Today I am absolutely thrilled to feature my dear friend Gloria Riviera in this months’ How She Does It. Gloria and I met in 1990 at boarding school in New Hampshire, went on to go to college together, and it is one of the true joys of my life that we remain close friends. I could not have known, back then when I was a lost and lonely 16 year old across an ocean from her family, how much this confident, charismatic, intelligent woman from Idaho would come to mean to me. One of my enduring memories of high school is of the day I got into my first choice college. I walked out of the post office, holding the acceptance letter, and saw Gloria across the quad. I shouted her name and ran across the quad to hug her (she had already been accepted at same college).
That was the first of many life experiences I’ve been grateful to share with Gloria. She hosted a baby shower when I was pregnant with Grace, we attended each others’ weddings (my children walked down the aisle in hers), we’ve shared the particular experience of drug-free labors and deliveries, and I am honored every day that she is Whit’s godmother.
In addition to being a loyal and steadfast friend and an adventurous and inspirational godmother, Gloria is just a flat-out, completely badass. She is a journalist who lives in Beijing and while I’ve loved seeing her on TV a lot lately and am happy to see that she’s doing so well, I hate that all of the stories she seems to be covering these days are tragedies (I’m thinking mostly of flight 370 and the ferry disaster). I admit I’m very much looking forward to her being back in the US and a lot closer to all of us.
Gloria’s answers to these questions are thoughtful and reflective, honest and funny, and absolutely riveting. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Thank you so, so much, Godmom Glo. Nous sommes toujours les meilleures du monde.
1. Tell me about the first hour of your day? (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)
This question begs a quick explanation before I answer. As a foreign correspondent it’s often black and white: I’m either home or I’m away on assignment. Home is Beijing, China where for the past year I have been working full time as a single parent to our two young boys, ages 5 ½ and 3 ½. My husband, also a journalist, lives in Washington D.C. where he started his dream job last September. We made the decision to do the cross-continent commute for both professional and personal reasons. I had yet to accomplish what I set out to do as a journalist in Asia, and we wanted to give our boys one more year living this wildly wonderful Beijing life, immersed in Mandarin at their beloved Chinese school and taking on everything from chopsticks to Kung Fu.
We came to Beijing for Jim’s job, but the boys and I stayed for mine. Many have raised eyebrows, taking me aside at cocktail parties or family gatherings to ask, “Is everything OK with you guys?” It is. When Jim’s job in DC came through, I was thrilled but had the
immediate thought, “I’m not ready to leave China.”
3 ½ years earlier it was Jim’s job that took us from London to DC when I happened to be on maternity leave from ABC News with the birth of our second son. With no immediate job available in DC, I decided to spend the year at home with our 3-year-old and infant. I was over the moon for my two boys, but the sudden identity overhaul knocked me sideways. I call it the ‘both/and’ dilemma. I both loved being a new mom and…I wanted more.
When we moved to China I got more. The head of ABC News Talent (a working mom of three who had also taken a step back and then returned full force to the news business) took a chance and hired me to cover Asia. It really was a risk. I had not filed a single story in over a year and never reported from Asia. I had a newfound appreciation for the opportunity to do what I love and the fire in my belly was back. So when the choice was to quit and go with him or stay for another year, we both knew the answer.
My being in Beijing with two small boys is only possible thanks to the way working parents are supported in China. I won’t get into socio-economic delineations at this time, as it is another topic entirely. But in the case of middle to upper working class families, it is entirely common for one of three things to happen: either the grandparents play a hugely significant role in raising their grandchildren while the parents work or the children are supported by a national education system that accepts children as young as 18-months for the duration of the working day. Finally, there is the profession known as being an Ayi.
Xu Yan is a 52-year-old force of nature I can’t live without. She is our family’s Ayi, which is the word for ‘Auntie’ in Mandarin. In Asia, and particularly in China, an Ayi is a respected profession centuries old. There is no word for ‘babysitter’ or ‘nanny.’ Children often address any close female friend of the family as ‘Ayi’ to show both affection and respect for an elder. It is not uncommon for an Ayi working for an ex-pat family in Beijing to make more in annual salary than a recent college graduate from an esteemed Chinese university. That salary in China is approximately one quarter of what it would cost for a full time nanny in the U.S. In addition, tuition for excellent nursery and early grade schools in Beijing is about ½ or less the cost in the U.S. We’re extremely fortunate to have moved to a country in which we can afford both excellent domestic help and a terrific school for our kids. Did I mention my kids go to school from 8:30am until 4:00pm? Yup. When I asked my Chinese friend why children in China have such long school hours (starting as early as 18 months) she said, “It is China,” she shrugged, “We have a lot of characters to learn.” She has a point: the Mandarin ‘alphabet’ has a minimum of 3,000 characters to our 26.
When I am home, the first two hours of our day usually begins with one or both boys in bed with me, burrowed in tight like little boy Velcro. They used to sleep through the night in their own beds, in their own room. But when Jim went to D.C. the truth is we all needed a few extra cuddles (this coming from a devout Ferber-izer.) Hopefully, I wake up before either boy around 6:30. I stay in bed with them for a short morning meditation or prayer (gratitude levels ebbing and flowing pending the night’s sleep interruptions) and then get them up. Caden protests but Tristan is always eager to open the curtains to check the air. In Beijing we struggle with sometimes horrendous pollution levels. The children are only allowed outside for recess if the AQI (Air Quality Index) is below a certain level. That’s about 150. To give you a sense of comparison the World Health Organization defined anything over 50 as hazardous. The city with the worst pollution in the U.S. is Bakersfield, CA where the average AQI of about 64. In Beijing we regularly hit 200 and higher. If the air is good, Tristan knows he gets to play outside. If it is not, he will complain, recently even taking God (a new subject of curiosity) to task, “God, I asked you for good air!!” One the air is assessed and little brother is awake, we head to the kitchen.
Breakfast is our family meal, as I am not often home for dinner. Xu Yan prepares this meal (and my coffee, in further proof she is a saint) and I savor every moment of that luxury to focus on the boys and talk to them about the day past and ahead. Then, between the two of us we get the boys dressed in their blue uniforms reminiscent of Chairman Mao. Often I’ll throw in a little dance party jumping on the bed if we have time. Currently the boys are rocking to Macklemore, Robin Thicke and Maroon Five. By 8:00am give or take we are piled into the car with Mr. Lao Du at the wheel on the way to school. Usually Daddy calls to speak to the boys, as it is the end of his day in DC. By about 8:30am we are at school where I get to walk the boys all the way to their classroom door. I love this time because as a working mom it gives me several chances per week to see their teachers face to face. Afterwards I either head to work or back home to exercise pending my schedule.
On the flip side, if I am on assignment Xu Yan is entirely in charge. I try to call during breakfast to speak to both boys. They always start with, “When are you coming home?” One of the hardest parts of my job is that often the answer I have to give is, “I don’t know, honey.” The not knowing is tough for them. And the more I am away, the less they want to talk to me. The other day Tristan sighed and said, “I know, I know, you love me, you miss me, blah, blah, blah.” Ouch.
2. Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed? What is it?
As I type I am driving off of Jindo Island in South Korea on my way back to Seoul. I’ve been on assignment covering the country’s recent ferry disaster for nine days, all of them in the same pair of well worn 7 for All Mankind jeans. I don’t love wearing jeans in the field (once they get wet they stay wet) but I was wearing them when I made a mad dash to PEK airport. My husband calls my on-air look “Adventure Glo” because I favor the same outdoor gear story to story. I worshipped my Asolo hiking boots, but eventually even duck tape could no longer save them on assignment on the eastern Himalayan plateau. The mountains, stories and boyfriends those boots had seen me through! I’ve got some new Solomon low-rise hiking trainers now only because I can’t find the Asolos in China.
For tops, I wear a lot of Patagonia & REI. Icebreaker is also a terrific brand that makes fitted shirts for women. Lightweight pants with pockets and a good belt for hooking in my IFB or microphone battery pack are key. I always wear pants, even in Iraq or India in 100+ degree heat because show me a 40-year-old woman who wants to appear on national television in shorts. Can you even deliver the news in shorts? I don’t think so. A shirt that doesn’t show sweat is critical, because you don’t want people staring at your armpits when you are trying to tell them something you’d like them to know. Recently I discovered Nike makes an amazing, long sleeve, quick dry running shirt with a zip collar in terrific colors. I wore a teal one for about seven days’ straight just now. This year ABC News sent me an ah-may-zing extreme weather jacket in bright blue that I love and wear even when I am not working despite the massive “ABC NEWS” logo. There is this weird thing in TV news where even in freezing weather wearing a hat is sort of verboten. But I love skull caps and beanies and I wear them anyway. I wouldn’t wear, like, a pom-pom hat (see above: sweat, shorts) but if I am freezing I can’t think straight. Often on disaster stories I am packed for a 2 or 3 day stretch and end up staying a week or more. I can’t tell you how many times the Salvation Army or Red Cross or a Christian Church group has come to the rescue. These organizations are often on disaster sites within the first 24 hours and shortly thereafter are handing out socks, shirts and yes, even underwear. I have amassed quite a coterie of standard issue emergency underwear. Whenever someone asks my mother if reporting is glamorous, she never fails to share the fact I am often wearing handout undergarments from the Salvation Army.
Our Beijing bureau is small and casual so when I am not on assignment I get to wear whatever I want. I try to ‘up’ my game during working hours but the older I get the more I prioritize comfort with cool. I favor funky, fun and very well made tee-shirts (Marvel comic logos are a recent obsession) with skinny but not muffin-top inducing jeans and heels, converse sneakers (with a wedge or platform) or a brightly colored pair of retro-trainers such as New Balance or Puma. I’ve never met a leather bomber jacket or pair of motorcycle boots I didn’t love. I keep ‘on air’ outfits in my office, and mainly these are well-fitting knits or silk blends (Joseph, Vince, Joie, Michael Kors) in camera friendly colors. ABC once sent a stylist to my house and she basically gave up after ten minutes. But as my boss likes to remind me, “We work in a visual medium.” I think working outside of the US for so long has made me forget how absolutely amazing women on national networks look each and every day, in any array of settings. Think of Christiane Amanpour in her safari jackets, or Diane Sawyer in those fabulously crisp white button downs at the anchor desk or her black trench coat out in the field. These days I also think Robin Roberts and Amy Robach of Good Morning America have terrific style, and the always sharp Ann Curry of NBC.
When I go to New York or London for meetings with the powers that be, or on the odd occasion I have a formal interview or appear in the studio, I’ll wear a dress from Rebecca Taylor, Diane Von Furstenberg, Ellie Tahari or a suit from Theory. I wear Coach, Cole Haan or Stuart Weitzman heels because in my job I might be running in them at a moment’s notice. Outside of work I love to pair my casual outfits with killer heels, which I hope my husband appreciates. I’ll wear high to low end, whatever works!
3. Do you cook dinner for your kids? Do you have go-to dishes that you can recommend?
I love to cook and wish I had the time to do more. When on extended maternity leave I did all the cooking. In China, one of the great pleasures here has been learning to enjoy and cook authentic Chinese cuisine, from Yunnan to Sichuan. Week to week Xu Yan Ayi and I discuss a meal plan but if I claimed I had any real say in the kitchen she would probably quit. On vacation, and I am sure when we return to the U.S., I will cook more.
Mark Bittman and Jamie Oliver are two of the other men in my life. I do a mean version of Jamie’s chicken pie with sausage and leeks, and a 20-minute soy-honey-grilled salmon that never fails. My kids love my corn on the cob boiled in milk and sugar, and I also do an amazing oatmeal pancake batter that uses neither white flour nor sugar and is a family favorite. Thanksgiving is a week-long preparation, which my mother usually flies in for and which we’ve put on in London and Beijing. The comfort foods in our house are pumpkin or banana bread and Toll House chocolate chip cookies. One of my favorite things to do if I ever have the time is to prepare mini-muffins the night before, so the house smells like freshly baked goods first thing in the morning. This happens far more in my mind than in reality.
4. How do you and your spouse resolve conflicts about scheduling? Do you second guess yourself? What do you do when that happens?
This year has been trying as we’ve had to find a way to make Jim’s job demands, my job demands and the kids’ schedules work with a 15-hour flight from DC to China and 12-hour time difference. The factors might be unusual, but at the heart of things I think we struggle like any couple struggles to nurture a family and a relationship at the same time. We agreed to try not to go longer than 4 to 5 weeks without a visit, but that hasn’t always been the case. There is room for improvement. At the same time, this year we mutually agreed to prioritize our availability to cover breaking news, saying ‘yes’ to nearly every assignment that has come our way. I can’t think of an instance in which I have said or wanted to say no. That has reaped real benefits. But, there is a cost. It has compromised our time together as a couple and a family. I often joke I sometimes feel like I am one half the senior partnership running Sciutto-Riviera, Inc.
The last time I was in the US with the boys I barely saw my husband. Somehow we’ve gotten to a place where much of the time we are handing off parenting like a baton on a race track. We are aware of the issue, squeezing in date nights even if I am yawning as we open our menus. I can be the queen of the sleep-deprived-useless-argument-instigators. I imagine it must be true of any couple that with time, love is acknowledged in the most simple of gestures. One of my favorites is holding hands. I love to hold my husband’s hand, and these days that is often romance enough.
There have been missed weddings, birthdays, events of importance to me and more that I have had to miss or attend without Jim. There have also been those we’ve moved mountains to make work. Jim stopped going into Iraq two weeks before our son was born and has not been back since. That was big. We also make time where we can. Last summer I tacked on an extra day to take my godson and his sister to the bookstore and for ice cream. Somehow I remember nearly every detail of that day, and it reminds me that taking that time when I can is important.
I most definitely second guess myself. I know my husband and I both wear the pace of our lives like a badge of honor, but we also need to slow down. Recently I was torn up over spending our summer vacation entirely with my in-laws or my family. After a discussion and yes, a squabble, we realized we needed time alone without the kids somewhere more romantic than a movie theatre. Happy to say our flights are booked.
In day to day life, I have visions of coordinated, shared iCal schedules on our iPads but this may be as realistic as the mini-muffins I fantasize about making each morning before the boys get up. When we are reunited as a family this fall in Washington, DC I imagine our social outings will narrow a bit to our neighborhood and school community as our eldest enters kindergarten. On one level I am ready for that. Even in China, when we were together here, weekends were for our family. But the ‘fix’ of ex-pat life is that even an everyday weekend can be full of adventure and discovery. I hope to find a way to discover the same back home.
5. What time do you go to bed?
I try to be in bed by 10:30pm. Lately, that is inching up which is awesome. Or, I ‘accidentally’ fall asleep with the boys. When on deadline I don’t sleep because our evening news program World News airs at 6:30am Beijing time and our longer format magazine program, Nightline, at 12:30pm. In that case, I usually come home to see the boys, take them to school and then try to sleep between about 9:30am and 1pm or later. But last night it was 12:15am and I was back up at 6am. Fail!
6. Do you exercise? If so, when?
Yes! If I wasn’t a reporter I’d like to get my degree in fitness and nutrition. Exercising is my sanity-saving ‘me’ time. It is how I relax, hit the ‘reset’ button and rock out to Britney, David Guetta and Pitbull. I have long been a runner, but had to give that up in Beijing due to the pollution. When faced with figuring out how to stay fit and sane in China, my husband and I worked with a phenomenal trainer, a British-Brazilian former military officer named Tony Nicholson. Jim was skeptical it would be worth it but in the end, I was right. Love those three words.
Anyway, Tony radically restructured our approach to fitness, nutrition, sleep and Chinese traditional medicine. He helped me devise an efficient, whole body workout I can do in some form or another in about an hour both at home and on the road when on assignment. When at home, I do Tony’s gym workout two or three times a week, from 5:45 to 6:45am or after drop off at about 9:30am. I have been practicing Bikram yoga since 1998 and go religiously once a weekend. Finally, I like to add in a workout that varies. At the moment I am boxing with a Chinese trainer once a week after school drop off. While on assignment I try to squeeze in 1 or 2 workouts if at all possible, usually towards the end of the story’s run. I find even 30 minutes on the treadmill gives my endorphins a jolt and helps me focus. Tony also encouraged us to work on our sleep habits, juice daily and pay attention to our well-being with regular massage and acupuncture. We don’t come close to what the ideal scenario would be, but we’ve made real strides. I think the fact Jim and I took this on together helped enormously because our health & fitness is now a shared priority. If I am nagging, grumpy or just being a bitch, Jim will say, “I think you need to go to yoga or workout.” And he’s right.
7. Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?
And I thought I was going to get through this without a hitch. My oldest is 5 ½ and my youngest 3 ½. They both seem to have a resigned acceptance of the demands my job put on me. Mostly, what it has meant it that it takes me away from them. They are still so little. But Tristan, my eldest, and I have spoken about what it is that his father and I do. We tell stories, lots of different kinds of stories. Sometimes we tell stories about the bad guys, so that people know how to keep themselves safe.
Sometimes we tell silly stories about monkeys or pandas or St. Bernards living in Italy. I have just started to explain to Tristan that an important part of what I try to do is help people who can’t speak for themselves do so. That’s a bit over his head. But he is starting to get it. When I spoke to him from South Korea, covering the disaster in which over 300 high school students lost their lives, he abruptly said, “Mom I know about the ferry. I know there were a lot of people on board and it sank.” That was a gutting moment. What am I supposed to say to him? I told him we are all trying to figure out why it happened so that it won’t happen again. Seeing my on TV doing what he thinks is ‘cool’ helps a lot.
But I have been away more than 40 days and nights this year and I rarely pick them up from school. My own mother worked and I was desperate for her to be one of the moms that waited for me in the lobby during ballet class. She never was because she worked. We are extremely close, and I massively admire her for pursuing a career against many odds. But I know that feeling, and I see it when I do get to pick them up. It’s a work in progress, this juggle, but I am acutely aware the time is passing and soon my boys won’t be sprinting out the classroom door and into my arms when they spy me in the hall.
8. What is the single piece of advice you would give to another working mother?
Now you are asking the absolute last expert on earth, but I will give it a shot. I would ask whether you ever have moments when you believe you would do your job even if you didn’t earn a dime. If you walked away, would you look back? You don’t have to be passionately in love with your work every day. Who is? Besides Tina Fey. What I am getting at is that if there isn’t a part of you that is fulfilled in a meaningful way on some level, moments gone in a flash but there, it makes the trade off that comes with being away from your kids far more difficult.
I feel like I have a switch. The moment I feel a story is over, or I am completely burnt out, I just want to GO. I get grumpy and anxious and have to focus or I will disengage. I start envisioning myself walking through the door and seeing my boys. But when a story is unfolding I am totally engaged in witnessing it, I am filled with purpose, adrenaline and energy. That’s the part I love and what sustains me.
Being fulfilled might come in any host of shapes or forms. It can be black and white and economic. It might have to do with not giving up, even when work is crap. And if that’s where you are I’d say stick with it, because professional satisfaction ebbs and flows. What remains is whether you believe what you do contributes to the example you want to set for your children, the life you want to live, the opportunities you want to give them, the personal growth and challenge your work provides and so much more. The list here is endless and highly personal. My humble advice is if you can make your own list, then you know you have something to hold onto…even when you miss bedtime for the 4th night that week.
Photojournalists Sebastian Salgado & Nick Ut
Currently: 7 for All Mankind, Current/Elliot & J Brand
Shampoo you use?
I try to stock Biolage in between visits to the US. China imports high-end shampoo at eye watering mark-ups. So when I am out of Biolage, it’s Pantene. I love Moroccan Oil for my dry and wild hair. And when I visit you Linds, I get to try fancy Frederic Fekkai, a treat!
Be Here Now. This is a quote I first learned in Swahili ‘Kua Hapa Sasa’ when I visited Kenya at age 15 with two of my high school teachers. We stayed with a Masai family they had known during their many years with the Peace Corps. It was a profoundly impactful experience that shaped my desire to become a foreign correspondent. (note from Lindsey: this answer gave me goosebumps – Gloria and I have never discussed this, but clearly we both adore these words)
This is probably the toughest question you could ask me!
Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children?
When my brother, with whom I am very close, met my son Tristan for the first time he bequeathed to him a much loved and yet inexplicably named stuffed Penguin called ‘Soy Bean.’ Tristan has not spent a night without Soy Bean. When Caden was a baby and I was half-crazed with fatigue, my sister’s nanny gave him a little stuffed giraffe. Of course we had inundated Tristan, our first child, with endless stuffed animals the moment he arrived. This woman gently reminded me that #2 needed his own goodies. ‘Bubbies’, as the giraffe was named, always reminds me of that lesson.