Yes, you can raise a family and do killer photojournalism too

Me with my daughter at age 4.

Me with my daughter at age 4.

When I was 21, I knew I wanted to become a photojournalist.  But I have known all my life that I wanted to be a mother. 

As an intern and early in my career, I sought a mentor who was a mother and a photojournalist and found none. Photojournalism has historically been a male-dominated profession, and the intense, unrelenting nature of the job, with unpredictable hours and varying conditions, is not friendly to those also responsible for the full-time care of a child.

At age 34, as an established photojournalist at The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, I married and became pregnant with my daughter. My boss, then senior visuals editor Mark Morris, had never managed a pregnant photojournalist in his three decades of experience. He and I entered uncharted waters together.

It is easy to plan what your life will look like as a parent before you have a child, so I was convinced that pregnancy and motherhood would not slow me down. I would do all and be all for my child and my job. I would work until my due date, nailing my assignments with a baby belly in tow. I would take my 12 weeks of parental leave, return to work full time, pump breast milk while on the road and have my baby cared for across the street at The Bee daycare.

I was wrong.

It turns out that having a baby is an unpredictable process. I was mired by morning sickness from the start, and my pregnancy brain was so bad I had to give up my weekly photo column a couple of months into pregnancy due to the fear of making errors. I wasn't even through my second trimester when I asked to stop shooting and work on the photo editing desk. I started my leave five weeks before my due date, and when the baby arrived my world completely changed.

I was living actively in an intuitive state of motherhood, and I could not ignore it. I wanted to raise my daughter myself no matter the cost. Thankfully, I am the lucky mother whose management supported me 100 percent. Just as my boss valued my instincts and personal values as a journalist, he also valued me for following my heart as a mother. I asked for and was granted a part-time schedule so that I could be a full-time mother to my child. He supported me through the many sick days that happen with parents of young children. I worked on the picture editing desk for another year, which enabled me to feed my daughter every three hours because she refused to drink from a bottle. My work hours could not be unpredictable, as there is no deadline pressure comparable to that of an infant who needs care. This made me unavailable for the many assignments that arise outside of the usual 9-to-5 arrangement.

But just as quickly as things change for a new parent, things change again.

As my daughter grew older, the ability to work more flexibly and to shoot assignments returned. Even as I worked part-time, I was able to do career-highlight work. Morris and others were supportive of fulfilling my commitment to my family, and it is now paying off in the kind of journalist I am today.

Motherhood has been a soul-opening experience that has changed me to my core, and this affects everything I do, especially my work in photojournalism. I understand the beauty and the struggles of having children and a family. Every subject I now work with I see as someone's child, which brings a further depth of emotion and understanding to my work. 

Everything that we are as individuals – our culture, our race, our gender and family makeup – affects our ability to relate to and report on stories. We as news organizations need to work on building a diverse workplace that reflects in our reporting the variety of human experiences that our readership has. 

I believe that it is essential to include and support a diverse set of family arrangements in the personal lives of journalists in our quest for complete coverage. Photojournalists who are fathers, mothers, grandparents and those who do not have children should all be included in this makeup. As more and more women are graduating from photojournalism programs in college, this issue becomes more relevant. Many women will wish to pursue both a career in journalism and become mothers, and neither should have to be sacrificed for the other.

I believe that journalists make wonderfully thoughtful and informed parents. I also believe that parents make insightful and committed journalists. It is worthwhile to navigate the challenges to support parenting journalists for the overall good of our future generations and our mission in journalism. This column will explore the variety of ways in which we can accomplish this. I welcome your stories, too.

parenthoodAutumn Payne