On an average mom’s typical day, “disaster” might mean a costume left at home or a play date straight from hell. But when it comes to real disaster – the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s devastating earthquake – CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien, a mother of two daughters, 8 and 9, plus 6-year-old twin sons, has literally been there. In her new memoir, The Next Big Story, O’Brien describes how growing up in a predominantly white 1970s suburb with an Australian-Irish father, black-Cuban mother and four siblings (all with “giant Afros”) helped hone her ear for the voice of the outsider and her compassion for those rendered powerless. O’Brien spoke to Babble about the inspiring ways in which she tries to bring her job home:
Race and the issue of fitting in played a huge role in your childhood. Today, what lessons about race do you try to impart to your own children?
A lot has changed since I was a kid. My kids’ schools are far more multi-cultural than the ones I attended. I remember my classmates used to ask me if I’d ever driven to Australia with my dad. Kids now are more knowledgeable about people from different places. (The Internet is responsible for a lot of that.) So the biggest message I have for my kids is something I’ve learned as a reporter: The key to connecting with people is learning what you have in common. You may not speak their language or be able to come close to understanding their circumstances, but there’s a shared thread of basic humanity that makes us care about other people. I took my daughter to Haiti this year and while we were visiting an orphanage she came to me crying, “Mommy, why didn’t you ever teach me Creole?” Um, because I don’t know any? Eventually she was able to see that it’s not only about language; there are other ways to connect [with people]. The challenge is to figure out what that is. The beauty of children is that they can play together even when nobody speaks five words of the other person’s language.
How has being a reporter underscored the importance of family to you?
To come back to your family is so crucial. It’s what grounds you. It’s what makes everything okay. I walked in the door from the tsunami and my husband had taken care of the girls and everyone was dressed in crazy clothes and clearly nobody had done laundry in five days, but it was such a relief to put a period on the end of that experience. I don’t think I could psychologically handle a lot of the disasters I cover if I didn’t have the support of family and the closure of coming home. And in terms of telling stories, family is the common thread that people connect to when they’re watching. When you see these mothers turning over their babies to give them a better life outside of Haiti, you’re forced to think about how bad life must be when giving up your child is a viable option. It’s so hard to imagine, but it transcends language.
How has what you’ve seen around the world, harrowing and inspiring, affected your experience as a mother?
I’m much slower to anger. I’m very hard to freak out. We were driving down the street in Haiti and a truck pulled up, and I remember thinking, “My God, that’s piled with dead bodies.” I’ve seen things that are so out of whack with the world so it’s very hard for me to get mad when someone runs late for school or spills juice on the couch. It’s mellowed me out a lot as a mother.
You mention that at one phase in your life, you had one precious hour with the kids before bedtime. What’s your philosophy of work/family balance?
I just try to enjoy the process and figure out how to not stress. “Embrace the chaos” is our family motto.
Of all of the people you’ve encountered in your work, who would you most want your kids to meet?
Oh, it’s such a giant list. When I went to Haiti, I wanted my daughter to meet the couple who runs that orphanage. They’re remarkable people doing something amazing in an impossible situation. I wanted her to meet the orphans and see how these kids are so smart, beautiful and amazing and, given a chance, could be really successful. I want my kids to meet everybody and expand what they know about humanity. It’s never, “Oh, I hope they meet president so and so.” That’s on the bottom of the list. It’s about regular people who do extraordinary things.