Leslie Odom Jr. talks parenting: 'I think you get less than 5 things that you get to teach your kid'

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Leslie Odom Jr. opens up about parenting. (Photo: Getty images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Leslie Odom Jr. opens up about parenting. (Photo: Getty images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of childrearing.

Multi-hyphenated performer Leslie Odom Jr., has had quite the year. The Broadway and television star spent most of 2020 alongside his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson, with whom he shares two children: Lucille Ruby, 4, and Able Phineas, 4 months. While Odom Jr. — who won a Tony Award in 2016 for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and was nominated this year for two Academy Awards for his performance as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami as well as for writing the film's song, "Speak Now" — has spent much of quarantine caring for his family. He and Robinson, who gave birth one month before the Oscars, have also taken the time to educate their fans about the importance of heart health.

A heart attack occurs in the United States every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a realization Odom Jr. and his wife learned firsthand when Robinson’s father, Stuart K. Robinson, suffered a heart attack. Thankfully, he survived to tell his story, which is not the case for many given that cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death globally, killing an estimated 17.9 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. However, according to studies, taking an aspirin during a suspected heart attack can help improve chance of survival by 23 percent.

The singer recently teamed up with Bayer to celebrate heart attack survivors, using the rhythm of Nicolette’s father’s heartbeat to create a song with lyrics that honor survivors and appreciate the moments gained with their families. The song, “Second Chance” speaks to the importance of honoring the time we have with our loved ones in all aspects of life. Here, Odom Jr. speaks about the creation of the song as well as his own unique parenting styles.

You made it through the pandemic with a young baby while also caring for a pregnant wife. How did you do it?

Hour by hour. I mean, that was it. It was like, how can I bring the most of myself to this minute? How can I be of service? I tried to remember that. How can I be of service to my family, to the people that I love? It wasn't always easy but we made it. We're making it. [Able] is a good sleeper, a good little eater. We're happy. You know, every now and again, my 4-year-old is ready to be around other 4-year-olds again. She wants to be about 4-year-old business, so that's the toughest part.

What was the genesis behind choosing Lucille and Able’s names?

Lucille is a family name. It’s the name of my wife’s grandmother. Able is a name that Lucille chose. We don't know where she got it from, but we loved it and so we said, "Yes, that is his name." We were sure.

How did Lucille react whenever you told her the baby’s name was going to be Able?

Very casually. You know, not much fazes her. She named him the way she names her stuffed animals. She knows the name and that's your name. So he’s lucky. His name could have been like Mr. Snuffle Kings or something like that. It could have been Fuzzy. Who knows?

Do you and your wife have similar parenting styles for Lucille and Able?

We haven't had those discussions but we definitely notice the way that our relationships are different with the two kids. Some of that could have to do with just who we are but, of course, we are trying desperately not to raise them with antiquated ideas on gender. A lot of Able's hand-me-downs are from Lucy, but half her wardrobe was unisex. It was fluid stuff, like, we didn't want to dress her in all pink and sparkles and stuff. Right now, when she essentially dresses herself, the pink and sparkles that she's in every day totally comes from her. Like, that is authentic. That is not us imposing that.

Her aunt bought her a book for Christmas: Princesses Wear Pants [by Allison Oppenheim and Savannah Guthrie]. The girl wants to be in a dress all the time! You know, having worn a sarong or a dress or two in my life, I get it. It's crazy that we're not all wearing dresses. It's so comfortable! She likes the air on her legs and she's like, why would I not want to feel that, like, no pants? So far, Able, he does wear, you know, the night dress thing but he's in mostly shorts and pants. We'll see. We'll see what he wants to wear when he can tell us.

I can imagine that music is in your house at all times. Am I wrong?

There is music playing constantly. We found a music player for Lucy. She has little cards that go inside it that are essentially like CDs so she’s even got her own music that she likes to play. We're a big music household. There's singing most every night at bedtime and there's music even during bath time and stuff. That was a good thing to do during the pandemic because I was home so much more than I've ever been and I did bath time most nights. That was a time where I can layer in the Billie Holiday, layer in the Ella Fitzgerald.

Related video: Leslie Odom Jr. on parenting in lockdown

Do you have any favorite lullabies that you sing?

We do: “You Are My Sunshine.” Nicolette does the singing at bedtime.

How can music heal the soul?

I mean, especially after this last year that we've been in, music has healed all of us really and continues to do so… It's really the first instrument. I think it’s healing because it's natural. You know, even little Able is trying. He tries to match pitch with his mom… It's the first way that we learn to make music. It’s like you're in touch with those blood memories and all those memories from childhood and being an infant and the child yourself. We've been taking piano lessons during the whole pandemic, too, which has been wonderful.

Is there a song you remember that makes you smile from your childhood?

My parents were real big in R&B and soul: Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker. And then weirdly enough, I watched a bunch of TV as a kid so sometimes TV theme songs. They hold a lot of deep memories for me because there are so many hours. The theme songs from Cheers or The Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes.

Your campaign with Bayer is so inspiring. How did it come to be?

They were interested in me to write a song and I had the story with Nicolette's dad so I had to check to see if Nicolette would be cool with collaborating with me because she isn't always. I had to negotiate with Nic first and then, of course, we had to ask Stu if he'd be OK with sharing his story. He's such a generous guy and it's really his story to tell, which he did. He shared with Bayer his story about how a chronic cough that just wouldn't go away led him to the doctor, which led to some tests. He was rushed into surgery, like, almost immediately after those tests — 24 hours or 48 hours after those tests. He had blockage in four chambers of his heart. So, Stu has four stents in his heart.  

The doctor directed he takes a Bayer every single day. He's made other changes, of course, in his diet and the way he's taking care of himself, but Stu really thinks about these past 10 years or so as a second chance. The fact that he gets to rock his grandchildren on his knee and he got to see his daughter take a bow on Broadway. He was so proud. Nobody saw Nicolette in Waitress more than me except Stu. So there was so much that he could have missed and that we would have missed of him. He's dear to us, so this was a chance to blend music that is so important to me and my family with this deeply personal story and experience that we have. 

What's your advice for men who forget to prioritize their heart health?

Well, hopefully we've all been given a lesson over the past year about the importance of taking care of yourself. We've all been given a deeper gratitude for the time that we have. It's just about taking the time to find someone that you trust, to find someone that you can ask questions to and trust. We've all got to do it. You're really lucky if you have a relatively healthy youth, but at a certain point you [have to check in with yourself]. I had the experience of [losing] Chadwick [Boseman] too, you know. Losing an actor like that of my generation so young, just a couple of years older than me, to cancer. It's like, the [cancer] screenings have to start. Time is not promised.

Did you and Stu hit it off from the start?

I certainly didn't know that I was going to marry Nicolette when we first started dating, but I knew enough about Nic to know that however it turned out, even if it went south, I wanted to be good to this person. I was going to try my best not to, like, leave a wounded, damaged person in the wake. I really wanted to be friends with Stu because at that time — Nic and I have been together for 13 years, so it's been a minute — Stu came out to Los Angeles as a Black man from the East Coast, like me and made a living in this business, made a living in entertainment. He's not a name that you would know. He's not Samuel Jackson, he's not Denzel Washington, but he put two kids through college and had two cars in the driveway. He had a home that he owned. He carved out for himself a place in existence, a middle class sort of life that if I was trying to provide a life for myself that was equal to the life that my parents had provided for me — my parents were college-educated and were able to give us most things we wanted — I wanted that. So I was desperate to find out from Stu like, how did you do this? What are the keys, because there's no guarantee that I'm going to be Will Smith or some household name, but I can do this? I can make a living as a creative? So it's been a very valuable relationship and friendship for me over the past 13 years.

What are the biggest lessons you want to teach your kids?

I think that as a parent, I'll speak for myself, I thought that really it was about teaching your kids everything. I was so nervous because it's like, Oh my God, how am I going to teach these kids everything that I know? I mean, how do I just impart? But I actually think it's simpler than that. I think you get less than five things that you get to teach your kids. As a parent, you've got to pick those three or four things wisely. And every conversation, every lesson that you're having with your kids really kind of reverts back to one of those things. 

One of my three is that I really want my kids to know how to be in relationship with people. I really want them to know how to make (and keep) friends. I really want them to know how to do that. I think that so much in your life — a career, success — you can have joy in your life if you have friends. And so that's what I want. That's been the hardest part about this year is like, how do you help a 4-year-old keep and maintain relationships when she can't even see her friends? The fact that she's gonna have people around her [during school] means everything.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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