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Journalist Soledad O'Brien reflects on her life, balancing work and family

KGW Sunrise's Brenda Braxton spoke with Soledad O'Brien about a wide-range of topics including being a parent and balancing her career and family.

PORTLAND, Ore. — All this week on KGW News at Sunrise, we're saluting moms in honor of Mother's Day this Sunday. 

Recently, I caught up with a famous mom, journalist Soledad O'Brien.

She has a long list of professional credits including NBC, MSNBC, CNN, Weekend Today and HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Now, she's hosting her own show, Matter of Fact, streaming on Peacock. O'Brien also runs the PowHERful Foundation, which mentors young women to send them to college. And she recently appeared at a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser in Portland. Just before that, I chatted with her over Zoom at her apartment in New York City and we had a wide-ranging conversation about life and family.

MOTHER'S DAY

Brenda Braxton: I have to ask you, with Mother's Day coming up, what's the best lesson you've taught your kids?

Soledad O'Brien: Oh, that's such a great question. I think I've taught my kids about being a good person and being helpful to people who are struggling and being that one who who jumps in. I think it's very easy to wait and see what other people are doing. And I've always really appreciated that they are jumper inners. They kind of jump in and try to help out, which I love. And we were very intentional about teaching that. 

RELATED: Here are 6 fun events and gift ideas for Mother's Day

LIVING HER BEST LIFE AT 50+

BB: You're such a role model for so many people. Can you give us a few words of wisdom about the best thing about being in your fifties? 

SO: Being in your fifties is amazing. It's a bummer body-wise because, like, you trip over something and all of a sudden you've torn your ACL or for no reason you wake up and you're like, 'I think I threw my back out,' and you haven't done anything. So that part's a bummer. But I think what is happening is you become very much more centered about who you want to be around and what you want to accomplish. I was listening to Jamie Lee Curtis the other day. I think she was on, maybe, Oprah's show? I forget. And she was talking about how she realized there was a ticking clock and she's 60 and she's like, 'There's all these things I wanted to do.' She's got, I think, four movies in production and she started writing. I felt the same way, like now is the time. 

I love horseback riding and I've really upped doing that so that I'm really at a good level where I can start competing more. My kids are getting older so, as they head out the door, I wanna make sure [there's time to do] the things that I want to do. We upsized a little bit. We lived downtown and we just moved up to Harlem and we want to be very involved in the community. And so we've kind of opened up our house to events. You know, we have a good living room in order to host events because I said to my husband, 'If we're in a community, I want to be in a community.' So, we have in the next couple of weeks a number of Black female executives and young women who are interested in becoming business executives meeting and doing, like, speed dating in my living room. 

I sort of feel like if you're here, how are you useful? How are you using the space that you have? How are you using the resources that you have? And I think at 50, for me at least, I'm less worried about, 'Did I get invited to this thing? Am I doing that?' And much more like, 'Ugh, I don't want to go anywhere.' I just want to sit in my pajamas and do what I want to do, but make sure that anything I'm doing is a little more useful. 

NO TIME FOR HOBBIES, YET.

BB: You mentioned horseback riding. Are there other things you do to unplug and have fun? 

SO: Not a lot because I don't unplug and have fun a lot, unfortunately. I mean, running a business we serve a lot of masters in a lot of ways. We do a [streaming] show, we do a radio show, we do Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. So, I'm traveling a ton. I have four kids. I watch a lot of lacrosse with my boys. So no, I would say my main thing is horseback riding. Although I did adopt two pandemic puppies, Coco and Teddy.

I would say horseback riding is my main thing. I didn't really start it until I was 40 and just did a little bit at a time because you can't focus on anything else. You can't make lists in your head, or you'll die. (laughing) You can't do phone calls and text other people. You literally have to just focus on riding. I find it mentally really helpful as a break and then it's a great sport. I think when everybody goes off to college, maybe I'll have a little more time. But right now, I'm still driving people around to practices and sports, et cetera. 

BB: How old are your kids now? 

SO: My boys are 17, so they just got their licenses. So now is the time if you were thinking about leaving driving this is the moment. Uh, no. They're good drivers. And my girls are 20 and 21. So they're close to being off doing their thing. I think it's good to make sure that you have a lot of interests that engage you in your own community once your kids go off. Also, I think it's a good model for them. I've always really liked being a working mom as a model for my kids and being a mom who's very involved in charity in some capacity as a good model for the kids. For me, that was important.

RELATED: Straight Talk: Ann Curry reflects on her career, restoring trust in journalism and love for Oregon

BALANCING WORK AND FAMILY

BB: You're nonstop. That's stressful even when you love what you do. What do you do to keep all  the balls in the air between work and family?

SO: Such a great question. I feel like we should be having a glass of wine. Having this conversation like, 'How do you do it? I don't know. How do you do it?' I don't do it very well. And I don't think I have very many girlfriends who do it very well, to be honest. I think we're all successful because we juggle a lot. And then I think we're exhausted because we juggle a lot. But every year I try to come up with my list of how we're gonna try to manage better. For example, I had on my list 'learn to cook' and I removed it. One day, I'm like, 'I hate cooking. Let's just kill this off the list.' And I never felt better. I was like, I will not learn to cook. I live in New York City. I absolutely can just run to the corner and get something to eat. I don't need to know how to cook. 

So, removing stuff off this fake list that you've made in your head of what you think [you should do] as opposed to stuff that you enjoy and you wanna get done. And then I think starting to protect better, for example, in my calendar now I literally block out time for horseback riding, 'cuz it's important to me and this time in my calendar is not available [for others.] I will work till 10 o'clock at night if I have to. Last night, I was doing phone calls late but you know, this is the thing that's important because I found---  and I find a lot of women do this actually--- we sort of cave like, 'Oh, you know. No, no, okay I'll go in. I'll do this.' 

I remember one year when my daughter was very little, she was sick. She had a stomach bug. Sick as a dog all night, she was up. And first thing in the morning my husband gets up---  and he and I were both up with her at various stages-- but in the morning we get up and he starts going off to the gym. And I, meanwhile, I'm canceling things left and right. He's like, 'She's fine. I need to go to make myself happy. I need to go to the gym. That's what I need to start my day.' And I really kind of admired this idea of, you know, I'm just gonna sit here and watch this child. She was not an infant. She was probably four or five years old. 

There's a certain-- the right word is not selfishness--- but like protective of self where you have to say, 'No, actually this is important to me.' He's like, 'We both do not need to watch this child so, if you're staying I'm gonna go the gym.' It was such a great lesson to me because I realized that he's very good at protecting the stuff that matters to him. And I'm less good. If something matters to me and someone calls up and says, 'Oh, we have a problem' I'll cave immediately and cancel the stuff that matters to me. And then one day you'll look up and see like, 'Oh my gosh. I haven't done this thing that's so important to me.' So, I started putting in my calendar blocks of time like 'eat lunch.' So, I can-- if I want to-- sit down and have lunch and I'm not also texting three people on a conference call (laughing) which is sort of my style. 

LIVING IN THE MOMENT

BB: I guess there's really no "there, there"-- thinking things will automatically be better in the future. Life is what's going on right now. Does that resonate with you?

SO: Yeah, absolutely. I think Oprah has talked about that. I mean, I sound like I'm waking up every morning and channeling my inner Oprah, but I think she's talked a lot about this idea of like, you know, 'If I could just lose 30 pounds.' And I'd be, 'If I could just get this done--  if I could just move here, if I could just date this person.' I think it's sort of this idea that life starts once you hit that thing versus life is what's happening around you all those times in all those moments. So, yeah, I think that's really, really true. If there's stuff that you wanna get done-- 

now is the moment to do it. And maybe, maybe write it down.

I was in Madrid the other day. My mom was Cuban and I've been more or less fluent in Spanish at different times in my life, but I now speak very solid Spanglish. I was just walking around Madrid visiting a girlfriend, my sister and I, and I was like, 'I want to be fluent in Spanish.' 

That's on my list. And so at some point, not soon, but in maybe five years I will go to Madrid for a month or two months and really take an intensive Spanish class so that's now on my list of something that I want to accomplish. And then you have to kind of figure out, well, where does it fit in? I have kids in high school, so clearly not this moment, but at some point down the road, I wanna be able to accomplish that. And so I think you're right. Life is now. Put it on your list and make sure that you shoehorn it in where it needs to go. And make sure it's something that you want to do versus things you think you should do.

BEING BIRACIAL

BB: Society has been through it the last two years with the pandemic. Plus, the racial justice movement after the death of George Floyd in May of 2020. I grew up in an interracial family. You grew up in an interracial family. Your mother was Afro Cuban and your father was Australian. 

Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of what you've seen growing up as a biracial child and what you're seeing raising a biracial family. I do feel like we've made some really great progress. 

SO: We have just because of the numbers, right? The numbers have just grown tremendously. So I mean, there was a time-- and I think you and I were at the cusp of that-- when being a biracial kid was-- depending on where you live--  was quite a bit of an oddity. People would literally stop and stare at you. I was talking to my sister two days ago and my parents passed away a couple of years ago and she was going through their papers and she was sending to each sibling our original birth certificate 'cuz my mom and dad had them. She said the most interesting thing. She and my older sister were born in Baltimore in 1960 and 1961. Our Dad's race was Negro on the birth certificate. They lied on the birth certificate. So, to everybody else, my dad was white-- and very white. If you saw him, you'd be like, 'He's white.' 

I thought that was really incredible and speaks to the time that they lived in to make sure they weren't getting in any kind of trouble. It was just easier. And back then dads weren't allowed in the delivery room, right? So, it was just easier to say Negro father. So, number one, the numbers have just changed. Being biracial is not sort of some oddity. I mean we know that the number of kids who are born into interracial families has grown significantly. And I also think there are lots of conversations around it now where people really talk about their experiences. But of course, depending on where you grow up it's gonna shape how that experience kind of plays out. 

But at the same time there's--  I think it's in Michigan-- a guy who's running for the state Senate. His platform is, 'I'm a white guy with a white wife with white children and I believe white people should marry each other and I'm against interracial [families]. And you know when those things happen, I just can't believe we're here having these conversations with the person who's getting media attention because he's a viable state Senate candidate. I find that really sad and disturbing and troubling. 

But I think for your average kid who's growing up today, the world is a really different place. My mom used to talk how people would spit on her and her kids when they would walk down the street in Baltimore in the 1960s, you know. That obviously has changed dramatically. This country has never really figured out all the challenges we have around race. And I think we're circling back around to a time where there's a lot of push back and a lot of anger.

THE FUTURE

BB: With all that said, how do you feel moving forward? Are you hopeful?

SO: You know, probably my biggest strength slash weakness is I'm a nauseatingly hopeful person. Anytime anything bad happens, I'm the person you want next to you. Cause I'll always be like, 'Well, I feel like the silver lining in all of this....."  I'm that girl who always

feels like there's an upside to this conversation. So, yeah, I am hopeful because I'm just, nauseatingly hopeful. I think that people come through things and people figure things out. 

I am optimistic because I think there's always a new generation that pushes back. Historically we've seen, um, you know, my people, my parents were spit on and, you know, a generation later that would just be insane and not happen where I live, at least. So, I am incredibly hopeful. And I think there's a lot of young people when I went to high school-- if there was a kid who was gay, that kid would be teased mercilessly just because. That's how it was in the 1970s and 80s in my high school and my middle school. In my kids high school that would never happen. It would just be so unusual. And I get that we're in different locations but still like that's a lot of progress that has happened in one generation where people have just completely shifted how they feel about things. So, I am eternally hopeful in how things will turn out because I think young people are really quite incredible. 

BB: That's a positive note to end on. Thank you.

SO: Thank you.

WATCH: Journalist Soledad O'Brien to speak at virtual fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity