When people ask me how I ended up working on the first 1,000 days of life, I go back to one story that touched me deeply when I was based in Ecuador as a foreign correspondent a little over a decade ago.
Marco must be in his late 20s by now, but he was 17, curious, and a little shy when I met him. I was introduced to him because he was one of 2,000 Ecuadorian children who grew up working in a landfill and received scholarships to help them with their studies after a ban on children’s hazardous work. He was the poster child of resilience: a boy who was doing very well despite growing up in awful circumstances.
Marco’s mother died shortly after he was born, and his father got together with one of Marco’s half-sisters and had other children. A social worker told me Marco’s father and stepmother were emotionally abusive, and Marco received little affection and nourishment from them. His father worked in a landfill in Quito’s outskirts and would bring Marco along to work from a very young age because there was very little money at home. Marco’s primary school teacher, who’d known Marco since he was five years old, told me that once she went to see him at the dump and saw him sucking on a bag of milk that had gone off.
At eight years of age, Marco would stay up until 3 am unloading vans that brought all sorts of waste. He would receive 1 or 2 dollars per van. If the van’s driver was generous, Marco would receive 5 dollars. He then started sorting scrap metal and selling it.
When I asked him if the work was dangerous, his answer was matter-of-fact. He described how they would receive hospital waste, and they needed to be careful, or else they could get stung by syringes. And then he showed me his hands, which were full of scars. He said his hands would get cut quite often. “We would use gloves; some people would put on two or three pairs. But I would only use one pair because my hands were small. One pair of gloves could protect you only from smaller bits of glass. As soon as there were larger bits, you would get cut; the gloves would break,” Marco told me.
It’s a tragic story. But things started changing. First, Marco’s primary school teacher took notice of Marco and helped him study even after school. Then the Ecuadorian government carried out a campaign to ban children from working in landfills, and several NGOs supported the process by offering financial scholarships to these children. The thinking was that if these children could get some money to continue their education, their families may have an extra incentive to keep them away from hazardous work. Also, the social workers who looked after children like Marco offered psychological support and checked on the family. In Marco’s case, the NGO pushed for a change in Marco’s home environment, and he ended up living with an uncle, away from his abusive father. Studying had become a distraction for him; he did well at school and dreamt of going on to university.
Marco’s story showed how one child’s personal circumstances can be difficult because of the family they are born into but could improve drastically if society does well. Think about it: a caring teacher in a free educational setting; a government ban that comes with financial support; psychological help. Even if a family fails, even if poverty is pervasive, there are ways to support children. This is key not only for the life of single individuals like Marco. This should be a priority for all of us if we want to achieve a better, more sustainable future. As the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals spell out, we can’t live well without reducing inequality. We need to start by looking at the sectors of the more affected population, like children.
Back in Ecuador, I knew that I needed to understand more about our childhood to understand why we are so vulnerable at birth and just how much a traumatic childhood may have affected Marco in more profound ways than I could see at the time. When I saw an opportunity to study how our brains develop in our earliest years, I applied. It was 2018, and I got a fellowship for a week-long course on trauma, resilience, and the developing brain at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. My partner Nacho and I were in between countries at the time. We had spent several months house sitting around France and Belgium, but we had booked a trip to visit family in Argentina. We had just landed in Buenos Aires, and I was feeling queasy and exhausted. My New York City trip was scheduled for the day after I landed, but first, I had some interviews to do. I was so unwell in the morning that I went to a pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. The test was positive, I was barely five weeks pregnant, and I had a flight scheduled a few hours later. I did consider skipping the course, writing to say I could not bear the thought of going anywhere, let alone on a 12-hour overnight flight followed by an immediate dive into neuroscience with some 40 strangers, switching from an incipient winter to sweltering summer heat. But I did go to the airport and waited diligently to board. Then the flight attendant, who might as well have been an angel descended on earth for a brief five minutes, told me I had been upgraded to first-class – something I experienced for the first and last time that day.
I got to New York City full of expectations, excited about my pregnancy. And somehow, everything came together during that course. We learned about the ground-breaking research that tracked orphans in Romania that suffered extreme neglect and showed the damaging, long-lasting effects that the lack of care can have on a developing brain. We learned that some children are more sensitive than others, and depending on how supportive their environment is, they can either excel or falter. We learned that early trauma can have long-lasting physical effects that can even be passed down from generation to generation. We learned that a child’s brain starts developing in utero, and the physical health and wellbeing of the person carrying the baby is just as important. Inequality starts early.
How was it possible that I had not heard all of this before? How come I didn’t know all of this when I was interviewing Marco? Why weren’t all media outlets focusing on how we should support children and carers to bridge inequality? And if pregnancy and early life are such determinant factors into how people do later in life, can’t we, as a society, agree that it should be a priority when it comes to social spending?
The course left me with a clear sense of what I should be working on next. That’s why I pitched the idea of the first 1,000 days of life at The Correspondent, and that’s how I ended up writing some of the material that got you here, to this platform, eventually. Because when The Correspondent came to an end, I knew that I couldn’t let this be, not yet.
I’m explaining this because I want you to know that this platform is born out of a sense of mission. I will put it very simply: I want you to care as much as I do. I want you to care because I am convinced we should all be looking at the world through this lens. This is becoming increasingly clear to me, and I want to take my job to the next level. Who knows what can happen? Maybe the seeds we plant together as a community can end up influencing policy making? There are signs some people in the world pay attention to children the way I think we all should. Why not make the momentum bigger with our contribution? That’s one of my wildest dreams.
This is where you come in. This community would not be here without you and your support, and I want to hear more about how you think I can make my voice louder and clearer. Why are you here? What about your definition of yourself makes you interested in what I do? What do you expect from this space? This is why I’m making this week’s piece available to all, and anyone can contribute here, below the article. We have a unique opportunity to create a community of like-minded people worldwide who care for and about children. Let’s shake this conversation up, and let’s create some change.
Before you continue, here is my interview with Marco, in case you want to listen further. I’m also trying to track him down a decade later. I’ll let you know how that goes.
What I’ve been reading
This essay by Michaela Cavanagh (with whom I worked briefly at The Correspondent) about her dad’s illness, the last road trip they took together, and her helplessness as she comes to terms with his death. A beautiful tribute.
What I’ve been listening to
This BBC podcast on the science of becoming a father. We talk so little about what happens to fathers biologically, but this podcast covers some of the basics in a very understandable manner. For example, when men become fathers, there is a drop in testosterone (yes, balls shrink) while oxytocin, or the love hormone, goes up to help the child-father bond. This is true regardless of whether you’re biologically related to the child or not. But most men don’t realise that their bodies are also up for a significant change and can feel quite affected emotionally. Well worth a listen!
What I’ve been watching
I don’t like storks and the idea of storks delivering babies. Lorenzo has an album that includes a stork but I routinely gloss over the bird’s supposed function in the image. But I must say that this old-school Pixar short, Partly Cloudy, warmed my heart. Clouds make babies, mostly cute puppies, kitties, smiling humans. But one cloud only produces crocodiles, stingrays, and sharks. The stork delivering these “difficult” babies caught my heart.
Who’s been inspiring me
I love this awesome owl-shaped climbing fun game that has just been installed in a park in Taipei, led by the work done by Christine Lee, a member of this community. As this article explains, via Google Translate, the design of the owl was possible thanks to the cumulative knowledge of other complicated designs carried out in other parks. I can’t wait to hear more from Christine about it soon!
My Greek word of the week
The word school derives from Greek σχολή (scholē), which initially meant “leisure” and also “that in which leisure is employed”, but later “a group to whom lectures were given”. I love the idea of going back to a leisure-based notion of school, with more play, creativity, and freedom as part of our learning paths!
What members are saying
There has been a fascinating conversation below the piece that I wrote last week, Who has the right to have a child? Stephen wrote about parenting cases gone wrong when a child’s life becomes endangered or made to face unnecessary trauma. “A child has the right not to be HAD. Blood relation is a poor basis to give a person the rights to have a child, once they are born,” he said. Bonnie shared a belief she previously held about who can become a parent: “until comparatively recently, I bought into the judgmental perspective that generally ‘people who can afford to’ was my answer,” she wrote, and explained how she changed her mind. There is more, so make sure to log in and check out all the comments here.
With love and care,
📣 Catarina Fernandes Martins, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Castelo Branco. Thanks, Cata! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)