The Hockenberrys: A Family Portrait
By Robert C. Samuels
TV correspondent, author, father -- John Hockenberry plays a number of roles in an average day.
Photos by CharlieSamuels.com 2002
You know that young kids are the center of the Hockenberrys' lives the moment you swing into their driveway. A large fenced-in area holds a big playhouse, a sand pile and other outdoor toys. A small patch of ground by the front stairs is labeled, "Olivia and Zoë's Spring Garden," where crocuses are in bloom this early spring day.
Three-and-a-half-year old Olivia and Zoë, non-identical twins who look alike (their mother tells everyone that Olivia has bangs and Zoë doesn't), are the family's older children. A second set of twins, 8-month-old Zachary (the only boy) and his sister, Regan, are the babies. That's right--two sets of twins.
Their 45-year-old father, John Hockenberry, the nation's only wheelchair-using network newsman, is a prize-winning correspondent for Dateline NBC. A man of many talents and spectacular energy, he's also the author of two books and numerous magazine articles, a radio commentator, a stage performer and popular campus lecturer. None of that seems as important to him these days as being a good dad. And by all accounts, he's mastered that, too.
His wife Alison certainly thinks so. "There is absolutely no question," she tells a visitor to their weekend place, "that he is more involved and more of an equal partner in parenting than any of my friends' husbands." He changes diapers and gets up in the middle of the night. He potty-trained the girls. "People tell me, oh, wow, it must be tough for you. There's an implication that [I have it tough] not only because I have four kids but also because my husband uses a wheelchair. They have no idea how good I have it."
John and Alison met in 1992 when they both were with ABC News. She was his producer and they traveled the world together. They were in Afghanistan on assignment after the Russians left but before the Taliban came in, and also in war-torn Somalia, just to mention two of the more unlikely places you'd expect to find a reporter in a wheelchair.
If their romance isn't a script for the latest Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie, it certainly could be. They were buddies, they liked each other, respected each other, but that was the end of it--no chemistry. Then, early in 1995, something clicked and they began dating. In October they wed. "Very early on we knew we wanted to get married and have kids," John recalls. "We had a rough idea that four would be a good number, but no idea about the difficulties of getting pregnant, being pregnant, giving birth. These were total abstractions."
After two years of marriage, it all had become very real. They just weren't having any success getting pregnant on their own. Alison, who is 10 years younger than John, began investigating alternative methods. She decided they should try in-vitro fertilization. Doctors, using this procedure, first remove eggs from the woman, fertilize them with the man's sperm in a laboratory, then transfer them into the women's uterus. Since more than one egg is transplanted at a time, multiple births aren't unusual.
"I was much less optimistic about this than Alison," admits the normally upbeat John. "I was resigned to the idea that it might not work."
But to his surprise it all went smoothly. "We got pregnant in November of 1997," he says. "Everything was completely normal." They knew early on that they were going to have twins, but they asked not to be told the sex. "We discovered it was two girls in the delivery room. We were thrilled!"
They brought the twins home to their spacious loft apartment near Brooklyn's waterfront, but unlike many couples in their income bracket, they didn't hire a baby nurse. "We didn't want a know-it-all," explains John. "We wanted to figure it out on our own." Instead they engaged a doula--a woman who assists during labor and generally provides support to the baby and the family after childbirth.
Some doulas have experience working with parents with disabilities, although the one the Hockenberrys hired did not. "Doulas really know how to be there big-time or back off," he says. "Ours hung around during the day but went home at night. She answered our questions, which was just what we wanted. She did everything but deal with the babies."
Grandparents visited but they weren't much help when the babies woke. "They wake up to eat, not to be changed," points out John. "They were nursing, and mommy is the only person who can help with that." It all worked out so well that they pretty much did the same thing last July when Zachary and Regan were born.
Alison, a slim, petite woman, found her second pregnancy was more difficult than the first. "I really had a very exhausting time of it," she remembers. "During the last three months, John drove up here alone with Zoë and Olivia every weekend just to give me a break." Their home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts is some 150 miles from Brooklyn. "John made the round trip maybe a dozen times. I don't know another father who would do that more than once or twice."
No Big Deal
John, a fit para, maintains that handling young kids from a wheelchair is no big deal. "Most of this stuff is not rocket science, but if you are a disabled parent, the one-arm baby lift is absolutely essential," he insists with a smile. "You do it by picking them up by their overalls or under an armpit. You can't lift the baby by two hands from a wheelchair.
"The chair doesn't make any difference at all with infants," he adds, "but the girls are just to the age now when the wheelchair is beginning to be a significant issue. Once kids realize that they can go places Daddy can't go, it is both sort of sad for them and an opportunity to defy.
"I'm pretty tough about making them listen to me, especially when I go places alone with them in the city. I don't have a leash on them, and they are not in a stroller, so they've got to respond to voice commands. They can't run into the street. It's a matter of life and death. They do obey," he says, sounding a little surprised. "I know there's no genetic basis to their behavior. I was a complete hellion as a kid growing up.
"Little toys and little blocks will turn your accessible house into an obstacle course," he warns wheelers who are thinking of parenthood. "You get up in the night and try and get something and suddenly you're hearing weird sounds from the toys you're running over. You're much more likely to hit one than someone walking around. Wooden blocks are the worst. They are indestructible. You'll be rolling around and they'll shut you right down."
While the mere thought of managing one set of twins is enough to cause nightmares for most parents, the Hockenberrys claim handling a double set is easy. But anyone who has taken care of even a single infant knows there are times when it can feel overwhelming.
John will have none of that. "Both times we had babies we were really blessed," he says. "They are all very well behaved and easygoing. After just three months they slept through the night. They'd go to bed between six and seven and wake up at seven. Compared to stories we heard from other parents, these guys are terrific. My brother says it will be totally different when they are all teenagers together, but right now it is fine."
Watching his oldest girls learning to walk fascinated John, who took his last step in 1976. "You could see that from their perspective, walking and the chair were two equal and interchangeable modes of transportation," he says. "Mommy walks and Daddy uses a wheelchair. They clearly didn't see the choice as odd or one as less than the other."
"Olivia," he wrote in a recent Wired magazine article, "made especially good use of her hands and arms, grabbing tables, drawer handles and the spokes on my wheelchair to pull herself upright, where she would stand in place for long periods of time, feeling the potential in her chubby little legs.
"Zoë ... did not see her legs as helpful. ... One morning ... long before she walked, I placed Zoë in my wheelchair and watched as she immediately grabbed the wheels and began to push herself forward as though she'd been doing it for years. She had even figured out how to use the different rotation rates of the rear wheels to steer herself. Zoë had grasped that the wheelchair was the most accessible motion platform for someone--in this case, an infant--who couldn't use her legs. She smiled as she looked at me, with an expression that said something like, 'Give up the wheels, Mr. Chairhog.'"
A Day in the Life
The family's workday begins between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. John and Alison have breakfast with the older twins, who then get dressed and watch television while the babies have their breakfast and bottles. Either John or Alison cleans and changes them to get them ready for Monica, the babysitter.
At about 8:30 Alison takes the girls to their preschool. John waits for Monica, then leaves for work, usually taking the subway to Grand Central Terminal, then wheeling through the crowded streets of Midtown Manhattan to his NBC office in Rockefeller Center. By going flat out, he says he can cover the roughly 10 blocks in just five minutes.
Monica, who works Monday through Thursday, stays until 2:30, when the girls come home from school and Alison takes over. While Monica is there, Alison is often home too, dealing with household matters. She also does volunteer work and is active in local politics.
Being a full-time housewife and mom lacks the glamour of being a globetrotting network news producer. "I miss parts of it a great deal," she admits. "When everything started happening in Afghanistan, for example, it would have been great to go, but with the kind of family life we want to have, you just can't have both parents travelling at the drop of a hat. In a few years I'll think about doing something again in television."
She and John usually talk by phone a couple of times a day. If they need something for dinner, he picks it up. He generally arrives between 7:00 and 8:00. "I try mightily to get home before the girls go to bed so I can read them stories and help put them to bed," he says. If I make it home before six I get to see the babies and that's great."
Every week or two Hockenberry is on the road one or two nights, but sometimes he's away for an entire week. "If he is gone over a weekend," Alison says, "I have Friday, Saturday and Sunday alone with all four kids and I really feel it. When they are all in bed, I miss decompressing with John and going through the day's events with him. I miss his help and his companionship, too."
In the early spring they start spending weekends at their country place. There's no one there to help with the twins and that's the way they want it. "We're with them all the time," says John. "We really like that. Some days I'll get up and Allison will sleep in. Other times, Allison will get up and I'll sleep in. Mostly we all eat dinner together. That's just so good for kids."
Living the Dream
They'd started looking for a weekend getaway home in the Berkshires right after they married. They wanted a place they could someday go with the kids they hoped to have. "We had a dream of having a hilltop three-story Victorian house on 15 acres," John recalls, "but I told Allison and the real estate agent not to look at anything like that." He didn't think they could afford it once accessibility and bathroom modifications were figured in.
At the end of one long day of looking, the real estate agent led them to the Victorian farmhouse of their dreams. "We come up the hill behind her on this country road and say, 'Oh, that's beautiful!'" John recalls. "But I was so pissed off. I was wondering why did she bring us here? There were these stairs up to the porch. How would I get up those? I was ready to chew her out and she comes over and looks at me and says, 'I'll see if the elevator works.' An elevator! My jaw just dropped. If ever a real estate person knew she made the sale, this was it."
The elevator, which did work, had been installed years ago for an elderly resident. It stops at both the first and second floors, but not the third where some of the house's five bedrooms are located.
Set on 15 acres, the house is big, rambling, perfect for a family with young children. It was built in 1890 and added onto at least twice. Once, for a family reunion, 33 people slept over in the main house and guesthouse. In back there's a red barn and outbuildings. The property sits on a hill surrounded by rolling open fields, most of it protected by an agricultural land trust. There's a big deck, a hot tub and a backyard pool that the family lives in when the weather gets warm. The views are spectacular--to the east, New York's Catskill Mountains, and to the north and east, the Berkshires.
Besides the kitchen, John's office and a bathroom, the spacious downstairs has three living rooms. The one in the front of the house is well lit and used for guests and conversations. The second, to the rear overlooking the deck and charcoal grill, is lined with bookcases and is large enough to easily hold a grand piano. Stacks of board games and puzzles and open books sit on end tables. The last has been turned over to the children. It is filled with toys and dolls, and it keeps both sets of twins close to their parents.
It's late in the afternoon now and the Hockenberrys are getting ready to have their picture taken. Olivia insists on wearing her red slicker, so Alison tells her to go upstairs and get it. Minutes pass and she doesn't appear. Zoë is sent to help her. Meanwhile, John is getting the younger twins dressed to pose for the photographer. Finally, the older girls come down and the family goes outside. They're all ready now, a handsome family, a portrait of happiness.