How do you balance a high-powered journalism career that takes you all over the globe, with family life with children and then later teens?
We all know the answer to this, not easily. But few of us have the exciting and often confounding experience (your teen’s soccer games are at the exact moment as the LIVE National Public Radio (NPR) radio show, All Things Considered, you co-host) as Mary Louise Kelly. For many of us, the daily conflict of needing to be in too many places at once can seem overwhelming, but for Kelly, those places include Iran, North Korea, and Russia. While her world may seem like it has little in common with many of ours, it has the most crucial thing in common, the very title of her book, It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs.
Q: In the book, you tell the story of one of the craziest parenting moments I have ever heard of, including a Black Hawk helicopter; what happened?
I was NPR’s Pentagon correspondent then and was in Iraq to cover a U.S. Secretary of Defense visit. It was too dangerous for him to move around by car, even an armored vehicle within a motorcade, so the plan was to whisk the whole entourage, including the press pool, from appointment to appointment by helicopter.
We were in the Green Zone, waiting to clamber into our Black Hawk when my cell phone rang. The school nurse, back at my then-four-year-old son’s preschool in Washington, DC, called to tell me that he was really sick and having trouble breathing. How quickly could I get there? I was trying to answer her when the line went dead.
The Black Hawk lifted off. It was hours before I could get a call to find out if he was okay. I will never forget that moment, strapped in and gazing down over the snarled traffic of Baghdad, thinking — What am I doing? My son needs me, and I’m thousands of miles away. On the flight home, I started writing what became my first novel. A few months later, I quit my job.
Q: You talk about being a sports parent, which is a real highlight in our parenting journey for many of us. Why do you think this is so meaningful and plays such an important role in our lives?
Somewhere out there, my mother laughs at my being called a “sports parent.” This is because I was so profoundly unsporty myself. In high school, I joined precisely one team. It was softball in 9th grade, and I never touched the ball once the entire season. That’s no exaggeration; I struck out every time I came to bat. Every single time.
Yet somehow, my sons’ inherited athletic genes that seem to have bypassed their father and me entirely, and they revel in playing multiple sports. I have learned to revel in being a soccer mom. I can explain the offside rule in my sleep. It’s such a joy to watch them play. Partly that’s the magic of sports: You don’t care about a game or even know that it is happening until a friend drags you there, and suddenly you’re screaming and whooping like your life depends on the outcome. As a parent, I wonder if it has to do with the fact that we love our kids, and we want to cheer them on, and it’s not like you can show up in math or French class and yell, “You got this, buddy! Stay with it! Go!!!” Whereas on the soccer or basketball or hockey sidelines…different story.
Q: You talk about “embracing the silence” as a technique recommended to beginning journalists. Space doesn’t always need to be filled, and patience can yield revelations that wouldn’t have come otherwise. Try this with teenagers, though; they’ll keep you waiting…forever. What suggestions do you have for getting teens to talk?
Yeah, in my experience “embracing the silence” does not work with teenagers. They’re perfectly happy to jam their earbuds deeper into their ears and embrace silence themselves! One thing that does work, counter-intuitively, is having their friends around. My kids tend to be in good moods and chatter away when surrounded by their posse.
No, you won’t get the one-on-one, thoughtful, loving communication you crave. But if I announce that I’m ordering ten pizzas to the house, if they want to invite friends over to our kitchen after a game, I learn all kinds of things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Who asked who to prom, what summer jobs and camps everyone’s planning, and why the Chem test was such a disaster? And then, the next day, you have a few specifics with which to strike up a conversation instead of the generic, “Sooo, how was your day?”
Q: In the book, you mention interviewing people differently because you are a mother and that being a mother impacts which stories you feel are worth telling. Which of your journalism skills could you bring to parenting, especially during the teenage years? If you have advice for asking open-ended questions, staying curious, and listening patiently, let us know!
When I interview someone in a war zone, or after a hurricane blew their house down, or after they lost an election, I’m not trying to solve their problem. I’m just trying to listen — with curiosity and an open mind. I try to gather as many facts as I can about what happened. I try to ask in a sensitive way how they’re feeling, what frightens them, what gives them hope, and what’s on their mind. But again, it’s not on me to solve the problem.
As my kids get older, I find myself trying to question them and listen to their answers in the same spirit. I’m their mom, and sometimes they need me to wade in and find a solution. But the job is increasingly about ensuring they have the tools to solve their problems. My role is to listen, without trying to fix anything, without judgment — only love.
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