I was about 29 weeks pregnant when I boarded the KLM flight to Warsaw, Poland, for my first reporting assignment at my new job.
It’s obviously my first time traveling so far away with a visibly pregnant belly, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The last time I traveled internationally while pregnant was in January to Mexico City, and I was barely showing at the time, and didn’t know I was pregnant. This time, there was no hiding that bump, even with layers of baggy clothing.
As I strided into the narrow aisle of the aircraft, I could see the eyes of passengers zoom into my middle section. Before deciding to travel, I had double-checked with my doctor that I’m safe to travel. She said as long as I’m less than 35 weeks, with no sign of contractions or bloody discharge, I should be fine, though she was willing to write me a doctor’s note prohibiting me from traveling if I needed it. I told her I didn’t need it.
Two weeks before the trip, an older Chinese man, who took it upon himself to appoint himself my LA-based father figure (I don’t know why, but I always seem to only meet wonderful people), had advised me repeatedly that I should not invite any stress into my life while pregnant. “I don’t know what’s up with western people and their ways, but our Asian culture, we believe in the mother resting as much as possible,” he told me: “So please. No stress. Rest.” My husband tattled that I had originally planned to fly to Ukraine, in a “please tell my crazy wife she’s crazy” tone, and the man’s eyes widened with alarm: “What! No! No traveling. There are plenty of stories to tell here in Los Angeles!” He even told my boss to take it easy on me, to which my boss– who has been incredibly gracious and supportive– apparently exclaimed, “No, it’s not me! It’s her!”
OK. Yes, it’s me. But honestly, with everything that was going on in Ukraine and Europe, with me just starting my job as a reporter hired to write global feature stories, I was getting even more stressed simply reading the news from my chair in Los Angeles. I could certainly do some reporting through Zoom and WhatsApp, but in order to tell a story well, I felt I needed to be there. I needed to see people face to face, shake their hands, breath in their scent, feel the raw energy and emotions.
So there I was, on a KLM aircraft on a Wednesday afternoon, shoving my seven-month belly into the cramped space between my seat and the seat in front of me. And then I prayed for nobody to sit beside me.
When I booked that flight, I made sure to choose an aisle seat so I can shuffle to the bathroom to pee every 15 minutes without irritating my seatmate. But I also made sure to choose a seat with empty seats beside it, so that I can stretch out. The day before, when I checked in online, I saw that the two seats next to me were still empty. I held my breath, hoping, praying.
By the time I sat down, with the two seats next to me still empty, I was so confident that my prayers were answered I happily put my backpack on the seat next to me. I was all prepared for a relatively comfortable flight, and thanking God for it.
Then a woman came up and pointed at me, and said in loud commanding voice, “Those are our seats.” Behind her was her husband, quivering with a walking cane and a stooped back.
“Oh! Sorry,” I said, taking my backpack off their seat and shuffling out into the aisle so the couple could gingerly inch their way into their seats. As the husband groaned while settling into the middle seat, he turned to me and said, “I gotta warn you: I snore.”
I didn’t curse God, but I did shake my fist: Why, God. Why. It was such a simple ask.
They looked to be in their mid-70s at least. The man was hard of hearing, so his wife practically screamed into his ear, enunciating every word she uttered. Her hair was an artificial strawberry blonde blob, her nails polished pink, and her lips puckered into a perpetual scowl. The man had gentle blue eyes, mottled trembling hands, and a soft belly as large as mine. I felt uncomfortable looking at his frail body squeezed into the middle seat, and felt uncomfortable as his elbow poked out of his personal space into mine, sometimes bumping me in the ribs.
Yay, the joys of the economy seat. I admit: My mood instantly turned sour, and I whined internally like a toddler. I had really hoped I would at least get some sleep in before landing in Warsaw and jumping right into a full day of reporting.
I did not get much sleep. Economy seats are already by default cruel and unusual punishment, but my seatmates, God bless them, were loud. The man gave me a fair warning: He did snore– like a bear deep in hibernation, with occasional startled snorts. When he wasn’t snoring, his wife was fussing about, shouting, “Where is my MASK!”
“Eh?” her husband said, half-deaf, half-snoring, and half-asleep. She leaned into his ear and spat out each word as crisply and loudly as she can: “I. CAN’T. FIND. MY. MASSSSSSSSSK!!!” “Oh,” he said, and they both fidgeted about looking for her missing mask, elbows and feet sticking into my space while I tried to sleep. She lost her mask at least three times during the flight. It also didn’t help that my baby was super active throughout the flight, practicing break-dancing or water polo or whatever it is it’s doing in there.
Then it was time for our meal– always the highlight of any flight. I don’t know what it is, because unless you’re in business or first class, airplane food usually sucks, but every time I smell that warm toasty scent wafting through the aircraft, signaling the start of mealtime, my heart sings. It’s really the only thing I look forward to during an economy international flight.
The flight attendant in blue wheeled the food trolley to us. “Chicken or vegetarian pasta?”
“White wine!” the wife barked.
“White wine,” the husband requested.
“Certainly, and for your meal? Chicken or vegetarian pasta?”
“Pasta,” the wife yelled.
“White wine,” the husband requested.
“No, no,” the wife hissed into his ear: “She asked: CHICKEN. OR. PASTA!”
They both got pasta and white wine. I got the chicken, which turned out to be three tiny globs of white meat swimming in reddish sauce.
The wife ripped off the plastic covering to her tray of pasta, stared a half-minute at its contents, then turned to her husband with sour lips and brows: “This looks like dog food.”
That, the husband understood. He turned to me and joked, chuckling, “Gourmet meal, huh?”
For the first time, I felt a certain camaraderie with my elderly seatmates, united by our mutual distaste for the dog food-like dinner we got served. It really didn’t taste too bad, but nothing feels as uniting as complaining about the same thing together.
I survived the flight, and my selfish heart had softened by then to which I said a little silent prayer of safe travels for the crotchety couple, wondering why they were flying to Europe at their old age. But I suppose they could wonder the same about me, an obviously pregnant woman traveling by herself.
I landed in Warsaw, via Amsterdam, at noon, feeling a little dazed from sleep depravity and adrenaline. Waiting for me were Ruslan and Maxim, my travel guides for five days, two Ukrainian guys from Kyiv who had left Ukraine one month before the war, based on a prophetic sense while praying that they needed to leave Ukraine soon. If they hadn’t left, Maxim would have been stuck alone in Ukraine, as he had just turned 18, and Ukraine had banned most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine. (Ruslan is in his 40s, but he would have been allowed to leave, since he has more than three children.) I had warned them I’m pregnant (though not how pregnant), and they took it upon themselves to make sure I never had to carry my own bags throughout the trip.
It’s a little strange, being pregnant during a work trip. It might be my imagination, but men’s eyes seem to soften when they see my belly, and some look more carefully at me with curiosity, though most don’t ask questions, simply bowing their heads to me and saying, “God bless you.” Women, especially mothers, spot my belly and give me small smiles. Several asked me when I’m due, whether it’s a boy or a girl, and if it’s my first. When I told one Ukrainian refugee woman that I’m seven months along, she exclaimed, nodding at her 18-month blonde child, “Oh! I had my daughter at seven months!” I felt a little stab of worry then– I knew I was facing a small risk of preterm birth while overseas, and I prayed I don’t go into labor while in Poland.
Let’s talk mom guilt. Apparently that’s a common thing. The internet message boards I stalk are full of pregnant moms chirping their anxieties and guilt about what they should do or shouldn’t do, what they did or didn’t do, and begging for someone to tell them not to feel guilty. When I found out I was pregnant at almost six months, my sister-in-law messaged me a sweet note trying to assuage me that I needn’t feel guilty for not knowing. I was touched but perplexed– I hadn’t even thought to feel guilty. Even making the decision to go on this reporting trip to Poland, people around me were more worried and stressed about the trip than I was, and I felt both touched and irritated at their concern.
Perhaps I have an inflated sense of security, or perhaps I’m just irresponsible. But once my doctor approved my travel plans, I didn’t see the need to worry over things that are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unlikely to happen. There’s enough stress as is– why pile on more unnecessary stress?
And then I caught a cold.
It started with waking up one morning with a sore throat. I had been in Poland three days by then– three very full days, with non-stop visits to churches and church-run refugee centers helping Ukrainians who fled the war. I was up before 6 am every morning, and in bed after midnight completely exhausted. I had been running on the ground the moment I got off the plane in Warsaw.
I didn’t think much about the full schedule. After all, that’s usual for a reporting work trip. Except I wasn’t “normal” anymore. I was running for two, and pregnancy had diminished my immune system and energy levels. By day four, I woke up at a hotel near the Ukrainian border feeling like I had been hit by a freighter. I tried working out as usual, but got so out of breath and dizzy that I crawled back into bed for a 15-minute nap.
That whole day, I felt like I was moving underwater. Every movement hurt and ached. I sat at breakfast smiling at my travel companions, but barely hearing a word they were saying. I forced food into my mouth, but my stomach heaved it back up the entrance of my gullet, and there the undigested food sloshed all day during a bumpy, long, overheated car ride, until finally I squatted by the side of a road and puked out puddles of my breakfast onto the dirt field.
The nausea stalked me all day. If I hadn’t felt the baby still kicking inside me, I would have been wrecked with worry for the baby’s health. I wondered several times if I did the right thing coming here, mocked myself for playing mission impossible. I guess for me, mom guilt takes the form of scorn and derision: Who do you think you are, some sort of martyr journalist? You fool, you ridiculous person dragging everyone down with your pregnancy cold.
I have no profound insights to share except that I had to swallow my pride and admit I’m no Superwoman. I’m just a regular human needing to learn to listen to my own body cues. Mind isn’t always stronger than matter, as I tend to believe. But sometimes, God gives you the strength you need.
That late evening, as we made our way to our last interview in Przemysl, an old border city, I strongly considered just staying in the car, stretching out in the back seat, and knocking out. I was so, so tempted to tell my travel companions to go on to the interview without me. But I crawled out of the car and hobbled like a granny nun up the hill to the church, and somehow, I made it through the interview– and it was a really good interview. I was glad I pushed through– but also glad to crash early to bed that night, and pass out for a full eight hours. And my body, given the rest it needs, woke up the next day feeling ten times better. It’s amazing how the body springs back when it’s treated well.
The last three days in Poland, I was by myself, without Ruslan and Maxim. During one of those days, I re-visited a warehouse in the outskirts of Warsaw run by a Ukrainian church. That warehouse opened within a week of Putin’s invasion, and currently serves as a hub for prayers, collecting and sending out emergency supplies to Ukraine, and hosting refugees who now work as volunteers there. It is a beehive of activity– men and women, young and old, buzzing about like bees, murmuring and bellowing in Ukrainian and Russian, organizing first aid supplies into boxes for front-line soldiers, unloading pellets of food from trucks arriving from Spain and Estonia and Germany, discussing strategy and priorities for the day.
The founding pastor of that church and warehouse is Pastor Oleksandr, or Pastor Sasha, a stocky, high-foreheaded former gang-leader Ukranian with greenish eyes and sonic energy. He sets the pace and energy at that place, and I rarely saw him sit down for a break. He was constantly marching from one room to the other, meeting with this bishop and that missionary, booming and ordering with the deep voice of a military sergeant. In the midst of that busy day, he still made sure to greet me and show me around, offering me coffee and dates and bananas and chocolate. Ukrainian hospitality doesn’t stop for no war.
That afternoon, I sat with a group of men in the office, all Ukrainians. Some of them are Ukrainian-American missionaries and ministry leaders who flew out on one-way tickets to Poland to help. One of them, a white-haired Ukrainian-American Assemblies of God missionary from Florida, asked me when I’m due, and if it’s a boy or a girl. He was the first man to ask me that. I told him the baby’s sex and the baby’s name, and the meaning behind the name, and he beamed.
Then he leaned forward with a sincere expression and asked, “Is it OK if we pray for you and the baby? We would love to pray for you. It is so important to pray for a new life.”
I was startled, though I shouldn’t have been, given that I was in the midst of praying ministers. But I suppose I didn’t expect these busy people to stop everything they’re doing– important, life-saving work– and pray for a stranger and her unborn child. That day, the Russians had bombed a critical bridge, blowing up the only way for the warehouse trucks to bring much-needed food and supplies to the war-torn Chernihiv region. They had several trucks waiting on the other side of the river full of emergency goods, and no way to reach the people who need it. There were a lot of logistical complications to work out, and lots of meetings ahead. And here I was, a reporter from Los Angeles, sucking up their time and attention. Or at least, that’s how I felt.
But I was still recovering from a cold, and I never say no to prayers, so I said yes, I would love prayers for the baby.
The missionary called out to his comrades in Ukrainian, including Pastor Sasha, asking if they wanted to pray for me and my baby. Everyone’s eyes lit up, and they shouted yes with enthusiasm, immediately leaping to their feet. They gathered around me and put their hands on my shoulders, and together, they prayed out loud in passionate Ukrainian, the kind that comes with uplifted palms and pumping fists.
I had no idea what they were saying, but I understood their hearts. It was a heart of giving, of blessing, of pure brotherly love. I felt my eyes sting with tears, and my face crumpled as I willed myself not to burst out crying. Instead, I breathed it all in– their hearts, their prayers, their beautiful foreign words of blessing over a child who involuntarily traveled with me across the world to report on a war. And my spirit received it all with gratitude and affection: Amen, amen, amen.
On the long flight back to LA, I sat back reflecting on the last nine days in Poland. Has it really only been nine days? It feels like a month. My mind and heart were full of new sights and voices and relationships and feelings that I did not have on my flight to Europe. I felt full, so full.
And then the baby kicked. Rolled. Air-guitared and danced.
I put both hands on my belly, and the baby responded to my touch, dancing wilder. And for the first time, I felt a deep emotional and spiritual connection to my unborn child. We experienced this trip together. We witnessed the work of God and His people together. We received blessings together.
I felt a little weepy again, and I silently whispered to the baby, “Thank you, aga yah (baby in Korean). Thank you for coming with me. Thank you for staying strong, and reminding me that I’m not alone. And now, we return home to abba.”