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Lessons from the War Zone: Mothers of Invention

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“Do you want to try on my flak jacket?” I was sitting in Donatella Lorch’s Washington, DC house, looking at the books on her shelves, the dagger collection on her walls, and the framed photographs of her and her friends snapped in far-flung locales:  the mountains of Afghanistan, a beach in Somalia, a small village in Kosovo. Though no one had ever asked me such a question before—and probably never will again—it wasn’t entirely surprising. Months earlier when I’d interviewed Donatella by phone for a book I was writing, she had described what it feels like to wear a bulletproof vest while working as a war correspondent in a conflict zone. Although the vests save lives, they are also heavy, hot, and viewed as a barrier between a reporter and her subject.



We went down to her basement, where Donatella searched through boxes until she found an item that looked like a navy blue life vest. Shimmying into it, I gasped. Lead weights had been draped around my shoulders. I tried to imagine the effects of a blazing sun, sweat accumulating around my breastbone under the plastic cover. Donatella watched me carefully, and then smiled. It was not a “told-you-so” smile. Rather it conveyed empathy and humor, the hallmarks that have helped her survive some of the most brutal conflicts of the late-twentieth century with her sanity intact. “You get used to it,” she said, taking the jacket off my shoulders.



At that time, Donatella was working for Newsweek covering the Pentagon. Previously, she had been with NBC News and the New York Times. The Times had hired her after she had displayed incredible moxie by going to Afghanistan right out of graduate school and publishing stories about the Mujaheddin. She worked for the paper for nearly a decade, including a stint as the youngest East Africa Bureau Chief. It was during that time that she covered the famine and civil war in Somalia, traveled with rebels in Southern Sudan, and interviewed leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Most harrowing of all was her experience in Rwanda during the genocide. She was just one of several reporters to drive into Kigali a few days after the massacre began. For a year, she doggedly followed the people of Rwanda as they grappled with their horror.



Meeting Donatella for the first time in her apartment, it was hard not to be awed by her accomplishments. And yet, she was funny and humble. Real. She and my husband made their way through a bottle of wine, while she sardonically told us of the romantic breakup she was just getting over. The man sounded like a cad, and yet I could tell she was hurting. The wine took its effects, and she and my husband grew rosier and more verbose. I, newly pregnant and terribly nauseous, grew quiet as questions formed in my mind:  If I had the bravado and charm of this woman, spoke five languages, and knew enough about helicopters to have a favorite kind (Hueys)…would I be having a child? Surely, there were so many more important things that Donatella could be doing. So what about me? Imbecilic, yes. Now, I can hear how self-defeating that line of reasoning was. But then, motherhood still had June Cleaver’s face painted all over it. The possibility that, say, Amelia Earhart’s face could appear seemed impossible. After seven years and two children, I now proudly believe that Motherhood is the hardest job you’ll ever love. So when I learned that Donatella couldn’t come to a mutual friend’s wedding last summer because she was busy leading her four children up the Tibetan plateau, well, I was definitely intrigued. How did motherhood compare to the swashbuckling life of a “warco”?



I knew the relatively straightforward logistics that had transformed a leading foreign correspondent into a den mother. In 2002, Donatella interviewed a man at the World Bank in conjunction with a project about the Lost of Boys of Sudan. She and John, a widower, began dating, if hanging out with his three young children could be called dating. They married in 2003, and given Donatella’s “advanced maternal age,” decided to try to have a baby right away. Their first attempt ended in miscarriage, but when Lucas was born in 2005, a woman who was accustomed to living out of a duffel bag officially became part of a brood. Not exactly Eight Is Enough, but a sizable family nonetheless.



“I do things in extremes,” Donatella explained. “I went from zero to five hundred miles an hour over night.” Not only did she become a stepparent, but a frequent single parent as well, since John’s job takes him to Africa and China for weeks at a time.



Although she is not one for regrets, there must be evenings when negotiating homework and serving as short order cook for four kids makes her wonder just how she got into this situation. If she could smuggle herself into Kabul, wouldn’t she be tempted to smuggle herself out of Chevy Chase, Maryland? I have nothing so romantic by which to compare my pre-mama life, but there are certainly days when I long for a life sans children—or without the clutter of children, to be more precise. But, perhaps that’s what makes Donatella tick. Despite the mundane quality of modern motherhood, she does have something to compare it to. She’s been in enough moldy, bug-ridden hotel rooms and taken her share of rides on iffy, Cold War-era airplanes. The romance has been unveiled.



In his Vietnam memoir, Tim O’Brien wrote: “War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” The words sum up the long, mind-numbing hours spent waiting, doing routine work, until a rush of adrenaline and the staccato of Experience punctuate the boredom. According to the war correspondents and soldiers I interviewed for a book on a young photographer killed in Somalia, O’Brien’s words capture war well. They also come intriguingly close to capturing motherhood.



After getting married, Donatella had hoped to keep a hand in the game. She’d recently been embedded in Afghanistan and was also working on a book project that necessitated trips to Sudan. Her travels had to be scheduled between John’s, and the two went long stretches without significant time together. It made it more difficult for them to gel as parents. Pragmatically, she had already decided to stop traveling, but Lucas’ birth sealed the deal; she hasn’t been away from him for more than two days.



She tried a desk job as director of a journalism fellowship, but after years of successfully filing stories from all over the planet without anyone needing to know exactly where she was, she found office life stifling. On the day she decided to quit, her nanny announced that she was leaving for another job. “It was the best kind of serendipity!” Donatella recalls.



Leaving foreign journalism behind has affected her creativity. “Being a correspondent is very creative,” she says, “not only at the word level but in terms of how you’re going to find the story or get to a difficult place.” You can’t let your guard down or play it safe. Plus, it’s professionally exciting, but also personally rewarding. Of her time in Africa, she says, “I was basically getting paid to go explore and learn things.”



Having a baby sapped her reserves. She was exhausted and depressed after Lucas’ birth, which limited her production for a while. Now, she is working from home, writing a memoir and preparing for public speaking appearances. As he turns two, she also finds that she gets creative inspiration from her son. “At the moment, I’m very creatively influenced by Dr. Seuss,” she says, half-serious. “Just the other day, I pointed to John in the car and said, ‘Look! There’s a truffula tree!’”


Her older children are gradually figuring out that their stepmother (they call her “Dony” per her request to call her whatever they wish, so long as it’s not an insult) is not cut from the same mold as many maternal figures. She has philosophical tug of wars with them over why the neighbor kid is on his third iPod while kids in other parts of the world go hungry. When her teenaged daughter went through a phase of wanting to hang out at the mall, Donatella forbade it, telling her, “It’s against my religion to do something without a purpose!”



As they grow wiser to the world, Donatella is winning their respect. She has interviewed people they read about in school, and taken them on trips, like the one to China, where she serves as primary interpreter. The boys have always liked her dagger collection and, especially, an AK-47 bayonet given her by an Afghan warlord, but her time in Africa gained more significance for them after they saw Hotel Rwanda. “Before I went into complex explanations of the genocide,” she said of her tactic in teaching them about such events, “I tell them how I hitchhiked into Kigali with a just-broken toe, and how insignificant that seemed compared to what was happening around me.”


When John is traveling for long periods, Donatella admits that it’s easy to “mix resentment with loneliness.” And sure, she daydreams of returning to the field. Reality sets in quickly, though: “I don’t want to do the grunt work any more. And I sure don’t want to sit in a hotel in Baghdad and not even be able to get out the door.” Most importantly, the good in her life outweighs the bad.



It helps, too, that Donatella has wisdom and humor enough to laugh at her present situation, an attitude that would have been tougher to come by at twenty or even thirty. “The kids tell me they know exactly what they are going to do with their lives, and I tell them that they won’t do just one thing. You need to keep your options open.” As a globetrotting correspondent, Donatella easily could have closed the door on motherhood, but remained open to that option. And now, a whole new phase of her life lies ahead, trufulla trees and all.



Photo: Donatella Lorch on assignment in the Kuwaiti Desert during the Gulf War (Copyright Donatella Lorch).

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