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Kara Richardson Whitely on why making peace with her body made her a better mom

Kara Richardson Whitely is a three-time climber of Mount Kilimanjaro and the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds and Weight of Being. She's spoken candidly about her struggles with binge eating in her books and has inspired millions—including Cheryl Strayed and Oprah—with her journey as a plus-sized mountain climber. In this episode, Kara talks to Liz about motherhood, how she talks about body image with her children, the changing conversation around obesity, and her biggest adventure yet—a new movie of her life produced by and starring This is Us star, Chrissy Metz.

Transcript:

[Liz Intro]

[00:00:00] Liz Tenety: I'm Liz Tenety and welcome to the motherly podcast. So it's a little hard for you to tell this because I am coming to you over the podcast, so you can't see me. But you know, I had a baby last year, and this was my fourth child. And just like every other pregnancy, I gained 65 pounds. I've gained 65 pounds with each of my four pregnancies. And when I did it for the first time, when I had my first child, I went through this journey of gaining weight and losing weight. And I swore I would not go through that again. And I've tried to not gain 65 pounds when I'm pregnant. I, um, you know, I've never actually had gestational diabetes.

I'm trying to watch what I eat. Um, but it turns out this is just what my body likes to do when I am pregnant. And the first [00:01:00] time that I went through it, even the second time, I actually just felt, like, so ashamed. Like, why is my body doing this? Um, we put so much pressure on women in our culture to look a certain way and you know, represent their bodies in a certain way. And, and to be honest, I felt ashamed and in my last two pregnancies, um, you know, in particular, because my third pregnancy was with my first daughter, right? I had two sons and then a daughter. You know, I really began to realize that this is what my body does. I have nothing to be ashamed about.

[Liz & Kara Interview]

Liz Tenety: Hey mama, welcome to the Motherly podcast, honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety, co-founder of Motherly, and today we're talking to Kara Richardson Whitely, author, speaker, and three-time climber of Mount Kilimanjaro. Kara has written and spoken candidly about her struggles with binge eating and body, in both of her memoirs Gorge: My journey up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds and Weight of Being.

She's also inspired people with her journey as a plus sized climber and won fans that includes Cheryl strayed and Oprah. Kara is also the mother of three two girls and one boy. Today, we had the opportunity to talk to her about her Epic hikes, what motherhood has taught her, what's up next for her book and how making peace with food and her body benefits not only her, but also her children. We were lucky enough to have some of our listeners share their own stories that relate to cars experience, and you'll hear from them after Kara's interview. Kara Richardson Whitely, Welcome to the motherly podcast.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Thanks for having me.

Liz Tenety: So what did you think motherhood was going to be like before you became a mother?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Oh, my goodness. I suppose someone usually has the story book version of what, um, [00:03:00] whether what motherhood was supposed to be. Uh, I think that the challenging part of motherhood for me, especially while I was pregnant was I didn't know what kind of mother I would be.

Um, I think my mom is an incredibly loving human being. She didn't have the greatest example in her life of, of a mom and didn't know how to play. And, and so I knew that I wanted to be the kind of mom who was involved in nurturing in a way that I, uh, beyond what I had seen in my life.

Liz Tenety: Okay. So, talk to us about your life before this amazing achievement of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. So just tell us what was your childhood like? Um, and what were you wrestling with leading up to that big event of hiking this mountain?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Right. Uh, so I think that, what sets the tone and the framework for my life is my relationship with food. When I was nine years old and my parents were on the [00:04:00] verge of divorce, my earliest memory of bingeing was when they would scream at each other in the place where I would hide and feel comfort was in the pantry.

I mean, I would literally hide from them. And hide from my emotions with food. And so the crunching of whatever I was eating would drown out their screams. And so, but my relationship with food, at least as far as I can recollect, really kind of took a turn from when I was, you know, nine years old. And then it, then it took an even deeper and more difficult turn when I was 12 and I was actually assaulted.

And as strange as it sounds, and I've said it so many times over and over again. The only thing that I could think of in the situation to get me out of the situation was to offer the guy something to eat. And it worked. And so now I can interpret that in my mind to think that like food saved me. And that's what I thought as a kid.

Liz Tenety: So take me from that age of being 12, [00:05:00] um, and growing up, how did you get to this place where you thought the best thing that you could do for you was to. Climb the highest peak in Africa.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Right? So, you know, we, I talk about those early traumas. I think that is what really created the relationship with food that I had for many, many years were bingeing.

You know, it started as this thing that I thought saved me, but then it became a thing that consumed me. It pushed me away from all the things, all the joys that I had in my heart. And so by the time I was in high school, I was more than 200 Pounds. By the time I was in college, I was more than 300 pounds.

And so, um, everything that I loved from being outside and, um, hiking, it became more difficult and something that I just didn't want to do. But as I was about to turn 30. I knew that there was this spark inside of me. Every time I got one of those adventure travel catalogs in the mail, you know the ones whose Machu Picchu and Alps and Kilimanjaro.

[00:06:00] I would feel this spark inside of me like, Oh yeah, I'm going to do that. But the trouble was that I would say to myself, what I said about every good thing that I wanted to do in my life. I would say, I'm going to do that when I lose weight. And so many things were followed by that clause. Like, I'm going to get a brand new wardrobe when I lose weight, I'm going to go on vacation when I lose weight. And I mean, I, I speak around the country about, um, body positivity and moving mountains. And I would always say things like. I'll go to the doctor when I lose weight. And so many women say the same thing to me around the country. That's they're just waiting to lose weight.

Liz Tenety: They're putting life on hold.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Exactly. And so somewhere around that 30 year mark, when I was about to turn 30 I started to feel like, well, I'm not getting any younger.

Liz Tenety: So, I am not. I'm a natural born outdoors woman. My husband is a huge hiker. Um, he's, he's a big athlete even in adulthood. And I'm really not.

And [00:07:00] you know, when I hear people are hiking a mountain or even choosing to run a marathon, like, like why, like what, what would you drive you to do it? What, what did this mountain represent to you?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Well, I just want to be clear that this, this whole thing did not start with. A giant mountain. It started with the 50 hikes of New Jersey book where, um, you know, I wanted to become a hiker and there are trails out there that are much smaller than Kilimanjaro.

And so I started to open this book. And fortunately in New Jersey, there's a lot of flat trails where you can get started. And so I do these hikes that were 20 minutes and I'd be suited up like I was going up Everest. And so one step led to another. And so it was a really progressive, um. Process for me. I had a pretty significant weight loss cause I was eating less, I was moving a lot more and it was working right.

I'm a triple digit weight loss and so suddenly everybody had to say something about how I was losing weight and it was really weird [00:08:00] and totally uncomfortable because. In many ways, the weight had distanced me from people, probably purposely in my own mind, you know? And now all of a sudden everybody wants to know, Oh, what are you eating?

And you know, are you doing South beach? Did you have the surgery? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, and they want to know everything about everything that's going in my body. What I was doing for exercise is really uncomfortable. So I, um. I decided I wanted my next big challenge to be big, doable. And so I, I mean doable.

It's amazing. Right? And that, uh, in a sense, the Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain that you can hike to the top of that kind got out a technical climb about it, five and a half days up, one and a half days down, and it felt like the right, right. Challenge for me to conquer.

Liz Tenety: It is such a feat to climb any mountain, to go out and hike any Hill.

What, what did it make you feel then, and what does it make you feel now [00:09:00] to just be out there and be able to move your body and, and, you know, reach that peak?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Well, at the time, you know, um. It was especially poignant because the peak... and Kilimanjaro is called peak and in Swahili, that means freedom.

And I thought to myself, Oh my gosh, I'm free to do anything. I, I can, I can get to the top of this mountain. At the time, I had lost a significant amount of weight. Um. And I thought, I can, I can go anywhere. I can do anything. I've reached it. I've done everything I need to do. Uh, and so when I returned back home, everybody had this.

Uh, the next batch of questions for me was, what are you going to do next? Right. And I had a whole new goal in mind. It required a whole new set of gear, and that was to have a baby, you know. And almost a year after I climbed Kilimanjaro that first time. Um, I had my, my oldest daughter, Anna.

Liz Tenety: Yeah. What was [00:10:00] pregnancy like for you?

I mean, I know for myself, like. It is this process that takes over your body and it can be mind bending to recognize yourself. And some women find it beautiful and empowering and meaningful, and some people really don't like it. What was it like for you?

Kara Richardson Whitely: For me, it was a challenging time because here I was somebody who had gone to the roof of Africa, you know, 19,343 feet, all on the power of my own feet.

Right? And then I became somebody who could barely climb, you know. Get out of my chair and go to the bathroom, which I felt like I was going to all the time, you know, when you're pregnant. Because I had things like sciatica running down my leg. And even if I had all the greatest intentions that I did before I was pregnant, I had my workout clothes right next to my bed as sometimes I was so, um.[00:11:00] I was so exhausted in the morning that I couldn't even eat, barely even get out of bed, let alone go work out. And so the most challenging part of pregnancy was that I started to eat secretly. And in a way, I had been so successful with climbing the mountain that I, I really started to hide it from everybody.

But the more secretive I was about my food and my relationship with my body, the more I hid and the more I kind of distanced myself from the things that I enjoyed doing.

Liz Tenety: So you talk about what was somewhat of a turning point and looking at your children after you had your third at boy, two daughters, and then a little boy and just wanting to be.

Be able to be there for them and literally you wanted to be alive. Um, and that seemed like some kind of revelation of, I have to do something different, or I have to be able to take a kind of [00:12:00] risk that you may not have taken before. So. Is that true? And where did that lead you? Can you tell the story of, um, through your surgery and where you are today?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Yeah. After my son Elliot was born, I had decided to go down the road of having the gastric sleeve process. And in, in many ways, that was incredibly helpful for me to just kind of have a physical barrier as to, you know, the amount of food that I consume at a certain time. But I think what was more important or as important was that I started to work with an eating disorder specialist and to get real help from somebody who truly understands what I'm going through.

And then, you know, over time, since climbing the mountain the first time, going back a second time and failing epically in the third time of doing it as a plus size adventure wings, you know, 300 pounds. Um. You know, my journey is ever unfolding. So even though most [00:13:00] people know me as this person who's climbed Kilimanjaro three times, um, and some people know me as I am right now, I think my journey of.

My own recovery and health is forever unfolding. And so after the point that my son was born, I knew I wanted to do something, which I decided to to go ahead and have the the gastric sleeve procedure. But I also knew that I still needed to work with somebody. I'm a therapist not only to talk about what was going on, but I have this acknowledgement in my life that there are a lot of things that I missed as a kid.

A skills. Like skills, like things like how to have difficult conversations with money about money, not with money, how to have, um, you know, how to work through difficult situations, how to deal with stress in a way that's, that's, um. Positive. Right, right. And how to reframe things. And so in many ways, just to [00:14:00] kind of reflect on that idea that my daughter is now 11 and 12 and that these real transformative years for me, I can reset those kinds of things for her and reset them for me at the same time.

Right. So every night when. We go to bed, we offer Anna a cup of tea. You know, she really likes seeing a peppermint bark tea or fruity herbal teas. And for me, that's a constant reminder of the presence in life. You know, I hold the cup in my hands and I feel its warmth and it's such a focusing exercise for me where I can feel the steam on my face.

I can, I can smell the flavors, I can, you know, just be really present in that one moment. And I try to teach her to do the same thing. Um, and now we, we spend an enormous amount of money at lush, you know, because she loves bath bombs. And it's something about, you know, at the end of the day, you've had a stressful day.

Liz Tenety: Let's [00:15:00] wash the day away. I did that with my son. He's six, and he is, he, he was having a hard time, um, you know, a few weeks ago and took a... I set up a bathroom, not lush, but a bed, a bath bomb, and he came out 20 minutes later, like a different person. And he goes, I feel so much better. And I, you know, just that as a parent to me, you know, you realize I, I'm, I'm proud of myself because we are starting to build this like wellness toolkit and it might be a bath.

That might be the tea, but, um, being able to model that seems incredibly important. I know it is for me, but it seems like. It is also for you as the mother, especially if two daughters and wanting to teach them and model for them. All of those ways to care for yourself in a healthy way.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Right. And I think that, I mean, when you think about the shift, even in my own lifetime of how plus size adventures have been accepted, you know, now there are a lot of lot more role models out there. Myrna Lario, Jenny [00:16:00] Prusa, they're doing incredible work and just being as they are and doing what they love. You know?

And then the same thing with the conversation about binge eating disorder. Back when I was a kid, it didn't even exist in the DSM five my mom was a psychiatric nurse. And the only thing that she could think to ask me was, are you purging?

And so now, even now, I know that, for example, if my, my daughter or my son are struggling. I can say, who do we enlist to help with this situation? And you know, sometimes it's, it's not helicopter parenting, but it's finding the resources to help, to help them find the way

Liz Tenety: advocating with them and beside them.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Right. And knowing, you know, I think that that one of the core things in my own journey was knowing that I'm worth. Finding this help that you don't have to struggle by yourself.

Liz Tenety: So, you know, as I was preparing for this [00:17:00] conversation today, to be perfectly honest with you, I was feeling nervous because I wanted to be respectful to your story.

And I think, you know, we're often taught like. Let's not talk about people's weight. You know, we don't want to use certain labels and words. Um, and as someone who spent her whole life, but also this career and building up, um, so much thought leadership around this topic. Can you help me help help our listeners?

You know, what is, what is the right way to be able to talk about our own bodies to ourselves? What does a healthy way to do that? And with our children in particular, like how do you, what's the language that you use in a healthy and respectful way to talk about. Your body, your weight and wellness in general.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Oh, thank you for saying that. And you don't have to ever be nervous about that, you know?

Liz Tenety: But it was that I, you know, I want to get it right and I want to be respectful and, um, and yet. Here's an example. You know, I would never ask someone how much they weigh. [00:18:00] Of course I wouldn't do that. But your weight is on the cover of Gorge: My journey up Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds in. So I'm thinking, how do we talk about this in a way that that is, you know, appropriate and respectful. And I'm curious how you do that.

Kara Richardson Whitely: And, and it's interesting because it is, it is definitely circumstantial. It always depends on the circumstances of where. Where somebody is coming from.

And so my mission, first and foremost as a writer is to, to help change the conversation of obesity. I think that over time there's been so much, you know, just almost just one line. Like, Oh, it's, it's just eat less, move more. Um, but sometimes it is the mental health -- it's about the mental health and, and there's a lot of medical avenues where they don't want to talk to mental health.

And I think that people need to be talking to each other more. Because I think that I'm, the perfect example of this is a journey that is ongoing. It is far more complicated than just putting food in your mouth and exercising. There are medical [00:19:00] factors. I'm even writing a book on the science of binge eating disorder right now with Dr. Ralph Carson, so that people who are in my shoes can understand that this is way more complicated than the messaging that you've been getting, I've seen.

Liz Tenety: That's awesome.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Yeah. Um, and so when it comes to, say, for example, my kids, if they ever say I'm fat or something like that, Or if they're saying "I'm fat," it isn't about being fat, it is about judging themselves.

Because I mean, let's face it, they have my genes, but that doesn't mean that their, um, their BMI is or anywhere beyond normal. Um. I try to talk to them about their strength. You know, I try to focus on that and that, you know, everybody has different body types and it's okay that you're taller or a little bit bigger than other kids because you have more strength in your legs because you have beauty and all these other things.

And, um. So [00:20:00] that's one part of it. But the other thing that I have learned in the mental health realm, because I do a tremendous amount of talks on behalf of eating recovery center, which has a binge eating disorder program, is that it's never when, when you're talking to somebody who's struggling. Um, or if somebody is really struggling in your life, the most important thing is that you focus on the behavior and not the weight.

Okay. So for example, my mom was on the right track when she noticed that I had dozens upon dozens of wrappers underneath my bed. I was eating in secret. Now, didn't matter. I mean, it does matter that, you know, my weight was creeping up and up and up, but it wasn't about the weight. It was the idea that I felt like I had to hide

Liz Tenety: what was underneath...

Kara Richardson Whitely: exactly that. Exactly. And so, you know, some other examples when I was a new mom and it was probably the darkest [00:21:00] time of my binge eating disorder, because I've learned that sleep deprivation is one of my biggest triggers, right.

Liz Tenety: For a lot of people it can be.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Yeah. Um. I mean it is a form of torture. Um, and then I was working from home because I couldn't afford childcare, so I was trying to take calls in between quote unquote naps, which were unpredictable because I wasn't producing enough milk.

And I thought that was my fault. And you know, there's this cycle where I couldn't afford, you know, to really supplement with a lot of formula. And so it was this constant cycle where I was, I was really, really sick with binge eating disorder at that time. And so. People probably noticed at that time that it wasn't like of us losing all the baby weight and all these other things that were promised upon me.

What would have really helped is not to tell me about the latest diet that you're doing, but just to check in and how can I help. Let me hold your baby for 20 minutes when she could take a shower or something like that. You know, [00:22:00] just, just come over, bring a meal, like some chili or something. Like anything that just kind of helps someone out and gets them through a darker period in their lives.

But again, it's not about the pounds on my body. It was about the emotional weight. And the difficulty and this scary, I mean really downright scary parts of being a new mom.

Liz Tenety: Absolutely. Lighten the load on you. It was already hard enough just to adjust to this new reality. Right. I think it's true for any woman.

What would you want a woman or a mother going through those darker times to know that you've learned in the last few years?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Well, I think the most important thing to learn and to know. For me it has been that it has very little to do with the food and it has more to, it has more to do with the inability to cope with the stress of life.

And that my biggest steps in healing have not been [00:23:00] climbing a mountain. It's been learning about time management. It's been learning about, um. How to deal with stress. It's been learning how to delegate. It's been learning about how to ask for help because it's so easy in my own mind. I mean binge eating disorder, little anxiety, depression, how they just start to spiral out of control so quickly.

Then if I start to build those foundational skills. Like, okay, what can, what can I delegate? What can I, how can I ask for help today? How can I be out in the open and how can I share what I'm really going through knowing that I am not alone? And somebody who's out there who's struggling is absolutely not alone.

I mean, that alone is such a huge. Door opening to like to this feeling that you also don't need to solve this by yourself.

Liz Tenety: There's also been a movement recently, um, around mental health and you know, I think some, not all, [00:24:00] some of the stigma of needing a therapist or to be medicated is, is sort of falling away.

And the idea being like. Everyone has mental health, just like they have physical health and it's normal at different points to need support. Have you seen that evolution take place as well?

Kara Richardson Whitely: Oh, 100% and I mean, I think that that's one of the beautiful aspects of shows like "This is Us" that highlights so many different wonderful, I mean wonderful, but challenging parts of life and such a beautiful story that unfolds before you.

VO/Clip from This is Us: I just haven't seen you fully undressed. New mom's stress has me up 10 pounds. I knew dad's stress you look like Popeye?

Kara Richardson Whitely: It's how I fell in love with Chrissy Metz. He plays Kate.

Liz Tenety: So yes. I'm glad you brought that up. So you have some really exciting news. I'd love you to share that with our listeners.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Sure. Um, so Chrissy Metz, who plays Kate on This is Us, has been somebody that I've admired for a long time because [00:25:00] when I'd watch her on this assessed, you know, she wasn't a punchline.

You know, so many plus size actresses or just the, the funny girls. And so Chrissy [Metz] wasn't, I mean, she was a hundred percent straight laced, you know, uh, a dramatic role, and they started to show some of these relationship with food in the same complicated way that mine was. And so I really, really respected that.

Um, so anyway, I was, I was going to her book signing almost two years ago, and I gave her a copy of Gorge, uh, with a note in it saying that. Uh, you know, how much I admire her and how I want to share this story with the world. I'd love for it to be made into a movie. I didn't say wanted her to make it into a movie.

So, uh, in August, so several months later, I get an email from Chrissy Metz. It was the most beautiful, wonderful email I've ever received about Gorge. And it said that she wanted to help share this with the world. [00:26:00] And, um, it's just a really wonderful, exciting process that's starting to unfold.

Clip from Chrissy Metz on the View: You are so so busy.

And yet you find time to produce a new movie called Gorge.And I'm just curious, what is this about? Cause you're very excited about it. I'm beyond excited!

Kara Richardson Whitely: I think that, um, it's still could be a couple of years before this hits the big screen, but it's happening.

Liz Tenety: That's so exciting and like so overdue for these kinds of stories that real women of what we go through as women, um, and plus size women. It is just, it's just overdue really. And it's so exciting. I'm thrilled for you. I was just so excited when I saw that news shared a few weeks ago.

Kara Richardson Whitely: Yeah. It's almost like, um, even, uh, even a good secret can be, um, wearing on you. And so I've known about, obviously known about this for several months. Um, and it's, it's just great to have it out in the open because it's what I'm, I'm getting the same kind of feedback, like you're saying, like, it's.. It's like this is overdue. And, and the fact that we have [00:27:00] a lot of females working on this project, it's, it's in such good hands. Um, I really trust the work that is going to be done on it and, and translating it for the screen.

Liz Tenety: Well, Kara Richardson Whitely, thank you so much for joining us on the motherly podcast.

Kara Richardson Whitely: It's been an absolute pleasure. Thanks so much.

Liz Kid Segment:

Liz Tenety: So, Mary if someone said to you, if someone never met you before, and they said, what do you look like?

Mary: Well...

Liz Tenety: Or what color hair do you have?

Mary: I have white hair!

LIz: And are you tall? Are you short?

Mary: Tall! Big!

Liz: How'd you grow? So big?

Mary: I sleep. Because sleeping makes you grow!

Listener story

This is Justine LoMonaco, newsletter editor at Motherly. For most of my life, not unlike most other women I feel like I've ever encountered. I had a lot of body image issues, kind of peaking in my late teens and early twenties. I dealt with a lot of body negativity. Um, I don't think I ever had a fully… A full blown eating disorder, but I definitely had a very unhealthy relationship with food and a very unhealthy relationship with my own body. I think girls in general are fed so many confusing messages about what they're supposed to look like and how much their body image and their value as a person is interconnected.

All that led [00:29:00] to a lot of unhealthy behaviors, um, that I was fortunately able to mostly overcome. As I entered my mid to late twenties, um, I started to really focus on treating myself better and seeing my value outside of what I looked like physically. Um, but one of the biggest turning points for me and my relationship with my body happened when I got pregnant with my first daughter.

Um. For the first time, I was really seeing my body as this amazing creation that could do these miraculous things, like create another person, um, feed that other person, carry them, and . Adapt in ways that just seemed beyond the limits of what could be possible. Um, and I was so pleasantly surprised that once I knew about this baby, once I was aware of everything that was happening, I didn't think about my weight at all.

Um, and in a lot of ways it was like reconnecting with an old [00:30:00] friend.

Liz Tenety: That's Justine LoMonaco. She is Motherly's newsletter editor. Thanks Justine.

So that's it for the show this week. Thank you so much for listening. If you have a story you'd like to share on our podcast, you can email podcast at mother dot L Y.

We'd love to hear from you, and if you liked what you heard today, please spread the word. We've got more episodes coming soon that we're super excited about. We have an incredible lineup coming. I know you'll enjoy it. So if you can please leave us a review on Apple podcasts. It takes about five seconds.

It really helps people discover the show and we love to hear your feedback. The motherly podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett with additional help from Jordan gas por and Renata Silletti. Our music is from the blue dot sessions. I am your host, Liz Tenety. Thanks so much for listening. [00:31:00]

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You can access Chelsea's family staycation toolkit and print-out, which features dozens of fun educational ideas for families stuck at home during the coronavirus at https://talkingisteaching.org/Staycation.

Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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