The author of The Obamas and mother of Talia, 6, tells us how she balances writing and promoting a best-selling book with motherhood and marriage. We recently caught up with Jodi, whose work as the Washington correspondent at the New York Times we have long admired for its rigor and humanity.
At Momfilter, we are very interested in the logistics of the proverbial juggle, in relaying to other working mothers how people like you do it. What does a day in the life of a busy, high-profile journalist/author look like vis a vis motherhood? What do you forgo? Or what’s your one (almost) inviolable ritual?
I have to make both work and parenting about quality, not quantity. Because I’m a mom, I’m never going to win a contest for most hours logged at the office, and because I work, the “most hours with my kid” medal is out of reach too. I just have to make the hours I spend on each as meaningful as possible. (Here’s a short essay about trying to do both during the 2008 campaign.)
Reporting and writing this book in a year and a half was a massive task, because I was chronicling both the first lady and president’s adjustment to the White House, doing interviews there, traveling to Chicago as well, writing, revising, fact checking and so on. So I didn’t have any chilled-out days at the beach with my daughter. But I loved doing school dropoff, sending Talia off into a world of her own, and most nights I tucked her into bed myself, tickling her back and singing for a few minutes.
As a mother of a young daughter, I imagine you, like so many other parents, take a particular interest in the Obama presidency, in their seemingly heroic attempts to maintain a stable, normal environment for their girls. Did you find yourself imagining while writing this book how you would handle raising kids in the White House?
I wrote an entire chapter about raising kids in the White House, because the dilemmas that aides and friends described were so perplexing. When the Obamas first moved in, one of the basic issues was just: how can the girls even just run around the house, given all the tour groups and such? On the one hand, they should have free reign in their own house; on the other hand, their parents didn’t want tourists photographing or gawking at them. The simple things in the White House can be very, very hard.
To me the even more fascinating thing is the way the president simultaneously protects his girls and uses them in his political rhetoric. In the book, I tell a surprising story about the very first campaign trip the Obama family ever took together, and I also give an up-close look at the appearance the girls made at the 2007 Iowa state fair, early in the presidential campaign. (Michelle Obama leaned over to me and commented, “This is not quality time.”) If you read it, you’ll see that Barack Obama never would have made it to the presidency without his daughters. They made a candidate with an exotic background/unusual name seem relatable—a family man. And in 2012, the girls will be politically important (and highly visible) too, because many Americans who don’t like Obama’s handling of the economy still find his family appealing.
How long did the book take you? Did you have a set writing schedule or did you steal chunks of time when you could? Did you write at home or someplace else?
I worked like mad for a year and a half, and the end was just brutal—writing, re-writing, reporting until the very end, fact-checking. At the beginning of the process, I kept regular office hours, but by the end, I was working constantly, dawn to dusk, though I tried to take breaks for time with my daughter. One Sunday morning I made some revisions at Spa Castle, an indoor water park, in Queens, while my husband took our daughter to the rooftop pool.
How do you handle going on book tour in terms of child care? How many cities will you hit? Will your daughter join you for any of this?
I don’t take her everywhere—I’m flying back from London solo as I write this—but I’m taking her everywhere I can. She’s already been to Washington and Chicago with me, I think she’ll hit San Francisco as well, and I can’t wait to have her at the New York book party. In Washington she sold a book to my first boss in journalism, Michael Kinsley.
Here’s my book tour schedule (San Francisco dates on the way.) I’d love to meet some momfilter readers in person.
I imagine your schedule isn’t predictable. Do you tag team with your husband when it comes to child care?
My husband, Ron Lieber, has been wondrously patient, flexible and generous during this whole process, and especially during the book tour. This is all the more amazing because he is the personal finance columnist for the Times, and his job is as demanding as mine, sometimes more. I need to get him back for this, big time.
What are you completely anal about when it comes to your kid/maintaining a household?
Ordering Fresh Direct. Having no food in the house gives me that bad-mom feeling.
What’s it like for you and your family (I know your husband is also a reporter) to have a book that’s getting so much media attention?
Surreal! My normal routine is reporting stories for the paper, playing with my daughter, cooking dinner, going to the gym—and then suddenly I’m on Jon Stewart and the book is in Doonesbury. The hardest thing has been seeing many people mischaracterize the book without even reading it; though the reviews were generally quite favorable, some of the cable and online coverage was quite sensationalized or distorted the reporting. I’ve gotten notes from so many readers saying the book was nothing like the one they heard described on TV. Here’s another interesting take, just published.
But it’s hard to complain, because the book is now on the bestseller list, which means people are reading it, instead of just discussing it in the abstract. So that’s the best thing of all.
What do you read on a daily/weekly basis? Favorite print publications, websites, blogs? Guilty pleasures?
I read a lot off of Twitter, because the people I follow post such fantastic links. At work, I sometimes glance at the Mrs. O blog. For years I tried to avoid writing about Michelle Obama’s clothes, on principle—I don’t want to pick apart the way another woman looks– and because I didn’t want to undermine myself as a serious reporter. (Part of the premise of my book is that she should be taken seriously as a figure in her own right.) But the clothes kept coming up in my reporting conversations, because in Washington, and especially for the first African-American first lady, clothes are very political, it turns out. In Chapter 4 of the book, I tell the behind-the-scenes story of what happened when Vogue invited Michelle Obama to be on its cover. The internal debate that ensued, among Mrs. Obama’s own advisors, speaks volumes about the complexity of her role.
What was the last book you read for pleasure? For work?
I just read The Art of Fielding, and though I don’t care about baseball at all, it quickly became one of my favorite novels ever. For work, I really want to recommend Grace and Power, by Sally Bedell Smith, an incredible book about the world of the Kennedy White House. It’s a totally different exercise than my book, because the Obamas are so wholesome, and the Kennedys—yikes. Sally got recollections from so many of JFK’s former mistresses that I stopped counting, and she managed to write about very sordid affairs with delicacy and class.
Though you and your husband cover different beats, I imagine it’s both difficult and great to work in the same business. Do you have rules about talking about work?
We talk about newspaper work a little, not too much. The book’s been more of a challenge because of all the new experiences it’s brought us, and our daughter has been very clear when she’s had enough book talk. When Connie Schultz wrote about my book, Ron and I were at the computer crying with joy, and Talia was like: Mom, Dad, enough time online already.
What do you do for exercise (if anything)? For stress relief?
I love spinning, though I do regular gym stuff too.
On average, how many cups of coffee do you drink a day? How many glasses of wine:)!
One or two cups of coffee in the morning. Maybe two glasses of wine a week? And lots of hot baths.
Photos Juliana Sohn