who has no servants or nannies to rely on and must take her child wherever she goes.
In my case, in Washington, I work from a home office equipped with telephone, typewriter and Telex machine. While baskets of unironed clothes pile up in the basement and pots and pans around the stove, I communicate with my editors and sources for the most part through the telephone. Since he was a year old, Tully, now 3, has regarded the telephone as Enemy No. 1, and in combat against it, he comes at me from behind, trying a strangle-hold around the throat or a karate chop to cut off the line. Editors have become used to a screaming child in the background. One always asks, "How's the kid?" -- on two occasions when he has rung Tully has locked himself in a bathroom.
But traveling with a child and having him adjust face to face with my work is another story.
Last June in Bonn, I arrived at the Tempelstrasse for an interview with a senior official of the German foreign office -- a courtly gentleman in his mid-50s, Junker spine stiffly erect amidst a collection of precisely chosen, finely balanced office ornaments that reflected, no doubt, the character of their possessor's bureaucratic career.
I had left Tully in an anteroom where my interpreter and a secretary seemed hospitable enough and well equipped with distractions to last my child for my half-hour's talk in the inner sanctum. I started the cassette recorder and began with questions to soften the official's descent into reality when we were interrupted by banging on the oak door and the sounds of "Mummy! Mummy!"
I opened the door, apologized for the interruption, took my son on my lap and started again. I was expressing curiosity about German relations with Libya when my son's shyness evaporated. He opened my handbag, as Herr X, pointed out. No matter, I said, following up with a query about German negotiations with Libya.
My son then hit on one of his most subtle tactics -- pulling up the hem of my skirt to expose my underwear. It was the change of my interlocutor's visage which alerted me, snapping my train of thought as I tried to rearrange my clothes. Tully is regaining control over me as he plans. Herr X is to fall next, as my son reaches for the official's objects on the table top.
The tape records the disintegration of the interview:
Question: Do you think Libyan capitalism is reacting against Colonel Qaddafi at the moment?
Answer: Very, very difficult to find out. It does seem that Qaddafi --
(Crash! . . . crash! -- Two cigarette ashtrays collide.)
-- is alienating more and more of the middle class --
(Mummy, there's clouds. MUUUMMEEE, THERE'S CLOUDS!!!)
-- he is suppressing any independent movement --
(Crash! -- a glass goes to the floor. Mummee, it's raining. RAINING! AHHRRR! Let's go out there, it's raining.)
-- Tunisia, Libya -- all these countries have internal difficulties --
-- Wouldn't it be better if the child stood down? Perhaps it's safer?
Question: What is your view of the Qafsa incident?
(Look Mummy! Crash! Bang! -- with hammer object!)
That's a clock, Tully, don't do that! (Crash!)
(MAAARMM! MAAARMM! BAAAA! -- child cries.)
-- I am not in a hurry today, luckily, so you can take all the time you want --
In the confusion I couldn't tell whether Herr X was evading my questions or my son.
In trepartite frustration we three rose, my son dragging one of my hands toward the door, the other taken by Herr X in clammy relief at our departure. t
Apparently I had lost the point of the interview. There would be precious little copy for my editor. The official had been evasive but evidently my son and I were to blame. I might not be concerned at the regard in which, henceforth, I would be held by the German foreign office, but I ought to have been bothered by the loss of a journalistic opportunity. Professionally speaking, the madonna had blown it.
This is not all there was to the interview, however, and as my child has grown older (although no "better prepared"), I have been able to calculate that what is gained by working with a child in tow far exceeds what is lost -- for my professional work, for myself and for my child.
Eric Rouleau of Le Monde in Paris is one of the world's most respected journalists on Middle Eastern affairs. This past January, on our way to a conference of Islamic heads of state, we were sitting together at a dusty roadside cafe on a hillside beyond Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The driver had stopped for the midday prayer. We were waiting with glasses of sweet tea, and Tully was clambering up a thorn tree, poking his finger at the fried chickens and teakettles sitting in the open, drawing the playful attention of the Saudi truck drivers who had also stopped for a rest.
I get up and down to prevent a fall, a splinter, a scalded finger, flyblown contamination, a sudden road casualty. I am evidently not relaxing, and Rouleau wonders aloud how different his career might have been if he had taken his children with him on his travels. They are adults now, and the opportunity is past. He doubts he could have coped, but is pricked by a guilty feeling nonetheless.
"Does he get in the way?" Rouleau asks. "Can you concentrate?"
"Without him, it would be impossible for me to concentrate. I would be fretting for him all the time," I reply.
"What do men concentrate on when they are traveling?" complain two friends in London, women whose husbands all happen to be abroad on business at the same time. One of the women says that as much as she and the two boys love her husband, a photographer, his return home is almost more disruptive than it is worth. Life now has its routines without him. His travels are adjusted to. His presence gets in the way. His demand to be welcome, to force himself back into the family -- that is more difficult to get used to than his going away.
The second woman has just taken her 9-year-old son on a business trip. Her marriage has disintegrated. The ever-traveling husband has found a lover he prefers to return home to, and to take with him. The wife told her editor that she would go on an assignment to Amsterdam only if her son could go too. She has never enjoyed the work more.
We agree that when we are traveling with our children we are better protected from male pursuit. I tell the story of the time I was on assignment in Tripoli, Libya. There are only a few hotels for visiting foreigners, and in the lobby, men sit on watch through the afternoons and evenings, waiting for their appointments, interpreters, contacts. A woman by herself is very visible -- and valuable.
At around nine one evening, the telephone rings in my room, and in accented English, I hear a male voice: "If you sleep with me, then I will give you 800 rupees." At this moment, my child, roused by the telephone, starts to cry. "I have someone to sleep with, thank you very much," I respond, and my caller clicks off.
The next morning I tell my Libyan interpreter about the attempted solicitation. I laugh, but he is horrified. He says that he would have let the man come to his room and then hit him over the head with a club. I explain that women are rarely protected by weapons, which just inflame men all the more. A child is good protection.
There should be no doubt that children are seriously, perhaps permanently, wounded by prolonged absence of their mothers or fathers. For good practical and professional reasons, therefore, if men and women work, children at the preschool ages should remain alongside them.
A century ago, my Chinese ancestors used to give their children balls of gun opium to chew during the long hours of field work, but the family remained together. Institutional day care and television may have the same mind-numbing use today, but there is no point in making a virtue out of them just because they appear to be necessary for women to be able to work.
What the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries destroyed -- the family as an independent economic unit on the land or in the artisan's shop -- could easily be restored by the postindustrial society of today. Yet few public agencies or private corporations encourage husband-and-wife employment, maternity and paternity leave, and child-care facilities in the workplace where both parents can be with their children in a way that the blue-collar assembly line or the white-collar bureaucracies of the past rigidly excluded.
Children who grow up separated and schooled apart from the adult world come to the sensible conclusion that their parents are as irrelevant to them as their parents' work. Both are resented. The realms of experience do not begin to overlap until it is too late -- from the child's perspective, freedom means escape from parents who have started to close in after years of keeping their distance.
To preserve the closeness from the beginning, to make your work skills relevant to your child's earliest experience, does tend to make the experience itself a little ragged. With Tully riding on my shoulders or activating the Telex tape puncher, I do not learn as much in a telephone call to the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as I would without the din and distraction. But the colonel at the other end can be called again -- and again -- and the rodeo in my office eventually subsides.
It may be unprofessional in the male world to concentrate on one's work and one's children at the same time -- although I am told powerful and prodigiously accomplished men can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. For a woman to do so isn't remarkable, and for her to choose to focus simultaneously on a child -- instead of, say, money, horses, sex or alcohol -- might be regarded socially as a refinement rather than as a primitivism of taste.
There are moments when I've wished Tully were elsewhere, minded and amused by a retinue of patient and adoring servants. In Taif, Saudi Arabia, in January, I was in a tiny majority of women -- three among at least 300 males. The Saudi officials were hot pressed by hundreds of requests for interviews, and I waited my turn to see the deputy information minister. When the minister was ready, Tully toddled in with me and disappeared underneath the minister's desk. To the official's amusement and my relief, Tully became preoccupied exploring a cubby hole in the paneling.
All of a sudden, he let out a horrible wail, the like of which neither the minister nor I had heard before. We peered down, both on our hands and knees -- and there was the little boy holding a finger he had evidently caught in the track of a sliding panel. Aides rushed into the room, and in a second a half-dozen men and I were on the floor, inspecting and manipulating the finger in turn.
Satisfied that Tully was unharmed, the deputy minister apologized that he had an appointment and must leave. My opportunity had once again fled, Tully's finger to blame. Within hours, however, I was invited to interview the Saudi foreign minister, and when the news of that spilled to my male colleagues in the newsroom, it was whispered that the minister had only agreed to see me because I was a woman, or because he had "felt sorry" for me and the child. They were professionally jealous, of course -- the madonna hadn't blown it after all.
Wherever I have traveled as a journalist, the test of national character and the understanding of the social undercurrents that appear when people must deal with you and your child produce vital evidence that cannot be gathered any other way. The traditional male foreign correspondent gauges national character from taxi drivers, news vendors and barkepps he encounters between the airport and the hotel. This causes distortions of several kinds. In countries where the regimes are nervous, such occupations are filled with paid informants and agents whose job is to trap the visitor into an unwise reflection or a compromising situation. In other countries, taxi-drivers and news vendors require government licenses, and in a city like Athens, for example, the licensees generally survive longer than the juntas that put them in business and thus are ideological misfits and very unreliable informants.
The national character of a country become very plain to you when you have a child in tow. At airports the treatment of mothers and children can vary dramatically. Frankfurt provides a sex cinema for the traveling man and a changing room for women and children; most airports cater to male travelers and provide nothing for children. In European hotels, dogs are more respectfully treated in dining rooms than small children. In Ireland and England, it is not only permissible for a parent to beat a child in public, no self-respecting parent would fail to do so in order to convince adult bystanders that an appropriate bourgeois standard is maintained in the home. Striking a spirited child in a public place is a social obligation like wiping a running nose with a handkerchief.
Women are a source that few journalists seek out, and when you travel in so obvious a female state as I have done, they will volunteer much more than they might dare for men. From Daisy in Colombo, Sophie in Lahore, Andrulla in Cyprus, Eva in Bonn, Lucy in London and Carla in Rome, I have learned far more than can be extracted from central bank reports or the pat answers finance ministers like to give on the cost of living and the politics of inflation. To stand in line at seven in the morning at one location in Colombo, where fresh mild is on sale for only a few hours each day, adds a dimension to my understanding of a place that the statistics do not reveal -- even if many women could afford it, few have the time or the transport to seek it out.
Back in New York, seated on the couch beneath the mounted bull elephant, rhino and antelope heads that recall the Great White Hunter past of the Harvard Club, my son and I can quietly reflect on the privilege we are able to share as the barriers to our entry together into the professional life have come down.
Perhaps the gentlemen members, dozing in their cups or clacking away at dominoes, resent needing our presence to pay the mortgage and the staff cost-of-living increases, but then the club cat and the animals on the wall had not been the target of such warm affection before women and children like us were allowed in the front door. In time perhaps -- if commercial enterprise and conventional sentimentality permit -- we won't need to observe Mother's or Father's Day once a year, because the connection with our children will not be broken every other day of our lives.