Issue No. 28
Bronx, New York
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: J. Quazi King
“In East Africa everything was always pole-pole,” Timberly Whitfield says, repeatedly pushing her hands away from her in slow, sweeping motions. “It means ‘slow down.’ That’s something I remember to this day whenever I’m stressed out.”
The Swahili phrase is an oft-cited refrain for the media personality turned stay-at-home mom, who is currently ramping up plans to re-enter the workforce. The former host of “New Morning with Timberly Whitfield,” a weekday program on Hallmark Channel that ended in 2007, Whitfield decided to focus on rearing Raina and Gabriel in between jobs. Still, she is obviously more comfortable on the move.
Whitfield’s weekly agenda includes auditioning for television roles, co-writing a scripted drama series with her husband Robert Allen, and searching for a more permanent place of worship—a synagogue in her Riverdale, New York community—for her family.
Establishing roots in just one place is still a relatively new concept for Whitfield. Her home bases have included Kansas City, Missouri, until age six, Tanzania for grade school and Nigeria as a teenager, and Clark Atlanta and Columbia Universities as a young adult. And as the deeply spiritual daughter of two “oddball missionaries” and wife to a retired Jewish police officer, Whitfield counts the United Methodist Church and the yet-to-be-chosen synagogue among her religious homes.
“One of the things you notice right away when you have children is spontaneity,” Whitfield says. “You have to learn to live in the moment. I used to have everything planned down to the second, then that goes out of the window. It can be scary for someone with my personality.”
Before landing her gig with Hallmark Channel, Whitfield spent more than seven years in the programming department at A&E. It was a dream position with responsibilities that entailed watching movies and reading scripts for potential network acquisitions. Whitfield recounts her duties buying packages of movies from studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount, and coordinating with the legal department on budgetary matters. She still considers it to be a great experience.
“I rose through the ranks and got promoted at a time when there weren’t a lot of minorities in television programming” she says. “I was always conscious of the diversity of our audience and would try to select programming that reflected that. It was a position I loved.”
Still, Whitfield wasn’t quite living her dream of being in front of the camera. She didn’t miss the “ambulance chasing” days of journalism school, but missed meeting and interviewing people about their lives. After confiding as much to a coworker who later asked to see her grad school news reel, Whitfield was asked to become a part-time correspondent for the A&E program “Breakfast with the Arts.” There she interviewed celebrities such as Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey (“My ‘shero,’” Whitfield says excitedly), which led to hosting a kids show on The History Channel.
The spate of opportunities prompted Whitfield to take a leap of a faith and leave her job at A&E, but the transition wasn’t an easy one.
“There was a period where I was unemployed, and I had never been unemployed before,” she says. “There are so many aspects of unemployment that are hard, and one I think other people can relate to is what happens to your ego. You run into people you know who ask what you’re doing, and you’re like, ‘Well, nothing right now…’ or you feel like you have to make it up, or explain it. I suddenly became aware of what people thought of me and [of] what I was doing or not doing. I didn’t like that.”
Though more than a year of joblessness took an emotional toll on Whitfield, she eventually made up for it with a jam-packed schedule in 2002 when she was offered the host position on “New Morning”—and learned she was pregnant with her first child.
“They told me, ‘We want you for the job,’ and I had to say, ‘Well, there’s something you should know…’” says Whitfield.
The show’s producers were not only unbothered by their host’s pregnancy (it jived with their theme of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”), they hoped to give viewers the full scope of her experience as a first-time mother. Whitfield filmed a video journal of her pregnancy that aired on national television in installments. One producer even suggested that the birth, a natural one, be recorded. The new mother declined and took five weeks of maternity leave before returning to the set.
“My daughter’s birth was so easy and so smooth,” Whitfield notes, attributing an extremely brief two and a half hours of labor to her active, healthful lifestyle cultivated by her parents. “I always ate well and worked out so nothing changed. I continued taking jazz dancing classes up until the week I gave birth.”
More than seven years later the arrival of her son (another natural birth) took four hours longer, but this time Whitfield had time to spare. “New Morning” ended after a six-season run and she had yet to find a new project. This time she looked at her time off as a gift—the perfect opportunity to raise her kids firsthand—and jumped into the task of spending time with them, on their terms.
“As adults, we become so caught up in everything, and more limited, and more focused,” she says. “I’m always in a rush to get somewhere but my kid’s not in a rush. Even though it’s not a long walk, he loves walking to school and will literally stop to smell the roses. And I let him do it!” She laughs. “How sweet is that?”
(Pictured at left: Raina, Timberly, and Gabriel playing one of their favorite games, Cranium Hullabaloo.)
Another thing Whitfield has learned from her kids? The art of being self-congratulatory. Now at an age where he recognizes doing small tasks well (or is just in a good mood), Gabriel often claps for himself and gives himself props. His mother takes that as a sign to pat herself on the back every now and then, and continue to work toward her goal of getting back in front of the camera. In fact, Whitfield recently landed a part playing a news anchor in the pilot of a new CBS drama, “The Ordained,” starring Sam Neill, Hope Davis, and Audra McDonald.
She also stays in the game by independently crafting scripted and non-scripted television series with her partners. Some of their projects are based on her own life and experiences growing up in Africa. Her long game: eventually hosting her own show focused on spirituality and understanding among different people, ideally on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.
“What I loved about ‘New Morning’ was meeting so many unique and different people in such diverse fields and learning from them,” Whitfield says. “It was a two-way street and that was really gratifying. I’d come home from work after interviewing all these amazing people, and that feeling carried over into being a mom. They were both highs; I want to get back to that again.”
How do you balance your life as a stay-at-home mom who is transitioning back into the workforce?
I hesitate to use the word “balance” because in some ways when a mom hears “balance” she thinks of “perfection”—and I don’t know if that’s ever possible.
Someone once used the metaphor of a juggling act, and I think that’s perfect. When you juggle, you have to concentrate on the ball that’s up in the air. Throughout your day your kids may be the ball in the air so you focus on them. Maybe later on in the same day something at your job requires your attention, so you shift your focus to that. Life is always in motion so I don’t know if people ever achieve complete balance or reach a perfectly harmonious destination. I think the only time there is absolute equilibrium is when you’re dead. (Laughs)
If people want to use the word “balance,” I think it’s more about being content with your health, your career, your finances, and your relationships with your partner, your kids, and your friends. Do I always have all of those areas covered? No—but I keep juggling.
How would you describe your parenting philosophy?
My husband and I tell our kids: “Believe in yourself and don’t follow the herd.” He comes from a different perspective—a white, Jewish guy from Brooklyn with seven siblings has different experiences than a black girl growing up in Africa with one younger brother does—but we pretty much have the same message, and I think that’s the key.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
Always. I was fortunate to have beautiful, kind, and loving parents who made raising my brother and me look easy. They were incredible role models and I definitely learned a lot from them, but I didn’t rush it. I knew that once I had kids my life would slow down. So even before I married my husband I took the time to travel around the world and live my life. I got the chance to learn about other cultures and other people. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to do the same.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a mother?
As a New York mom, schools. Before I was even pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, I’d hear about New York moms going insane over school stuff. They would [say], “When you have kids, oh my God, you have to know before they’re born what school they’re going to go to, and they have to pass all these tests.” I thought, “What tests does a 3-year-old have to take? Is this real?” There was all this fear about schools from other moms in NYC about how you’ve got to push to get your kids in before they’re even born. I had a moment where I turned to my husband and said, “I’m not going to go through any of that. I don’t know how, but that’s not me and I’m not going to go through any of that.”
I really believe that what you speak and what you say and put out into the universe comes back to you. That was something I put out into the universe, and how it manifested is that we ended up moving from Manhattan to the Bronx, to Riverdale. When we had Raina, I [thought], “We have to start looking at schools...” We had already decided to raise our kids Jewish and there was a lovely Jewish school literally walking distance away. We went to visit it and talked to the principal and he was like, “You’re in.” I was wowed. It happened and I didn’t have to do all that madness.
What went into the decision to raise your children in the Jewish faith?
I grew up in the United Methodist Church and my parents were missionaries, but at the same time my parents were very spiritual. They were into things like yoga and meditation. They brought those influences into their missionary work and how they talked to people, and they never proselytized. My parents weren’t trying to convert tribal religions to Christianity; they were lay missionaries. My dad was there for agricultural development, and my mom’s work changed depending on what was needed in the area.
So I definitely grew up more spiritual and, it would be fair to say, more secular. I spent a summer living in an ashram in upstate New York, and we went to India and spent a month in an ashram; my brother actually stayed for a whole semester.
What is it like for you raising mixed-race kids in an interfaith environment?
At this point it just comes naturally. It’s more obvious when people ask me questions because then I have to think about it. Even so, there were times when we first started looking at schools [for Raina that I thought about it]. The very nature of a Jewish school means there are going to be more white people present, so I had some concern about that. My daughter’s missing out, I thought, on a diverse education in terms of the people she’s with and the people there won’t look like her mom.
But I try to do as much as I can. My family is mostly down south, so I bring my kids down there and my relatives come up here, so my children can connect to my side of the family and keep that going.
That’s an interesting idea: “Not being around people who look like your mother.”
It’s funny. Believe it or not, even though I grew up in Africa I ended up having more of a white, American education because I attended a Christian boarding school. So when I was old enough my mom said, “We would prefer it if you went to a black school [for college]. We will pay for it—and you can go anywhere you want for your master’s degree.” So that’s what I did.
She believed I needed to have that experience, and I think it was a great one. I started out at a Southern university in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before transferring to Clark Atlanta. I took classes at Spelman and Morehouse and visited all the schools in the area; being in Atlanta was fabulous.
I haven’t thought that far ahead for my daughter—she’s only in fifth grade now—but maybe that’s something I would suggest to her as a biracial child: to go to a black school and have that experience.
You talk a lot about your mom. She sounds amazing.
Yeah, she is. She’s a yoga teacher and became certified at 62 or something, and she’s 70 this year. She can put her leg behind her head. I can’t even do it. Growing up she made home cooked meals and everything from scratch. Fresh bread, pizza dough, tofu, all of her sweets and desserts—from scratch. We’ve been vegetarians for a long time—I’m vegan now—and she would make almond milk from scratch even back then.
I still don’t think I’m as good as my mom. I tell her all the time, “You are like the best mom, so I’ll never be as good as you!” and she [says], “Well, first of all, you have such a different environment and world than we had.” Technology and everything—they didn’t have to deal with that. It’s just a totally different generation and lifestyle. A lot of things I have to deal with, they didn’t have to deal with. So she reminds me of that just to make me feel better.
What lessons has she imparted?
She always imparts great advice. She’s the one who told me to focus on my career instead of having more kids right now. And growing up she would always say, “Always be honest and truthful. If you’re always honest and truthful, then you’ll never have to remember what you said.” As I got older I really got that.
Another thing she would always tell us is to count our blessings, particularly when things are not going our way. That’s the time when you really have to step up and find all the good things.
Fill in the blank: “Being a mom is hardest when …”
My kids are sick. Seeing your children hurt or suffering is the hardest thing for a mom to feel or experience. You just want to take it from them onto yourself.
“I love being a mom most when …”
I’m snuggling with the kids. When I pick my son up from daycare [and] he runs to me at full speed, I just love being a mom. It’s the best when they’re excited to see you, to know someone can love you that much.
What perspective or example do you want to impart on your children through your work?
My son is a little young, but my daughter has seen me working, not working, and pursuing work. I think she’s getting that life changes. She sees my ups and downs and, hopefully, that I am moving through this period gracefully. I’d like her to see my perseverance and determination and belief in myself.
Issue No. 28
BRONX, NEW YORK
Like many women, Timberly Whitfield spent her 20s establishing herself and her career, using her passion for connecting with others on camera to become a TV personality. Now a stay-at-home mother to daughter Raina (11) and son Gabriel (3), Whitfield is ready to put her best face forward once more. She speaks with mater mea about the worlds she traverses spiritually, professionally, and as a mother.