In Sarajevo, as the wife of a BBC war correspondent, Rosie Whitehouse and her five children “heard the firing of the shots that started a war”. Heather Ryan asks what else she had to juggle in the raising of a most unusual family.
“Family travel with bullets” is not a synopsis that could be applied to many books. But “Are We There Yet” is no ordinary travel memoir. Author Rosie Whitehouse and her war reporter husband, Tim Judah, brought up their children in Bucharest, Belgrade, Croatia and Bosnia during their most unstable years rather than separate their family. Her book not only describes the struggles of a wife and mother trying to create a stable home environment in the midst of war and social upheaval, but also examines the (positive) effect that a childhood spent following Daddy across Europe has had on her children’s identity and development.
Whitehouse is a journalist herself; indeed, she and Judah met while working on the student newspaper at the London School of Economics. She was News Editor, and he was Arts Editor; he caught her eye when he delivered his article to her office, and she managed to get him to ask her out by setting up an arts magazine, inviting him to contribute, and hoping he would take her on dates with the free tickets to cultural events that he received. Needless to say, it worked. Studying International History at undergraduate level, and then Russian government and politics at Master’s, Whitehouse’s university career was good preparation for her career in the BBC World Service.
It was as an ambitious editor of Newshour that Whitehouse “woke up one morning and felt sick”; she had fallen pregnant with her eldest son, Ben. In 1980s Britain, she tells me, “women were expected to look as poised and elegant as Princess Di, and hold down a full-time job as well – to have it all”. In spreading themselves so thinly, Whitehouse counters, women “ended up with nothing”. Finding it increasingly hard to go out to work and leave her son with a babysitter, she decided to become a full-time mum, a move which precipitated her husband – a freelance reporter – to approach the Times and ask for work. He was dispatched to cover Bucharest, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall – revolution had swept over Romania and thousands of people were dying in street-fights. Despite the daunting political situation, Whitehouse was “delighted” with her husband’s assignation and there was no question that she and Ben would be accompanying him.
Did Rosie ever wonder whether she was doing the right thing? Of course, but although she concedes “perhaps I’m slightly crazy”, Whitehouse insists that her family’s experiences have enabled her children to “meet history head-on”. She is confident that their unusual upbringing has given her children an appreciation of history, politics and culture that conventional education can’t provide, and this is perhaps borne out by the fact that her firstborn Ben is now studying Modern History and Politics here at Oxford. Whitehouse had a somewhat unconventional childhood herself. Her father was a doctor – a “workaholic” who took his daughter along on his ward rounds on Christmas Day – and his work took him to Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and Poland in the grip of Communism. Family holidays consisted of accompanying her father on business trips abroad. However, she is adamant that her identity, as a child who travelled often but from a settled base in Britain, differs fundamentally from that of her children, two of whom had never lived in the UK before the family recently re-settled here. She uses the Troubles as an illustration. With an Irish Catholic mother, Whitehouse says that she “grew up with an Irish identity that fed my interest in politics”. In contrast, when she visited Ireland with her children, they “identified with the ethnic strife on the streets of Belfast” but do not self-define as Irish, taking instead “a worldwide approach”.
I am interested in the conflict between motherhood and career to which Whitehouse alludes in her discussion of the book. “When you have a child,” she tells me, “you mutate – your child becomes the focus of your life. You’re torn in two.” As a foreign correspondent, finding a satisfactory work-life balance was particularly difficult. But when she was a full-time mum bringing up her children in the Balkans, she gained a new perspective on the things that people work in order to buy: “We don’t need half the rubbish people buy in the UK. Do you really need designer baby clothes?” However, she’s not advocating that women should forego career in favour of motherhood, and feels that the workplace battles her generation fought have prepared the ground for our generation to have a better work-life balance.
Whitehouse is a vocal critic of newsrooms, which she says “neglect” the families of the foreign correspondents they dispatch to dangerous situations. In 17 years of her husband’s career, only once has somebody from a newspaper – the Times – contacted her to check everything was all right. How could this be remedied? Firstly, she says, a journalist calling with news of her husband should “think before they open their mouth” – because ringing late at night, and leaving terse messages such as “Your husband isn’t dead”, are common occurrences that raise more concerns than they alleviate. She illustrates her assertion that journalists are often thoughtless by describing a recent visit to Warminster in Wiltshire, site of an army barracks. “Reporters were asking the Army wives how they’d feel if their husbands were killed!” Secondly, she suggests an Internet forum could be established for war reporters and their families. “Men need an outlet where they can talk about trauma,” Whitehouse says, “and there could be a closed forum where people could ask advice, and post bits of information and messages of support.”
Whitehouse hopes that, in the absence of such a forum, her book can offer some support to families in a similar position to her own. “No parenting guide I’ve ever seen tells you how to explain to your five-year-old why war has broken out, or what to say when your child asks if Daddy loves Iraqis more than he loves them.” In more ways than one, “Are We There Yet” is a first.
Rosie Whitehouse will be speaking at QI on Tuesday, June 26th, at 7:30. Tickets will be £3 on the door. “Are We There Yet” can be bought from www.reportagepress.com – it costs £8.99 and part of the proceeds go to the Rory Peck Trust, which helps the families of freelance newsgatherers who are killed, seriously wounded or imprisoned.
Rosie Whitehouse has a blog, which contains excerpts from her book: www.travelswithmyfrontlinefamily.blogspot.com
By Heather Ryan
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