Since becoming a mother, I relate to the women I meet in the field in a completely different way. I understand their sacrifices on a new level, and their commitment to their children. And I understand the motivation behind all of their hard work, day in and day out.
I'm touched when I watch women laboring in the fields with their children strapped on their backs, bobbing along rows of planting, stopping every minute or so to pat a leg, caress a cheek, reposition a sleeping baby. I'm touched by the way that children are taken everywhere—to meetings, work, the kitchen, to fetch water. The children I see are allowed to be children, given playthings made of scraps of cloth or fashioned from mud, or purchased at the local market with a bit of extra pocket money.
Children are seamlessly incorporated into the everyday; their days are not parceled into selected slots of time between home and work.
When I used to take my son, Leo, with me to the field (CRS allows working moms to travel with their infants until the age of 2), mothers were amazed that I breastfed like them.
"You mean 'mzungu' feed their babies the same way we do?" they marveled. "It's not just something we're told just because we're poor?"
They loved taking turns holding my son, and he in turn relished the attention. Now that Leo is older, I take photos of him to show the women I photograph that I am also a mother. It makes them look at me in a different way. They ask different questions than when they thought I was simply a foreigner with a camera.
Despite our differences, we are strikingly similar. They have taught me to put aside inhibitions and to sing to my child heartily—and often—about everyday tasks like sweeping, cleaning, cooking, playing. They have taught me to dance in praise when he does things well. Although their children are the center of their worlds, they're not made to feel like they are the center of the universe.
These mothers have taught me to relax, to trust my son to explore, make mistakes and learn things on his own. I have learned more from meeting them and seeing how they mother than I have from any parenting guide.
I've also been heartsick when women ask me if our agency can offer prenatal care. One woman told me she'd miscarried. She was heartbroken. She wondered what she'd done wrong. She wondered if her baby could have been saved if she'd had access to a clinic. I know I felt the same way when I miscarried, and I had access to the best medical care in the world.
The same doubts and dreams plague us all. We are united in motherhood. We all want to do better. Be better. Give more to our children. This is a truth that connects us.