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Help, Please: Journalist and Author Jodi Kantor

Chief correspondent and new mom SuChin Pak finds out how other moms parent

Whether you’re leaning in or opting out, the conversation around women in the workplace seems to be solidly — thankfully — implanted in our social fabric. A journalist for the The New York Times and author of The Obamas, an insightful book on Michelle and Barack’s marriage, Jodi Kantor is one of the better examples I’ve seen of a woman who succeeds at the balancing act. So I thought, Who else to give me advice on juggling career and motherhood? It didn’t hurt that I could get her take on one of the first lady’s most telling mom moments. — SuChin Pak

q&a!

As a correspondent for The New York Times, you have to travel quite a bit and have constant deadlines. What’s a trick/ritual/parenting secret you’ve found that helps you make it work?
Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve traveled for work, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I don’t feel that guilty about it. We’re all raising our kids in a universe that is so much more child-centric than the one in which we grew up. So much in her life is perfectly formulated to make her 7-year-old self happy. When I travel, she learns that she can’t always have what she wants when she wants it, and she’s got to find ways to make herself content anyway.

Your articles often address gender inequality (and you’ve interviewed everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to Sonia Sotomayor). How does all that research affect the way you approach raising a daughter?
The trick is to cool it — to apply the full force of my research on a daily basis would be a social disaster. But last year at school, my heart sank when I saw that week after week, far more boys than girls were doing the weekly extra-credit math challenges. I had to say something. Also, we’re teaching her a lot about money, which no one learns enough about, girls or boys. My husband is working on a book on how teaching your kids basic financial concepts can also teach them values and virtues, from patience to modesty to curiosity. Our daughter is his guinea pig.

The Obamas has been praised for being a meticulous report of the Obamas’ marriage and of Michelle’s role in the presidency. What impressed or surprised you most about their parenting choices?
My favorite story predates the White House. Michelle Obama was recruited for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center while she was still on maternity leave with Sasha, her younger daughter. On the day of her interview, her baby sitter canceled. Mrs. Obama took Sasha to the meeting in a stroller, according to Susan Sher, who became her boss and eventually her chief of staff in the White House. Mrs. Obama’s attitude was: This is who I am. Take it or leave it.

My daughter was a few years old when I heard that story, and I thought, That’s exactly right. Don’t act apologetic and insecure about your family commitments, because everyone will take their cues from you.

jodi kantor!

Has becoming a mother influenced or changed you as a journalist?
I see stories I wouldn’t otherwise see. What was it like for John McCain to have a son in Iraq during the 2008 presidential campaign? How can the Obamas have an equal marriage when one person is president? (I asked them that in the Oval Office.)

What was your last big parenting fail?
The one that replays in my mind is the Valentine’s Day when my daughter was the only one without cards for everyone in class. (Sometimes when you’re a working mom, without much schmooze time at school, you can feel like everyone else gets unofficial memos that you don’t.) Give me another week — I’ll have more.

And your last big parenting success?
Butternut squash. She ate a whole plate of it.

I try to achieve work/life balance by: Not being on my computer after 9 o’clock. Except it’s 9:38 right now.

Don’t forget to: Write down all the endearing, hilarious things your child asks. Just send yourself a quick email.

Say no to: That jealous feeling we all sometimes get when we see another woman succeed. It’s a psychological by-product of our era, when we’re implicitly taught that only a few women can make it to the top. The idea that women should all be one another’s automatic champions is ridiculous. But evaluate other women fairly, get rid of the assumption that their success somehow threatens your own, and tell younger women the things you wish you’d known.

Say yes to: Seeing the potential in other women.

jodi kantor!

The thing no one tells you about parenthood is: That the Bill Murray line about children in Lost in Translation — “They turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life” — is actually true.

The best piece of parenting advice I’ve received is: When a child asks you a difficult question, about money or sex or anything else, reply with “Why do you ask?” so you can see what he or she is really after. (And stall a bit.) This is from my husband, and we use it practically every week.

Don’t be afraid to: Be criticized. Learn to be gracious under fire.

I often reference: Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Wild is the popular success, but this book is a parachute for anyone having a crisis.

I still get a kick out of: The “Have You Read the New York Times Today?” pin I wore on my backpack in high school.

To recharge: I ride my bike in Prospect Park, travel, cook, make stationery with my daughter, and organize drawers. Can anyone explain why I find that so relaxing?

Beauty item in your makeup bag: I’m going to South Korea next week and thinking of trying snail mucus cream.

Kiddie bedtime book: Those days are over, alas, but we loved Ten Minutes till Bedtime, Little Blue and Little Yellow, and anything by Patricia Polacco. The Keeping Quilt still makes me cry.

Your favorite shopping destination: Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. My mother-in-law, Charlene Lieber, is a personal shopper and the store’s unofficial mayor. (Not to mention an expert guide to the sale racks.)

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Mealtime accessory: Pretty cloth napkins. My daughter loves them.

Go-to baby gift: These vintage book plates.

Go-to family dinner: Whatever Jenny Rosenstrach tells me to make.

App: NY Times mobile, of course. And Instagram. I have thoughtful, observant followers on Facebook — we discuss gender, politics, parenting, Brooklyn, and everything else.

Bookmarked websites: The New Republic and Buzzfeed.

Morning reads: The obvious.

TV shows you can’t live without: My lifelong top three are The Wire, Chatufim (the original version of Homeland but much better), and Slings & Arrows.

On your bedside table: Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, a book about the culture of modern parenting coming out in January, and Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land.

Travel item: My daughter.

Guilty pleasure: Jeni’s ice cream. Preferably chocolate.

jodi kantor!

Photos: Stephania Stanley for DailyCandy