Folks We Love with Jessi Hempel | journalist and host, Hello Monday
I was really excited (and intimidated) to interview Jessi Hempel. She is a brilliant writer, interviews some of the most forward thinking minds among us today, and has a beautiful baby with her partner, Frances. I am especially excited to be bringing you this interview during LGBTQ pride month. While we’re grateful that we have come a long way since the Stonewall raid and riots in 1969, we also know we have plenty of work to do when it comes to accepting, acknowledging, and showing kindness to those that may look different, be sexually oriented different, or talk different than we do. It’s reassuring to know that much of this generation is being raised with more sensitivity and awareness, and the more we can celebrate and tell everyone’s stories, the merrier we are.
Thank you Jessi, you are a force and we are so happy to have crossed paths with you.
interview by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
Where are you from?
I’m from the Boston area, but I live in Brooklyn.
Who is in your family, and how old are your kiddos?
My family includes my wife, Frances, and our goofy pup, Zoe. In October we had twin boys - Aster was stillborn. Jude is a very busy 7 month-old with a big open-mouthed grin we’ve nicknamed the “flycatcher.”
I’m a writer and a journalist. For years, I’ve chronicled the emergence of tech and its impact on the way we live and work. I started writing for magazines like Fortune and Wired. I also sometimes write about my family in pieces like this TIME article about my transgender brother’s pregnancy. Currently, I write for LinkedIn and I host Hello Monday. It’s a show about the changing nature of work, and how that work is changing us. I get to talk to people like Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Meyers about how they manage their careers--and what the rest of us can learn from them.
You have done a lot of reporting on social media. What are your concerns and suggestions when it comes to parenting kids that are growing up with Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook?
For the first couple years, we plan to avoid any screentime with him at all. Then, we’ll practice moderation--and talk to him about the importance of setting limits. I suspect that by the time Jude is old enough to use a phone, there will be a host of new social services for him to use that I may not even understand very well. (He’ll probably think even Instagram is for the olds!) I worry most about Jude’s ability to have a healthy relationship with himself. I want him to be able to sit with his own thoughts and be acquainted with his own true north, to have the emotional tools to be able to soothe or entertain himself rather than turning to screens to do that for him. So, that’s the context in which we’ll limit his screen use.
How have things changed with your partner after becoming parents?
Watching my wife in action as a mother is amazing. She has an ability to notice everything with my son, all the little things that change all the time and that I sometimes miss. This morning, she took a look at Jude and said “fever eyes!” Sure enough, he had a low-grade fever, probably because he’s teething. Watching her negotiate this part of our lives so confidently has made me fall more in love with her for sure. And of course the obvious: We sleep less! We have no down time, and much less time with just each other.
What is your favorite thing to do as a family?
On some Saturday mornings, we stroll Jude to the park so Zoe can run around off leash with all the neighborhood dogs. Jude usually knocks out for a nap. We pick up coffee and baked goods at the farmers’ market and head home. Every once in awhile, we get lucky and Jude naps long enough that we have time to lounge on the sofa and read (I mean, maybe it’s happened once...but we can dream!). We also spend time in my wife’s hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi. We are renovating a 1901 house downtown, in a small cluster of homes around an old cotton mill. It’s a fun project, and once it’s done, we hope to spend chunks of time in Tupelo so Jude grows up playing with all of his many, many cousins. I would like to think that we are living in a much more progressive time.
As a gay woman, how do you feel about where we are at culturally when it comes to acceptance, understanding and representation of the gay community?
I feel exceptionally lucky that we exist in time and place in history in which I have the right to marry my wife, and I can be listed on my son’s birth certificate. Things have changed so since I was a child!
What are you reading?
Melinda Gates’ memoir, The Moment of Lift, because she’s joining me on Hello Monday. Also, Emily Oster’s fabulous feminist parenthood guide, Cribsheet.
How has interviewing some of the most influential people in the tech world influenced you?
I’ve learned over the years that intelligence takes many forms. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with some of most significant players in the rise of technology--people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or Stanford artificial intelligence researcher Fei-Fei Li, for example. And I’ve learned that being very, very good at code, say, or at spreadsheets or navigating systems doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily brilliant at understanding people. That’s why we need so many different types of people to be involved with tech’s future--so that every type of intelligence is applied to turning our newest set of tech tools into instruments that benefit humanity.
What have been the biggest takeaways for you personally?
Earlier this season, I had Abby Wambach as a guest on Hello Monday. I was so impressed by her radical confidence. She is not afraid of failing; and she’s not afraid of asking for what she believes she deserves. I took a sense of personal confidence from this interview! Oh, and I just had Angela Ahrendts as a guest. She was, until recently, the head of retail at Apple, and she used to be CEO of Burberry. Angela explained how she relied on her intuition to make most of the big job moves that had propelled her forward. I left that interview thinking about the power of my own intuition, and how I might better nurture it.
How do you manage stress?
I run! I try to exercise regularly. I make time for myself, sometimes just to do nothing. It’s something I actually have to schedule in, but it’s key.
What’s the most challenging part about being a mom?
As Jude grows and becomes his own person, I think about how I can equip him with the skills to be resilient, to feel confident in himself and be empathetic toward others. He’s still so tiny, and yet already I can see a look pass across his face and I know that he has his own internal life. I think the most challenging aspect of motherhood is figuring out how to teach him to nurture it. Also, to be much more pragmatic, there’s a lot to schedule! My wife directs an early childhood learning center, and I also have long days, and frequent business travel. We have to communicate a lot and make compromises to make sure that we can both keep up with our careers and also keep Jude well-cared for!
What is the most challenging part of working as a journalist?
It’s never been a better time to be a journalist! There are so many resources to support good journalists, and so many new formats for storytelling. But you have to be an entrepreneur--to be creative about your storytelling format, and also about how you find your audience. That’s why I love publishing on LinkedIn (where I’m a senior editor at large). I’m able to build direct relationships with the people who read and listen to my work, and incorporate their ideas directly.
How do you maintain balance with work, a partner, kids, and yourself? Any tricks?
There’s no such thing as balance. When we decided to have kids, Frances and I decided that we were going to have to divide up responsibilities. One of us was going to have to make sure the bills got paid no matter what; one of us was going to have to make sure the kids were cared for, no matter what. I think in heteronormative families, these things often fall along gender lines. But for us, it was a decision driven by economics and family leave policies. So, in our family, we decided I’d throw myself into my career. Frances would maintain her career--she loves it and it’s very important work--but she’d scale back her hours a bit and when someone needs to miss work to make sure Jude gets to a doctor’s appointment, for example, she’d do it. We discuss this often to make sure it continues to feel right for both of us.
What are you watching right now?
Queer Eye! We love the fab five.
What does self-care mean and look like for you? What do you do for yourself?
Self-care: Reading. Washing my face. Exercising a few times a week. These used to be the basics. Now they’re the stretch goals.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Be yourself. It’s something I’m still learning how to do, but the more I figure out how to inhabit myself fully, the more everything happens more smoothly in my life.
What advice do you have for new mothers?
Ask for help. And use every hack. It’s fine to order food in every night if that’s what works for you. Also, everyone is going to have advice for you--different opinions about breastfeeding, sleep training, using a pacifier, whatever. Trust yourself. You know what’s best for your baby, and you’re doing it the right way for your family. That’s what’s important.
What are 4 things you can't live without?
Coffee, daily. The camera on my phone. A good pair of sneakers, and a notebook.