The click of the condo door opening usually brings Avonlea Hong running.
And so starts Ellee Pai Hong’s daily transformation from Ellee Pai Hong, NBC 5 morning show anchorwoman, to Ellee Pai Hong, mom.
After the "biggest hug and biggest kiss" from 17-month-old Avonlea and "a big fat kiss and a big fat hug" from mom, Hong says the pair heads for the bathroom so she can remove her TV makeup. As Avonlea perches on the sink to supervise, the tiny Hong performs what could pass as a circus act, using one leg to brace Avonlea while balancing on the other as she scrubs her face.
Like most working moms, the 33-year-old first-time mom is doing a lot of balancing these days, both in and out of the public eye. And Hong wouldn’t change a thing.
"Being a working mom, having to do and balance both can be difficult, but I think it’s worth every bit of the extra effort," says Korean-born Hong. "I love my job and I love being a mom. And doing both not only enhances my life, but I think it shows my daughter there is a way to do both, to live a full and rich life and to follow your passions."
Still, like many moms, Hong says she suffers mommy guilt, especially when she’s so tired she falls asleep playing with Avonlea.
"I see myself just like any other working mom, trying to figure things out. … I’ve talked to a lot of working moms who say you do what you can and that’s all you can do. It still doesn’t take away from how you feel," she says.
Lessons and learning
Hong left Korea when she was 6 and returned at 15 to finish high school and get her bachelor’s degree. She came to Chicago to get her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Hong and her husband, John, first met 10 years ago at a Korean church in Wheeling. In 2000, they married in Korea, where most of her family remains.
Their lives together have taken some balancing, too, as Hong moved jobs from Rockford to Decatur to Hartford, Conn., while John’s job kept him in Chicago (he commuted to Connecticut every weekend for three years.) Hong credits her husband’s support for a lot of her achievements.
When the morning anchor job opened in Chicago in 2003, it worked perfectly with plans to create a permanent home and start a family. The job’s hours, though cutting into her sleep, give her more time with Avonlea, she says. Besides, she’s always been a morning person, she admits with a laugh.
Hong is up by 1:15 a.m. and in the studio by about 2 a.m. She’s on the air at 4:30 a.m. and home many days by mid-morning or early afternoon. Dad takes care of Avonlea until he goes to work, then their nanny takes over.
Hong says she’s found becoming a mom makes your view on the world bigger. It’s also taught her about herself, she says.
Hong, the middle child in her family, says she’s trying to copy what she thinks her parents did right and improve on things she thought they could have done better.
She says her parents used to teach her, "Make today’s Ellee better than yesterday’s Ellee. Every day get better and better." She plans the same lessons for Avonlea.
Praise during Hong’s childhood was vital and expressed often. Yet Hong says she’s trying to make sure any praise she gives Avonlea is not tied to her daughter’s accomplishments, but rather that Avonlea knows she’s a good person regardless.
They are also trying to raise Avonlea tri-lingual; Hong speaks to her in Korean, Dad in English and their nanny in Spanish.
Hong says she feels like she’s trying something new every day then changing it, as she has with meals. She started off preparing only organic foods with no seasonings and no sugar, but has started to relax that.
Her hope for Avonlea? That she will be a good, loving person who contributes back to the world, Hong says.
"I think my greatest achievement would be if she one day grew up and told me that I was her role model. So, that’s what I strive for," Hong says.
Tamara L. O’Shaughnessy is the editor of Chicago Parent.