My Husband's Recovery—and Mine
Lee Woodruff talks about her witty and poignant new book—and what it was like to hit rock bottom after her husband Bob, the ABC News anchor, suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.
Lee Woodruff is a quintessential supermom, multitasker and irrepressible storyteller. In Perfectly Imperfect, the mother of four and the life and family contributor for Good Morning America has written a collection of 17 witty and poignant vignettes which detail the plusses and minuses of her frenetic existence and describe the felicitous moments along with the shattering events that have shaped what she calls “a life in progress.”
“I see a lot of heads nod in audiences when I bring [up taking an antidepressant] because I think that's the dirty little secret about caregiving—there must be something wrong with me if I just have to take a pill.”
Her first book, In an Instant, co-authored with her husband, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, dealt with the anguish they faced as a family as Bob recovered from a traumatic brain injury he received in Iraq. This volume, although it contains a forward from Bob, is a highly personal account, written solely by Lee for herself and for the all the other female baby boomer/Gen Xers who are searching for solutions to problems within their own conflicted and complicated lives. “I would like to think that this book is kind of a snapshot of a woman, it's a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend—it's all the pieces of our lives as women,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We wear so many hats, we have so many different identities, and we sometimes work them all simultaneously and so I'd like to think that I represent all of us out there in some form or another, that there's a part in the book for everybody.”
What made you decide to write this book?
Some of these essays grew out of the first book. The rest of them were original pieces that just sort of grew out of me thinking about my life and other women's lives.
When do you find time to write? I know you swim every morning at dawn.
I can't for the life of me write at home, there’s too much going on—there's laundry, there’s dishes, there’s kids, there’s dogs. Writing, you really need to put yourself in a zone and so, believe it or not, most of the book was written in hotel rooms or on airplanes, either traveling for the paperback version of In an Instant, or being on the road. I've done a lot of public speaking over the last few years, and most the serious writing work was done in those kind of moments.
You have been so honest in your book about so many different things. There’s a part you really skipped over and it puzzled me. You said that after you lost a third child in infancy, and you had twins with a surrogate mother. Period. What was that all about?
There were so many options, it was too much to go into in this book. We looked at all the different kinds of options—adoption, adoption overseas, and then we backed away because it was just so soon after the loss of our child.
So how did you decide on a surrogate mother?
I always believed someone was going to leave a baby on my doorstep—like the stork. It was a friend who said to me, "Lee, it isn't done for you and you still have your ovaries. Have you ever thought about surrogacy?" and the light kind of went on and we pursued it and we were successful and the results are my two little girl twins—they’re nine now—and that's the short version of it… I have no womb but I had eggs so these are Bob's and my genetic babies but, as we say to them, somebody else provided the oven.
And so that worked very well.
It was a dream come true because they weren't sure that I had enough juice left in my body to do this, I proved them wrong. It's just such a long and great story. I think it needs to be another chapter in a book.
Being a mother is the most important part of your life.
Absolutely, and I have all the guilt of the working mother and the person who thinks that maybe she's shortchanging her kids, somewhere, somehow—don't we all?
Do you have a recipe for women who are trying to do all the things you are?
I don't think there's a recipe. I think the biggest recipe is just sort of what the title of this book implies—life is perfectly imperfect—and if you continue to strive for perfection in everything you do as if there is some beautiful balance, you're only going to be disappointed in yourself every day. And so some days you get it right and other days are just a mess and you're stressed out and you're doing too many things. I do think, and others that know me tell me, that I must be a person who loves my plate more than overflowing, because I think I operate best when I've got a million things happening.
You write that when you retreat or when you need to find solace you swim. Is the water a lifeline for you?
It is, I think maybe it's just something primal, going back to the womb, but I just feel comforted in the water. I feel protected and I feel like it lets me sort of float and be completely by myself.
Do you still do it every morning at 4:30?
Not at 4:30, I get up at 5 and I get there about 5:30 and it's not every morning. I give myself permission many a morning to turn the alarm off, or say I'll go later at lunchtime or something.
Do you think of yourself as a kind of younger Nora Ephron?
Gee, that would be my dream. I feel like I would be doing her a disservice to say that would be my icon, I admire her so much. I think she's wonderful. I would aspire to be that.
Nora worries deeply about her neck, you worry about your knees.
Yes, the knees have always kind of troubled me and they look worse when I do a handstand in yoga... it's all coming straight down at me, I just noticed that yesterday.
It was just a way to talk about the universal sort of aging and all the things that I've noticed with horror over the last 10 or 15 years that we took so for granted in our twenties and even early thirties… I'm truly not mourning any of this, it was more sort of looking at it kind of scientifically, the body really is beginning to rot.
Your chapter on your relationship with Mel Bloom, the wife of NBC reporter David Bloom, who died of an embolism in Iraq, was very touching.
I think that if you talk to women who've gone through similar experiences you'll find a lot of that, probably military wives or survivors of breast cancer. But you do look at our two lives and you think, very odd that all these things lined up, and I wanted to show in that chapter just the beauty of women's friendships. Yes, it's a friendship of extremes, as I think I say in the book, but I also think it is very illustrative of the closeness women feel for one another, how they support one another in difficult times. They just do it better than men.
Another chapter I liked a lot was the one on gift-giving, how guys are truly clueless.
That chapter grew out of Bob truly coming back from that trip to Cambodia giving me the most hideous Liberace ring and thinking, really, we've been married 19 years. But in my head I'm thinking is he that clueless, he really has not been observing me at all for the entire marriage to think this is nothing I've ever seen my wife wear.
But what really interested me was that he did give you a wonderful gift—a week at journalism school and the babysitter for the kids.
That was the best gift he's ever given me. Yes, it was really incredible.
Where did that come from?
I think he knew that I was a frustrated writer, that my life revolved largely around taking writing assignments that would support us because his salary was still fairly meager in television news. And I think that he understood that my dream would have been to just write for myself, and so he got the idea to do this, cooked it up with the babysitter and I thought, wow, he couldn't have done anything more spot-on for me.
What did those classes do for you?
I think [they] jump-started me, I think every now and then we all need to tap into our creative juices, whatever form that creativity takes. And it allowed me to focus just on me for a week, which as a mother of young children you know well is just simply not possible. Life is fractured into so many pieces, and for a week I got to think about me and write what I wanted to write and do what I wanted to do—that was pretty amazing.
Let’s talk about Bob—his recovery, and time when you just simply collapsed.
There's always so much focus, as there should be, on the patient. But it's really the caregiver going through the day-to-day drudgery and worries that at a certain point—when that patient kind of gets out of the woods, as Bob did—who just collapses. I needed to go on an antidepressant, which I talk about. I see a lot of heads nod in audiences when I bring that up because I think that's sort of the dirty little secret sometimes about caregiving—there must be something wrong with me or I must be weak or I'm not strong enough to handle this if I just have to take a pill. And I want to give other people permission to realize that things happen in life that are just simply bigger than all of us and it's OK to admit that you're swamped or you're overwhelmed. And that's what that chapter was really about—finding the ability to say that, and then begin to move forward. And it was so compounded by the nature of a brain injury, which is unlike a broken leg, or even cancer—your brain is such an individual thing. So I didn't have any sense of where this was going to go, when the healing would stop, how far it would go, or would he go back to work. And living with that sort of terror and uncertainty and fear as a parent of four just ate away at me over time.
So you allowed yourself to collapse.
I did. I didn't have a choice and I hit rock bottom and then finally turned to get some help and then began to slowly climb back out into the light, some of which was calibrated on Bob's healing. As Bob began to feel better I could feel better. I often say that if he wasn't so good right now, if he were in a wheelchair or angry or bitter or unable to be back pursuing his career which makes him happy, I don't know that I would be writing such a book or I definitely wouldn't be out on the circuit talking to other people. I would have a very different life, and it would be a life circumscribed by his injury and his moods far more than I can imagine frankly.
Do you still have those down periods?
I really don't. I have sort of down days like everybody does, rock bottom's gone, thank God, I feel very lucky about that.
I read that you and Bob are on a mission.
We are, we have our Bob Woodruff Family Foundation, REMIND.org, and it helps wounded service members and their families in all different ways, getting back on their feet, rehabilitation, support for retraining and job training and placement. We're really proud of that work.
You wrote that you are always moved by the bravery of these people.
Yes, they have so much less than we do. We have so many resources at our fingertips thanks to ABC. I never saw a bill, I never filled out an insurance form, that was all taken care of by ABC and I look at these families and it's just not the case. They are making choices and decisions about going to a loved one's bedside versus losing their job at Wal-Mart, or who's going to take care of the three kids if I go motivate my husband in the Tampa rehab facility 1,000 miles away from my home in Nebraska. Those are choices that we didn't have to make.
Have you visited veterans’ facilities?
Yes, definitely. When we're back in D.C., we try to get back to Bethesda Naval or Walter Reed when we can. And then when we're on the road, we'll try to stop if there's a veteran's hospital or an organization and we keep all of those people in mind whenever we speak.
Is the response good?
It is. I think Bob is really a hero to people. He's certainly a hero to those in the military I think because he is willing to speak up and not go and take his recovery and just get back to his life. He continues to do stories and reporting that shines the light on these families and he continues to be a voice for those who have no one. There was no one person who could sort of put a face on this—Bob was willing to do that.
Lee, looking back over your life, there’s been a lot dumped on your plate, as you say. I’m guessing that you have a good coping mechanism.
Boy, I don't know if I've ever thought about it that way but I think sometimes part of my coping mechanism is well, what choice do you have? You've got these four kids, you're the mother, you know you don't have the luxury of just taking the bottle of Jack Daniels over to the couch, as appealing as that would be. I think swimming and getting outside sometimes, and then I always tell people when they ask what's your best piece of advice—just take the aperture in your mind and focus it way down. Just focus maybe on your worst day on getting that cup of coffee, just sitting there, and seeing how it tastes.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for the Washington Post, Time and Forbes.