Soledad O'Brien Talks to CBB About Being a Traveling Mom

CNN anchor, special correspondent, and CNN Special Investigations Unit host Soledad O’Brien is a busy woman — in addition to her duties as a news anchor, the 42-year-old is also a mother of four! As mom to Sofia Elizabeth, 8 ½, Cecilia, 7, and twins Charlie and Jackson, 4 ½, balancing it all can be tough — Soleded recently said “the craziness of a career balances the craziness of family life!”

In support of TrueChild, Soledad faced off against MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski (co-host of Morning Joe and an MSNBC anchor) as part of the organization’s second annual True Flavors Celebrity Cook-off at The Institute of Culinary Education.

We spoke to Soledad about being a traveling mom, talking to your kids about the news and TrueChild‘s message about helping all children reach their full potential despite gender stereotypes.

Celebrity Baby Blog: As a mom to both boys and girls, what have you done to keep play neutral and encourage your children to reach their full potential, regardless of gender stereotypes?

Soledad O’Brien: I went into parenting thinking, “I’m going to get my kids neutral toys.” But I have boys who love trucks and girls who love Barbie. And they both have a very different approach to trucks. My girls look at the trucks as a way to transport Barbie around the house, and my boys see trucks as a way to try to break a hole in my wall.

They become these stereotypes – it’s incredible, as hard as I try. But at the end of the day, it’s not about trying to keep the boys from having the stereotypical boy toy or letting the girls have the boy toy or vice versa – it’s about seeing each child as an individual and asking, “What do you want?” I’m going to let them decide what they want. And it can be stereotypical, it can be against the stereotype, or it doesn’t have to be either of those choices.

You can do whatever you want, and that’s how we’ve ended up. We let the kids explore whatever they want to do, and also remind them when there are stereotypical choices, we’ll say, “Your choices are not A and B, they’re actually A through Z.” People may position it as A and B, and that’s not always the case.

That’s really the challenge and fun of being a parent. And sometimes the boys make a stereotypical “boy” choice, or the girls make a stereotypical “girl” choice, and sometimes the boys make a stereotypical “girl” choice. But we’re fine with whatever you pick, and even outside those choices, there are so many more. So I think at the end of the day any good parent wants their child to not be limited by me as a parent, or by what society tells them.

Do you find yourself offering the boys and girls more gender-neutral toys than you might have in the past?

My boys will use a gender-neutral toy as a gun. Anything, for one of my twin sons, is a gun. That is just what he wants to turn it into. I don’t allow guns in the house, I don’t talk about guns, we don’t read books with guns, we don’t watch shows with guns, and yet any single toy he picks up is a gun. Jackson, any toy he picks up is Spiderman’s web. My girls, anything they pick up is some kind of thing for a horse. My daughter will take it and use it as a way to harness a horse, or jump over it, or hook it up to a horse.

In a way, they just use what they have, and it’s not about, “Well here’s the gender-neutral,” they just take stuff and say, “I’m going to pile up pillows and have it be a horse jump.” And then my son will come along and take the candy cane that’s lying across the pillow (leftover Christmas decorations!) and it’s a gun. They get to explore because they’re little kids.

Readers Courtney, who travels three days a week, and Lauren, want to know how you balance frequent travel with mom responsibilities, like school events.

It really is a matter of scheduling. I have control over my schedule. The school is really good about putting out a calendar. I know in September when the school dance will be, or the school performance will be. And I know about field trips as early as possible. So I put everything in my calendar, and if someone asks, “Oh can you do such-and-such?” I can say, “No, it’s the last day of school and I need to be there,” or, “Oh it’s the week before the last week of school and there’s a big potluck!”

Do you have any tricks for staying connected with your kids when you’re on the road?

One thing that we’ve done really well is we write a story together. My kids love a story that I write about a little witch. So when I’m on the road I send them a chapter – I do a chapter a day. Every chapter is tapped out on my BlackBerry in the airport, and I e-mail it to my husband or to the sitter, and when they get up in the morning they read the chapter. And there’s always a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. It’s not exactly the most brilliant book ever, but they love it, and it makes them feel that when I travel, what they get is updates on the Pocket Witch story.

It’s short chapters – we’ll have a book with 600 chapters by the end! – so it’s fun to do because they’re always expecting it. Even when you’re tired you can tap out a chapter in five minutes. For the older girls, since they’re learning to read, they can read it off the laptop. The hardest part of that for me was that I couldn’t use shorthand any more – I had to type it all out with proper language usage! My husband will print it out, and we now have a book full of 20 chapters.

It’s been fun to do, and they hold together very well. It’s not going to win a Pulitzer or anything, but it’s fun to do, and better than going to the airport shop and buying knickknacks for people. Depending on the age of your kids, it works.

The other thing that we did – which was really fun when I had a lot of travel – was to play two games. The first was, “How Many Soaps Can Mommy Steal from Hotels?” So we tried to get to 100. Every hotel I went to, I’d take the soaps. I had to explain to them that mommy doesn’t really steal the soaps, but she gets them from the hotel. I would bring home a few, and when I’d walk in the door they’d say, “How many soaps did you get?!” We counted soaps, lotions, conditioners, everything. Some hotels, like the W, replace their stuff consistently, twice a day! And some, you get one bar of soap and that’s it. So it was fun.

The other game is called “After Sleep.” I’ll buy these knickknacks at a drug store, like hair scrunchies, paper clips, hair clips and little things, and put them in a bag. I’ll climb into my daughters’ beds with the bag when I get home (the boys are asleep), and they have to guess what they were feeling in the bag. And if they can guess it, they can keep it. So after everyone else is asleep, we get to hang out for 20 minutes, which is some special time. That was a really fun game that made the travel have an interesting upside for little kids. Desperation breeds interesting solutions!

Readers wanted to know if you let your children watch the news, and if they do, how you explain the scary things to them.

They are allowed to watch the news, and I watch it with them. I think it’s only scary when there’s no context. When you’re seven or eight years old and you have no one to question, you need some reassurance. We listen to the radio every morning on the drive to school, and as long as I’m there it’s OK.

The other day a story came on about a girl who was searched for drugs, and the case had gone to the Supreme Court. And my daughter asked, “What do you mean searched for drugs?” So it led to a conversation about what a drug is, that sometimes it’s medicine and sometimes it’s something that’s bad, and what the case was about, and who this girl was, and what was fair. Did this teacher have a right to pat somebody down, and would you feel bad about that? Or was there a real worry that there was a problem? So we had a conversation, and we moved on. They thought it was a little grown up, and not that interesting to them. They didn’t dwell on it or get scared, because we exhausted every question they had, then moved on.

With swine flu, when they watch stuff about it, I say, “Yes, swine flu is such-and-such, and this is the idea behind what’s happening, and here’s what we can do. What’s worrying you about it?” And they ask, “If I go outside can I catch it?” or “Why are some people wearing masks?” and I say, “Well what do you think? Could they be people who have a cold and don’t want to be compromised? Who are people who get sick easily? Does grandma get sick easily? Should someone who’s elderly be worried about it a little bit?” So we talk it out, so that they don’t sit around in their beds worrying about some big boogie monster because no one’s walked them through it.

It also lets them know they can come to me with any question and talk candidly about it. I don’t edit and lie about stuff – I’ll give them very straightforward answers that are very appropriate to their age. What you don’t want to do is turn off the TV when something bad comes on – that’s silly. That’s saying there’s a world out there that they’re not allowed to know. What you do want to do is explain to a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old, “This is the information you need to know at the stage you’re in right now.”

So you find the answer for any question they have?

They’re desperate to have their questions answered! I mean some things are none of their business – don’t listen in on conversations that aren’t for you – but there are very few things that they can ask you about that you can say, “I don’t want to answer that.”

If they’re coming to you with a factual question and you don’t have an answer, you’re signaling to them that you won’t help them out. If they come to you five years from now with a question about sex, you can’t signal that you won’t help them. You have to say, “To the best of my ability to answer this, let’s talk about it.”

Find out what they’re really asking.When my sons say, “Where do babies come from?” they’re not asking about physically, sexual intercourse, what they’re asking is, “Why do some people’s tummies get fat?” And I say, “Because babies grown inside the tummy.” That’s a good enough answer for a 4-year-old, but a 7-year-old might want more. And then you’ve got to give them a little more. But you can’t say, “I’m not going to answer that.” That’s insane!

— Danielle

We love Soledad’s tips about staying connected with your kids when your job requires you to travel. What do you do to stay connected with your children?

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