An Interview With the Scientist and Mom Who Had a Little Secret During Her CNN Appearance

“If I don’t have to do something, I’m not going to do it. Like changing into pants.”

On the left, a screenshot of Gretchen on CNN, and on the right, the photo in question showing the whole scene with toys everywhere and Gretchen wearing shorts and sandals.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by @GretchenTG/Twitter.

Gretchen Goldman, a research director at a science nonprofit, went on Wolf Blitzer’s CNN show on Monday to offer commentary on President Trump’s latest appointment to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She looked poised and professional as she explained what made David Legates a “dangerous” pick and opined that previous Trump appointees have “wreaked havoc” on the country’s environmental policies. But just below, off camera, her smart yellow jacket belied a tiny pair of shorts (they were shorts, not underwear, she swears!) and some famously functional (read: ugly) water shoes. That well-lit, tasteful room she was speaking from was strewn with toys, her computer camera balanced on a chair. Goldman’s husband snapped a picture of the scene, and the next day she posted it on Twitter, side by side with a screenshot of her CNN appearance. “Just so I’m being honest,” she wrote alongside the photos. Her post proved to be wildly popular. Slate called Goldman to talk about her new poster-mom status, the work-from-home life, and her tricks for distracting her children. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Slate: What was going on when the photo was taken?

Gretchen Goldman: I think I had 45 minutes’ notice about that interview. The Trump administration just appointed a person to a federal agency that manages all the weather and climate science that the U.S. does, and the person’s a climate denier. Sometimes things like that happen where I’ll have to really quickly react. That 45 minutes is inclusive of preparing for the content and then also, because of expectations for women on camera, I have to also spend some of that time with my physical appearance, and the setup of the room. All of that means that if I don’t have to do something, I’m not going to do it. Like changing into pants.

Or putting on pants at all.

Just for the record, I was wearing shorts. I didn’t realize that people would assume I was pantsless. I don’t know how much of the popularity is just because they think that.

Did you know your husband was taking the photo?

I told him to take it, ’cause I just thought it would be funny.

What do you do for work?

I’m a scientist, and I work for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. We do science, analysis, and advocacy to advance the role of science in policy decisions. That means I direct a bunch of research that is—um, I have a child with me, so you’ll probably hear him—I do a lot of research and then also communicate that research, sometimes in the form of media interviews, like the CNN one.

Tell me about your family.

I have two kids, two boys, and they are 2 and 4, which are very demanding ages. Then I have a husband, who’s also a scientist also working full-time now.

Was the picture a good representation of how things usually are for you, or was it a particularly crazy day?

It was very normal. The rest of the room also looked like that. That’s probably a third of the length of the room, and the whole room looks that. I guess part of it is that time is a premium. I’m not gonna prioritize picking up toys when there’s so much work to do, and I want to devote some time to playing with the kids.

What was your childcare situation before all this?

Before the pandemic, both kids were in care for workdays, so preschool and daycare. We don’t have family nearby, so that was our whole support network. So for many months, they’ve been home with us. Just to be transparent, both kids are partially back in daycare because we couldn’t handle it. It’s a tough call and it’s not zero-risk, but it was necessary for the mental health of everyone involved. So we have some hours now where they’re out of the house.

How have you and your husband been handling taking care of them while working?

I feel like the answer is “poorly.” I typically do two hours of work at night after they’re in bed, because I can’t during the workday. Because of the nature of my job, we couldn’t do regular schedules. I know some other families do like, “You take them 9 to 12, and I’ll do 12 to 3.” We have meetings at different times, and some come up that are more rapid-response, if a policy breaks and we have to react, so it’s not that predictable. We’ve done it fairly haphazardly, just try to make ends meet. The kids have gotten a lot of TV. I’m deeply ashamed that the 2-year-old knows how to tell Netflix he’s still watching.

How do you keep the kids out of the room when you have a call or a media appearance?

If it’s just normal work calls with people for whom it’s OK if they know kids exist, then we just sort of allow them to be around. If one of us is on a call, the other person will do it, or if we both have a call, we decide who has the more important call that gets to be kid-free. We do like some strategies of like, “OK, this is an especially important call, so why don’t we like unveil this new TV show that they’ll like at that exact time?”

What shows have worked for that?

They are obsessed with The Octonauts, which is a Netflix show. They recently came out with a movie that bought us several minutes of uninterrupted time.

Is the setup the one you usually use?

That spot actually is the optimal spot to take a call in, for video lighting and stuff, but normally that spot’s really risky if the kids are home. They weren’t home at that moment, luckily, or else I wouldn’t be able to use it. The other spot that I use is this upstairs bunker, where I can lock the door and it’s not within sound range. But that background is less optimal. I had to do a congressional briefing when the kids were home one day, and so I used that other spot so I could guarantee they wouldn’t interrupt. Then, on social media, people were like, “Gretchen, up your background game.”

Have you been able to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and its expansion that was part of the relief bill earlier this year at all?

We haven’t, firstly because I want to work. I don’t want the career penalty that will come with taking a break. It’s not fair that it’s going to be disproportionately women who need to do that, and I am unwilling to take that professional hit. That is at the expense of my physical and mental health probably because I’m working late hours trying to do this. Both of our workplaces are pretty flexible. They know we’re caring for kids, and they’ve allowed us to do that. So I feel personally supported. I know many people aren’t as lucky.

Have you tried to explain to your kids that you’re on TV for something important, or is that just hopeless?

They don’t give a crap. It’s a good humbling experience. The importance of what you’re doing is so irrelevant to them. My older son, he’s kind of a performer, so if he knows you’re on a Zoom call, he’ll pop his head in, ’cause he knows that’s funny if a child head pops in.

What has the response to your tweet been like?

People notice everything. Every little detail of that photo has been commented on. There’s a whole conversation about my WiFi network and how I might improve my wireless service. People have accurately inferred all kinds of things about me based on that photo. As one example, someone figured out that I went to Cornell because there’s this statue of the campus clock tower on the shelf. It’s this little statue that they only sell in one store in downtown Ithaca, New York. Someone else inferred that I had spent time in Rwanda because of the art style.

Most people just related. Ninety percent of the comments are people being like, “Oh my gosh, same!” and other people sharing with me their versions of the behind-the-scenes in calls. It’s been kind of a moment of solidarity. I like that it’s given us like a space to talk. We did this ’cause it was funny, but it’s actually a really big problem and it shouldn’t be on parents to have to solve it. We are just expecting parents to do the impossible right now. And it’s barely a conversation nationally. There’s been almost no discussion of what to do about the lack of childcare, and we are just expecting parents to work as normal. It’s ridiculous. So I’m glad we can talk about that.