Now a single mom to her 11-year-old daughter, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi talks co-parenting, being a "bossy" mom, and the endometriosis diagnosis that impacted so much of her life.

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Padma Lakshmi

After being diagnosed with endometriosis at 36, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi was told she wouldn't be able to have children. She had had a fallopian tube removed, half of an ovary removed, and suffered from the disease for 23 years before getting a diagnosis. Lakshmi, who co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, shares with host Julia Dennison that it was literally a shock—to everyone—when she found out she was pregnant naturally after already taking steps to freeze her eggs.

"Even my gynecologist was like, 'How are you pregnant?' There are rabbit ears and tin foil holding everything together," Lakshmi, whose daughter is now 11, recalls. "I didn't plan for Krishna, but I wanted Krishna, and I really had frozen my eggs already. But the whole pregnancy was difficult too, because I also had placenta previa. I was bedridden the last trimester of my pregnancy, it was horrible."

Despite the bumpy road, Lakshmi calls Krishna a miracle, and opens up about their strong bond.

Check out Episode 9 now for more with Lakshmi on her pregnancy, cooking with her daughter, and co-parenting. And don't miss a special holiday edition of Hulu's Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, out November 4.

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to Season 2, Episode 9 right now:

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Padma Lakshmi: My name is Padma Lakshmi and, to me, family is comfort, love, healing, and togetherness.

Julia Dennison: Hello. This is We Are Family, and today we are talking to Padma Lakshmi. You'll know her, of course, as the host and executive producer of the Emmy-award winning Bravo series Top Chef. She's also the creator and host of Hulu's Taste the Nation and bestselling author of two cookbooks, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, as well as her memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. And she has a new children's book out as we speak, Tomatoes for Neela, which is just so lovely. She's Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and she's also a mom to her daughter, Krishna. Padma, welcome to We Are Family. Thank you so much for coming on.

Padma: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, I'm really happy to be here.

Julia: So Padma, you are already part of the Parents family, because you've been on Parents magazine as a cover star, and I just loved the issue that you were in with your daughter Krishna. Now, Krishna's what, 11, now?

Padma: Yes, she is. Yeah. She is about to go into sixth grade.

Julia: Into sixth grade?

Padma: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Julia: That's exciting. You seem incredibly close. I just love watching your relationship on Instagram. And when you did the cover with us here at Parents magazine, I'm also a single mom, so it's very inspiring. I also have an only daughter. So my daughter is only 5, but it's very inspiring to see your bond. Yeah, how would you describe your relationship?

Padma: I actually, I envy you that you are with her and she's just 5, because I remember when Krishna was 5 like it was yesterday, of course. And those early years are so juicy. They're just so tender, so sweet. And this age is different. It's different, I mean she's still very cuddly with me, but she's certainly got a mind of her own. And it's a totally different experience. My relationship with her is what it always has been, which is close and totally loving and totally joyful. It is the primary relationship of my life without even a close second. Maybe because I'm a single mom, maybe it's because it's just her and I are living together in the house. But whatever the reason, I feel like my relationship with Krishna is just so close. And it's not without its challenges, like any parental relationship, but now it's becoming closer in a much more intellectual way, which is really interesting. Krishna is 11. So every stage of her development for me has been so wonderful to watch and so informative, not only about her life, but about my life. Because one thing that children do make you do is they make you relive your childhood through them, vicariously through their experiences. And it's nice to have that. I think it's really wonderful to have that. And I hope that I'm really thoughtful in my role as her mother, because I don't think there's one formula to it, I really don't. And I don't think that every kid requires the same kind of parenting either. So I think it's a very subjective thing. And so I think for young parents, it can be very daunting, because you do get advice from so many people and so many sources. As a good parent you want to read, you want to ask your elders, you want to see what your peers are doing. And one thing I learned and I think it's served me well so far, at least, is that my closeness to Krishna as a parent depends on being her guardian, but also understanding her.

So I think that's really the basis of my relationship with her. Yes, it's close, but if I step back from it, I think when it's close, when it's difficult, when it's easy, hopefully it's fun a lot of the time, it certainly is for me. I always wanted to be a parent, but I never knew how fun motherhood would be. And I know that it's not always like that for everybody. And so I want to give those people a shout out because there are stretches in parenting that are really difficult, genuinely trying on us. And I have those too. And not everybody has fun being a parent, but I do. And I love my relationship with her. I love first and foremost, understanding her and learning about her every day because she changes every day a little bit. And I'm fascinated with her. I really am. And I learned a lot about myself through parenting Krishna. I think it has made me a better person, frankly.

Julia: Oh, that is so beautiful. As the single mom of an only daughter, I'm just really looking forward to fostering that relationship as she gets older. And definitely you are an inspiration, you and Krishna. Now you've talked about Krishna before as your miracle, because I know that you had a little bit of a difficult journey to motherhood.

Padma: Oh my gosh. There was so much around my pregnancy and her early days that was so fraught for so many reasons. I was diagnosed with endometriosis when I was 36. I've always had it, it affects about 10 percent of childbearing women. And it is a horrible disease. It's often undiagnosed. Most patients only get a diagnosis seven to 10 years after they've been suffering. In my case, it was 23 years. I got my period when I was 13 and it wasn't until I was 36. So every month I was in bed for almost a week, towards the end. But even since college, it was four or five days of just heating pads and chronic pain and teas and Advil, and more than Advil, and anything I could do. And it's a horrible thing. And once I got on the other side of that pain through finally meeting a specialist who became then after helping me, my co-founder in the Endometriosis Foundation of America. Because endometriosis is one of the three leading causes of infertility.

And if you're listening to this and you're trying to have kids, it is not always in the fertility doctor's interest to delve into that as a possible reason first. They maybe will do a couple of trials of IVF and then. It happened to my girlfriend who is now a mom to two beautiful boys. But she spent a fortune. I just say this for your listeners who want to even have a second kid who maybe have a first or whatever, because she went... And I asked her, I said, "Do you have endo? Because there's no reason, you seem healthy." And she said, "No, I don't really get cramps or anything. And I asked my doctor about it. And sometimes I do, but he just said no." And then after six or seven trials and fails, cycles of doing IVF, which by the way are really expensive and not everybody's insurance covers it, of course. And so for young parents out there or young soon to be parents out there, I just want to tell you that you really need to investigate that with someone who maybe is a specialist in those kinds of things versus fertility. But in my case, I was nearly divorced, I had been told that I wouldn't be able to have children. I had a fallopian tube removed, I had half of my right ovary removed, my left fallopian tube. And it was a whole ordeal. And in the end, because I got the treatment that I wound up getting pregnant naturally. But I did freeze my eggs. I did freeze my eggs. I didn't plan for Krishna, but I wanted Krishna, and I really had frozen my eggs already. But the whole pregnancy was difficult too, because I also had placenta previa. I was bedridden the last trimester of my pregnancy, it was horrible. My mom moved back in with me.

And no matter how close you are to your mom, I think I'm pretty close to mine, moving back in with your parents or them moving back in with you at the age of 39 when you're hormonal and everything like, is a trial in itself. But she was so great, my mom's a registered nurse and she's retired now. But when you're sick, of course everyone wants their mom, but my mom is a hundred times better than that, because she was a registered nurse. She was a cancer nurse for a long time and she's just so nurturing. And she helped me through the last stages of my pregnancy, and also stayed with me the first three months after, because I had to go back to work to Top Chef six weeks after giving birth. And it was totally a miracle. Even my gynecologist was like, "How are you pregnant?" There are rabbit ears and tin foil holding everything together.

Julia: Right. What were your initial thoughts when you first found out you were pregnant other than to be completely... I'm sure it probably blew your mind the idea that you could have become pregnant without any treatment at all like that, right?

Padma: I couldn't stop smiling. And I almost didn't believe it. It was weird. And I remember, I had an interview with TV Guide, not an interview, but I was going into their offices. Yeah, a meet and greet. And then I had lunch with the editor in chief, they were going to put me and Tom on the cover for Top Chef, I think. And I knew about it, but I didn't dare tell anybody.

Julia: Right.

Padma: I was just sitting there so preoccupied. It was a very surreal experience. It really was, because what my gynecologist and my fertility specialist who we went to told me was that there's no way you can have a child naturally, which my surgeon was like, "Yeah, OK, probably, because you don't have a fallopian tube, et cetera, see above." And he's like, "Even with IVF, there's only a 15 percent chance that it'll work." And I was like, "Oh, OK. Well, I don't know if I'm ready or in a stable relationship." Then they're like, "OK, well let's freeze your eggs and we suggest you get on with it." And I was not in a place in my private life where I would have ideally done it the way I did, but it just happened. And it was the best thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life, by such a long shot.

Julia: Yeah.

Padma: I couldn't believe it. It's such a polar opposite. I remember where I was, when my doctor called me after doing all the hormone tests. And he said, "I want you to come in. I want you to discuss." I'm talking about the fertility doctor. And I was like, "Just tell me." Because I'm so busy, I'm like, "I don't need to go uptown to sit in your office for you to tell me something, just tell me now." And he was like, "OK," and that's when he told me, "I don't think you can have kids naturally. I'm just looking at this..." Whatever he was looking at, my file. And I sat down, I had a green velvet couch and I still do, and I sat down on that couch and I just couldn't believe it. And I was eating breakfast and I completely lost my appetite. And I was staring down, I think I was eating scrambled eggs or something. It was horrible. It was horrible.

And I said, "OK, let's do whatever we can. And let's freeze them, everything." And then months went by and I said, "OK, at least to have these frozen eggs. And when I'm ready, I'm going to fertilize them as I see appropriate." And then I just got pregnant. And I just think about my life before being a parent and after being a parent. I think those in my case are two different people. Of course, the person who didn't have a kid is inside the person who now has a kid and is a parent. But it's such a deep and metaphysical change in your psyche and spirit and your body too, for me. I'm very physically connected to Krishna, even though she's 11. I come from an Eastern background, so a lot of my parenting is very Asian, is very East Indian. And so we still sleep together and we still take baths.

Julia: I do that too with my daughter.

Padma: Yeah.

And I don't think it's like attachment parenting, but I put it to you this way, I am not the kind of parent that Ferber-izes.

Julia: To go back to one thing you said, and I really relate to this as somebody who's gone through divorce and also a single mom, you go through so much hardship in your life. And sometimes that hardship just turns into those real blessings, especially when it amounts to motherhood and it allows you to have your daughter. Can you talk a little bit about co-parenting with your daughter's dad? I know that part of the difficulty around your pregnancy was around the legal challenges and there was paternity tests and all kinds of things. How have you been able to get to a place that feels good when it comes to your relationship with Krishna's dad, and any co-parenting advice that you might have?

Padma: Well, I think we definitely get the badge for most improved, I will say that, from where we were. Also, we've run the gamut of different ways that our relationship has taken. We were also together romantically for six years and now we're not. And I'm talking about recently. We weren't together when I had Krishna.

So we started really being in a serious romantic relationship only when she was 5, I think. But, you know, I think it helps because he is a very interested father and a very active, enthusiastic participant in her life. He lives very close to our home, and so she can walk between the homes now. And I think the main thing, which is what actually initially got us together, in my opinion, because I saw, in spite of everything that came before, I saw over years what a good father he was. And to me, that's the most beautiful thing about Adam is that he's such a lovely father. And I didn't grow up with a father, and I understand the value of it. I don't take it for granted, and I really appreciate it. And so there are times in her life when he is going to be much more able to help her than I am, just because of the nature of human lives.

And what we realized very quickly as we grew as parents and people, is honestly that we both have the same first priority. And so we can work as a team for the goal of making that priority the best person she can be, the biggest success as a human being. And as for us, at least for me, I don't want to speak for anyone else. For me, success is really listening to what your child needs. And that's what I was saying earlier about understanding her. And so I think that we are motivated, we try to be motivated by what she needs. And I always try to remember that. I think parents sometimes, even through love, I think, you can say, "Well, this is my right. I should have this." But it's not about your rights, it's about the child's rights and what's best for the child. And I think remembering that as a parent helps you not only be a better parent, but be empathic to the other person trying to parent someone you love really deeply.

Julia: Yes. I think that is so true. And that's how I try and think about it too. My daughter's dad is the best dad. And I'm not necessarily supposed to be in a relationship with him right now, but I absolutely respect him as a dad, and we parent well together. And these are different skills. So it is really interesting co-parenting to navigate that. But I wanted to go back to your mom, you speak so beautifully of your mother. And she was a single mom also. And you've called your mom a tyrant in the kitchen, but in a loving way, which I love. So it feels like you really bonded with your mom growing up over cooking, and that's obviously had a lifelong impact. Is that something that you're really trying to pass on to your daughter? It seems that way too.

Padma: Yeah. I mean, I hope I'm not a tyrant, but I'm sure I am. I am bossy. My mother would say, "Just do it, OK?" My mother tried to always give me a reason why the rules are the way they are and try to explain and everything like that. Not all parents do that. And then after a point, she'd be like, "Because I said so, just do it." And a lot of times she did that because she didn't have time to explain, she was a single mom who was a registered nurse at a major cancer research center. She was head nurse of radiation therapy here when I was in fourth grade. And so the reason we spent so much time together is because she didn't have child care and she needed to get sh*t done.

Julia: Right.

Padma: So literally, I folded laundry with my mother, I painted my mother's toenails because we did pedicures at home. We couldn't afford to have pedicures, so we gave each other pedicures. I plucked her eyebrows later and vacuumed for allowance. I was really good, I was plucking eyebrows at night. And I cooked with her because she needed help. I'm aging myself here, but I remember watching this show called Alice on reruns, it was about a waitress who worked at Mel's Diner. And she was a single mom. And when she came home, there was this vignette where the son would have a little bucket with hot boiling water that she could put her feet in.

And I remembered that. And so when my mother used to come home from the hospital, she'd been on her feet all day, walking up and down the floors. I would have a little tub that we used for a pedicure and I would put hot water in it and always have her feet in hot water when she first came and have a cup of tea. And so I learned that from that TV show and that became our little ritual. And so my mother and I had all these rituals, it was really me and my mom against the world.

Julia: And do you see that reflected in your relationship with Krishna?

Padma: I hope so. I hope so. She spends a lot more time in her room with TikTok, and I worry about that. She loves skin care, so she's doing a lot of skin care and stuff. But I want to do those homey things. But Krishna and I go rollerskating, which we both love to do. In fact, we recently went on a vacation in Paris, and we picked Paris because we used to always go there for spring break but we haven't had a chance obviously to do that for two years. And also because it was August, Paris was deserted.

Julia: Right, shut down.

Padma: Which was good because there were less people. All the museums and monuments were still open. And so we're a quarter of the restaurant, that's all we needed. And it was so fun, we had such a nice time. And we skated. Because it was so empty, we were skating on the Champs-Élysées and then we also skated on the Rue de Rivoli and it was beautiful!

Julia: I love that so much. So now your children's book, Tomatoes for Neela, is such a beautiful snapshot of how food and cooking can connect us with our families and our ancestors. How have you used food, and are there any specific dishes to educate Krishna on her own heritage?

Padma: Well, I think that the earlier you get children involved in making the food that they're going to eat, the better. Because it's really important to instill in them a love of food and a love of cooking early on. If you make it an activity rather than they have to be forced to sit at the table and eat what everyone's eating. A child that has a hand in making their own food is more likely to eat it. And I think that that is the best way to develop not only a love for food, but an understanding of the environment of economics. It's also a way of teaching the children how to cook little by little throughout their lives, making it a daily practice, just like you would how to brush their teeth or any of the other skills. And when they're older, I don't know, manage your checkbook, things like that. It's a life skill, but it can also be a vehicle for the family to bond. And you can give so much education.

In Tomatoes for Neela, A lot of it is about writing down recipes. And Neela, the little girl, has a little notebook where she writes down her recipes that she likes to make. And that is very autobiographical, because when I was testing recipes and Krishna was younger, I would just put her on the counter or put her in her high chair and I would give her a serrated butter knife and some cherry tomatoes that she could cut or grape tomatoes, and that's how I would teach her. I would teach her how to count through cooking, I would teach her how to measure and how to do fractions. Even in fourth and fifth grade, I showed her what fractions are by reminding her of her cooking. When you're cutting a tomato, it's one of two. And writing recipes teaches a lot of developmental skills for children, from spelling to organizational thought to sequential reasoning, to just giving clear instructions, remembering to write down every step, all of that stuff. It's a great way to teach children.

The book is also not only about recipe writing, but it's also about cooking and sharing your heritage with every member of your family.

And I think especially with the pandemic, parents haven't been able to have grandparents be a part of the equation. And in this story, it's mainly about the mother and daughter who cook, but they also Skype and call the grandmother and the grandmother will come visit in the winter. The book started because I realized Krishna did not know when things grew. Why would she? We live in New York City, we don't live near farms or orchards.

Julia: Right.

Padma: She came back from her dad's house wanting pomegranates in July. And I was like, "What?" And it sent me down this whole thing of explaining, we only have pomegranates when it gets a little chilly, when the leaves start to turn for fall, when it's Halloween, when we get our heavy jackets.

Julia: Right.

Padma: Now we should be eating tomatoes and peaches and corn and blueberries. And so that is how Tomatoes for Neela was born. It's to teach children that eating seasonally and locally is not only good for you because those fruits eaten when they're in season have more nutrition, they're also yummier. And there's also back matter about farm workers, because we wanted to make sure that parents had a teaching tool in the back, if they wanted to talk about where that tomato comes from, and who's planting that tomato, there are resources for parents to go to teach their children even more than what's in the book.

Julia: I love that. So I wanted to talk, one of my last questions, I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about how the last 18 months have been in terms of staying in touch with your family. And it was a very isolating time for a lot of people, but I know just having had your own experience growing up, you'd moved to America when you were 4, right? But then you'd move back to India to live with your grandparents when you were 7. So you did a lot of back and forth as a child to keep that connection with your family that way. How has it been over the pandemic, and what's been your experience as a family of two trying to connect with your family overseas?

Padma: It's been so hard, I still haven't connected with them. I have finally seen family who live in the tri-state area. We were just being really super careful. From March to August of last year, we didn't see anybody. We really didn't. In fact, it was the first time that Krishna's dad and I cohabitated. We were dating and together, but we weren't co-habitating, and we decided to do that. So we went to Long Island and that's where we weathered most of the pandemic. But then August came around and we did see a few, we saw one cousin and her husband and kids, very few people that I still have not seen any of my family overseas. In fact, tomorrow we're going to have a Zoom call because my grandma's turning 90 and we just want to all be together.

But those Zoom calls are hard because I think we have to do it where everyone meets and one person talks at one time. But that's not a conversation. I miss them so much. I grew up, 25 percent of my childhood was spent in India. Because while I've been here since I was 4 and went mostly through the American school system, every summer from June to September, I was on a plane to India. So I still feel really connected to my family in India, my grandma, my home is still there. So it's difficult. It's really, really difficult. And I think it's hard too, because at this stage when you have kids, the developmental leaps are so drastic. And Krishna is a completely different person than she was a year and a half ago, also because of the experience of the pandemic, of course. And so I just want her to have a consistent connection with my family in India, and that's really hard to maintain.

Julia: Yeah. Have to do your best. And so, lastly, what are your hopes and dreams for you and Krishna and your family as you go into this, I don't want to say post-pandemic, because I don't even know where we're at. But looking to the future, do you have any real true hopes for the two of you as a family?

Padma: I really hope that Krishna and I continue to develop and always be as close as we are and be each other's haven and south and springboard. And she will eventually meet her soulmate, but right now she's mine, and I think I'm hers. But over time that will change because it's healthy for Krishna to also begin to separate from me and develop her own personhood. And that's very hard. There are things now, even with cooking, she's like, "Mom, I got it. Can I just cook by myself?" And it just breaks my heart because I want to cook with her, and she doesn't want my advice, she wants to do it and even maybe mess up. And I'm just sitting there biting my nails on the couch, as she's frying chicken or something. But I hope that we're always close and I hope that I'm always there for her as she needs me most. That I am useful to her, and I am a source of constant happiness and comfort and support and advice and love for her. That's what I want most. That's my main aim in life in general, even before my work or my writing.

Julia: That is so beautiful. What a lovely note to end on. Thank you so much, Padma, for coming on this podcast and coming on We Are Family. We've been just so thrilled to have you.

Padma: Thank you. Thank you so much. Take care.

Julia: Thanks so much for listening to my conversation with Padma Lakshmi. Her book, Tomatoes for Neela, is out now.

Come back next time when we will be talking to actor and producer Rosario Dawson about how discovering she was adopted as a young child led to a promise she kept for over 30 years.

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We Are Family is presented by me, Julia Dennison, and produced by Sam Walker. Editing is by Vincent Cacchione, and thanks also to the rest of our production team at Pod People, Rachel King, Matt Sav, and Danielle Roth.

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