"Every morning I leave them a note and a map to find the note. I draw cartoons, and then I hide it so they see it before they go to school," she says. "Then a lot of the time I'm done with work and can pick them up in the afternoon. We're eating dinner at 5, in the bath by 6, drying off at 6:30, in the room singing all their songs. It's over, lights out, click, at 7, and I'm usually out by 7:30 because I have to get up at 3 a.m. I don't know what I'm going to do when they're teenagers, but I've been digging this weird time for us. I'm on a child's schedule!"
For Kotb, building her life around her children has brought a greater joy than she could have imagined.
"Family to me is everything— and having one of my own is something I never thought I'd have," says the 58-year-old, who first became a mother through adoption in 2017 at age 52 after a breast cancer battle and a subsequent divorce left her assuming motherhood wasn't in the cards.
"I always imagined family as my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister," she explains. "I envisioned it that way until I was 50. Imagine someone saying, 'Hey, guess what? You're actually going to have a whole other family.' It still surprises me! It delights me to know that I have Haley and Hope. They fell asleep on me yesterday after having meltdowns, and I sang to them, and in that moment I was just thinking to myself, 'I get to feel these things. We get to have this together.' It blows my mind that I get to have this adorable little family that's just right for me."
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Coming off a challenging year — (she ended her two-year engagement to financier Joel Schiffman, 64, in January) — Kotb and her girls are "doing really well, and I feel very peaceful," she says.
The couple weathered the pandemic together, changing plans for a destination wedding three times before calling things off, and Schiffman continues to help raise the girls.
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Hoda Kotb below or on the PeopleTV app.
"Sometimes relationships evolve. Sometimes perfectly nice people can go their separate ways. Sometimes a relationship ends on your last breath, and sometimes it ends before that, and that's okay," she says, adding that there's no ill will between them. "I don't regret one day, not one minute, not one second of our time together because it brought me here. I have two incredible children I share with him. And it's because of Joel that I have Haley and Hope, without question. I think I might have been too afraid to do it alone. That's not something I love to admit, but it's true."
With Haley entering kindergarten and Hope soon off to pre-K in Manhattan, the family has been enjoying summer by the beach at their home in New York State.
"The beach is our happy place," says Kotb. "They're into bubbles and swimming. They're into sand crabs and snails. They scoop them up and put them in buckets. They're into ice cream, sprinkles —all the summer things."
Kotb also recognizes the significance of the little things.
"One of my favorite feelings in the world is walking on the beach, putting my hand back without a word and feeling a little hand in mine," she says. "I want to hold their hands forever."
She'll settle for the sense of calm she gets knowing they'll have each other's hands to hold one day when she's not around. "They're going to have each other forever, and that's what really fills me to the top," she explains. "Because any older parent knows one of our secret fears is that we won't be there for milestones. The other day they were playing on their scooters, and they said, 'Super sisters save the day!' I thought to myself, 'Yes, super sisters — forever, you guys have each other.' Nothing makes me feel more peaceful."
When it comes to co-parenting, she and Schiffman, "have it down," she says. "He'll have a Saturday, and I'll do the Sunday. We switch each week. He'll take the girls and do some fun things, and I'll take some quiet time. It's a healthy mix, and the kids love it. He's a great dad."
They navigate constantly changing schedules and shifting demands on their time with the support of two nannies and open communication. "'Does that work for you?' 'Do you need me to change that?' We're very open about fixing things so that everybody's needs are being met," says Kotb, adding, "He's a great dad — but I also know I'm on the right road."
Though Kotb revealed last year that her plans to adopt a third child had been delayed by the pandemic, she says she is still open to expanding her family.
"It's definitely in the universe for me," she says. "I feel like whatever is meant to be is meant to be. But I know a few things. I have love and time, and we have an open space. Every time I see a child who needs something or read about a child, my heart's breaking. I'm like, I know if we could invite them into our home just what it would mean. Not just for the child, but for us."
As for her romantic future, Kotb hasn't given up on that either — and she knows her past has prepared her to embrace the possibility.
"I've had past loves, and I feel like I'll have future loves," she explains. "Once you know who you are all the way, then love can come in. You know how people say the older you get, the more you know who you are? I think someone who meets me now will meet me for real."
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