An Interview with Jenna Bush Hager

There’s always been something so relatable about Jenna Bush Hager. To many of us growing up in Texas, she was first the governor’s daughter, then the president’s daughter. We watched as she grew up and became an author, an advocate, a contributor to The Today Show, a bride, and now a mom to three-year-old Mila and nine-month-old Poppy.

With the publication of her latest book Our Great Big Backyard, co-authored by her own mom and former First Lady Laura Bush, she’s starting to leave a very visible legacy for her two daughters on what she values and finds important in life.

As a woman in journalism and on the heels of the Orlando terrorist attacks this weekend, coupled with a toddler that needed a visit to the doctor before she hopped a plane to come to San Antonio to promote the new book, Jenna was, understandably, busy. But Jenna showed her true sincerity and honest likability through her willingness to work around both of us juggling kids, work, and life. I had the chance to talk with Jenna about her new book, her relationship with her own mom, and finding balance as a mom in today’s world.

TODAY -- Season: 2011 -- Pictured: Jenna Bush -- Photo by: Andrew Eccles/NBC
TODAY — Season: 2011 — Pictured: Jenna Bush — Photo by: Andrew Eccles/NBC

What inspired Our Great Big Backyard?
I wrote the book while I was on maternity leave. I was at home nursing my new baby and thought a lot about what made my childhood complete and happy. I think you tend to do that when you have children. It makes you think about what your best memories were. I realized that my happiest memories were spent outside, enjoying nature. Honestly, I don’t know that I even realized that until I became a mom.

We know the book was written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. What else made you choose to focus on national parks?
We chose parks as the focus because of my own memories. My mom takes a trip with her childhood friends from Midland where they travel to a national park every summer, and they’ve turned into great girl trips. When we were young, all of the moms took the daughters along on one of these trips. We rafted down the Grand Canyon, camping in tents for 10 days, and I love thinking back on that time. National Parks have become places that are special to my sister, Barbara, and me and are places that my husband, Henry, and I love to visit. In fact, we got engaged at one.

How did you research the parks for the book? Have you visited the five parks in the book, and which was your favorite?
I’ve been to all five that are highlighted in the book. I guess you could say I was able to do pre-research on the parks. I do a series for the Today Show highlighting the national parks, and through that have been to 12–15. My mom is such an advocate for national parks, so growing up, we visited a ton on trips and vacations. Outdoors was a huge part of my childhood and a big part of all of our family vacations. Even our simple vacations in East Texas. We would visit a lake that had alligators in it. Even though we wouldn’t swim in the lake, we played outside all weekend. There was a simplicity of being in East Texas around the lake that made those childhood memories special.

You all start the book off with Jane, who plans to spend the summer playing video games. Do you feel like this is a growing problem for our kids?
Yes, I do. Frankly, one of the things I’ve had a problem with is that it’s not just children but adults too. I’ve found myself looking down at a phone instead of playing with my daughter. When I came back from maternity leave with Mila, I realized I needed to leave my phone in the house and focus on my daughter. Studies show we parents aren’t focusing on our kids but on our phones and that’s taking away from our children. They don’t feel like they are as important in their parents’ eyes. So, yes, not only is it bad for kids but also for parents. I’m trying to create a conscious effort to put down my phone and when I’m with my kids really be with them. It’s easy to get distracted by a work email or something that catches my eye, so it’s a real effort for me.

We know reading was important to your own mom. How did she instill a love and appreciation of books in the lives of you and your sister, Barbara?
By reading to us every night. We loved to read. My mom was a librarian, so it was always important. She created that ritual of reading to us. And I’ve done the same with Mila and Poppy. We read every night. It can feel counterintuitive to read to a tiny infant, thinking they can’t understand what you are saying, but research shows it makes a difference and that it’s important. One of my favorite routines as a mom is cuddling up with a book with Mila and having that uninterrupted time with just her and a book.

What legacies did you receive from your own mom that you hope to pass to your daughters, Mila and Poppy?
Oh, I have a few. For one, the legacy of the love of dance. None of us are great dancers, but we love to dance. Growing up in Dallas, Texas, my mom would blast the Pointer Sisters and we would dance around in a Conga line in the solarium. We love to dance. Today when my mom visits, we put on the same songs and dance around the apartment. It’s those carefree times of letting us relax with each other.
Definitely the love of reading like we talked about.
And the love of travel and the outdoors. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, was the one who inspired us to be outdoors when we were little. We would be at her house in Midland, Texas, and lie on a blanket in the backyard, staring at the stars. My grandmother was the one who taught us about the constellations on those visits. I’m hoping that we can create special memories for our girls that don’t cost anything but mean a lot to them like those simple nights in Midland.
Last, my mom raised Barbara and me to be best friends. We are almost obsessed with each other! Just this week, Barbara drove five hours with Henry and I in the front seat and Barbara wedged in the back between my girls. I mean, that’s the type of sister she is. I almost think that loving a sibling like that is in your DNA but it’s the parents’ job to foster that. Mila and Poppy adore each other. It’s in their DNA, but they also see that in Barbara and me. When Poppy came home, Mila would sing her lullabies, which is just so sweet. [Getting choked up] In light of everything that’s happened over the weekend and the heaviness of it all, the thought of my girls just brings tears to my eyes.

As a mom, how do you find balance?
Honestly, I don’t believe in balance anymore. All moms feel like they have a thousand balls in the air. Isn’t that evident by the two of us having to schedule this interview in multiple pieces?! The two things I try to do are: (1) Put my phone down when I’m with my kids. I try to be present and not let it distract me; and (2) Let go of the mom guilt because it’s everywhere. I’m supposed to be coming to San Antonio tomorrow for the book tour, but it’s also my daughter’s end-of-the-school-year party and I’m going to miss it. But if I was missing the book tour, I’d feel guilty for being at the party. I’ll feel guilt either way, so it’s best to just put the mom guilt aside. We’re often just too critical of ourselves.

What’s your best piece of advice for new moms?
Enjoy every moment because it goes by so fast! I know it sounds cliche, but it’s cliche because it’s true! My girls are three and nine months, and I just think, Where has the time gone? I sometimes regret going back to work as quickly as I did. I don’t do well sitting around and always find something to be busy with, but there are times I sort of wish I had just taken the time to lie down and stare at my baby when I could. Instead, I jumped into work, had bottles to fix, plates to wash. There’s always something, right? Some of my happiest mom memories are when I was doing nothing but staring at my baby during my maternity leave. So I’d say take the time to just do nothing, lie down for a bit, and just stare at your baby!

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Our Great Big Backyard is the perfect book to inspire your family to put down the screens and get outdoors to make memories. With highlights of five national parks and an encouraging message to put down the screens and take in the beauty of nature, it’s sure to be a new family favorite in your house. Purchase your copy here.

Brooke graduated high school from right here in San Antonio. After twelve years of living everywhere from Colorado to Greece, London to Atlanta, she and her husband have made San Antonio home and have become parents to their daughter and son. Brooke loves finding undiscovered activities around the city and dragging her kids along! She is a runner, an amateur cook that loves trying out San Antonio’s growing culinary scene and is actively involved in non-profit organizations in San Antonio.