NBC News' Hallie Jackson Gets Personal in a New Special on Pandemic Parenting
On October 10, 2020, NBC News Senior Washington Correspondent Hallie Jackson shared a photo of herself in a news van coming from Walter Reed Medical center, where she had been covering then-President Donald Trump's COVID treatment. "Me, my Spectra, and the White House press corps," her caption read. Her colleagues seem to be averting their eyes, and her Spectra — that's a breast pump — is visible in the foreground. It's the same model as the one I plugged myself into shortly before connecting with Jackson on Zoom Monday afternoon to talk about motherhood after COVID changed everything.
Jackson gave birth to daughter Monroe on March 9, 2020, when the novel coronavirus was just beginning to be understood as a major threat stateside — early enough that her mom could come meet the baby in the hospital, but late enough that she pretty much hasn't seen her since. I had my pandemic baby five months later, and she's now the age Monroe was when the pumping-in-a-van photo went viral, 7 months. There are more straightforward ways to mark the passage of time in a pandemic, but for parents, it trudges on in a strange accounting of decisions we never imagined having to make, milestones we never thought we'd miss, in weird hygiene routines we practice to convince ourselves we're safe.
Many are walking around frayed, hiding the worn edges of our stressed-out lives from our children and hoping they don't internalize too much of the trauma we have collectively faced over these last 12 months. For Jackson, after the "chaos" of following Donald Trump as White House correspondent, becoming a mom, and returning to work (with a promotion) amid a nonstop global crisis, it was time to step out from behind the proverbial desk. Starting Tuesday, March 2, she's telling an urgent story, and for the first time in her career, she is a part of it.
"I'll be honest with you, the only time I ever shared a personal piece of my life in a news story was for a feature for Nightly News, six years ago, about IQ tests for dogs — I used my dog," she says. She's speaking to me from her basement where both she and her partner, NBC News producer Frank Thorp, share a home office and makeshift studio. She tells me they sometimes join team conference calls sitting shoulder to shoulder, the same photos appearing in both of their backdrops. She's at once disarming — seconds into our chat she has me talking about myself, my daughters, my motherhood experience — and an old-fashioned newswoman. I can see the thought of introducing herself into the story still makes her gristle the tiniest bit, even though we're speaking less than 24 hours before she goes live. "I never thought I would. It's not something that I've really ever done or that has really ever appealed to me," she says. "What I've realized is that talking about your experiences matters to other people. And maybe this sounds cliché, but it does feel like it's important for other women to know that, yeah, you're not alone."
COVID One Year Later: Life After Lockdown is a two-week series on NBC and MSNBC exploring the ways life has changed amid the pandemic, and will feature many of the network's biggest names. Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie will anchor a primetime special on March 11. Jackson's contribution premiered today on the TODAY show, and subsequent segments will air on MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson, weekdays at 10 a.m. In it, she seeks to answer questions facing many parents right now with the help of high-profile experts from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Cribsheet author Emily Oster, who's made a name for herself by replacing the emotionally fraught decisions of motherhood with cold, hard data. One topic Jackson is eager to unpack is what pregnant or breastfeeding people need to know about vaccines.
In her interview with Jackson, Senator Warren says, "The answer cannot be, we'll just pretend there are no pregnant people out there, we'll just pretend there are no nursing people out there, and we will assume that this — in this case the pandemic — affects only people who are not pregnant, and who are not nursing. That's not reality." Warren being Warren, she has a plan. "So part of what I'm pushing for is for the FDA, and for all of our researchers, to stop in their studies and say, 'Okay, how can we think about this for pregnant people? How can we bring people into the studies in a way that's safe and closely monitored?'" The rest of their conversation airs on Friday, March 5.
As no shortage of articles and studies will tell you, anxiety and depression among mothers has increased substantially during the year of COVID. Jackson says one researcher she spoke with called the numbers stunning, and while she is still "dipping a toe in the waters" of sharing her own story, she does say she's not been immune to difficulty. "I'll be candid with you, I'm still sorting through some of this, because I think it's been, for me from a mental health perspective, challenging," she tells me. "And I think that one thing I've learned is that talking about those kinds of things, as vulnerable as it may be, is really important." She hedges and ends up pulling back into her more comfortable role as reporter: "I'm probably not ready to go there yet."
Throughout our conversation, Jackson checks her own privilege — she is grateful to her employer for being so flexible about her pumping needs, something so many women struggle to make work; she is lucky to have such a high-profile job where she can use her platform to tell others' stories; she wants to "shine a light" on the women and mothers of color who've been so disproportionately affected by Covid and its economic fallout. And she wants to give everyone the answers they need to make informed choices and ultimately feel better.
Ahead, more of what you can expect in Life After Lockdown, and the "crazy" way Jackson's pandemic baby made her debut.
This show seems like a bit of a departure from your usual Washington-focused coverage. Why focus on motherhood right now?
I am a pandemic mom, myself. And it has been, I think, an unusual experience for pregnant moms, for new moms, over this last year. And I thought maybe there's a way to tell those stories and bring them to a larger audience, and to also talk about what we now know and what we still don't know a year into the pandemic.
I'm sure you saw that "Primal Scream" article in the New York Times. They quoted economist Betsey Stevenson, who said, Covid-19 "took a crowbar to the gender gaps and pried them open." How will you address these issues that perhaps the pandemic has brought to light but that have been here all along?
[I speak with] Senator Warren and Senator [Patty] Murray, who are specifically looking to figure out ways that, not just pregnant women and new moms aren't left behind, but women generally are not left behind. These issues, the gender gap, the wage gap, the lack of paid family leave that is universal for women around the country. Those are issues that government policies would need to address and that some of these lawmakers are seeking to address, and [we're] using the experience of many women in COVID to find an opening into that.
In my reporting, I'm always trying to figure out, "Okay. What are the policies behind things? What are lawmakers trying to do? How are our political leaders trying to advocate for people who need it, and how do you hold them accountable for that?" One of the more striking things that I heard in the course of reporting out this series was Senator Warren saying, "Listen, we are not there yet." I said, "Are they doing enough," and she said, "No. I mean, our agencies and our government entities need to be doing more to step up." There's a lot on everybody's plate, and everybody gets that. The CDC, the NIH are pulled in a lot of different directions, but there is a desire on the part of some of these lawmakers to make sure that pregnant and lactating women don't slip through the cracks.
Mental health has, overwhelmingly, been a focus of the conversation about mothers and women amid the pandemic. What are you bringing to this discussion we maybe haven't seen yet?
It's not always easy to be a new mom or a first-time mom or an anytime mom. And what has been found in some of the research that we've been reporting on, is that stress and anxiety levels are through the roof, at levels that some of these researchers just haven't seen before, and it's especially having a disproportionate impact on women of color and women in communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID.
I spoke with a researcher out of UCSF and had a really interesting Zoom conversation about the research that they've found. It's the HOPE study out of California. She talked about how it's even more of a dramatic concern in some of these communities and for pregnant women, generally, who are just burdened under the weight of this. They [also] talk about resiliency and the idea that, 85% of the respondents of the survey said that they did have somebody in their communities that they could talk to, and that having that connection was really important.
But just talking about the work doesn't mean that the work is finished, and I think that that's what some of the folks we interviewed with are going to try to show.
Something that has struck me since the beginning of the pandemic is the many hats moms have had to wear — we are a chef, a housekeeper, a teacher, on top of hopefully holding it together in our job. Now, I think we are also epidemiologists. No one knows more about COVID data than the mom groups right now.
When I got pregnant, I joined some different new moms groups in my community, and our text chains are crazy with studies and research. And I had my own experience when Monroe was 9 months old. I was working at the White House and somebody that I was in close contact with tested positive for COVID. They luckily were asymptomatic and totally fine, but it required me to quarantine. So, I wasn't going into the White House, I wasn't going to work, I was masking up around Monroe, I was sleeping in different rooms from my partner; we were eating in different rooms, we were trying to do everything we could to keep ourselves safe. And I'm telling you, I was in peer-reviewed, non-peer reviewed, pre-print studies, in the footnotes of the CDC guidance page on XY and Z, looking up tables to figure out when I could maybe feel comfortable with my risk analysis, taking my mask off [at home].
I am not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, but I think you make an excellent point: So many new moms and parents have now taken on the role of home doctor and home scientist, when they're looking at this research. Which is, on the one hand, a good thing because it requires everybody to be thinking about their own situation and take on their own risk-benefit calculation, but on the other hand, it's really tricky because if you're looking for an easy answer, there oftentimes isn't one.
What we try to do in this series is, just get good information out there to help people make informed decisions for what is right for them.
Tell me about your experience becoming a pandemic parent.
Monroe ended up being born almost a month early, which was crazy. We didn't expect it to happen when it did, and we certainly didn't expect the pandemic to be sort of hitting as intensely as it did when it did. I had been covering COVID for at least a couple of months before she was born in my role at the White House. The vice president at the time, Mike Pence, was in charge of the COVID Task Force still, and they had started doing the coronavirus briefings.
And then Monroe was born and it felt like we retreated, I retreated, into this new mom bubble and was able to sort of just really focus on the health and safety of her and my immediate family and our household. Because everybody was in their bubble so it wasn't like we were missing anything. Everybody was kind of hunkering down, watching this terrifying pandemic rip through the country.
And now it's a year later, almost to the day. What is life like now, are you one of those overachieving news people who starts the day at 3:30 a.m.?
No, I mean, listen, I feel like there are some days where before I came back to work full time, I was like, 'man, I really have my shit together. I feel really good about this. I am killing it. My child is fed. My house is mostly clean. We're in great shape.' And then going back to work, and what many moms have experienced going back to work, most days, I'm like, 'I do not have my shit together. My house. It is a wreck. Please ignore the stain on my shirt and my child's shirt. She is fed. I don't know what she ate off the floor, but it's going to be fine.' There are definitely the days when that is the experience.
Since Inauguration Day, I've been in this new role and I've been shifted into this kind of different routine. But every morning I'm up well before 6 AM, just to be able to be on my conference call for my show. After that, I usually try to carve out 30 minutes for myself, whether that's trying to do yoga or journal or whatever. And then once seven o'clock hits, we [get Monroe] up. I have an amazing partner who is such a co-parent in every way, and especially in the mornings, because he's getting her up with me, I'm feeding her, he's doing the breakfast routine while I'm getting ready and looking through the rundown and on more conference calls. It's sort of a sprint up until my show at 10 o'clock.
Then in the afternoon, I'm sort of ensconced in my office or at our bureau, for most of the time. Nightly News is at 6:30, and I try to be done around bedtime, which is around seven, at least for that moment, just to be able to have that time to connect with [Monroe] a little bit, especially on days when I don't get to see her when it's really busy.
I think this Zoom life has really exposed the fallacy of work-life balance — moms are holding it together, but you can see everything they are holding right there in the background.
I wrote about this a little bit in that Instagram post on pumping: I'm doing the best I can. And I think a lot of moms are just doing the best they can. And that is good enough. I am working to succeed at my job. I am working to be a good mother. I am trying to be a present and whole partner in my relationship at home. And that has to be okay. And if it means that I did not do my meal prep this week and I don't have breakfast ready to go, I will have a granola bar and be okay. If the laundry is piling up because I just can't bear to fold laundry at 10 at night after I've scripted my TODAY Show, the laundry will still be there tomorrow and this weekend and the next weekend. That's okay.
Self-compassion is something that I've been personally working on in my own life. It's so easy for us to be compassionate with others. You probably said this to your friends, like, "No, you're killing it. You're doing a great job. It must be real hard, but you're doing great." We don't then turn that on to ourselves. It's kind of like, 'Well, why aren't you performing better?' And so I think that giving ourselves some grace and some compassion can be really powerful.
This morning I ate my older daughter's leftover waffle scraps over the kitchen sink and realized — that's it, I have become a mom cliché. Have you had one of those moments yet?
Literally every morning when I pull on my leggings and every night when I pour my glass of wine, I'm like, I am surely like the cliche of what a new mom is. But they're cliches for a reason and it's because they're true.