Pumping Through A War Zone: Sabrina Siddiqui's First Postpartum Work Trip Was To Cover Biden’s Visit To Kyiv, Ukraine
“There are many, many roles that we are asked to play on any given day.”
Last month, as Ukraine marked one year since the Russian invasion, President Joe Biden made an unannounced trip to Kyiv in a show of ongoing commitment to the embattled nation. It was an unprecedented trip by a sitting US President into an active war zone without an American military planning. The trip, marked occasionally by air raid sirens, was the result of months of fastidious, top secret planning. Only two reporters were permitted to accompany the president into the war zone: Evan Vucci of the Associated Press and Sabrina Siddiqui of the Wall Street Journal, a veteran political correspondent and new mother.
The trip, which included a 20-hour train ride from Poland to Ukraine and back, would be a grueling one for any reporter (or octogenarian commander in chief), but Siddiqui also happens to be a breastfeeding Mom. She had her first child, a daughter named Sofia, last April and returned from maternity leave in January. Since coming back from Kyiv, she has candidly documented what it was like to navigate the trip while pumping. I spoke to the reporter by Zoom about the details of this remarkable assignment — and why she thought it was important to share her own story.
The White House had been planning President Biden’s visit to Kyiv for months, but you didn’t know you were going until days before your departure; you’d been planning a more routine trip to Poland. How did the last-minute nature of this trip change your travel plans?
I had never spent a single night away from my daughter, so I was already bracing for leaving my baby. I was already in the process of consulting journalists about pumping and milk storage and how can I get my milk back home. That was all for when I thought I was going to Poland. The next thing I know, I am being told that I'm going to Ukraine and that it's going to involve a flight with a refueling stop and then a one-hour motorcade and then a 10-hour train ride and then up to five hours on the ground and then all over again in reverse. I had just over a day to figure everything out.
In addition to figuring out the logistics of pumping and milk storage, you had to give up your phone as a security measure. I have to imagine that not having a way to communicate with your daughter or husband was difficult, especially on your first trip away from her.
As a mom, you are literally always thinking about your child. You can be doing 10 different things at once but your child is still occupying some real estate in your mind. There's always some part of my brain that's thinking about her. I'm used to getting constant updates about her — from daycare, through an app, pictures — and suddenly, I'm being told that I wouldn’t have access to a phone for days.
There was a hotline that was made available to my husband if God forbid there was an emergency that he needed to reach me about. And then similarly, the President of the White House Correspondents Association had my husband’s number in case she needed to reach him. But it really drives up your anxiety because you're like, “Well, the only contact we will have is if something horrible has happened.”
But the most wonderful thing for me is that Sofia has the best dad. My husband is the most capable person, so she was in the best possible hands.
Was the White House helpful in accommodating your needs?
They were very cooperative. Attendants on Air Force One and the train were able to help me with milk storage. They provided me with a portable charger for my pump on the train. It’s pretty funny to have the President going into a war zone and a staffer comes to the reporter's cabin to be like, "You're the one who has the pumping situation! Here's a battery pack." As grueling as this assignment was and as difficult as it was to do all the pumping, I was operating from a point of privilege because I had access to these resources that normal people may not have when they travel for work.
Obviously, you weren't able to live tweet your trip, but in your retrospectives on social media, Sofia looms large. Why was that important to you?
I didn't want center myself in the story at all while the assignment was still unfolding, but once it was over, I thought a lot about whether or not to share this story from my perspective as a mom. My reason for deciding to do so was really to demonstrate the challenges that working moms go through any given day. It was to shed light on all of the roles that we have to play, all of the responsibilities that are placed upon us, the challenges, open up conversations about resources.
You’re only recently back from maternity leave, and you’ve mentioned on Twitter that the Journal has a generous parental leave policy. How did that time prepare you to succeed with this assignment?
I have been a workaholic my entire adult life. I've been covering politics in DC for more than a decade and I honestly thought about walking away from it all because I just did not want to leave Sofia. But because of the leave that I had — I was out for eight months — it really gave me the time to recover from my traumatic delivery, mentally and emotionally adjust to being a mom, and really bond with my child. I was extremely privileged to have the time I did.
I was never going to be fully ready to go back, but I didn’t feel like I was being forced to go back. I had the time that I needed. I don't think I would've been able to do a trip like the one I took without that amount of time. It gave me the confidence that I needed to leave her. It gave me the confidence I needed in my own abilities. So I am extremely grateful for that.
What do you hope to be able to tell Sofia about this one day?
When I was offered this assignment, I recognized it was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it was risky and scary. But I'm very passionate about my job and, more importantly, I have a daughter. I think ultimately I came away with just thinking I want her to one day be old enough to see what her mom did, and then in turn, know that this is what women are capable of doing. This is how strong women are. The many, many roles that we are asked to play on any given day, and this is what we can do if we're given the opportunity.