It's 6:45 on a Sunday night in early spring, and Chef Geoff's on New Mexico Avenue NW in Wesley Heights is packed. A few of the diners nudge each other when a family comes through the door: The dad wrangles a red-headed boy, the mom a fair-haired girl; it's Norah O'Donnell, the chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC, and her college sweetheart husband, Geoff Tracy, the D.C. restaurateur, and their then-21-month-old twins, Grace and Henry. They're all so attractive, in a relaxed, summer-on-Martha's-Vineyard sort of way.
"We like to run them a bit, to tire them out before bed," says O'Donnell, 35, looking all stylish mom in jeans and a zip-up lavender jogging jacket. The couple walked up from their house in the neighborhood. She then laughs. The kids don't look tired at all.
"We were at a wedding recently, and a friend asked me, 'How are you doing?' " O'Donnell tells me, some weeks before. We are sitting in the cafe at the entrance to the Sports Club/LA in the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd Street NW. "I said, 'I'm struggling with the balance of work and family. With three kids under 2, it's hard; there's no sleep.' "
Baby daughter Riley, now 10 months, came just 13 months after Henry and Grace. O'Donnell took only seven weeks off; it was the middle of the "historic presidential campaign," and she wanted to jump back in. She had her assistant figure out how to ship frozen breast milk home from the conventions and just kept going.
But at that wedding, O'Donnell recalls, "the friend said, 'No, how are you?' And I said, 'Well, I'm struggling with balance' ... and he said, 'You've got to work on yourself.' That really was a light-bulb moment. The problem with work-life balance," she adds, "is that it doesn't include 'self.' "
The Tao of Norah O'Donnell is straightforward. "I don't love the phrase 'balancing work and family,'" she says. "It sets up this idea of scales of justice with work on one side and family on the other side. I think women look at that and end up feeling unhappy. You are never going to spend equal time at work or at home. The most important thing is, 'Are you in the moment?' " In other words, she tries to enjoy work at work and family with family, and does her best not to worry about one when she's with the other.
"The biggest loss [after having kids] is just time by yourself: the ability to read, to work out." For O'Donnell, finding time means not being afraid to ask for help. The children's grandparents live nearby. A nanny and an au pair fill in. But even with the luxury of a great support system, O'Donnell still searches for space in her schedule.
Growing up in San Antonio, O'Donnell was a track star and a gymnast. She still has that lean look, even after three kids in two years. That's partly attributable to her natural athleticism. After having the babies, she resumed a fitness routine slowly, walking for an hour with a friend also on maternity leave. But it also comes from working with Monica Pampell, a trainer at the club who has O'Donnell focusing on core training twice a week.
That day, we run through a series of circuits. O'Donnell stands on a balance trainer and swings a medicine ball from side to side. Then she holds a plank pose, moves down onto her forearms and pushes back up to plank once again. Monica has her roll out on a stability ball and then do a push-up. Weights are low (10 pounds); reps are high. "I never give the same workout twice," says Monica. "If I have her doing a push-up, then next week it will be a push-up with her toes on a core ball or with her feet on two benches instead of one." Two other days a week, O'Donnell runs on her own or with her husband. ("Two to three miles, tops!") On vacations, they play tennis in the morning, golf in the afternoon. Thanksgiving, it's touch football.
O'Donnell, between circuit sets, talks about the benefits of being married to a chef. There are the obvious ones, such as fresh pastas with tons of vegetables and roasted chicken from the restaurant. O'Donnell has a "three-pieces-of-fruit-a-day rule," but other than that doesn't restrict her diet beyond reasonable portion control. "I eat mayo," she says. But she also tries to eat dinner early -- by 6:30 -- so as not to calorie-load late in the evening. Breakfast is yogurt, but sometimes, if she's worked out, she follows it with a classic PB&J.
O'Donnell and Tracy are sharing their healthy attitude toward food with their children. They make their own baby purees and are co-writing a baby food cookbook. "Kids develop a palate really, really young," she says. "You can introduce a number of foods [early], especially the fruits and veggies, which develops a foundation for healthy eating for life." The chef contends that you can make all the kids' food for a week in one hour on the weekends. Their freezer is stocked with ice cube trays loaded with purees of pears, apples and bananas. Tracy stops by our corner of the gym and explains, "The idea is that if you can make a margarita, you can make baby food."
Making time for such family-centered activities is an important part of the week for O'Donnell, who tries to be home with her brood before bedtime. "I really enjoy making sure the kids get a healthy dinner, a good bath and several books ... I really like to try and end the day with some quality time with my kids. If not, I feel guilty."
Friday nights are date nights with Tracy. Gym time is O'Donnell time now. "I knew I had to do it. I was walking and running but not getting to the gym. It was maybe like once a week. It wasn't like a regular thing until my husband said, 'Just leave!' You need a supportive staff or husband to say, 'I'll take care of it.' "
For O'Donnell, that also means running to the gym even if there are diapers to be changed. "Because you come back and you find everything is fine, and here you'd raced home and you think, 'I must be crazy to have rushed home, because now everyone is napping.' "
PHOTOS: Timothy Devine