Lisa Ling is a mother-of-two, an award-winning journalist, and an acclaimed author (she co-authored the book Mother, Daughter, Sister, Bride: Rituals of Womanhood and Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home, which she penned with her sister, Laura). With her background as a field correspondent for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” co-host of “The View,” and contributor to ABC News’ “Nightline” and National Geographic’s “Explorer,” coupled with her current role as the host of CNN’s Gracie Award-winning series “This is Life with Lisa Ling” and digital series “This is Sex,” she has cultivated a reputation as a deeply compassionate, curious, and scrupulous journalist who dares to tackle topics that could be deemed taboo (season four of “This is Life” promises to touch on sexual intimacy, the Chinese immigrant community in America, polyamorous relationships, the world of trans beauty pageants, and more).
Presently, with “This is Life” poised to premier its fourth season on CNN on Sunday, October 1, she’s also juggling her role as a working mother with a hectic schedule, as well as caring for her elderly father. She–like many parents–is also processing our political climate and how raise kids within it. The themes in season four of “This is Life” speak to these issues on many levels.
“While some of our episodes may not be advisable for kids to watch, every single episode [has topics] that parents could and should talk about with their kids. I’m proud of that, as a mother,” she says. “For me, right now, we are living in a climate of fear and anger and animosity and vitriol, and what I love about our show is that we give people a chance to get to know people whose lives may be different than theirs, and we have conversations with people and allow people to think a little bit differently. I think that’s something that’s really important to be doing right now. We need to be having that face-to-face dialogue. I would say to parents: “If you watch any of our episodes, you will get a lot of fuel for conversation with you kids.”
We caught up with Ling–who resides in LA with her daughters, her husband, and her father–at the CNN offices in Manhattan (all while she was in the midst of promoting season four of “This is Life” and producing the show’s fifth season) about what the show means to her as a mother and female journalist, why it’s essential viewing for our fractured country right now, and why it’s so important to have a healthy dialogue with our children about sex and sexual health.
For anyone who’s not familiar with “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” how would you describe the show?
I would describe it as an exploration into American sub-cultures and issues. What we try to do is take groups that you probably have an opinion about—that you might have even judged—and give you an opportunity to get to know them in a different way, with the hope that you may be propelled to think differently about them.
As the show’s going into its fourth season on CNN, are there any issues that come up in the new season that are especially close to your heart?
All of them are! This season, there are really quite a number of them that are close to my heart. Our first episode on “Sexual Healing” is one that I think everyone will relate to. Even though it’s about sex, it’s not a salacious experience. We explore these blockages in people’s sexual energy and how it effects the rest of their life. I think that anyone who’s not having sex with their spouse, or who has body image issues or may have experienced sexual abuse somehow will relate to this.
I think that, for almost all adults, it’s a topic that has crossed their mind.
When you think about it, sex is something that, in this country, is promoted everywhere, but when it comes to actually being open and communicative about it, there’s so much stigma around it—which is why we spend $16 billion to treat STDs in this country, which is crazy and astounding. I hope that doing episodes like this, and the web series I do called “This is Sex,” will open up a dialogue and normalize the conversation about sex more.
You also have a digital series on CNN.com called “This is Sex with Lisa Ling.” What’s at the essence of that project?
The reason I wanted to do “This is Sex” is because I grew up completely sheltered when it came to sex. It was something that I was ashamed of, it was something I could never talk about, my father was the only parent who wouldn’t sign the parental consent form for the sex-ed class in fifth grade. It was conveyed to me that it was something that I was just never to do. So that left me open to any number of things, and ultimately led to some risky behavior. Right now, this country—again, we spend $16 billion treating STDs and have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developing world—there’s a missing piece, and this is that we’re not talking to our kids about sex. As a parent, even though my eldest is only 4, I am ready to have those conversations and I look forward to having those conversations, because now, with social media, kids are exposed to things faster than they ever have been in history. I want to be preemptive about that. I want my daughter to not only hear about sex from me, I want her feel comfortable talking to me about it.
What is the process like for selecting topics for your show?
My team and I read everything that we can, we’re constantly scouring media sources—and a lot of the stories that we get, come from everyday people who just may write in or corner us and say “I have a great story idea” and then after further exploration, we realize there’s something there. We’ve been doing this show now [for a while]; we’re starting production on our fifth season and I did a show on OWN for five seasons that had some similar tenets. It always surprises me that we’re able to find so many topics every season, but we’ve never run out of topics.
These are obviously challenging times that we’re living in. What’s your perspective right now as a female journalist and working mother? How does it feel to be doing work with topics that can be seen as controversial?
I really think there is benefit in watching our show because we really do allow people to tell their stories. I know that by having the experiences that I have, I’ve become a smarter person and a better person. My hope is that when people watch these shows, that they’ll come to us with an open mind and allow themselves to possibly think differently. I just think that, right now, people are so dug into their political trenches, and unwilling to hear each other out. I think that shows like ours are important to help people see the other side.
Would you say it’s about human stories with people instead of politics?
Yes! Because in our media and in our politics, there’s so much name-calling and so much vitriol and anger, and I think it’s all becoming a major detriment to our society and culture. It’s having a really negative impact and that’s not the kind of behavior that I want my kids to model. I think it’s so important to have dialogue and we’re not doing that—we’re talking at each other and not to each other.
I know you travel a lot for work. With two young children, how do you find the balance of doing the work that’s important to you but still finding family time?
Balance is not a word that is really in my vocabulary. I think that the notion of balance is impossible to achieve. I think that for any working mom, you have to make sacrifices and there’s always guilt attached to it. I’m really lucky because I have so much family support—my mother and my mother-in-law are at my house every single day. My husband travels a lot too, so we try not to travel at the same time, but it takes a lot of work and it requires a whole village in my case. I just try to do the best I can and be communicative with my kids. I tell my eldest—she’s only 4, but I tell her—why I’m doing what I’m doing. I try to tell her about the things that I’m working on and I want her to be aware that “mommy works and mommy’s work is important to her and mommy wants you to feel proud of that work as well.”
What do you hope your kids take away from the example you set as a working mother?
I’ve always—even before I had kids—wanted to do work that I’m proud of, that doesn’t hurt people, that doesn’t undermine people, that doesn’t objectify people. And now with kids, I feel that way even more than ever. I hope that my kids will understand the sacrifices that I’ve made and be proud of the work that I do.
What are your kids like right now? What do you like to do together?
I have two girls and my 4-year-old is about the girliest girl I’ve ever met. As someone who grew up somewhat of a tomboy and did not own a shred of pink in my home—you literally would not be able to find anything pink or sparkly in my house—my daughter is the antithesis of that. She has to have some kind of pink on her person at all times and the sparklier the better—and I kind of deserve that for trying to pigeonhole her in the other direction. She is all about the stuffed animals and the girl stuff and she has crushes on boys. She adheres to the stereotype of girl. My little one is only 1 but she’s very different. She could care less about stuffed animals, she’s definitely more daring and aggressive. And I really hope she likes pink, because at this point, everything that will be handed down to her will be pink and I don’t want to have to buy her a whole new wardrobe! But already, even at 1, her personality is really, really different from her sister.
Do they play well together?
They do play together. And my eldest really loves the baby until the baby gets too much attention. But for the most part, I’m really lucky that my eldest really genuinely loves her.
You’re shooting for your next season of “This is Life”—are there any other projects you’re working on, or are you just deep into season five?
We’re really deep into production. It’s hard right now because I’m not only taking care of my own kids but I’m accountable for my dad who’s in a senior facility. He’s doing well now but he had a lot of health problems this past year. So I’m definitely juggling a lot of balls, but I’m lucky to have the family support that I do. As hard as everything is with me, I just think about all those working moms out there who are struggling to make ends meet and support their families. I just take my hat off to them. At the end of the day, as hard as it is for me, it’s so much harder for so many women.
That’s so true—everyone is fighting their own battle.
Don’t you feel that everyone’s so overwhelmed right now? I think it’s because women are more than half of the workforce now, and even though they’re working, they still feel obligated to deal with all the family stuff. Like, I’m the one who’s scheduling the doctor’s appointments, and doing the school tours, and all the school-related stuff, and scheduling the play-dates. I probably don’t have to do that, because if I told my husband to do it, he’d do it, but as a woman you just feel like this is what I have to do! I just feel like we’ve all been taking on so much. I was saying the other day: “When people call us ‘Superwomen’ we take that as a compliment…but we shouldn’t have to be Superwomen!” We’re just human beings.
Season four of “This is Life” airs on Sunday, October 1 on CNN at 10pm. To learn more about “This is Life” and “This is Sex,” visit cnn.com!