As a bureau chief and a mum, I pushed myself too hard
“Mummy, smile!” My son tried to force the corners of my mouth up with his small, sticky fingers. I’m not sure exactly when I stopped smiling. But I knew I had a problem when I started going back to bed in the daytime to hide under the covers. Not on weekdays of course. Despite hitting bottom, I kept working. I was worried that if I stopped going into the office, I would really fall apart. So I kept putting on a happy face for the job. There were few smiles left for my family."
Why am I going public with this?
"Two years ago, I joined a scheme set up by Reuters journalists to offer support to colleagues suffering from stress and trauma. Through my own experience, I knew this wasn’t just about war zones. Families and even offices can be battlegrounds too. Those problems might seem more mundane than the trauma experienced by frontline journalists, but can sometimes be as debilitating. I hope that by telling my story, I will encourage others not to suffer in silence, as I did for too long.
For years, work was almost everything to me. I joined Reuters as a trainee journalist straight after university, hoping to see the world. It paid off. I had postings as a correspondent in South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and back in Germany. I met Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Helmut Kohl. I learned new languages and covered thrilling breaking stories. I was lucky enough to find a partner – a fellow journalist - who was able to move with my career while also pursuing his own writing and activism. I thought I could have it all: a family and a high-powered job as that rarity among journalists - a woman bureau chief. I was wrong.
I became chief correspondent in Amsterdam in 2004 when I was just 31. It was a challenging job. Dull Dutch politics became a big story after the murder of the populist right-wing politician, Pim Fortuyn. Office politics at Reuters were fiery. We also covered big Dutch companies which meant frequent 6:30 AM shifts. That was tough but turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for child rearing.
My first son was born in 2007. I took six months off and came back to work full-time. A year later, we moved to Zurich, where I took over as bureau chief, running a bigger multilingual, multimedia team. Two weeks after arriving, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Swiss bank, UBS, almost went down with it. That time is a blur. I was juggling settling my son into nursery, unpacking boxes, finding a babysitter and a doctor, at the same time as running a newsroom where our headlines on the Swiss central bank could move billions on the foreign currency markets."
Burning the candle at both ends
"Switzerland might seem like a sleepy place compared to the warzones more commonly associated with journalist breakdowns. But the way we run our news monitoring operations in major financial centres is a near military operation and the stress is not dissimilar to that experienced by our clients in dealing rooms around the world, where huge sums can be won or lost on major trades. Our headlines are timed against our major competitors to the second and, as bureau chief, I was responsible for staying ahead. That means managing a kind of air traffic control hub to monitor breaking news 12 hours a day, with at least one correspondent on call around the clock, and the bureau chief as a back-up. At least those early starts meant I could get out of work at a reasonable time to pick up my son. But my candle was burning at both ends, and I was burning out.
My second son was born in 2010. I was back at the helm six months later and the big stories kept coming, including a rogue trading scandal at UBS and central bank currency intervention.
When my posting ended in 2013, I decided I couldn’t face another move to a new location, much as I loved the bureau chief role. So I managed to swing a job in Berlin, where I had been based nine years earlier and where my sons could continue to grow up bilingual. I thought it would be easier to go back to a place where I already had a network of friends. But another international move, this time with two small children, was a Herculean effort: securing apartment, school and nursery places while continuing to do my day job."
I began to unravel
"My partner is a rock of support, but his German is not fluent so many of the tasks done by a trailing spouse usually fall to me. One son was already suffering from severe anxiety due to the move and a few weeks after arriving in Berlin, he had to have an unrelated medical procedure under general anesthetic. Our new babysitter quit on short notice and then the Berlin winter arrived. Berlin is a green, vibrant city but cold and grey for six months of the year. Freezing wind blows along grim avenues of tower blocks in the former communist part of the city near where we live.
It was clear I was in trouble when I burst into tears in front of my children at the concrete Alexanderplatz square for no obvious reason other than its ugliness. I was suffering from chronic eczema, migraines, and insomnia. I went to my doctor about the eczema, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help with my mental state.
Despite having good friends in Berlin, I had no energy for socializing and stopped watching films and the TV news (especially the grim pictures coming out of Syria at that time) – obviously not a good sign for a journalist. I went to bed most nights as soon as the kids were asleep. But I didn’t miss a day of work, except when a migraine meant I couldn’t see straight. I thought I would feel better when the sun came out again. It didn’t happen. I couldn’t muster the courage to ask my doctor for help or cold-call a psychologist."
"I spotted a sign for a helpline in the Reuters company kitchen and made the call. They helped me find a local therapist. That was the start of a slow process of recovery.
My depression was not just because of work. In fact, the office often felt like a refuge from the civil war raging at home until about a year ago. I couldn’t leave my highly-strung boys alone without someone getting injured (the oldest has knocked out at least two of the younger one’s teeth). Perhaps a stronger person would have managed to keep going, but I don’t know many working mothers who have moved a young family around the world without reaching a breaking point.
I’m glad I did hit bottom, in a way. My therapist argues that depression can be an opportunity to remake your life. That was hard to accept in my darkest days, but I can see the truth in it now. I am lucky that I had supportive managers at Reuters who allowed me to cut my hours, not to mention caring friends and family. I joined a choir, try to run and do yoga on a regular basis and meditate, which helps with insomnia and migraines. I have also realised how much nature can help – on several occasions when I couldn’t get out of bed, my partner has bundled me into the car and got me out into the forests that surround Berlin. I always feel better."
Why did I push myself so hard?
"I wanted to prove that mothers can do top international jobs. But we remain a rare breed for good reason. If that is to change, we need to go easier on ourselves and be more open about the time and support we need to move our families, especially if our partners are also working. And be ready to ask for help if needed. Thomson Reuters runs various schemes around the world to support staff. Use them!"
Emma Thomasson is a senior correspondent, based in Berlin. Emma joined Reuters as a trainee in London in 1995, then had postings to Germany and South Africa as a correspondent before leading the bureaus in Amsterdam and Zurich. She is more attuned to the stresses and strains of real-time financial news than covering conflict but has also helped out in bureaus including Jerusalem, Brussels, and Vienna and worked on the desk in Dubai during the Iraq war. Emma is a member of the Reuters peer network.
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