Diana K. Sugg finds new rhythms in her life as the mother of Oliver, left, and Sam. Photo by Monica Lopossay.
I couldn’t sleep that night. It was 3 a.m. The house was quiet and dark. I slipped out of bed and walked back through the house to the guest room, the room that would be the nursery. Sitting down on the rug, I hugged my knees to my chest and breathed in. I knew that from this night on, everything would be different. I was pregnant, and I was going to be a mother.
For years, I’d been the career gal. As a young reporter, I was handed the police beat, and I quickly got addicted. In the buzzing newsroom, under fluorescent lights late into the night, I cranked out story after story. Then I took on the medical beat, and I found myself even more enthralled. I once described it as the journalistic equivalent of the emergency room, with too many stories, too little time, but a lot of responsibility for getting it right. Not too different from a lot of other newsroom beats. For any story published, I’d be tracking five others, fielding 10 wacky calls, and letting go of as many as 20 other ideas.
From newspaper to newspaper, I kept up that pace. Many of my friends, meanwhile, were getting married. One by one, they had a child, then a second. I cheered them on, and then I went back to the newsroom I loved. Never had I felt more myself than when I was at my desk, finding my way through a story, or with a stranger, doing an interview. On the beat, I was at home.
Motherhood as a Beat
But for all of the ways it felt like reporting came naturally, motherhood didn’t. I didn’t know how to change a diaper. I couldn’t get the infant car seat installed properly. I’d traded in the messenger bag I had slung so easily over my shoulder for a diaper bag that wasn’t any bigger, but I carried it awkwardly. And when I tried to get my son Sam to sleep, he stayed awake.
That first week my baby boy lay on a soft blanket on our big bed, his fists clenched. He looked up at me with his serious, brown eyes. It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember any nursery rhymes or even a lullaby. On instinct, I began to sing my own off-pitch version of Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” He laughed at me.
It turned out to be easier to write about other people’s lives than to live my own. It seemed as though the very qualities that had wired me for journalism made it tougher for me to be a mother. On crime and medical stories, being sensitive gave me a better feel for what people had endured. But now, when I tried to let Sam cry so he would supposedly fall asleep on his own, all that empathy just didn’t help. Seeking guidance from other parents, experts or studies—my instinct from the medical beat—also backfired. As in so many child-rearing issues, there were far too many conflicting opinions, and little science to support any of them.
What I didn’t know yet was that much of motherhood turns out to rely on trial and error. I didn’t realize that as long as Sam skipped naps and woke up at night, I wouldn’t be able to do any part-time work. I would need every minute of babysitting time just to get some sleep. But I missed reporting and writing. I found myself crawling into bed at night with a flashlight to read newspapers. I gulped down the stories like they were water.
The work I cherished was slipping away and so was the confidence I’d had as a reporter. Things about my life as a mother and my former life as a journalist got even more complicated when we moved to Switzerland for my husband’s work, and our second son was born.
Then one night as I emptied the diaper genie, I had a flashback. I saw myself in the wire room at The (Baltimore) Sun, grabbing the stack of faxes. At first, I’d hated slogging through those press releases. But as I got more experienced, I could whip through them like a pro. Occasionally my eye would land on one detail, the clue to a great story.
That is when I had the epiphany: These early years of motherhood were like being a rookie reporter on the beat. I recalled how, early on, each beat felt like some big unbroken country—its territory too vast to embrace. But in time, some of the paths became familiar. I discovered that there were diamonds buried in the routine faxes and briefs. Soon I was finding my way.
I thought about those early newsroom experiences. I remembered how I’d kept up a furious pace on the crime beat, finding too many stories and feeling compelled to pursue every one. Now without realizing it, I’d fallen into that same trap as a mother. Just when Sam fell asleep, instead of getting some rest, I was like a cops reporter on deadline. I seized the time to try to cram in laundry, e-mail, house repairs, and work.
On the beat and as a mother, I was so busy getting everything done that I had forgotten to stand up and look around. Where was I? What track was I heading down? What was on the horizon? Being on a beat, it turned out, meant not only digging in every day, but also having a command of your territory, a sense of the bigger picture.
One by one, these lessons came back to me. They were solid and familiar, like smooth stones I could rub my fingers on. Follow my instincts. Put in the time. Learn which sources to listen to and which to tune out. Figure out what really matters. And perhaps the biggest of all: To get some things, you must let go of others.
I knew what I had to do. Just as I’d reluctantly set aside many stories, I had to ruthlessly pare down my life. I still carried a notebook everywhere I went. I still wrote ledes in my head. But for now, my beat had changed, and I had to make it my own. I became expert at hoisting my chubby toddlers into their double stroller with one arm and running with them through the hills of a sprawling park. I regaled Sammy and Oliver with elaborate tales, told by characters in funny accents. We crawl-raced around the apartment until my knees were calloused. When I was too tired, I didn’t need to do anything more than lie down on the floor, and the boys would climb all over me like puppies.
One winter night, when Sammy kept waking up, I walked back and forth in the dark, his body sagging against mine. I began to sing “Shenandoah.” My voice came out strong and clear, in a way it never had. The melody was bitter and sweet, and the world was hushed. Whatever had been, whatever was to come, I could do it. I’d found my lullaby.
Diana K. Sugg worked for 18 years as a newspaper reporter and won national awards for her crime and medical stories, including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting at The (Baltimore) Sun. Now living in Baltimore, Sugg is raising two young sons and plans to do freelance writing.