Investigative Reporter Rukmini Callimachi on New Motherhood and Quitting Coffee
‘I’m very much an all-or-nothing kind of person. It’s something that I’m going to have to work on a lot harder now that I have a very small baby in my life.’
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Even if you haven’t heard Rukmini Callimachi’s name, you might recognize the New York Times’ foreign correspondent’s voice from the popular podcast, Caliphate. Callimachi is well known for her reporting on the Islamic state; after parts of Iraq and Syria are liberated from ISIS rule, Callimachi goes to those locations and spends weeks interviewing the people who live there. She speaks with people who have escaped ISIS rule, and sometimes even interviews members of the terrorist group themselves. Callimachi is also a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of the George Polk Award for International Reporting.
Recently, Callimachi added a new sort of bravery to her life: She had a baby. He’s now six weeks old, so Callimachi caught up with Elemental during her maternity leave to talk about her routine when she’s on the road, how she plans to manage her career and new parenthood, and what keeps her motivated at work every day.
It’s hard to find a typical day in my life. I’m between time zones and things are very different depending on what I’m trying to get done. But I have an alarm clock on my iPhone and typically it’s set to an hour and a half before I need to be somewhere.
If I’m on the road, I’m typically traveling with a team of people. In a place like Syria, we hit the road at around eight in the morning. I’ll usually have two eggs, sunny side up for breakfast. Then I often have to drive several hours to get to a meeting, so I’ll get in the car and use one of those cushions you put on your lap to cradle your laptop. I put in my earbuds and I open my laptop. I listen to the music I like and I type up my notes from the day before or I outline stories I’m working on. Sometimes I update my Rolodex to make sure I can access the phone numbers of the sources I just interviewed.
If I’m in New York, I typically start my day a little bit later. I’ll get up around 8 am and I aim to be in the office by 10 or 11 a.m. I make a smoothie every morning with rice milk, blueberries, and a scoop of protein powder. Then I walk to the bus.
Every year I make a list of goals for myself, both work goals, professional goals, and also personal and health goals. I turn those goals into affirmations that are typically a sentence or two long and have a singsong quality to them. I memorize those affirmations and I recite them 10 times each as I walk to the bus.
Generally I eat very little meat. I try as much as I can to have a high vegetable diet, but that can be a real challenge on the road! With every meal, I try to have a salad because there are so many more vitamins in vegetables, but obviously it’s very hard work to eat like this when you’re embedded with a rebel group in Syria and you’re eating a can of tuna that they’re generously sharing with you for lunch.
A big habit that I broke several years ago was drinking coffee. I used to be a huge coffee drinker and then I went from coffee to obsessively drinking tea. Then, when I was trying to get pregnant, I was told by more than one doctor that I should get off caffeine completely. Since then, I’ve managed to stay off coffee but I will sometimes fall back into tea. I feel a lot better without coffee, though. The caffeine gives you that lift for the hour but the overall caffeine-free lifestyle is just so much better in terms of my sleep hygiene.
Exercising has been a bit hectic with my pregnancy but I try to exercise every other day. One of the biggest changes that I’ve made to my work life is I try to only stay in hotels that have a gym. You can tell yourself that you’re going to go for a run outside your hotel but it just becomes too difficult, especially if you’re in a foreign country or even if you’re in Washington and it’s raining. So this is just one of my settings on Hotwire.
I get motivated by telling myself I’m just going to do 20 minutes on the treadmill. Obviously with that, you’re not gonna lose any weight. But it’s enough to clear your head! It’s enough to give you the endorphins that you get from running really hard. It does wonders for sleep, for health, and for balance, too.
If I’m in New York, I usually head to the gym after I leave work around 7:30 p.m., or I go to my boot camp class with my friend Heather Murphy, who is also my workout partner.
Evenings tend to get stressed out. When I’m on the road, I’ll typically have dinner with my colleagues, then head to the hotel. I’ll have hopefully finished my work by then, especially if I had a few hours in the car. When I’m on the road I usually like to watch a very frivolous TV show in the evening, something silly and lowbrow. I love Vanderpump Rules. I’m embarrassed to even share that! But at that point, there’s no more room for heavy lifting intellectually. I also talk to my husband every night before going to sleep on FaceTime or WhatsApp.
In New York, I usually get home before my husband in the evening; he gets off work around 11 p.m. because he’s a personal trainer. He used to be the personal trainer to the First Lady and President of Senegal back when we met in West Africa, so I’ve had to get used to him coming home late at night because most of his clients are Type A people who want to work out either very early before work, or very late after work. I’ll get dinner ready and I usually eat alone because he gets in after me. Then I’ll typically wait up for him so that I can give him a hug before I go to sleep.
They always say that screens are not great in the bedroom but I haven’t been a particularly good student of that technique. I do try to read before I fall asleep every night, though. For example, I just finished Bad Blood by John Carryou. I’m with screens all day long so there’s something about the white page in an old fashioned book that tends to quiet my mind.
I don’t know that I’m the best person to ask about work-life balance, though. I’m very much an all-or-nothing kind of person. It’s something that I’m going to have to work on a lot harder now that I have a very small baby in my life. Basically I go on these intense trips, I work my heart out, and then I come back and do my best to go back to having some sort of normal routine at home. And I do not always do that very successfully. For example, I often get invited in advance to do social things like dinner at a friend’s house, or a weekend getaway with friends. But I often can’t commit because I have no idea where I’ll be then. It sometimes feels like my personal life is permanently in abeyance, always contingent on the latest reporting trip.
I’m still trying to figure out what my life and career will look like with a baby. My thought is that I can bundle him up and go to a coffee shop and start writing pretty soon. But that might be completely unrealistic. Right now he’s sleeping a lot so there are long bouts of quiet, but more and more he’s wanting to play with me and I also want to be there to play with him!
The person that I admire the most in this regard is Lynsey Addario, the war photographer. Since becoming a mother she has managed to keep working in war zones as a photographer with the caveat that she takes shorter trips now. I typically go out for six weeks at a time, but I don’t think I’m going to be doing that anytime soon. I think two weeks at a time is hopefully doable, though.
I took my first trip away from my baby last week for one night. I went to Vancouver for a talk. And I had these very conflicting thoughts! On the one hand, on the plane ride over, I opened my laptop and I started working, and I felt so happy just to be my professional self. But then every 30 minutes, I was going to the albums in my iPhone and looking at pictures of him.
I’m on maternity leave now but I do have a project I’m excited about: On June 23rd, we’re launching an episode of The Weekly on Hulu and FX that’s based on my reporting. The story is about an idealistic American couple bicycling around the world, and a group of young men radicalized by ISIS. I investigated how these lives tragically intersected on a remote mountain pass.