On motherhood and education journalism

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Inopportune deadlines, the Herculean task of returning to work, and how being a mother can open your eyes to new stories.

By Lauren Camera

Like all journalists, my world often revolves around inopportune deadlines. Having a baby was no different, I suppose.

On the morning of April 26, I sat in bed in a hospital gown having checked into the Labor and Delivery wing of Medstar Georgetown University Hospital the night before. I was in labor.

But I opened my laptop and began emailing a source with whom I was kicking around the idea of co-authoring a book about education policy. A publisher had recently signaled interest in it, so we were attempting to craft a rough proposal to flesh out the idea for a formal pitch.

We emailed throughout the day, editing each other’s work and joking about the fact that I was birthing a book while birthing a baby. Ideally, this was supposed to be a wrap before my due date, but baby came-a-knockin three weeks before his deadline.

“This is such a bizarre correspondence,” she emailed at one point. “I know you said you are bored but I feel weird about this. I am not expecting you to work while delivering your baby!”

In retrospect, she was right. But I was eager to clear my schedule. Having a responsibility like that hanging over my head after giving birth wasn’t my idea of maternity leave. I was anxious enough already about how my then-18-month-old would adjust to sharing the spotlight.

Seven months later, I’m fresh off maternity leave and have been thinking a lot about being a mother and a journalist — and in particular an education journalist — and how those two roles intersect and sometimes (read: often) clash.

The anecdote about my son’s birth was funny to me at the time, and it still is. But it also underscores the constant pressure (as self-inflicted as it may be) to give, give, give yourself to your profession until the well is dry — or at least until you finally need an epidural.

One’s ability to be a mother and a journalist — or any other full-time working professional for that matter — depends on so many different variables, everything from a company’s family leave policy, to postpartum health, and the ability to afford child care, to the expectations and flexibility of a company upon returning to work, as well as whether family and friends live nearby and are willing to help. Other important criteria: whether the baby is sleeping through the night.

Journalism, however, may be more ill-suited than other professions when it comes to hopping back on the work train.

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 Camera returned to work in September after giving birth to her second child

Women made up 39.1 percent of all newsroom employees in 2017, according to the American Society of News Editors survey, but they constitute 71 percent of education journalists, according to the Education Writers Association.

I have no idea how many of us are also mothers (or, more accurately, new mothers or those with young children), but I know there are lots: Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dana Goldstein, Erica Green, Sarah Garland, Sarah Carr, Nichole Dobo, Lillian Mongeau, Kim Hefling, Anya Kamenetz, Kelly Field, Christina Samuels, Sarah Sparks, Liana Heitin Loewus … the list goes on and on and on.

Some newsrooms employ more than others: The Hechinger Report employs so many mothers that they have Hechinger Baby bibs and onesies.

And while there’s a sense of solidarity among this cabal of mother education journalists, it doesn’t make returning to work much easier.

Returning to work can be a Herculean task, and one could make the case that this might be especially true for an education journalist who knows about things like the 30 million word gap, play-based learning, and the effects of screen time.

Maternity leave with our first son was difficult. My husband was laid off three weeks after I gave birth, which had us planning to uproot our lives in Washington, D.C. and move to Boston, where my husband had a few job prospects and where both of our families live. But with an administration change on the horizon, my outlet wouldn’t have allowed me to work remotely; it would have meant saying goodbye to my job.

I was so thankful when that didn’t transpire that on January 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day for those who remember — I skipped back to work.  

To be sure, it wasn’t easy. Just a month back on the job, I was scheduled to fly to Austin, Texas to present at the annual education conference known as SXSW EDU. My son wasn’t even five months old. I was still nursing and felt strongly that I needed to bring him. Luckily, my mother had always wanted to visit Austin and was happy enough to book a flight from Boston to join us and provide day care for the three-day trip. But this is not a reality for most people.

It was a more somber return to work the second time around this September, having enjoyed 17 weeks of maternity leave thanks in large part to a very happy eater and sleeper and a few family trips to the beach. My current employer, U.S. News & World Report, provides 12 weeks paid maternity leave and allows mothers to tack on any vacation as well as take unpaid leave to total six months away from work.

Going back to work this time meant making some different choices, though they were no less “difficult” (and I put difficult in quotes because I understand how lucky we are to even have these choices with child care as expensive as it is in D.C.).

I struggled, for example, with the necessary financial decision we made to pull our older son out of the day care he/we loved so much and hire a nanny. We simply couldn’t afford to send them both there. (If you know how I can procure a money tree, please get in touch ASAP).

Being in an unpredictable profession, I loved the flexibility of our day care: Drop them off any time after 7:30 AM, drop in any time you’d like and pick them up by 6:30 PM. Timetables are more restrictive with a nanny, though there are other perks too.

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Staff and offspring at the baby-friendly Hechinger Report from last summer.

Overall, the biggest hurdle in returning to work, at least for those still breastfeeding, is pumping.

If you’re lucky, your office has a pumping room. My current employer does. It has a door that locks, a plush leather recliner, and a small fridge for storage. The problem is that journalists spend their days covering panels, hearings, and conferences and grabbing source coffees and lunches. We aren’t in the office all day and able to break every three hours to pump. Deadlines also make this nearly impossible.

I remember the day I decided to stop pumping after having my first son. I had been at a conference in downtown D.C. where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was speaking. But she wasn’t taking the stage until the end of the day, and the entire conference was running late. By the time I filed my story, I hadn’t pumped in eight hours (cue the cringing face of every mother reading this who knows what that means).

I frantically ran to the bathroom, closed the stall door behind me, and pumped right there, sitting on the public bathroom toilet seat, holding funnels to my chest and cry-laughing at the entire scenario.

I pumped for eight months with my first son. By the time I returned to work this time around, my second son had been on formula for nearly a month. (Pro tip: Do what works for you. For me, that was the path of least resistance.)

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Camera’s morning routine includes getting these two ready for the day.

There are lots of other hurdles involved in being a mother and a journalist — a 24-hour news cycle that doesn’t care it’s dinner time, sick kids that pull you off a story for a day (or two or three).

There isn’t another beat as collegial as education, and I genuinely admire the fantastic work my fellow education reporters do. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these daily interruptions can be a punch in the gut to our drive and competitive personalities.

Case in point: I often sit in bed with my laptop until midnight or later to get a jump on a story for the next day if I think there’s even a small chance one of my sons might be coming down with a sickness. I typically send an email to my editors by 6 AM every morning about my plans for the day because I know if I don’t, then they’re not getting it until 9 AM (because feeding, diaper change, clothes x 2).

Another pet peeve now that I’m a mother — one I didn’t totally consider before I had children — is the after-work happy hour, networking session, source dinner, panel, call, whatever it may be. I feel as though I’m constantly declining these evening events. With young children, it’s simply unrealistic.

In addition, there are complicated policies regarding health care and child care benefits, which a mother returning to work in any profession curses until the early morning hours. Hot tip: Become best friends with someone in HR.

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Do I think being a mother or a parent makes me a better education journalist? No. I don’t think that being a mother gives you any sort of privilege in education journalism.

It might help me see different sides to a story, but that’s no different than someone who went to an HBCU or community college has a different perspective on higher education than someone who went to an Ivy League college. Some of the best education journalists aren’t mothers.

Do I think it gives me a new perspective on some issues, just as anyone’s major life experiences shape how they understand the world? Yes.

Take, for example, the neighborhood public schools my children are zoned for: White students make up 62 percent of our elementary school, despite being part of the District of Columbia Public Schools, where black children make up 62 percent of K-12 students and Latino students account for 20 percent. Only 12 percent of students in our elementary school are economically disadvantaged, as opposed to 77 percent of the district.

My husband and I have lived here for more than a decade. Over that time period, more young families have flocked to the neighborhood for an opportunity to send their children to the elementary school. Eighty percent of students enrolled in the school are zoned for it.

But guess what happens when it’s time for them to go to middle school? Only 27 percent of our neighborhood thinks our zoned school is the right school for their child. The demographics alter drastically, too: More than 50 percent of students at our zoned middle school are black, and 20 percent are white. More than 40 percent are also economically disadvantaged.

Being a mother in the DCPS system has made it crystal clear where I send my kids to school has a bigger impact than on just them. That decision can contribute to the segregated schools we see in our cities today — or it can work to change it.

Most of the time, being a parent and an education journalist means that you’ve got a lot of new story ideas. For example, if you cover education, you likely wrote earlier this year about the Southern Poverty Law Institute poll that showed that only 8 percent of students know that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War (shudder).

At the time I reported that story, one of the things I kept hearing from teachers was that there’s a disconnect between the stories we tell very young children about seminal figures like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr., and what slavery actually was, why it existed, what it entailed, what it meant for the millions of Africans brought to the United States against their will, and in what ways its ugly legacy continues to persist.

That couldn’t have been more clear when earlier this month I read my son a set of cardboard books titled, “Little Feminists,” which highlight important women in history. Among the many other worthy figures is Rosa Parks, whose little page simply says, “Rosa Parks sat on the bus and said equal rights for all.”

I hadn’t even begun reading the page when he blurted out, “Bus!” So this is what they mean, I thought, as half-a-dozen story ideas percolated in my head.

I’m told it gets easier as the children get older.

What I already know is that education journalists who are also mothers come out of the woodwork to welcome you back and give that you that silent nod that says, “You’ve got this,” without saying anything at all.

About the rest, I’ll let you know in a few years.

Related columns

Innovation in education journalism

Fear, complicity, & guilt get in the way of covering school segregation, says NYT reporter

 

Lauren Camera is an education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter @laurenonthehill.

2 comments

  • Speaking as an “older” person who worked with you and many other young parents, I daily see the struggle that you describe.

    I have the greatest respect for how you all juggle your two lives. I also think that I don’t know if I could ever do it.

    My children were babies in the 70’s. Most women were “stay at home” moms. There were no nursing mothers that I can remember and certainly no designated room to do such if someone wanted to. (I always worked part time on and off while my children were growing up. It was routine office work and didn’t have the pressure that your job has.)

    The plus side is that your children all seem to do well, are more independent and I think even brighter than they were in my day.

    I don’t know how you do it all so well!

  • Alexander Russo

    Thanks so much for your comment. I’ll be sure to pass it along to Lauren.

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