NPR host Mary Louise Kelly reflects on juggling motherhood and chasing the news
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mary Louise Kelly, is a host of All Things Considered and prior to that, reported on national security for NPR for about two decades. Like every working mother, she's had to juggle her work and parenting. The juggling act has been especially complicated for her.
She spent time away from home reporting from around the world, sometimes in war zones, reporting from Iraq while covering a visit by the secretary of defense. She was on a Black Hawk helicopter about to take off when she got a call from her younger son's school nurse. He was 4 at the time. The nurse said Kelly's son was very sick, and she needed to come right away, which of course, was impossible. Her new memoir is about the choices she's made about her work and home life, including the time she quit NPR so she could spend more time with her children.
When her oldest son was turning 18 and preparing to graduate high school and leave home for college, she thought about all the soccer games, concerts, science fairs, field trips, et cetera, that she'd missed over the years, always telling herself she'd do better next year. But for her older son, it was the final year she could make good on that promise, and she pledged that she would. That's where the book begins. The year had a few unexpected and upsetting twists. Her father died after fighting cancer for 17 years, and her husband decided he wanted to separate. Her book is called "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs."
Mary Louise Kelly, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have such admiration for you. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Terry, thank you. The admiration is mutual, and it's a pleasure. I don't - can't believe this is true, that I've never actually spoken to you before. This is the first time. So it's a pleasure to finally get here.
GROSS: I know. We've never met, never spoken. So...
KELLY: I know.
GROSS: ...This is great. As you point out in your book, most books about juggling parenting and work are aimed at young parents. And you wrote your memoir when you turned 50, and your boys were in their teens, and your older boy was about to go to college. What was it that you wanted to witness, to be there for, for your teenage boys...
GROSS: ...As opposed to when you were the mother of young children?
KELLY: Well, I think one of the things that has surprised me is that I thought this whole balancing act, juggle, leaning in, leaning out - I thought this was supposed to get easier as my kids got older. And to my surprise, I found it has been the opposite. You know, it does get easier in some ways. My boys can - you know, they're teenagers. They can bathe themselves. They can dress themselves. They can make their own toast in the morning. But the opportunity cost of my choices, of where I spend my days and my hours - that has gotten more challenging.
And the - you know, I'll give you a specific example, Terry. James, my oldest, who was the one who was entering his final year of high school - so it was going to be the last year he was ever guaranteed to live in the same house as me before he went off to college and out into the world - he has been through many phases - you know, the pirate phase, the Star Wars phase, the - you know, different sports, different interests. But the constant love of his life to date is soccer. He's played it since he could walk, since he was 1 year old. And by the time he was a senior in high school, he was starting forward on his high school varsity team. And the games are, you know, what his life revolved around and that - you know, the thing he's singularly focused on. And his games are weekdays around 4:00, which is the exact same time that All Things Considered goes on air.
And for years this has been the case. And for years I have thought, well, next year I'm going to figure this out. Next year I'm going to find a way to be in the bleachers and screaming my head off. And it dawned on me in the summer before his senior year, I don't have any more chances. Like, there are no more next-years. There's no more do-overs here. And what seemed a relatively easy choice when there were hundreds of games stretching out into some infinite future, I could suddenly count on my two hands the number of games he had left and therefore the number of chances I had to show up.
And there have been so many things like that. And I just thought, I want to sit with this year and really reckon with the choices I've made that got us here and the choices I'm making right now. And let me record them and see, like, you know, am I doing the right thing? Do I want to make a different choice now?
GROSS: Well, I mean, you're still hosting All Things Considered.
KELLY: (Laughter) Yes, I am.
GROSS: The games are still starting at 4:00 during that year. So you still couldn't go.
KELLY: I organized to take six weeks of leave, and I started writing this book during those weeks. And I had this idyllic image in my head that I was finally going to have figured out, like, how to have it all, how to have it all at once. I was going to type with glorious productivity every day till, like, 3:30, and then I would shut my laptop and go scream my head off at the games. And it did work out that way on some days, and it was great. And I managed to make some games that I'm so glad I made and other things. And then there were other days, you know, where it remains a challenge because there's - you know, for all of us, whether you're a parent with a kid in high school or anything else, it's, you know, the inherent challenge of sometimes you need to be in two places at once, and it just ain't possible.
GROSS: A dramatic example of what you've been up against in terms of balancing work and parenting, something I referred to in the introduction - it's the time you were in Iraq covering a visit there by the secretary of defense, and you were on the Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq about to take off when you got the call from your younger son's school nurse that he was super sick and that you had to get there right away, which, of course, you couldn't. In addition to spending part of that night in tears, what did you do after?
KELLY: (Laughter) I did spend that night in tears, even after I knew that he was OK, that his dad had made it, that all was going to be fine. I - yeah, they had assigned us to sleep, the Pentagon press corps, in these bunkers behind one of Saddam Hussein's then-abandoned palaces. And I do remember lying in this triple bunk bed and just crying, thinking, you know, what am I doing? And I think it's time for a career Plan B. Because I really love my job, and I think I'm actually pretty good at it. And I worked so hard to get here. But I'm in Baghdad, and my kid needs me. And right now, for my family, this does not work.
So yeah, on the plane back from that trip, back to what was then called Andrews Air Force Base, I started writing what would become my first book, which was a novel about a reporter, and I named her, my protagonist, Alexandra James. My two sons are Alexander and James, and I wanted to remind myself why I was doing it. And maybe it was, you know, vicariously writing about a reporter who was still out there globetrotting when I wasn't, because not long after that, I think a few months after that, I told NPR, I'm out. I quit. And I did. And I stepped away from the news for - I don't know - five or six years and wrote books and filled in occasionally and, you know, kept my foot in the door.
But I was around for my kids in those years much more than I have been able to do in a, you know, in a full-time newsroom environment. And then a point came where they seemed healthy and thriving. And I thought, oh, man, I miss the newsroom, called and said, hey, coach, put me back in. So here I am.
GROSS: What did you miss and how did your identity change during those years you weren't working?
KELLY: I mean, being a journalist is in my bones. It is what I have always wanted to do. It is - like, since I was a kid. I started a newspaper on my street, and we used to, you know, cover things. I would award a yard of the month and then go interview the lucky winner and put a - your prize for that was - there was a pink plastic flamingo that I had...
GROSS: Oh, no.
KELLY: ...That my parents at some point, somewhere, had acquired from Home Depot. And I would show up and plant it in the lucky winner's front yard. And I'm sure there were many conversations that 12-year-old me was not aware of where the neighbors were like, can we take this thing down (laughter)? Is it somebody else's turn yet? But, yeah, I've always wanted to do this. And I edited my high school paper and did my college paper and have always thought this was the path for me. And being away from the newsroom, I, in some ways, found it more stressful than being in it. It was great being around all the time with my kids. And I love writing books and found that meaningful and satisfying work. But every time a big story on my old beat would break, I'd be climbing the walls. I remember Edward Snowden. I remember the former NSA contractor who had to flee the U.S. because he was going to be arrested, and still would if he comes back. His story was breaking all over the news the day that my first book published. And I was trying to give my very first book talk of all time, and I couldn't get off Twitter. I kept leaving and going and hiding in the ladies' room...
KELLY: ...To check Twitter and see, like, where is Snowden? Have they pulled him off the flight? Is he hiding out at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow?
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered. Her new memoir is called "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF COFFIN AND THE MU'TET'S "LOW HANGING FRUIT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered. Her new memoir is called "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs." It's about the difficulties she's faced and the tough choices she's made trying to balance work and parenting.
Did you ever worry - and I don't mean - I'm not endorsing this sentiment. But did you ever worry that you'd be setting a bad example as a woman doing really high-level national security reporting and, like, you know, traveling around the world, going to war zones that - were you're afraid that somebody would say, see, that's why you can't hire a woman for this kind of position? There's going to be the maternity leaves. And then she's going to quit and spend more time with her children and then do it again. You know what I'm saying?
KELLY: Oh, my God. Yes. When my kids were very young and I was there for younger and way more junior in my career, I didn't want to be mommy tracked. And I knew I would be. I had sat in meetings. I remember one specific meeting with an older male editor, who I love and respect, but where I did actually venture, you know, my kid is sick, and I'm not sure I'm going to make it in tomorrow. And I got this grumpy harrumph. And then another colleague in the same meeting said, oh, and my dog is sick. And I'm going to need to take the dog to the vet. And the editor said, oh, your poor dog. Take all the time you need.
KELLY: I thought, buddy, are you kidding me? Yeah, just the support for working parents trying to juggle it all was not then what it is now. And it is not perfect now. But I will say, now that I am a little more senior in my career, I do think about role modeling for the younger parents coming up or the younger - you know, for any of us who are trying to juggle. Some of us are juggling up a generation, trying to take care of parents or pets or whatever it is. But I think, for intense, deadline-driven jobs to be sustainable, you have to set some boundaries.
And I make a point now, you know - there's a very - I have my private calendar of engagements. And then I have a very public one that any producer can look at as they're booking me for interviews and commitments for All Things Considered. And I make a point, you know? If the reason I need to be out is I'm taking my kid on a college visit, or I need to take them to the orthodontist, or I've got a parent teacher conference, I put it on there. And I write what it is because I want other people coming up the ranks to see, like, OK, that's all right. That's an acceptable thing to do.
GROSS: While you were writing this book, you found a medical file from when your younger son was born, Alexander. And you knew he had profound problems when he was born. He had a stroke. It was a breech birth. It was a very difficult birth both for Alexander and for you. And you knew he'd been in the - a neonatal ICU for a long time. So when you came across this file and read it, you were really just so alarmed by what you read. Tell us some of the things that were most alarming.
KELLY: So first of all, let me say again, he's hale, hearty, 17 years old, and it's all turned out fine. But yeah, his birth was terrifying. I obviously knew that. I obviously knew I had been released from the hospital and he hadn't. And I had to go back to the NICU while he got stronger before we could bring him home. His actual discharge papers were in a sealed envelope. And I had never opened it. It had just gotten thrown in this file. And I was going back through it, as you mentioned, to verify some of the speech therapy that we had done and jog my memory on that. And I found this envelope and thought, well, I'll just open it. And surely it can't have anything that meaningful since we've lived without opening it this long. I'll just open it and then chuck it in the trash.
And as I started reading, I realized, you know, it was - I had been unconscious (laughter) at a certain point in the delivery and hadn't witnessed it firsthand. And I had not fully grasped that he was born not alive. And his Apgar score, which is the score that doctors use to measure, you know, the health of a newborn baby, you know, it's their respiration and their heart rate and their coloring, all the rest. It's a scale of one to 10, and a healthy newborn is a 10. And my son was a zero. And for several minutes after delivery, he was apparently a zero. And I struggled reading that. I struggle talking to you about it now even knowing that his story turns out with a happy ending. He's fine. He's healthy. He's a teenager. He's great. But even in the past tense, to see and read the account of the attempts to resuscitate him and when he started to fight to breathe - I suppose reading it hit home for me the choices I had made in the days and years since, every choice to go out into the world on a reporting trip or to work later, to not be there. Like, had I known how close we came to losing him, would I ever have left his side? Would I ever have let him crawl off my lap?
But I think the conclusion I arrived at was it is possible to hold these two seemingly contradictory, competing ideas at the same time. And in my case, it was, am I glad I went and carried on with my job and carried on reporting from all over the world? Yes. Do I regret leaving my babies every single time I did? Yes. And those things can both be true, and they remain true today.
GROSS: There's a scene you write about in the book where you're at a restaurant in Chicago where you and your son are scouting out the University of Chicago. It's one of those college tour trips. And he ends up...
GROSS: ...Going there. So you're at a restaurant while you're touring the university, and it's a nice restaurant. You're having a good dinner. He wants to leave early to be with his friends. And he asks you if you'll be OK walking the two blocks back to the hotel by yourself. You had just gone through the latest round of hostile environment training...
GROSS: ...Which journalists are - have to go through before going to war zones and conflict zones. So it's just really kind of funny and endearing that after going through learning how to, like, protect yourself with tourniquets and rappelling down with a hotel sheet from...
GROSS: ...A hotel that's under attack, that he's worried about you being safe walking to the hotel. Tell us more about the hostile environment training that you have to go through.
KELLY: Yeah. NPR, to its credit, gets everyone who is likely to head into the field into situations that may be dangerous to do hostile environment training. I think the latest requirements are we have to re-up it every three years. But they take it very seriously, and you are away for two, three days. And yeah, you're learning how to handle if - should you be kidnapped or learning how to deal if you're taken hostage. You're learning how to apply tourniquets to yourself or your colleague in the case of incoming, you know, gun wounds, or if you step on a landmine. You are learning - they do - it's true - actually cover, you know, if you were in a hotel and terrorists took over the hotel, how might one contemplate rappelling out the window? And I have used some of this training - not that particular aspect of it - but in some of my assignments.
GROSS: What have you had to use?
KELLY: Oh, they teach you things like if you're in a protest or any kind of just giant crowd where things are getting dicey - first of all, you try never to do that alone. Second of all, like, if you're with a colleague, you link arms so that you won't get separated at the elbow, not at the - not holding hands, because that's easier to pull somebody apart. And you do it facing in two directions. So, you know, I'm facing forward and my producer or photographer colleague is facing the other direction, elbows linked, so you have 360 visibility, something like that. And I've used that.
GROSS: Oh, so one of you is walking backwards.
KELLY: Yeah. One of you is walking backwards, one of you is walking forward, and it's really hard to rip you apart. And I used that most recently in Iran when my producer and I were covering the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general who the U.S. assassinated. And we were in a - probably the biggest crowd I've ever been in, and they're chanting, death to America. And we're not - you know, we were not being targeted in any way. In fact, when I almost fell, I had some lovely Iranian men hold back the crowd and pull me up.
But it was dangerous. The - a couple of days later, a number of Iranians were killed in a stampede at a similar event. And our - in that case, our photographer ended up getting swept away from us, and we couldn't get back to her for a while. But our interpreter and my producer and I linked elbows, and we stayed together. So that training does come into play.
And yeah, I did have it in my head on this lovely calm night in Chicago where it was a literal two-block walk back to the hotel from the restaurant. And my son is saying, are you going to be OK? You know, like, are you going to be able to get home safely? And I bit my tongue to not say, honey...
KELLY: ...Like, I've filed from some - you know, from war zones and, you know, airstrips under mortar fire and, you know, aircraft carriers in combat zones. And yeah, I think I'll manage to handle this. But what touched me and what I wanted to capture in writing about it was just - that's not a question it would have occurred to the 10-year-old version of that child to ask, or the 12-year-old or the 15-year-old. It was - you know, he was - I think had just turned 18. And I felt so viscerally the number of nights that I had worried about how is he going to get home safely? Is he going to make curfew? What kind of carpool arrangement do I need to put in place to get him home from wherever he is? And it was the first time that he was worried about me and how was I going to get home safely. And it was one of those, you know, moments of inflection in the life of a parent.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Louise Kelly, and her new memoir is called "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs." And it's about the difficulties she's faced and the tough choices she's made trying to balance work and parenting. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HAPPY TUNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Louise Kelly. She's been a host of All Things Considered since 2018 and, before that, covered national security for NPR. Her new memoir, "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs," is about the difficulties she's faced and the tough choices she's made trying to balance work and parenting. It's been an especially difficult balancing act because her work has required covering breaking news and reporting from around the world, including war zones.
We were talking about hostile environment reporting. And I want to talk about a different kind of hostile environment, which is an office, in particular Mike Pompeo's office. One of the kind of famous interviews that you did was interviewing Mike Pompeo in January of 2020.
KELLY: Correct - 2020.
GROSS: And this was an interview that got very contentious because he kept avoiding answering your questions. And you had two things you wanted to talk to him about - the U.S relationship with Iran and also Ukraine. So just set the stage for us about what you needed to know. Like, what was going on in the news that you needed to talk to him about?
KELLY: I had been asking for months for an interview with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and I had gone back and forth with his press team. In booking the interview, they told me I would have 10 minutes exactly - no more. So I had thought through the few questions that I really wanted answered. They had asked me, would I agree to restrict my questions to only Iran? That's what he wanted to talk about. And I said, and then put in writing, no. I won't agree to that. I intend to ask about Ukraine, and I intend to ask about whatever else, you know, the news gods may serve up overnight. I'm not going to take off the table if some crisis breaks out somewhere that I want to ask him about it. I never agree to take anything off the table. He doesn't have to answer it, but I have the right to ask, and I reserve that right.
GROSS: And one of the things you wanted to ask him about was Marie Yovanovitch, who had been the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. And when she was not kind of cooperating with Rudy Giuliani's efforts to find dirt on Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, she was recalled.
KELLY: This whole shadow diplomacy campaign...
KELLY: ...In Ukraine. Yeah.
GROSS: And Mike Pompeo did not prevent that from happening.
KELLY: Correct. And she was ousted from her position. At the time that I sat down with Pompeo, she was still working at the State Department, but she had been ousted as ambassador and was testifying about everything that had transpired on her watch.
GROSS: OK. So we're going to play the part of your 10-minute interview, which ended up being, I think, a nine-minute interview because...
KELLY: Yeah. It was cut short.
GROSS: ...It was cut short from his side. So here's an excerpt of Mary Louise Kelly's interview with Mike Pompeo, then-Secretary of State, from January 24, 2020. And after the interview, we'll hear her talking about the interview with Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered, also from January 24, 2020. And I just think this is a masterful interview. So let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
KELLY: Change of subject - Ukraine. Do you owe Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch an apology?
MIKE POMPEO: You know, I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran. That's what I intend to do. I know what our Ukraine policy has been now for three years of this administration. I'm proud of the work we've done. This administration delivered the capability for the Ukrainians to defend themselves. President Obama showed up with MREs. We showed up with Javelin missiles. Previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We're working hard on that. We're going to continue to do it. I just don't have...
KELLY: I confirmed with your staff last night that I would talk about Iran and Ukraine.
POMPEO: ...Anything else to say about that this morning.
KELLY: I just want to give you another opportunity to answer this because, as you know, people who work for you in your department, people who have resigned from this department under your leadership say you should stand up for the diplomats who work here.
POMPEO: I don't know who these unnamed sources are you're referring to. I can tell you this. When I talk to...
KELLY: These are not unnamed sources.
POMPEO: When I talk to my team...
KELLY: This is your senior advisor, Michael McKinley, a career Foreign Service officer with four decades' experience, who testified under oath that he resigned in part due to the failure of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine.
POMPEO: Yeah. I'm not going to comment on things that Mr. McKinley may have said. I'll say only this. I have defended every State Department official. We've built a great team. The team that works here...
KELLY: Sir, respectfully...
POMPEO: ...Is doing amazing work around the world.
KELLY: Where have you defended Marie Yovanovitch?
POMPEO: I've defended every single person on this team. I've done what's right for every single person on this team.
KELLY: Can you point me toward your remarks where you have defended Marie Yovanovitch?
POMPEO: I've said all I'm going to say today. Thank you. Thanks for the repeated opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.
KELLY: One further question on this.
POMPEO: I'm not going to. I appreciate that. I appreciate you want to continue to talk about this. I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran.
KELLY: And you appreciate that the American public wants to know, as a shadow foreign policy, as a backchannel policy on Ukraine was being developed, did you try to block it?
POMPEO: The Ukraine policy has been run from the Department of State for the entire time that I have been here. And our policy was very clear. I've been clear about that.
KELLY: Marie Yovanovitch testified under oath that Ukraine policy was hijacked.
POMPEO: I've been clear about that. I know exactly what we were doing. I know precisely what the direction that the State Department gave to our officials around the world about how to manage our Ukraine policy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for your time. Thank you.
KELLY: Secretary, thank you. Thank you.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mary Louise Kelly is here in the studio. And, Mary Louise, will you explain what's happening at the end of the interview there?
KELLY: Hey, Ari. What is happening there is an aide has stopped the interview, said, we're done. Thank you. And you heard me thank the secretary. He did not reply. He leaned in, glared at me and then turned and, with his aides, left the room. Moments later, the same staffer who had stopped the interview reappeared, asked me to come with her - just me, no recorder, though she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed.
I was taken to the secretary's private living room, where he was waiting and where he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? He used the F word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said, people will hear about this. And then he turned and said he had things to do. And I thanked him again for his time and left.
KELLY: We have reached out to the State Department to let them know we plan to report this coda to the interview, and we have not yet heard back.
GROSS: So that was Mary Louise Kelly speaking with Ari Shapiro after her January of 2020 interview with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I want to know what it was like for you when he was hollering at you after the interview in his living room 'cause he had asked to speak with you. So his aide ushered you in there. Then he started using the F-word and saying, do you think Americans care about F-ing Ukraine? Can you even find Ukraine on an F-ing map? What was it like to have the secretary of state not only hollering at you, but using the F-word?
KELLY: It was surreal. It - it's a moment I will not soon forget. I remember feeling, again, as someone who's reported from a lot of countries that do not enjoy a constitutional protection of free speech and a free press, don't have a First Amendment - I've reported from countries like that where getting into a contentious interview with a senior official can land you in jail or worse. And I remember hovering above myself and thinking, I'm glad I live in the U.S. where we have the First Amendment. I'm glad I work for a major news organization that has editors who are going to back me up because when we report this, it's going to be, you know, my word against the secretary of state's word if he denies this ever happened. There was only one other witness in that room, and she worked for him. It was his press aide. And I felt the muscle of NPR standing up with me and for our journalism as we reported that and as he eventually did put out a statement on State Department letterhead that called me a liar.
GROSS: But, you know, here's what I'm really wondering. After the secretary of state lies about you and shouts at you, uses the F-word at you, but mostly lies about you, how do you trust anything that he says after that? How do you trust how he handles diplomacy and reports on that diplomacy after that? If he lied about you, how do you trust anything he says?
KELLY: You know, I don't know that that's the way I ever frame it. I'm not, you know, going into - whether it's Pompeo or any other official from any administration, I'm not basing my reporting and coverage on trust. I'm basing it on, what do I know? How do I know it? Have I been able to verify this from other sources? What evidence can they put forward to marshal support for their position? Like, why do they believe what they believe? What questions can I ask to try to shed some light on that? So it's not a matter of whether I trust this person or not. That's not what's at stake. The journalism is more about, let me do the reporting and lay out for you what I have found. And tomorrow, I'm going to go back and try to find a little bit more and let you chew on that. And then we keep going. That's how I build a story.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered who also covered national security for NPR for many years. Her new memoir is called "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year Of No Do-Overs." And it's about balancing work life and her life as a parent. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Louise Kelly, a host of NPR's All Things Considered and now the author of the new memoir "It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs," about the tough choices she's made trying to balance work life and parenting.
One of the things you write about in your memoir is hearing loss, and it's a pretty major amount of hearing loss that you have. Many people are embarrassed about getting hearing aids because they think of it as a sign of old age and they don't want to appear old. Of course, a lot of hearing aids are so small you can't really even see them anymore in somebody's ear. But you were in your 40s when you started wearing hearing aids. How did you feel about it? Were you embarrassed? Were you reluctant to get them because you thought it would make a bad impression and people would think of you as old?
KELLY: Yeah, I mean, there is a stigma around them that there just isn't around needing glasses. You know, I am in my early 50s now. I got hearing aids about a decade ago, in my early 40s. And none of my friends had them. Nobody my age seemed to have them. And I was resistant because of the stigma and because they're expensive and 'cause they're not the most comfortable things. You get used to them. But you have this big thing parked on the back of your ear and then a tube going down into your ear and the - you know, the internal device that you're shoving way deep in your ear to amplify. So it's not the most comfortable thing ever, and I was resistant.
And I will also say, you put on glasses, you can see. Game over. When you first get fitted with hearing aids, I found it overwhelming. It's not like you can just instantly hear the way you did when you were 16. It takes your brain a while to learn because it's lost some of the pathways it used to know if you've had hearing loss and been undiagnosed for a while. And it is also overwhelming. I remember leaving the audiologist's to head back down to my car when I first got them and stopping in my tracks and thinking, what is that? Like, what is that weird noise? And realizing it's my footsteps on this tiled floor, walking to the elevator. And I must not have been able to hear that for years. It was like a brand new noise, and the whole world was like that.
You know, I walked into Starbucks and had to leave again, like, just, you know, kind of hunched over in retreat because the milk steamers and the espresso grinders were so loud. And I had been dimly aware of it but hadn't really heard it. And hearing aids are imperfect. They make everything louder. So they helpfully make the person whose voice you're trying to hear as you speak to them louder, but they make everything else louder, too. And it takes a while - it certainly took me, you know, a little while to get used to that.
GROSS: How much does your hearing loss and the hearing aids interfere with work now?
KELLY: Very little. That is thanks in part to the amazing team that I work with that has helped me figure out some workarounds. There are certain things I have to do differently from my co-anchors here and my colleagues. But I will say this. I mean, the funny thing is listening is critical in my job, in our jobs. You know, I'm usually the one asking the questions and then really listening to the answers. And that's hard to do when you can't hear. In the studio where I'm talking to you now, that whole cacophony of background noise that I talked about doesn't exist. I'm in a beautifully professionally soundproofed studio where there's nothing to hear except your voice. And I'm wearing professional headphones, and I can crank them as loud as I need. So it works great in the studio.
It was a challenge during the pandemic when we were broadcasting from home, and I wasn't in a studio, and I had teenagers and a Bernedoodle bouncing around the house and creating a racket behind me. And it's a challenge in the field sometimes, you know, when I'm trying to do an update from a protest or the middle of a crowd or a stand-up from out somewhere where I'm not in a studio, trying to figure out just how do we need to wire this so that I can hear it. I just was doing this on my most recent reporting trip from Iran, and my producers had set up an interview for me, and I looked at them and said, I can't do that because this. And they said, oh, yeah, right, hang on, plan B. And we figured it out. So, so far - knock on wood - we've always been able to figure it out.
GROSS: So now in your life, what's juggling parenting and work like? Because your oldest is in college and your youngest is probably preparing to go, right?
KELLY: Yeah, I'm about to live this - the year of no do-overs all over again because my youngest is soon finishing up his junior year of high school. I'm doing college visits with him. And we're about to do the whole, you know, process again of his senior year. I've got to start figuring out - don't tell my editors here yet, because I haven't asked them yet, but figuring out some kind of leave for the fall so I can show up for his 4:00 soccer games in the fall because they're really going to be the last ones. So yeah, it's balancing act all over again.
And then starting to think about, for the first time, you know, in a year and change from now, when some, you know, big assignment comes in, whether it's to travel somewhere in the States or overseas or whatever, to do that and not feel any guilt and not be, you know, sorting out dinner plans back home and carpools and who's walking the dog at home and all the rest. That's going to be - it's going to be quite something. It's been 20 years.
GROSS: But at the same time, on one of your reporting trips, a fairly recent one, you were, like, the oldest person of the team...
KELLY: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: ...By a couple of decades.
GROSS: And you ask yourself, am I getting too old for this?
GROSS: And when will I know that it's time to stop doing that kind of reporting?
KELLY: And I don't know what the answer to that is. That was a question that flitted through my mind on a train in Ukraine right before, like, days before, the war broke out. And we were headed into Donbas in eastern Ukraine. We were getting as close as you could get to the Russian border and the frontlines of fighting that was already underway. And I was thinking, you know, my producers who are two decades younger than me on this trip, are a little annoyed because I have carried in with me my ancient handheld, you know, audio recorder, which is - which I love and which has never failed me and which will be buried with me some - someday years from now, but for the meantime, is so ancient that they can't figure out how to upload the audio. And I have lost the cable that connects it. So here we are.
And I thought, have I become that person who, like, clings to geriatric technology because I don't want to have to learn the new one? And I thought, yeah, I guess I have. And yeah, I'm a runner, so I'm fit. I'm happy to schlep gear all over. I'm happy to get little sleep and meet my deadlines and all the rest. But you start wondering, you know, how much longer? How much longer am I going to want to do this? How much longer am I going to have the energy to do this?
And right now, the answer is, I'm all in. But at some point, I guess it'll be a different answer. We'll cross that bridge when we get there.
GROSS: Well, Mary Louise Kelly, thank you so much for coming on our show. It's been a pleasure to meet you. Because like we said at the beginning, we've never met or spoken before.
KELLY: Never before. Thank you so much. This has been a pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: And for me. Mary Louise Kelly is a host of All Things Considered and author of the new memoir, "It. Goes. So. Fast." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the latest episode of HBO's "Succession." It was so good - definitely worthy of a standalone review. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "NO OUTERWEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.