Cover Mom: Norah O’Donnell

Norah O’Donnell

Americans, in general, are a distracted bunch. We drive distracted by cell phone calls or text messages. We exercise at the gym in front of scores of televisions tuned to various channels and in the background pumps music from various sources. We put a positive spin on our scattered patterns of life and thought, proudly saying we are multitasking or striving for balance, but by dividing our attention among so much we lose focus.

As the chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC News and mother to three children under the age of three, Norah O’Donnell has every reason to feel pulled towards dizzying distraction. To add to the mix, her husband, Geoff Tracy, runs four popular restaurants in the metro Washington, DC area and just opened a fifth in Tyson’s Corner, VA this year. It would seem that their fast-paced careers and young family would catapult them into unique situational chaos.

But if, as the nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Concentration is the secret of strength,” then Norah O’Donnell is a contender. And whether it is an inherent trait or the result of years reporting on politics and national events, her disarmingly refined focus distinguishes her as a uniquely modern mom.

Norah does not subscribe to the idea of balancing work and family life. “The problem with the idea of balancing work and family is that it leaves out the self,” she says. Like most mothers, she struggled with this concept of finding time for herself. Her “light-bulb moment” came while having a conversation with a friend shortly after the birth of her third child. When he asked how she was doing, she quickly responded by talking about how the kids were doing. “No,” he said, “How are you?” Now, she hits the gym with a trainer once or twice a week. If the time for the gym evaporates, she will leave the kids with her husband and go out for a run.

Knowing that finding a balance is elusive at best and self-defeating at its worst, Norah focuses on being in the moment. When she is at work, her attention is fully at work and when she is home, she is fully at home. She refers to a recent article in The New York Times that emphasized the importance of communicating with preverbal children. “So many people are tuned into their Blackberrys while pushing a stroller instead of pointing to a bird and saying, ‘See the bird?’ to their child. We’re missing important opportunities to teach our kids.”

Being in the moment can have unintended consequences. As their children grew and started solid foods, Norah and her husband focused on what they were serving them. “Processed foods are not that healthy and poor nutritional habits can wreak havoc even on young children,” says Nora. With thought and determination, the couple began making their own baby food and found the experience economical, nutritious and easy to prepare. Even though husband Geoff is a chef, their household menu items are simple like butternut squash and sweet potato purees. “I can spend an hour on a weekend and have enough food to last for two weeks,” says O’Donnell.

Curious, Norah focused her attention on current research about children’s nutrition. She found that poor nutrition adversely affects children from the beginning of their lives. One study demonstrated that children as young as three, with poor nutritional habits, had flabby hearts. She also discovered Tufts University nutrition professor Susan Roberts’ work on metabolic programming—the idea that what parents feed their children now profoundly influences how their bodies develop and run-which further fueled her dedication to homemade baby food.


Spurred by their research and experience, Norah and her husband have written a book titled Baby Love Foods which will be published in May of 2010. Along with recipes, some of which are on the kids’ menu at Chef Geoff’s in Tysons, the book provides good resources on children’s nutrition for parents, something Norah noticed an absence of during her research. “Hopefully,” she adds, “the book will fill a void.” As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Norah was a philosophy major so asking hard questions and searching for answers come naturally to her. She has found that the skills she has honed as a reporter have helped her as a mom. When looking for pediatricians or schools or dentists, she gathers her information and asks questions. The expanse of her assignments has also imparted mindfulness about her place in the world. “I’ve covered the White House, the Pentagon, the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror and one thing it has taught me is not to take myself too seriously.”

In his book The Mental Game of Baseball, H.A. Dorfman writes, “Simply, the only way to have good concentration is to pay attention from moment to moment, only as each moment presents itself.” Such an approach may work for ballplayers, but could it work for modern moms? Looking at Norah O’Donnell, it seems like it can.

How do you define Modern Motherhood?
The ability to decide what your passion is in life and pursue it with determination.

Did you ever contemplate not working after having children?
Sure. I think about it every morning after a restless night of sleep with crying kids!

Did you ever regret your decision to continue working?

Absolutely not. I learned a long time ago that regrets are a waste of time.

What is your life motto?
I’m not sure I have a motto yet! But I want to live a life that’s interesting and challenge myself every day. At the same time, I want to make sure to say focused on service to others who are less fortunate.

What is your dream job?
I’d love to anchor the Today show!

How do you strike a balance in your personal and professional life? I’m not a fan of the word “balance,” because I feel like it suggests the scales of justice with both work and family getting equal time. It will never be equal and therefore will lead to disappointment. I just try to be “in the moment” when I’m at home or at the office.

What has been the biggest challenge in your life?
I want to make sure I take care of all the daily tasks in life with grace and efficiency, but at the same time make time to dream out big goals and projects.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Lately, it’s sauvignon blanc and these Stacy pita chips!

Can women have it all? How?
Women can have whatever they want. My favorite quote is by Henry David Thoreau who said, “When you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, endeavor to live the life you’ve imagined, you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

How do you differ from your own mother?
I try to copy her unconditional love and generosity. I’m different in that I try not to sweat the small stuff – like when my kids spill half their dinner on the kitchen floor!

How many hours a day do you see your children?
Oh, this is a question that makes me feel guilty! I try to spend as many hours a day with them as possible. I don’t count the hours nor will I ever!

How many hours do you work a week?
It depends on the week. I’m in the news business. I usually work 60+ hours a week. At least one a month – I travel to New York to news read for Weekend Today. On those weeks, its 80+ hours. They don’t give us comp days.

How do you make time for you?
I try to get to the gym twice a week. Sometimes a sneak out of the house on weekends to get a manicure!

What quality do you admire in other moms?

Favorite Metro D.C. hangout:

2 Amy’s Pizzeria

Favorite family outing/activity:
The National Zoo

Favorite restaurant:

Chef Geoff’s Tysons

Favorite clothing store/designer:

Sassanova in DC

What do you wear when you are off?

Lulu Lemon activewear!

What is your funniest mom moment?
I was busy putting my three kids to bed when the Today show called and asked for a piece on Sarah Palin’s new book. I did not have a babysitter so was in real trouble. I turned on Elmo and plopped my kids in front of the tv. I got my computer and blackberry and hid in the corner of the nursery. While I was writing my story, my daughter Grace used the portable potty to take a pee. Seconds after she finished, my one-year-old, Riley, went over to the potty – picked it up and flung the full pot across the room. The nursery was covered in pee!


Jessamyn is a writer living in Loudoun County with her husband and two children. Prior to the birth of her children, she was a high school English teacher. The perfect day for her includes some combination of reading, writing, running, and basketball.

View Comments (4)
  • As a working mom with three teenage children Norah’s comments are great. Juggling three children is no easy task but it truly gives us the ability to handle anything in the workplace.

  • I love Norah and have followed her career since she was first on TV. She has come so far and become such an intelligent and probing reporter. Career and family life seem to agree with her. Hope my granddaughter grows up with the beauty and work ethnic she seems to have.

  • Yeah, but I don’t believe her. for me everything is a show, she has like 2 nannies and she doesn’t spend time with her kids, so what is she talking about????

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