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NBC News' Julia Ainsley: 'I can't think of a more important time to be a journalist'

The NBC News correspondent, who recently returned to work following a 4-month maternity leave, chats with Mika Brzezinski about being a new mom, how her family is dealing with COVID-19 and how she’ll be covering the most serious pandemic of our lifetime.
Newman and Julia Ainsley with their daughter, Mary Wells.
Newman and Julia Ainsley with their daughter, Mary Wells.Evan Robinson-Johnson

When Julia Ainsley was preparing to take maternity leave at the beginning of the year, she certainly didn’t think she’d be coming back to work in the middle of a world pandemic.

“Just like motherhood, the pandemic is teaching us all that we only have so much control over our lives,” the NBC News correspondent, who covers national security and justice, told Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski just before her return.

After taking four months of leave following the birth of Mary Wells, Ainsley recently returned to work, primarily working from her home in Washington D.C. Below is her conversation with Brzezinski in the final days of her maternity leave, where the two chat about motherhood, how her family is dealing with social distancing and her thoughts about covering the most serious pandemic of our lifetime.

NBC News correspondent Julia Ainsley with her daughter, Mary Wells Knight Ainsley, who was born on Jan. 5,Courtesy of Julia Ainsley.

Mika: It feels like forever since we spoke. How long was your maternity leave? How have you been?

Julia: My maternity leave was a solid four months, but it feels like it has flown by! My life pre-baby was marked by a fast-paced news cycle. Every day brought a new challenge and felt different from the one before. But these past four months, I have been largely home bound, first because I had a newborn and then because of the pandemic. My baby is growing and the trees are blooming, but otherwise each day looks exactly like the one before it.

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I start each morning singing and waving toys to hear my daughter laugh, I'm reading my way through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels during nap time, I make a smoothie every day at 4 p.m. and my husband has dinner on the table every night at 8 p.m. My life has never looked anything like this!

I remember a time last year when I was eating green beans from a can on my way to do TV at 10 p.m. A few months before that, I was fixing my hair in an empty cell in Guantanamo Bay before filming a standup. I'm enjoying life in these tender moments, and I find a lot of security in the routine, especially in these uncertain times. But I'll be glad to get back to those days where I don't know what life has in store, even if it means canned vegetables for dinner.

Mika: Did you ever think you'd be coming back to work in the middle of a pandemic? How does that feel as a new mom?

Julia: No way could I have predicted when I packed up my office in early January that I would be coming back to work during a pandemic! But just like motherhood, the pandemic is teaching us all that we only have so much control over our lives.

When the threat of COVID-19 started picking up in March, I decided that if I was back in the studio by the end of my leave, that would mean we were safe. And if I was working from home, which is how it has turned out, that would mean a little more time with Mary Wells before taking her to childcare. So, it's a win either way. Though I do worry she may start crying when I'm live on-air in the next room!

Mary Wells Knight Ainsley, 4 months.Courtesy of Julia Ainsley.

Mika: Are you and your husband working from home? Is Mary Wells sleeping? Are you guys doing OK?

Julia: My husband works in healthcare administration, so he has to go into hospitals some days for meetings. I'm trying not to let my anxiety get the better of me on those days. But when I start work, he is going to try to be at home more, working out of our basement.

The plan is for him to take her when I'm on air and for me to take her when he is on Zoom. Let's just hope we don't have too much overlap! I still think we have it much easier than parents with school-aged children or even children who can walk. I know if I place her somewhere, she won't run away while I'm turned around. She's a happy baby and *most nights* a good sleeper, although she's not quite sleeping through the night yet.

Mika: How is Mary Wells doing? Do you go out with her? Do you see family? How have you guys organized your new family with all the social distancing guidelines?!

Julia: It's funny, not much changed for us. With a newborn, we were already staying home most of the time, being hyper-germ conscious, and missing our favorite bars and restaurants. We just didn't imagine the rest of the world would join us here!

We were visiting my family in North Carolina when the first stay-at-home orders went into effect in March. It allowed us to have some extra time there, but when we left, we knew my parents wouldn't be able to see Mary Wells again for some time. So now I FaceTime my mom every day!

Mika: What do you love the most about being a mom and specifically about being Mary Wells's mom?

Julia: She's given me a new perspective on everything. When I watch her stare at morning light coming through the window, I stop and think, "you're right, that's absolutely beautiful." And simple things like a giggle or watching her roll over for the first time bring so much joy. I can't imagine how I'll feel when she's driving or graduating college!

Mary Wells Knight Ainsley, 4 months.Courtesy of Julia Ainsley.

Mika: Was your pregnancy an easy one compared to what you've heard about? Are you having any postpartum issues? Challenges?

Julia: As you well know, I had a nauseous pregnancy--I was throwing up Christmas morning and she was born Jan. 5. But I had an easy delivery and a healthy baby, so I really can't complain. I've been thinking about the mothers giving birth now under new guidelines, some not able to bring their spouses or partners along with them. I wasn't able to get out of bed most of the time I was in the hospital because I felt faint whenever I stood up. I depended on my husband for Mary Wells's early diaper changes, and he's the one who eventually got me out of bed.

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Mika: How do you find the time in the day to put Mary Wells in all those cute outfits?

Julia: It's been fun! I definitely didn't think I would be one of "those moms," but here I am. I realized she was going to grow out of most of the cute outfits people had given her, some even handmade, before the social distancing guidelines lifted. So I've been dressing her up just to sit around the house and take pictures for social media.

Mika: One more important question: Did you miss your job when you were on maternity leave? What do you love the most about your job and what drives you every day to kill it out there, breaking stories, etc.?

Julia: Watching the pandemic unfold while sitting on the sidelines has made me eager to get back to work.

I'm reading the headlines just like everyone else, tracking infections and deaths in my area and trying to process what's going on. I can't tell you how many nights I've been unable to go back to sleep myself after waking up with Mary Wells simply because I checked the news on my phone from a dark nursery.

I can't wait to start digging and answering the questions I've been asking myself for a long time. I can't think of a more important time to be a journalist and to work with my talented colleagues at NBC to find truth amidst the chaos and confusion.