"Becoming a mother connects you with the mothers of the world"
MOTHER'S DAY: When Secretary General Betina Gollander-Jensen gave birth to her first child, she thought: I'm not the first to have done it! Since then, motherhood has forged bonds with all the world's mothers and shaped her view of humanity in general.
What is it like to be a mother at home while travelling the world as Secretary General of an international aid organisation?
It has its challenges, but also gives perspective on aid work. Because as a mother, you have to let go of yourself, think about your child and navigate the chaos, hoping that everything will turn out well. And always focusing on people, nurturing relationships and trying to understand the love that surrounds everyone born to a mother. And that's everyone.
'We were losing our daughter'
Betina Gollander-Jensen is Secretary General of Mission East and as a relief worker has experienced the conflict between being a mother in a special love relationship with her child and at the same time having to hand over the child to others in crisis situations.
- When I was stationed in Sudan, my husband and my one-year-old daughter came to visit me. Because the hygiene conditions were not the best, my daughter became very ill and was hospitalised for five days in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. We were losing her. I couldn't bear to work," she says, pausing for a moment.
- I ended up sending my husband and child home to make sure my daughter got better. And thankfully she was.
Your child's safety is the most important thing
But it took courage to let go of her daughter and also resulted in conflicting emotions, says Betina Gollander-Jensen:
- It was a very strange feeling to see the plane take off. What a relief! You would think I was deeply unhappy not to be with my child, but I was happy to send her away to safety.
- It made me think of all the mothers who, during wars for example, have to choose to send their children away. We see this now in Ukraine, for example, where mothers send their young children of 10-11 years old off alone. I can actually understand that. The most important thing is your child's safety. It is more important that your child is safe than that you are with him. That's your responsibility as a parent: Your child's survival.
Connected to all women in time and place
And that basic instinct also comes through in her aid work, where as a mother she can identify with other mothers in history and around the world:
- It's a strangely wonderful feeling to become a mother. Until now you have lived as a single individual with your own story, but suddenly your story becomes connected to all women throughout time.
What does it feel like to be a co-creator of a new life?
- It's a mixture of being very humble and grateful, and being aware that you are part of something bigger that reaches across countries and time. When I was having my first child, I also thought, "Well, I'm not the first to have done that!"
Responsible for the child's safety and well-being
What does it do for you as a mother to meet women and mothers in the world, for example in Sinjar, where Mission East helps Yazidi women who have experienced the most horrific abuses?
- It touches me deeply to sit and talk with them. The core of being a mother is that your main task is not yourself, but the child. Now you have to be selfless and give something of yourself. You are responsible for ensuring the child's safety and well-being. And if you can't do that, you will despair. Deeply distressed and unhappy.
Poor women in Nepal, for example, must feel the same...
- Yes, once you have a child, you must put the child's needs first. Then you have to go to bed hungry, if that's the way it is. You have to pull yourself together. To be a parent is to be a role model. You have to be on your toes all the time. You can't slack off.
The roles are reversed
Before Mission East, Betina Gollander-Jensen was international manager at Caritas Denmark, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International, programme officer at the Danish Refugee Council and posted to Kenya for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has also been deployed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda and Sudan.
- For long periods I chose to be away from my children, for example in Sudan, where I was away from my daughter for seven weeks at a time, almost two months. And then only one week with her. I did that for six months. I could do that because I was sure that my husband as a carer gave my child security and love.
- The fact that he stood up gave me the space to invest my time to improve the family for the sake of the children. This is what many men typically do - and this is what we see in countries like Nepal where the father is a migrant worker. In my case, the roles were reversed. Also because I feel I have something to do in this life through my work.
All are children of parents
But it's not all travel. Being Secretary General also means long hours in the office, where she has ultimate responsibility for 200 staff in 11 working countries.
How does professional leadership match up with passionate motherhood?
- I don't think you should abstract from the sensitive. It's not like I'm one person at home and another at work. Basically, our relationships are about people. In the family you are emotionally connected - and you are also emotionally connected at work: we work for the same values and to help the poorest.
- After I had children, I got better at seeing people. Because you have seen a small vulnerable child grow up, you can suddenly also see other people's personalities better. Being a mother creates a feeling of solidarity with all mothers across the board and at the same time a recognition of the human in the fellow human, so to speak. That they are also children of parents.