(Editor's note: Kayna Whitworth is an ABC News correspondent and a new mother. Most recently, she has been covering the volcano eruptions in Hawaii, which has taken her away from her son, Conway. Whitworth shares with "Good Morning America" the unique challenges she faces trying to balance her work life and her home life.)
I'm obviously not the first mom who has ever faced the challenge of balancing work and family. I’m certainly not the only working mom at ABC. We also don’t want to discount the committed fathers on staff either. Moms, however, are unique and the crazy, unpredictable job of a network correspondent makes for some interesting scenarios. Here is my story.
“We need you in Hawaii sooner than we thought,” my boss called to tell me last month. Mount Kilauea's eruptions, lava spouts and earthquakes on the Big Island sent residents into a panic as lava swallowed homes, brought down power lines and destroyed roads.
In a matter of hours I was thrust into a disaster zone.
“”In a matter of hours I was thrust into a disaster zone.
I left behind my 8-month-old son with my exceedingly capable husband, who has confidently taken the reins numerous times. But this time it was different. I was 4,000 miles away, on an island that was spewing 2000-degree lava and toxic gas. New cracks in the earth were opening up every few hours, some of which sent people running from their neighborhood -- the very neighborhood we were trying to get to.
“Be careful,” my husband said to me before I left home, knowing what he meant to say was “It’s not about us anymore, it’s about our baby boy. He needs us. He needs his mom.”
I hit the tropical ground running and rented a car to interview the director of Civil Defense, driving across a surprisingly desolate landscape while using the hands-free option on my breast pump. I had to call my producer and ask him to get ice so I could keep my expressed breast milk cold. He, like all my producers, is extremely helpful when it comes to preserving what I consider my liquid gold.
While I was on maternity leave I pumped around the clock trying to build up my supply in preparation for returning to work. I pump whenever I am away from Conway.
It's really important to me to do this and really difficult. When I’m on the road I’m constantly concerned about the state of my breast milk -- worried about how to keep it cold, how to get it on the plane, is my ice leaking in the overhead compartment? At home we had to buy a separate cooler for our food because our freezer is completely full of breast milk. I want to make sure Conway has a plentiful supply while I’m gone.
People kept asking me if I had leis in the cooler on the way back from #Hawaii ... nope, whole thing full of breastmilk I pumped while covering #Kilauea ... Cheers to the moms out there gettin it done! Moms are powerful creatures #MothersDay #workingmoms pic.twitter.com/dPXzWqCp9W— Kayna Whitworth (@KaynaWhitworth) May 13, 2018
This Hawaii assignment had danger written all over it. I’m always a little uneasy about helicopters and ironically I’ve only ever been in them since I’ve had my son. Disney has incredibly rigorous safety standards when it comes to correspondents riding in choppers so I’ve always been very safe and comfortable, but as we took off to fly over the Kilauea lava flows all I could think about was my baby boy and practicing how to get in and out of my harness.
For a week I worked around the clock. Our "Good Morning America" live shots are scheduled at 1 a.m. Hawaii time because of the six-hour time difference with New York. I have to pump before we go. While pumping, I check emails and make sure I’m up to speed. In the car on the way to our location I’m putting my makeup on and since it's been absolutely dumping rain for days I don’t need to do my hair, which is kind of a relief.
I do my second "GMA" hit at 2 a.m., a smattering of digital and radio updates and then the 30-minute drive back to the hotel. I have two hours to sleep and lay down on top of the covers, removing only my shoes and raincoat. At 5:30 a.m. we are back at it. We pile into the Suburban exhausted but "World News Tonight" is on in just a few hours and we had work to do. At one point I was asked, “Do you have an ocean view from your room?” I had been in Hawaii four days and I honestly didn’t know the answer. I didn’t have a moment to even open the curtains and since the best sleep time for me was during daylight hours it seemed unnecessary anyway.
My schedule is incredibly challenging. I’m basically on call 100 percent of the time, waiting for news to break. I often get a call and have to be at the airport in a matter of hours. I’ve left grocery carts full of groceries at the store, I even walked away from a fully prepped Thanksgiving dinner that I spent two days working on. It's hard to find a nanny or babysitter who can react in that short of a time frame. We do have a babysitter who can usually work around my husband's schedule but he also travels a lot too. We rely heavily on my parents because someone always needs to be home. Mazie and Grandpa Rocky drive from Colorado, sometimes staying for a month, utterly saving us. We are so lucky.
Finally I call my husband. “I’m coming home,” I told him and I could hear the relief in his voice.
I had to pack all the milk I had pumped that week into a small cooler, carefully surrounding it with ice. Lugging that thing through the airport was no easy task. Sometimes I get frustrated trying to bring home so much milk. I feel badly for the poor TSA agents who have to check each bag that I wasn’t able to freeze. Once a female agent saw an overwhelmed and exacerbated male agent scanning all my milk. She came over and offered to help, saying, “Good for you mom, what a great supply you have!” She will never know how much that meant to me.
I took the red-eye flight home, making it just in time to nurse my son in the morning. I don’t catch up on sleep, I don’t unpack, I just cuddle him, knowing the next phone call could take me away at any moment. You can’t predict the news.
“”While I'm out telling other peoples stories, am I missing out on my own?
“You can do it.”
These are the words I keep hearing from my entire family as I try to balance the sometimes improbable demands of my career and being a mom … not to mention a wife. On Sundays I spend half the day packing bags. First, I make sure the diaper bag is all put back together after our weekend adventures. I get the breast pump bag ready, making sure I have enough quick clean wipes, storage and steam sterilizer bags. I have forgotten a crucial pump part, leading to late night runs in an unknown city looking for a nipple shield or back flow protector. Then I re-pack my “go bag,” a suitcase stuffed to the gills with everything that I deem necessary to get me through at least a week on the road. It’s more challenging now, as I have to make room for my breast pump accessories. My whole life revolves around feeding my son. That bag lives in the back of my car alongside fire and rain gear. Then there's my helmet and chest-high waders -- and a pair of high heels. I just never know what my day will hold, although I’ve used my waders a lot more than my heels.
The other half of my day is spent cooking. I do as much prep work as possible for the week. I try to make our meals at home healthy, easy and something my husband can just warm up if I'm gone. Recently I was at the scene of a deadly explosion, sirens screaming, bomb squads surveying the area, debris everywhere and my husband was texting me asking how long to cook the casserole in the oven.
The pain of being away from my son is hard to explain. I feel desperate sometimes. I work really hard to make it home as quickly as I can and my bosses support that. I knew his first teeth were coming in last month and I didn’t want to leave because I was so worried I would miss it when they popped.
I did, however, come so close to missing his baptism. It had been scheduled for months. The family flew in, programs were printed and towels had been embroidered. We were so excited. Then I was asked to come to New York for work that weekend, an opportunity that doesn't come around often for me and I had to go. But in no way was I going to miss his baptism. The time difference for once worked in my favor. Immediately after the "GMA" Sunday edition taped in New York I jumped in a car and headed to the airport. Six hours later I was home and had enough time to change my clothes.
I’m constantly concerned that one day my husband will wake up and realize that he is the one really getting the shaft. Meals for example look like this: I’m nursing Conway, Rhett is cutting my food into small bites so I can feed myself with one hand, his food is getting cold and will be eating last. Everyone in my family is making sacrifices so I can be a mom and chase my dream. My parents drive from Colorado at the drop of a hat, sometimes through the night just to be here for us. They manage the baby, the dog, the house and my emotions as I tear up each time I get called away. My dad always reminds me that I’m tough, that I can, in fact, do this. My whole family supports me as a mother but also honors my commitment to my profession. I basically sacrificed my 20s to be here so I can’t stop now. Still, I wonder – while I’m out telling other people's stories, am I missing out on my own?