Inequality starts early in life. If we take on the first-1,000-day prism to look at society around us, we can push to create change.

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.

An image of a teenager, Marco, on the foreground, wearing a dark blue T-shirt, a cap and a helmet. In the background there is rubbish arranged in rows.
This is Marco during a visit to the dump he used to work at.

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,
Irene

📣 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!)

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

10 thoughts on “The first 1,000 days are my life’s mission. I want everyone to care as much as I do

  1. Dear Irene,
    you ask why am I interested in what you write…
    At the age of 20, when I studied sociology, I suddenly became very aware of the impact of your origins on your social outcome. It may sound absurd, but it was a shock. I was aware of inequalities, but realizing it was not only linked to economic inequalities, but also to your parent’s “cultural capital”, care, stability, social capital, etc. was mindblowing to me. Ever since, I’ve been involved in projects to reduce inequalities in the access to shelter, food, health, but also education and culture for families.
    I was very lucky to get the best possible living conditions as a child.
    I think it is our responsability as a society to make sure as many children as possible live in the best possible conditions to grow up to be healthy, educated and happy adults.
    And it seems to me, understanding the first 1000 days, sharing this information, raising awareness is one way to act.

    1. Dear Amélie,
      Thank you so much for sharing.
      It’s so interesting because the other day I was reflecting just on how much your life can become a result of what hand you’re dealt with at birth.
      I’m thinking beyond socio-economic status, or your carers’ emotional well-being. I’m thinking about the sex you’re born with, or the citizenship you have, or lack, because of where you are born. I find it deeply unfair that just based on those elements lives can be taken one way or another. Of course there are exceptions, and of course people who live in high socio-economic conditions can also be affected by emotional trauma (let’s just think again about Trump: https://www.thefirst1000days.news/everybody-was-a-child-once-remember-that-when-they-turn-into-your-political-foes-or-worse/).
      This is why I think we need to push our thinking further. And, as you say, raising awareness can be a starting point.
      Thanks for being here!

      1. Super interested in the concept of “cultural capital” that Amelie mentioned!
        I wonder how the stories we tell children impacts their perception of the world.
        I’ve just finished reading Mary Poppins to my son & it was a crazy experience to read a story noticing the beliefs/ideas of the British society in the 1930s – how do we develop this awareness & detachment?

        And discovered this yesterday: original audio stories for kids about other countries and cultures (only in Europe and Asia for now) – fascinating idea!
        https://aroundtheworldstories.com/

        1. Fascinating link, Marina! I’ll check it out some more and recommend in an upcoming newsletter! And yes: much food for thought for a story on how children’s literature affects their perceptions of the world. Thanks!

  2. I’ve had a hard time finding time to do much of anything lately, taking some time to do some writing work of my own (unpaid, but productive in my mind nonetheless.) So now that I finally had a chance to take a moment to read some of the e-mails I’ve been getting (instead of just glossing over them, thinking it would be neat if I could read more, and then knowing that I don’t have the time and moving on,) I get back here to your writings once more only to have you asking me questions that I haven’t had a lot of time to think about until now.

    Why am I here? What do I want from this space? Who am I that makes me interested in what you’re doing?

    Good questions to be asking right now for anyone striving to create a place for their work and to create a community of people looking to talk about and share these things, but I do wonder if I’m the ideal audience, really.

    I’m now in my late 40’s, not interested in having children of my own (namely because my partner isn’t really interested, but also because the drive to have children isn’t really there for me;) and disabled and not working due to feeling incapable of working because of my disability. I am looking at going back to school for social work, though, as I want to help people, and I figured that would be a good way to do so–and since it will likely be a government job, I won’t have to worry so much about my eyesight being a problem, since they’ll do what they can to help and understand that I can’t work at the same pace and level as normal people do–and are okay with that. But it seems at cross purposes with what you’re doing and wanting to talk about–save that I believe we should be helping people–old, young–every age.

    Let me just share some thoughts quickly: my parents were often asked by other parents of albinos and children with bad eyesight how we did things because there isn’t a lot of support groups or people in the world who understand the educational and personal needs of people who are disabled. And nine times out of ten, those of us who are disabled aren’t part of the work-force and probably aren’t able to articulate until we’re older (and likely more isolated and thus unable,) what we felt we needed back then. One of the hardest things as a parent, I imagine, is when your child has a disability. Imagining how they’re seeing things and dealing with things is just as problematic, and often moreso, then just trying to understand a normal child’s needs. I find myself frustrated by that lack of information and help for parents who probably really need it.

    The second thing I was thinking about is how isolated by our location we are in what is available to us. I keep realizing that I grew up during a time when our worlds were smaller–the scale of things maybe only local or state, and once in a while, perhaps national if you’re good enough at a thing. But with the advent of the internet, there are groups and organizations that can reach so many more people–especially young people, and I don’t know if school counselors and parents have really embraced that. For example, I really loved poetry when I was younger, but there was never any encouragement from family or school to do more with it. Nowadays there are poetry slams online, and literacy and poetry groups and organizations that are national and often international in scope. In little less than 30 years the scope when from almost nothing to literally a plethora of options. And so that is both exciting and also overwhelming–knowing if something is legit, having to learn by trial and error if you’re doing things on your own, etc.

    But none of that really answers your first two questions: why I’m here and what I’m looking for.

    I like learning new things, which I think is why I often spend way too much time scrolling around on the internet or trying to subscribe to too many groups, news organizations, newsletters, etc. I don’t have time to read them all, but I do skim through them. What I like best about what you’re doing, I guess, is the informality–and the information-ality of all of this. It’s not too long, and it’s not filled with hype or oversimplification. You talk about things that matter to you, and that passion comes through in what you’re writing; so that, even if I have little interest in the topic, I find myself interested in what you have to say about it, because you clearly are, which means your opinion is an invested one. These are things that you’re dealing with and that you’re being affected by as your raise your own son and because of the experiences you’ve had, and that makes me feel like what you have to say is more relevant to whatever topic you choose to discuss. You may not be an expert, but neither am I. And when you can, you do your best to include experts in what you write about and also how well you did or didn’t understand what they had to say–how it became integrated into your own thoughts, which in turn helps me to think about it from my own perspective. These things are important to me, and I want them to stay in your writing if you feel like it’s a good thing for you and your writing. To me, they are the things that inspire me to want to read (and sometimes actually read,) your work here. And it’s part of why I’m happy to pay for the opportunity to do so. I should add that I really love the international feel of your writing, and I hope you’ll work to continue building that international community here. I want to know what life is like in places all over the world, and your writing brings a little of that to me. It’s definitely something I find enjoyable and hope will stay a part of your writing, as well.

    So, I guess while my focus isn’t on children, or children’s needs, I understand that children grow up to be adults, and that their experiences shape them. I want to know how to be a better person to others–how to help others become better people, too. So if I can learn about how things work when we’re kids, I figure it can’t be too far off from how things work as we become older kids.

    And I, too, share your love for the idea that play should be more a part of our schools–and not just schools. Maybe it’s important for our work places, too. Having those moments to just “do” rather than “think” can inspire so much more.

    I recently read a story about how indigenous people raise their children–I wish I had thought to share the story with you, but it got lost in all the other things I was doing at the time. Suffice to say that they do a lot more social parenting within the tribe–all of the tribe taking turns looking after kids. And they don’t isolate them from the everyday tasks that adults are doing either. In some ways, this helps them to learn how to “be” a person. Their punishments were simple–a reprimand with a bit of pain followed by moving on from the incident. This last had me obviously troubled, but pain is one way we learn about what to and not to do–so incorporating it in some fashion might be important in parenting, too. (This particular example was simply a scratch at the face with fingers along with the words, “We don’t do this.” Afterward the woman picked up the child, pulled them away from the situation, and played with them, off-setting the reprimand with then loving attention.) I don’t believe in harsh or painful punishments, though I was raised with them–spankings and the like. I expect a lot of kids my age were, too. I don’t feel like there was much trauma from the experiences now, but looking back on it, I expect there was a lot of it. I want to understand better ways of being a healthy care-giver–to children and adults. I want to understand how what happens in childhood can relate to how we become as adults. And so I hope your writings here will incorporate some of those ideas and talks about them honestly and fairly–and hopefully non-judgmentally unless it’s just obviously wrong.

    We all come from different places and different backgrounds, and they shape who we are, but finding better ways to understand one another is never a bad thing, and I guess that’s what I’m hoping to find here–a better way to understand, a different way of looking at things, and a group of people in the community who are willing to offer their thoughts, insights, and ideas when and how they can.

    I hope that helps, Irene! <3

    1. Dear Jenni!

      It is so good to hear from you, and so refreshing to hear such honesty in your words: I hear you when you say that you subscribe to too many things and that you find hard to keep up with them, and it’s good to know that this newsletter still catches your imagination.

      All you say helps me a lot. Some of the elements you address (the international feel of the community, the importance of play beyond school!, my sharing of my internal process as I try to understand things) are all elements I want to develop further and it’s good to know that you want to see more of them too.

      As for not having kids yourself, I think that I keep you (and others in this community who don’t have children of their own to care for) in mind often when I write. I find it hard to “market” myself outside of this close-knit community because parents would be an obvious public, but I think that my writing goes beyond tips for parents. As you also point out, we were all children once, and we’ve grown into adults, so understanding how childhood works can give us interesting insights, always.
      I am so interested, for example, in hearing about the difficulties of families like yours you raised a child with a disability, I am very aware of the constant doubts one has as a parent regardless of the circumstances, and I can’t even imagine how lost a family can feel without the right support and network to care for a child with a disability.
      So, yes, thank you. All of this is precious.

      And one more thing: is the piece on indigenous cultures you were referring to something about Michaeleen Doucleff’s most recent book? Because it’s on my to-read list! https://www.npr.org/transcripts/981716581

      Thanks for dedicating your time and thoughts to this, and I look forward to continuing our conversation!

  3. Thanks so much for these questions, Irene! It’s always a great practice to give some thought to why we do what we do.

    The first 1000 days of our human life was an alien world to me, completely out of my radar until I’ve got pregnant in 2017. Most of my adult life (or even before) I had little contact to small children and pregnant women.

    I was raised in São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro, 2 Brazilian large cities in which the well being of human beings & nature is the least of the priorities.
    My childhood environment was mainly home-car-school-car-home. That’s the way I’ve been kept safe, but I had to deal with a lot of fears later on – mainly fear of other human beings.
    [I also wonder if that’s one of the causes why Brazil is dealing with the Covid situation in the worst way possible… the lack of trustworthiness & empathy.]

    It was a big awaking moment when I started reading your articles at The Correspondent & realised that most people who are in position of leadership
    & making decisions for our cities and society are also people who don’t have much contact with children. So where does “children is our future” come to play???
    By ignoring children perspective, we’re simply raising kids to do what a small group of “grown-ups” think the future should look like.
    We’re not allowing society to evolve & improve by default, which scares me when I think we’re living a global crisis, a turning point, without imagining a future that takes children into consideration.

    Right now, my neighbours and I have been discussing about how to make our immediate environment more sociable, child-friendly & nature-friendly.
    How this environment could look like? How to make that happen?
    How to actually see from a children’s perspective instead of interpreting it from different parent’s opinions of what a better environment for their children look like?
    How to support children so they keep their sense of possibility (to create, change, evolve) awaken throughout life?
    How the school system can be transformed to better support children development in all parts of the world, when cultural beliefs about children can be so different from place to place? [are they that different???]
    How people who take care of children can be heard & supported when they’re drowning with the responsibilities of work or trying to make the ends meet?
    How to give support to human beings to enjoy making the decision of becoming a mother/father (or not) and develop the skills to raise their children (or support other people children)?
    How to facilitate the adoption process so both parents/children can enjoy this big transformation in their lives? [note: since childhood I imagined that I would adopt a kid instead of becoming pregnant, so this is something I’d love to hear more about]

    These are a few questions that came to mind… At the end, I believe children help us see what truly matters: we all need a lovable support system to live a good life!

    P.S. One of my main concerns right now is about the childrens in Brazil – 1 year without school… Families without any support from people who are in position of leadership – which I refuse to call them leaders, they’re not!

    1. Hey Marina,
      Thanks so much for all the thoughts and questions you’ve shared. There’s so much in there to keep me going for a year or more, if I get enough support from you members!
      The education inn Covid issue is quite high on my radar by the way. This piece was quite good, in case you’re interested: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/apr/05/schools-800-million-children-education-disrupted
      And if you read Spanish, El País dedicated a large section to missed education opportunities in Latin America. But again, it is on my radar, and I will soon write more about it.
      I wanted to ask you about something you said about your neighbours and you discussing how to make your “immediate environment more sociable, child-friendly & nature-friendly.” This sounds like a great process, and I’d like to hear more about where you are located, and whether it’s all parents involved. Please tell us more when you can!
      Have a lovely evening,
      Irene

      1. Hi Irene, one of the positive things that happened during the pandemic was the movement of getting to know our neighbours and find ways to support each other.
        I’m in Brighton, UK, and a lot of ideas are emerging about making the city more child-friendly. There’s even a movement to make that a priority in the coming local elections: https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/

        Last year, one of my neighbours, who’s 70+ years old, invited everyone on my street for a meet up and we’ve been in regular touch ever since through WhatsApp & Zoom calls. But it’s been challenging to keep everybody engaged – which I guess is the same challenge for you building this community… There are so many things asking for our attention in this virtual world! (As Jennifer also mentioned).

        Something that inspired the group is a pilot program called “liveable neighbourhood” which is already happening in the city. Super inspiring! \o/
        https://hanoverandelmgrove.net/home/liveable-neighbourhoods/

        1. So, yes, it’s not about a group of parents, but it’s about making the city a better place to live for everyone. This article you wrote was a big inspiration as well: https://thecorrespondent.com/81/children-are-a-quarter-of-the-worlds-population-imagine-urban-planning-from-their-point-of-view

          P.S. And thanks for sharing The Guardian article about children’s education, it was important to get a wider perspective on the issue… Even more to remember myself about the children in other parts of the world who are struggling as much and in different ways – like child marriage… :/

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