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Hoda Kotb: Maternity Leave Has Taught Me to Be a Better Parent

Kotb with daughters Haley & Hope

Award-winning journalist Hoda Kotb wears a lot of hats, but none as important to her lately as the role of mom.  In April, Kotb adopted her second daughter, Hope Catherine, and has since been on maternity leave from her job as co-anchor of TODAY. We recently spoke to Kotb as she was reflecting on what the last few months have taught her about parenting, children, and herself.

1. Q: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself and your parenting while you’ve been on maternity leave?

HODA: I don’t think I’ve ever really hit the pause button before. For however many years I’ve worked, which is most of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever really just paused. And now, after living for 55 years, the most important time in my life is this minute, like right now, that’s it. Imagine that, you’re 55 and you’re discovering the most important part of you, and I think the most important part of me is the part that was meant to be a mom.

And, so taking time — and not just a little bit of time, but really taking time, has meant the world to me. And having that time has taught me how to be a better parent. Spending every waking hour with two kids, you think you always have to be doing something. But maternity leave has taught me you don’t actually have to do anything. The best days are the ones where we’re just playing make-believe, where we don’t even have real toys. You don’t need stuff. You don’t need to go somewhere. You don’t need all the things you thought you needed in order to be a good parent and to teach your children. You just need to have time and a good imagination.

2. Q: As co-anchor of TODAY, you have one of the most demanding jobs in television news. What was the transition into maternity leave like for you?

HODA: It was weird. It was really weird. I would wake up minutes before my alarm at 3:45AM. That was my routine and I would do the exact same thing every single day, and I knew that I was needed for a bunch of stuff at work all day, including shoots and my radio show, and I didn’t know who I would be without that. Because if someone were to ask me, ‘who are you?’ before my children, I would have said I’m a journalist, I work in television, that’s how I would have defined myself. Now, for the first time in my life, I define myself as a mom and I think it took me more than probably two months to get out of my head.

The good thing about having two kids is that it’s all consuming. And slowly, I just started shutting it all down — realizing that I can only protect this small corner of my life. And I decided to live in that corner and not race to see what happened in the news today as soon as the kids went to sleep. I just decided not to do it. I think whatever you consume or take in becomes who you are, so if you’re constantly taking that stuff in and you’re around your kids all the time, you can’t be the purest form of who you need to be. Part of the reason I decided I wasn’t going to ingest it all is because I wanted to wake up happy and I wanted to go to sleep happy.

3. Q: Here at The Sunday Paper we hear from a lot of women who say they feel guilty about taking time from work to welcome a newborn. What would you say to someone who is feeling uneasy about taking that time away?

HODA: I think I probably would have felt that had I not been at this stage in my life. I would have felt that same thing because, look, the truth is you need a job and you need insurance, and sometimes time away in the workplace means, ‘whatever happened to her?’ It’s always, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ So, I do understand that feeling of, well, if I’m gone, they’ll forget me, and if they forget me, then I’m not important, and if I’m not important, then I might not be needed. And if I’m not needed, where’s this going to lead me? I totally, totally get that.

For me, I feel like I’m at this stage where my north stars are finally super clear. This is me being able to prioritize after putting work in the front seat forever. It’s always ridden sidecar. Everything else has always been in the backseat, always. Until now.

I know the [TODAY] show is going on without me, I know it is. But I’m getting one shot with my kids, and I’m getting it now, and I’m taking it. And had I become a mom when I was in my thirties, I might have raced back after four weeks, but not today.

Culturally, the more women who are in charge at the highest levels, the more we realize how important taking time is, including at TODAY. Whether it’s me, or Savannah, or Jenna — people look to us and say, ‘wow it’s okay to take time off and we can do it, too. And we can come back and still have our jobs.’ Change happens when people at the top are showing you it can be done. We’ll give you this time that you need and we’ll be waiting for you with open arms when you come back.

4. Q: What about adoptive moms? Why is it equally important for moms who have adopted to take maternity leave?

HODA: Some people look at someone who’s taken maternity leave after adoption and wondered why. I know there are some people who still wonder, ‘you didn’t go through any kind of childbirth, so why do you need time to recover or time to be home?’ And I think that’s the way it used to be. Men, especially, probably thought women needed time at home to heal.

But as an adoptive mom, this kind of bonding is more important than ever, because you don’t share the same genetics. You are bonding on every single level and it’s important to have that time. And as a mom who has adopted two children, I value not just every day I was given on maternity leave, but every minute. Every second, I valued it — it mattered to me.

5. Q: You’re headed back to TODAY after Labor Day. What are you most looking forward to?

HODA: I’m most looking forward to the camaraderie of our show. I love it from the minute I roll up. I like going up to the make-up room and talking with Savannah non-stop about life. I miss laughing with Jenna. If there’s anything close to a family at work, our show is it. You can’t work in a better environment than we have.

I will say, the one thing I’m going to try to take with me when I go back to work is what I’ve learned about being in the moment with my kids. Not a, ‘hey, I’m with you, but I’m on my phone, and I just need to text one more person about a shoot.’ But to really, really try to be in the moment with my kids. And until my last breath, I’ll remember this summer the most fondly, because it’s when I was able to spend every day, morning and night, with these two girls.