Author and Activist Lee Woodruff
Who she is: Author and activist, who is a contributor to “Good Morning America,” a former senior vice president of the PR firm Porter Novelli, a contributor to Health, Redbook, Country Living and Prevention magazines, and a spokesperson for “Family Fun” on TV and radio, where she discusses parenting and family life.
What she does: Advocates for women’s rights, wounded soldiers, and tries to seek work-life balance.
Why she does it: “Like so many women, I’m trying to have a successful career as a writer and public speaker, be a great mom and wife, be actively involved with the Bob Woodruff Family Foundation’s Remind.org, be a good friend, and find my own sense of joy,” she says. “It’s a lot. And if I am doing so many things, how do you do them all well? The truth is that I don’t do them all well all of the time. And I need to make peace with that.”
By Hope Katz Gibbs
Lee Woodruff is no stranger to the limelight. The wife of well-known ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff — the reporter who in 2006 suffered a traumatic brain injury while covering the War in Iraq — has penned “In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing,” an eloquent and honest description of what happened in Iraq, and the struggles the couple and their children faced as Bob recovered.
In 2009, the mother of four published her second book, “Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress,” where she shares deeply personal and uproariously funny stories highlighting topics such as family, marriage, friends, and how life never seems to go as planned.
While most women reserve such discussions for girls-night-out with their gal pals, Woodruff bravely shares it in print. Her friends, in turn, took a turn to review the book. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis called Lee, “a modern-day truth teller.” Journalist Liz Smith likened Lee’s writing to “Nora Ephron + Erma Bombeck.”
I recently sat down with Lee Woodruff to talk about her life today — as a working woman juggling book tours and speaking engagements, a family of teenagers, and a husband who is still healing. Would she change anything, and what advice does she have for women facing challenges?
The definition of what it means to be powerful has changed over the years. Whereas women once had the goal of being “Superwoman,” I think most of us now simply strive to have a super day. Talk about what it means to you to be a powerful woman in today’s workforce.
Lee Woodruff: I think women wear so many different hats today that we never quite feel powerful in all areas—at least, not at the same time. When we are doing great at work, we know we are dropping the ball at home, and visa versa. The challenge for me is one of acceptance.
Like so many women, I’m trying to have a successful career as a writer and public speaker, be a great mom and wife, be actively involved with the Bob Woodruff Family Foundation’s Remind.org, be a good friend, and find my own sense of joy. It’s a lot. And if I am doing so many things, how do you do them all well? The truth is that I don’t do them all well all of the time. And I need to make peace with that.
So instead of always feeling that we are falling short, we should forgive ourselves that we can’t be good at everything at all times. I honestly think that if more of us did that, we’d be happier—and so would our families, employees, and the world at large.
Lee Woodruff: I agree. To me, being powerful is having a sense of inner peace. When I’m speaking at engagements around the country, this topic comes up and sometimes I say something that is not always what women want to hear. It is that I don’t think you can have two people with two big fabulous careers, ones that take time and travel, if you want to be involved in raising your kids day to day.
Let’s be honest—if you or your spouse is traveling to Singapore to close a deal, someone needs to be home to make sure the homework is done, grades are kept up, and they have a parent in the audience at the school play, football game, or orchestra concert. But that’s just my opinion.
So you don’t think women can “have it all?” I honestly think that will come as a relief to a lot of us.
Lee Woodruff: I guess it comes down to how you define having it all. I always wanted to be a mom, so I was happy to take the backseat to Bob’s career. I have always had my own work, of course. And in the early years when he was getting started, I brought home the bacon. But the beauty of being a writer is that I can do it anytime, from anywhere.
Truth be told, I love picking up the kids at 3, and being there for the special moments when I can. And you never know when they’ll come to you—when your teenager will finally open up, or your 10-year-old will get the highest grade in the class on a test, or score a goal on the soccer field. Those moments are the stuff of life.
If Bob and I had both had successful TV careers where we were dispatched at a moment’s notice to cover breaking events all around the world, one or both of us would have missed a lot of precious milestones. To me, that’s too big of a price to pay for a successful career.
But, again, that’s me. I think it’s up to every woman to make those choices for themselves, and then be happy with their decisions. But you have to recognize that you’ll have moments when you feel guilty, or you have fallen short. That’s just the reality of this juggling act.
Your wonderful honesty comes through in your latest book, “Perfectly Imperfect,” which was just released in paperback. The same is true of “In An Instant,” the book you wrote with Bob when he was recovering from the accident.
But in this new book you seem so willing to be vulnerable—describing everything from your aging body, and coping with the depression and anxiety that comes with grief, to dealing with infertility, teenagers, and your deep love for your Lanz of Salzburg cotton flannel pajamas. Are you ever concerned about speaking so candidly?
Lee Woodruff: I figured why write a book if it was going to give them pablum. I believe that when you show your vulnerability, you also show your strengthen and the other good parts of yourself to those you come into contact with.
No one wants to see this perfect example of what it means to have it all together. Not only is there is no such thing—it puts a wall up between you and the audience. I’d rather be honest, because it’s a privilege to write and speak about things that we all are experiencing. It makes me feel better to know that we are all just like one another, and I think that’s true for most people.
Let’s talk about “In An Instant,” the book you and Bob wrote after his accident. In it, you artfully chronicle what it was like to suffer through the news that he was injured, and the possibility that he might not survive. Can you offer some words of wisdom for others who are struggling with similar dramatic changes?
Lee Woodruff: I’d suggest that if they like to write, they put down into words everything that is happening, how they feel, all their hopes and dreams, fears and concerns. It’s cathartic.
You are in shock when something like this happens. Several weeks before the accident on January 28, 2006, Bob was named as co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” He was reporting on the War in Iraq when a roadside bomb gravely injured him and his cameraman. Immediately, he was operated on—and that scared me. I wanted him to be flown home. Thankfully, no one listened to me, because that surgery saved his life.
After his condition stabilized, he was then flown to Germany, and I flew over to meet him there, and thankfully I had an amazing support system to help with the kids at home. He spent 36 days in a coma. And there I was, sitting alone in the ICU in a foreign country, waiting. So, for me, writing the book was my way of processing what was going on.
The doctors in the Intensive Care Unit encouraged me to talk to him, and while I was next to his bed I told him stories of our life. I knew that if he ever woke up that he would want to know everything that happened, so when I wasn’t sitting by his bedside, I wrote it all down on my laptop. The words flowed out of me. I never thought that what I was writing would be a book. I was writing for Bob, for myself, and for our kids. It was the only control that I had in my life at that moment.
Why did you decide to turn it into a book?
Lee Woodruff: Bob’s neurosurgeon looked at what I was working on and said that he thought it would help others. It turns out that thousands of men and women cycle through hospitals with these types of war injuries—and yet there isn’t enough information getting out about the realities of it. So I went to work writing my grief, hope, fears into words—everything.
Then, on February 27, 2006, Bob woke up. That must have been an amazing day.
Lee Woodruff: You can only imagine. But it was also scary, because we didn’t know the real extent of his injuries, or what the future would hold. So the fear of that is in the book, too. From my 900 pages of notes, we wove together Bob’s thoughts and mine, and 13 months after the accident, Random House published it.
When did you decide to write “Perfectly Imperfect?”
Lee Woodruff: Well, in those hundreds of pages of notes, there was also a lot of my thoughts about life. Then after “In An Instant,” made the New York Times Bestseller List for 2007, my editors at Random House asked me what I wanted to do next. That’s when I told them about the other stuff I had written, and “Perfectly Imperfect” was born.
This book has also been a huge hit, and taken you on a new journey—quite literally, with speaking engagements around the country, and even more visibility for the work you are doing with Remind.org, the nonprofit organization that you and Bob set up.
Lee Woodruff: Yes, lots of good things have come from this horrible thing. But that’s what people do. To make it palatable, you make something good out of something horrible.
Do think everything happens for a reason?
Lee Woodruff: Well, I think the trick is to believe in something bigger than you. For me, faith is the key to getting through the bad stuff. I turn myself over on my most sorrowful days, and while I know that things are out of my control, I also believe that the world is still a good place and good things do happen. A wise woman once said to me, “You can be bitter, or you can make it better.” So I have tried to make lemonade from this pile of lemons.
If you could turn back time, would you?
Lee Woodruff: In an instant. I loved our life. Bob was thrilled to have been named the co-anchor with Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News’ flagship broadcast “World News Tonight,” in December 2005. He had worked his whole career for that, and it was so exciting to watch him succeed. We had a really lovely flow to things at home, and I was happy in my work.
But things happen as they will, and when they do I advise others who are in the thick of it to be good to themselves, and be in the moment. Through the scariest days, I wouldn’t let myself think about what would happen six months or a year down the road. That was terrifying to me. I figured that if I could get through the hour, I was doing well. Then I knew I could get through the next hour. And in the worst moments, I told myself that this was as bad as it was going to get. It was true. The bottom line is that you don’t know how strong you are until you are tested.
In “In An Instant,” you share that this wasn’t the first time you have been tested. You talk about using a surrogate to help complete your family with your twin girls. Other women facing infertility issues can surely relate to the courage it took to take this path. Can you offer them any advice?
Lee Woodruff: So many women go through the painful experience of not being able to have kids—and suffer in silence. By talking about it in the book, I hope to shine a light on the subject. It’s another reason that it’s important to live in present. Time and again it is clear that we have no control over what happens to us—just to how we respond to what happens. So if there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, I make a decision every day to make the best of it.
Like many powerful women, you are a proponent of giving back. You co-founded and now sit on the board of trustees for the Bob Woodruff Family Foundation’s Remind.org, a nonprofit that provides critical resources and support to our nation’s injured service members, veterans, and their families, especially those affected by the signature hidden injuries of war, traumatic brain injury and combat stress. Can you tell us why it is important to give back, and how more women can fit nonprofit work into our busy schedules?
Lee Woodruff: Here’s what I think about volunteering and giving back. It’s important, and it feels great to help someone else. But as women, we are giving all the time. The key to giving, without completely depleting yourself, is to wisely choose your moment, and your venue.
Previously, I didn’t do a lot of donating of my time because I didn’t have a lot of time to spare. When this accident happened, it was my moment. The cause is important, and starting the foundation is the right thing to do for so many injured men and women. So I figured out how to make time.
But just like everything in a woman’s life, we all need to figure out what we want to do, and balance it with what we can do. No guilt. No drama. Just be clear with yourself about your priorities, and your limitations, and you will live in your power.
Help Lee change the world at www.remind.org.