Just ask Norah O’Donnell—a co-host of “CBS This Morning”—how she balances work and family and you’ll find that, in keeping with her journalism background, she’ll answer by challenging the premise of the question itself. Though she juggles a vibrant career and three young children—fraternal twins, Grace and Henry, 7, and daughter Riley, 6—and shares the vulnerabilities of any working mother, she rejects the guilty feelings often elicited by such an inquiry. In fact, she worries about the larger impact this line of questioning might have on the next generation. “I don’t want any woman starting her career to think that she won’t be able to balance work and family,” O’Donnell says. “My biggest concern is that we’re not scaring off young women who have the potential to be ferocious leaders who can enact great change in business, politics, sports, and the media.”
At 40, O’Donnell is proving a pioneering figure herself. She grew up in a military family—her father was an Army physician—which she credits, in part, for her appetite for the news. “The things that happened around the world and certainly in Washington affected my dad’s life and family’s life acutely,” she says. Then, in her senior year at Georgetown University, an internship with ABC ignited her passion for journalism. Fast-forward a few years, and she was working for NBC covering the Pentagon, Congress, and the White House after serving as a print reporter at Roll Call. In 2011, she decamped for CBS, where she served as Chief White House Correspondent prior to her role with “CBS This Morning.”
She also contributes to “60 Minutes,” where she made her debut by interviewing Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg. “That was a real professional milestone: to be able to report for ‘60 Minutes,’ which I consider the gold standard—the most watched news program in the country.”
Though her schedule is far from relaxed—she’s at work by 5am—her job, she says, is in some ways “perfect” for a mom. “I’m gone in the mornings, but most of the time, I’m home in the evenings. And I have weekends, for the most part, for the first time in my career,” she notes.
O’Donnell has a dedicated co-parent: her husband, Geoff Tracy, a Washington, DC-based restaurateur, whom she’s dated since she was 17. He commutes to their Upper West Side abode, but she says that the family also spends time in DC. And while O’Donnell has confessed that often her heart is in DC, the Big Apple has been growing on her. “New York is such a fantastic city. I’ve lived here now for two years, and I still feel like there’s so much more for me to explore. It constantly amazes and surprises me,” she says, noting that it’s often the simple pleasures that keep the family entertained. “We’ve really enjoyed going out to dinner and walking to dinner. Even though my kids are young, we’ll walk a mile or mile and a half to a restaurant and then walk a mile and a half home. There’s nothing better.”
What was your first big career break?
I think one of the first big breaks was being hired at Roll Call, a well respected Capitol Hill newspaper… They asked me to write a story about Congressman Patrick Kennedy, from Rhode Island, and how he was being groomed to take over the DCCC, the House Democrat’s fundraising arm. They put it on the front page of the politics page…There’s nothing that makes you more proud than that first big break when you see your byline in a story.
What has been your favorite interview?
I was very proud of our interview with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head for advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan. I think she represents a tipping point in the world, which is that the focus on girls’ empowerment and education is the way to move a lot of these societies out of poverty and terrorism. It was the most moving interview for me, because she said “I may be afraid of ghosts, I may be afraid of dragons, but I’m not afraid of the Taliban.” How is it that a 16-year-old girl is not afraid of the Taliban after they tried to assassinate her? I’ve never met someone with so much courage who’s just 16.
How does “CBS This Morning” distinguish itself from other morning news programs?
We say that the news is back in the morning. We are trying to adhere to the values of CBS news, which are original reporting and great storytelling, and we want our two hours of live programming to be a showcase for that. We know that we’re still third in the ratings, but we’re growing. We’ve experienced some of the best growth this show has ever seen, and we’re extremely proud about that. We do less entertainment news, we do less celebrity news, we do less cooking segments than our competitors, and that’s okay.
Describe your typical day.
This is the first time that I’ve actually had a semi-regular schedule in my career as a journalist. I’m at work at about 5am, in the morning. I read 5-6 newspapers while getting my hair and makeup done, get briefed by a senior producer at about 6am, and then, at about 6:20am, come down to start speaking with affiliates and do some pre-show routine. The show runs from 7-9am, then from about 9-10am, we do post-show affiliates and enhancements to the show or West Coast updates. And typically the rest of the day includes working on “60 Minutes” pieces and doing interviews or meeting with potential interview subjects. Sometimes, there are days where I’ve done the show, flown to Detroit, done a “60 Minutes” interview, and flown back and landed at midnight. That happens once every two weeks. Or I’ll fly to Washington for an event, or fly to Boston to try to do a meeting with someone I’m trying to get for a “60 Minutes” piece.
What is the favorite part of your day?
When I get in [to work] and start looking at the newspapers. I wake up every day excited about the news. Even when I’m tired I reach for my phone and say “I wonder what’s happened overnight.” I’m truly a news junkie, and I can’t get through the papers quickly enough. The great fortune is that I work with Charlie [Rose] and Gayle [King], who are also the same way.
You’ve been with your husband since college—did you always imagine having a family together?
We did. We started dating when I was 17 and got married 10 years later, so my husband and I are, first and foremost, best friends. And I think because we were both so busy in our careers, we were nervous about starting a family and whether we would be able to make that commitment and be great parents given our busy schedules. Now, we wish we would have had more kids. They’re the joy in our lives.
Have there been any surprises about marriage?
I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but I think the most important thing about marriage is to develop your own identity independent of your spouse and then respect and cheerlead for your spouse’s separate identity. One of the great things is that my husband and I both have our own careers—I’m his number one fan, and I know he’s mine. There’s no place I want to eat other than Chef Geoff’s, and I know he watches my show everyday. There’s nothing better than knowing you have someone in your corner at the end of a long or difficult day, and that’s one of the things you learn over time, the importance of that.
What was your own upbringing like?
It was a busy household, because there were four kids…We moved all around the world. A lot of my childhood was influenced by the fact that my father is a veteran and served in the Army. When I was young, we lived in Germany, then we lived in San Antonio, Texas, then we did a tour in Seoul, South Korea, and back to Texas. They say that kids growing up in the military are pretty adaptable because they’re used to going to new schools with new people—I think that’s one of the things that helped me be a good journalist.
Tell us about your children—what are the joys and challenges with each?
Riley just turned 6, and I have twins, Grace and Henry, and they’re 7. There’s such a special bond between twins, as parents of twins say. The best thing is to see them, even at age 7, talking and arguing like an old married couple. They intimately understand one another. Grace has executive leadership skills. She’s very clear about how she would like the day to unfold and what activities she would like everyone to engage in…Her twin brother, Henry, is an incredible athlete. He’s also just a charming young boy, and I think that comes with having two sisters. And Riley, our 6-year-old, is a true delight. While she’s the youngest, she’s, in some ways, the most mature. She’ll always get up, dress herself, make her own breakfast, and have her hair brushed, while the twins are still in their pajamas late into the morning on a Saturday.
You had three kids in 14 months, during 2007-08. When you had Riley, did you think it would be easier after having twins or did it feel very soon?
It was all sort of a surprise. It was overwhelming—we had three cribs in one room, and I was back working. It was difficult to ever get out of the house. We had to buy a minivan to fit all three kids. All the dentists who read this will be shocked, but, at night, I used to just leave the bottles in their cribs because I couldn’t keep getting up in the middle of the night to deal with three kids, because I had to work in the morning. Only one of them got baby bottle tooth decay, and those teeth have since fallen out in the last six months. So it wasn’t the ideal situation, it wasn’t the best parenting in the world, but it’s how we made it work. But now, at the age they are, it’s such a joy, because they’re all best friends.
Do you have any advice for parents expecting twins?
Well, first I would say “congratulations”—there’s nothing greater in the world, it’s a double amount of joy. Two, I would say the advice that someone gave me is: hire an arsenal of help, because it’s just overwhelming at times. Make sure that you really plan out time to get rest for yourself and time for you and your spouse or partner to get away together. Don’t feel guilty about bringing a babysitter in on the weekends.
How has motherhood influenced your professional life?
I think motherhood made me a much better journalist, better person, better wife. It matured me in a way. It focuses you in terms of being efficient at work, being efficient at home, because you just have to be. It makes you more compassionate and understanding about what’s happening in the world. Motherhood definitely made life much better.
In turn, how has your professional life influenced you as a mother?
I think great journalists constantly ask questions, and being a good parent is constantly asking questions. From the day you go to the doctor when you’re first pregnant and you say: “Why do I feel this way?” For a journalist who asks a lot of questions it translates into being a mother who is always interested in my children’s health and well being and how to be a better mother.