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Returning to work is hard enough as a new mom — then add a warzone trip with Biden


Just how much are working moms capable of? Sabrina Siddiqui took a pretty impressive crack at answering that on a recent trip to Ukraine with President Biden. Siddiqui is a White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She was one of two journalists asked to travel with Biden on a clandestine journey to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. Siddiqui is also a mom to 9-month-old Sofia. She's still breastfeeding. And her top question when she landed the assignment, involving a long train journey into a war zone, was, how will I pump?

Sabrina Siddiqui, welcome.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: How did you learn this trip was happening and that you were being asked to go?

SIDDIQUI: Well, I was supposed to travel with President Biden to Poland and already anxious about leaving my daughter Sofia for the very first time. At this point, I had literally never spent a single night away from her. And the thought of being overseas at all was really nerve-wracking to me. Next thing, on the Friday before, I was summoned to the White House for a meeting with then-communications director Kate Bedingfield and Tamara Keith, the president of the White House Correspondents Association.

KELLY: And our own NPR correspondent, I have to plug. Go on.

SIDDIQUI: Yes. And I was told that I would be one of two journalists going with President Biden on this secret trip to Ukraine and that we would be leaving the following night. And in that moment, it almost feels surreal. And there are many, many questions going through your head about how this trip is going to work - the logistics, the fact that the president's going into a war zone where the U.S. military doesn't control the situation on the ground.

But all I could think of in that moment was, wow. I thought I was going on a really simple trip to Poland for two days, and now I don't know how I'm going to manage this trip with a baby at home. And really just how am I going to manage as a mom who is still breastfeeding and pumping? And now this has just become that much more logistically complicated.

KELLY: Right, because you're not only going to be on a crazy deadline, filing around the clock, but you need electricity to power that breast pump, and that's not a guarantee on a train headed into a war zone.

SIDDIQUI: It's not guaranteed by any measure, especially when you're being told that you will be spending 20 hours total on the train - 10 hours into Kyiv, 10 hours out of Kyiv. And I was told that there are outlets, but, hey; there's no way we can guarantee that they work. Then I'm thinking, OK, maybe I can get one of those wireless rechargeable pumps. And then Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director at this time, is saying, well, does it have Bluetooth? - because anything that's got Bluetooth is going to be confiscated. And some wireless pumps have Bluetooth so that you can connect to apps and track your pumping session. So now I'm like, I don't know if it has Bluetooth. And so there's this whole back-and-forth trying to figure out the logistics of the pump, which was also extraordinary because there are many, many things that they're thinking of logistically in this unprecedented wartime visit, and now my pump is one of the topics of conversation.

KELLY: (Laughter) It's up there with stressful things to deal with on work travel. And just to note, for people who have never nursed a baby, this is not optional. It's not like you can just take a few days off pumping when you have a baby who's still nursing back at home. I just want to put that out there.

Before we move on from this conversation, Kate Bedingfield - you mentioned Tamara Keith of NPR was also there in her role running the White House Correspondents Association. They're both working moms, I know. How important is it to have other working moms in the room when decisions like who's going to go on this kind of trip get made?

SIDDIQUI: I feel like it made all the difference. And I was told that they were already having the conversation about my pumping logistics because they knew that I had just come back from maternity leave at the beginning of January and that I was pumping. And I couldn't help but wonder if it had been a conversation between a couple of men, would they have maybe just automatically ruled me out and thought, well, she's not going to be able to do this? Or maybe if I'm sitting in that meeting, are they going to say, look; like, we just can't really accommodate this? There are many, many more important things we have to think about; can you just work something out? Maybe there would have been a lot more of a fight, whereas with both Kate and Tam, the immediate response I got from them was, hey; we get it. We've been there. And that, to me, was so validating...

KELLY: Yeah.

SIDDIQUI: ...And just so vital because I'm really lucky that I had these two working moms advocating for me. I know that it's not the case for most women, and I know how many women struggle with returning to work and not having the right infrastructure, resources and support that they need in order to be able to pump and even just to make that transition.

KELLY: Yeah.

SIDDIQUI: So it made all the difference.

KELLY: You also had major support coming from your husband. You did get on the plane. You're headed into Ukraine, and you discover your husband had tucked a note in your travel bag saying what?

SIDDIQUI: My husband, Ali - he is extraordinary and so supportive. I don't think I would be able to make the trip without him and knowing that Sofia was in the best hands possible. But one thing that really does stand out is just being on the plane, rummaging through my purse, pulling out this note, handwritten, saying, hey; we're so proud of you; Sofia is going to be so proud of you one day. You know, I was so anxious, and it just enabled me to remember from where I'm able to derive my strength, to think about the passion I have for my career and just to know that, hey; you know, my being a mom doesn't come at the expense of my career.

KELLY: How did it actually work on the ground in Ukraine? You're having to pump - what? - every three hours or so. And then you're also having to figure out, OK, I've got this milk. I have to keep it cold so I can take it home to my baby.

SIDDIQUI: Yeah. You know, I was pumping on Air Force One about every three hours, pumping every three hours on the train. There's a time zone change, too. And I had to just remember that my body is going to figure it out. But we were on the ground in Kyiv for about five hours. That's the max that, you know, I could or should go. And so thankfully, I was able to get by with that short break.

But, you know, I was also in a very fortunate position that I'm in this very bizarre and unusual journey, but I'm traveling in this private, secure capacity. So I was able to ask the attendants on Air Force One, hey; can you refrigerate my milk? And then this lovely Polish woman who spoke no English on the train who was looking after us - she had her phone. I didn't have mine. So, you know, using Google Translate, I arranged for her to keep the milk from the train in her fridge. Eventually, just all I needed to do is get it to Warsaw, where I can then put it in the custody of the hotel and their freezer. But, you know, I'm - that's another place where I had to sort of think about how lucky I was to have these options available.

KELLY: Yeah.

SIDDIQUI: I know so many women have to pump and dump, which is just devastating - meaning to pump the milk and dump it out because they're not going to be able to store it at the right temperature or get it back home.

KELLY: And that stuff is like liquid gold. You work so hard for it.

SIDDIQUI: You work so hard for it. And, you know, there's so much societal pressure that, frankly, there shouldn't be. But it impacts everyone, you know, mentally, physically, emotionally when it comes to breastfeeding and pumping. So I was, again, very lucky to be able to make it work in highly unusual circumstances.

KELLY: Before I let you go, I want to circle back to that note that your husband tucked in your bag about how Sofia is going to be so proud of you someday. What do you want your daughter to take away from this trip one day when you can tell her about it?

SIDDIQUI: You know, I thought about her the entire time. I was standing there watching history unfold, and all I'm thinking is, is she OK? I wonder how she is. Has she eaten? Has she slept? Where does she think I am? But then at some point, I also thought about just the extraordinary challenge that I've been presented with and the opportunity to really demonstrate to her that, hey; your mom was still able to do this. You know, for all the anxiety I had going into it, I was still able to do my job no differently than I would have, you know, before - minus the pumping part - and pull it all off. And so one day I just hope that if she has any takeaway from this trip, it's what working moms are capable of.

KELLY: Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal. She wrote about this for the Journal in a piece headlined "How Will I Pump?: When Your First Work Trip After Maternity Leave Is To Ukraine With President Biden." Sabrina Siddiqui, thanks. Welcome home.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.