Last week a friend messaged me, 'You're the woman that proves you can have it all and do it all.' And therein lies one of the most controversial notions of my generation of women and mothers, in our pervasive quest to not just manage the most meaningful aspects of our lives, including our personal aspirations, but to thrive in the process -- to recognize the invisible yet highly conspicuous neon-colored flag that each of us wears daily, that screams, "I'm in training!", while we grapple with life's winds caught in it, throwing us off balance as we attempt to push the flag back into alignment. At first glance I was uncomfortable when I read the message. It's one thing to have it all, but an entirely different story to do it all. With immense gratitude for all that I do indeed have, I wasn't however, convinced that I wasn't doing it all without some windburn and daily discomfort by the drag of my flag.
When we observe a woman who successfully raises children, enjoys an abiding marriage, creates time for friends, and happily flows through her career -- each puzzle piece in succession a better fit than the last, the rest of us ogle her and wonder what the secret is. While many might hastily jump to the conclusion that her path has been smoothly paved and obstacle-free, it's oftentimes quite the contrary. It was recently reinforced to me, during an entertaining and insightful conversation over breakfast with former Today Show anchor, Meredith Vieira, that the answer truly dwells within and a sometimes volatile training flag is par for the course.
She was someone I applauded through the years in her eclectic and award-winning journalism, for her family-oriented spirit and armored authenticity; traits that can be somewhat elusive at a certain level in her industry. From my view she had it all and was doing it all with flying, bright colors, but I soon understood, not with ease or diminished hardship.
I extended one arm to greet her and she leaned forward naturally and offered both of hers, radiating an immediate warmth I would have expected from a close friend or relative. As our conversation continued, the innumerable roles she inhabited -- wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend, were characters woven through her sentences, transparent on her face and she somehow managed to effortlessly make me feel as though I were engaging with all of them in harmony.
I soon detected one of the comforting aspects about Meredith -- her ability to traverse and relate to any age range and demographic in her most challenging of life's dilemmas, particularly those specific to motherhood. In 1989 while working at 60 Minutes, Meredith scaled back her work after the birth of her first child, Ben. In 1991 when she became pregnant for the second time, she requested a continuation of a similar schedule but was fired after producer, Don Hewitt, said that they needed a full-time correspondent. She explained, "When I left CBS there was a woman who wrote me an angry letter. She said that I had 'set women back a long way' after I chose to have some more time with the kids opposed to full-time work but I was shocked because that really wasn't an easy choice but I felt that it showed a lot -- that I was willing to take a stand for my family and leave a high-profile position," she told me. According to Meredith, after the birth of her third child in 1993, one of the producers (also a mother) of ABC's news program, Turning Point, contacted her and said, 'We know you need flexibility and your time with family is important but we'll work with you on it -- we want you anyway.' She went on to say, "When I didn't want to travel too much I just had to reinvent myself."
It can be easy to believe that we possess all of the answers when dealing with matters of our own career or when it's the right time to delve into a new opportunity. We default to our own judgment under the premise and disguise that surely, we understand our strengths, challenges and skills more acutely than anyone else. Perhaps it's a mixture of ego and human nature that develops the blinders to the real antidote that's right in front of us -- the husband, friend, mom or sister who provides a crystal clear lens into a direction we didn't imagine possible. Meredith spoke of such a companionship with husband and accomplished journalist, Richard Cohen. The two have been married for thirty years and they've been candid about the trials and tribulations of the third element in their relationship, multiple sclerosis, which Cohen has braved since his late twenties, before they met. In recent years his symptoms have advanced and although the two weather their fair share of strenuous and upsetting days, they're notable for infusing a healthy dose of humor to lighten their spirit and remain one another's truest companion.
Meredith explained, "When I was first approached about becoming co-host of The View (she was there from 1997-2006) I looked at my husband, Richard, and said, 'I'm a journalist. I can't see myself on that sort of show, talking around a table of women.' But he looked at me and said, 'I think this is something you might really enjoy because you love to connect with others. Go for it and give it a try.' He knows me. I did, and I was there for nine years. Each time I've tried something new, whether it was The View, Today Show Anchor, or hosting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, I didn't always know going into a new position, that it was the right choice but once I was there it always led to the right next step. And I knew when to leave something; I always had a strong instinct and knew when it was time to go."
Our attention was quickly deflected as a nearby patron of the restaurant approached Meredith in the most jubilant manner; she was the quintessential fan. Her name was Verna and she was beside herself at the opportunity to meet Meredith: "Oh, I've always wanted to meet you! My friends and I loved you on The View -- they'll be thrilled when I tell them I've seen you here!" she exlaimed. Without a moment to blink, Meredith sprung out of her chair, and threw her arms around her in the only way she seemed to know how, with a style that communicated to Verna that she was reuniting with an old friend she hadn't seen in years. As I witnessed the encounter my grin was so wide, my mouth ached in its aftermath.
"I didn't think I was going to go back into TV again. I thought I was done but after I left Today I realized how much I was missing the connection with people, with the audience that felt like such a familial relationship, and I wanted to experience that again," she said. On September 8th Meredith will dive into The Meredith Vieira Show, a platform that will be driven by real people sharing their uplifting stories and relatable experiences. For the first time Meredith will be a solo act, although not entirely alone as she reminded me, "I've got such a great team with me" (she glanced at the two gentleman sitting at the table with us, Rich Sirop and Michael Glantz, executive producers of the show). They're essentially part of her family which was illustrated further when Michael interjected with a comical story, saying he once spoke with Meredith on the phone from a hospital due to an injury from jumping off of a diving board into a pool. At the time Meredith was on vacation and advised, "Well, head on over to my house and get some rest by the pool," to which he replied, "I just got the injury at your pool!"
I continued to try to get a sense of her thoughts about her impending endeavor and inquired, "given the pressure on daytime TV these days (Bethenny Frankel and Katie Couric's shows were cancelled this year) do you think about its potential success or failure?" A few seconds prior she was laughing but now her facial expression became very serious. She looked me straight in the eyes very intently and her voice morphed rapidly into one that was less sturdy, diminished in tone and slightly cracked -- the nurturer in her spoke: "I'm worried about both success and failure. Now there are all of these people, families, who depend on me for their paychecks. When I'm really busy during the day I don't worry much but at night when things are quieter, I'm with my own thoughts and that's when the worry seeps in," she told me, her heart sitting visibly on her sleeve. While demonstrating just how well she knows herself, adding, "I'm really nervous but I know that this is just part of my process that I need to go through." She went on to say that she had even been on the market recently for an acne cream. "Acne?", I inquired. "Yes. Because of all this worry, I've been breaking out!" I would have never known as her skin was glowing, yet it wouldn't have surprised me if her jitters weren't exclusively knocking on her door at night but throughout the day as well.
Having two sons and a daughter into adulthood, Meredith has acquired some wisdom in the parenting arena. As a mother to two children under five years of age, I've often wondered about the ways in which my role as a parent would change as they grew into beyond adolescence. Based on Meredith's feedback, while some aspects will change it seems that others, such as the strength of the reflexive and ingrained concern for their well-being will remain very much the same. Through a pronounced voice of concern she said, "My eldest son has been in Shanghai for seven years. I really want him to come back because he's always sick and he deals with bronchitis two to three times per year due to the air pollution. He says he's coming back for grad school soon and I really hope he does."
I've frequently heard mothers of grown children say that it's really important to be as available as possible during the teenage years even though that can be a period of time when they're most reclusive and perhaps difficult to approach. With eight years to go until my son enters the teens, I figured it's never too early to seek the advice of those who have previously navigated the territory: "I think it's important to have quality time with them and keep open lines of communication. Even though they may not want to speak about personal matters often, it's really important to be there for them and ready when they do need to talk," she told me.
Her sons and daughter didn't hesitate to protest when she told them she would be transporting one of the family's living room chairs onto the new set of her show. She explained, "I couldn't believe it. I thought they'd be happy to visit the house and get a new chair to replace this old, torn chair that our pets had destroyed over the years. But they said, 'Really mom? Do you have to take this one?' It turned out that the memories that the chair invoked were really important to them, even as adults."
In an effort to construct her show's set to mimic the feel and look of her own home, she'll also hang a special plaque on the wall of her father's medical degree, the only object after her father's passing that she really wanted. She mentioned that Richard wasn't thrilled -- "He erupted and said, 'Why did you do that? It's one of the best things we have.' I told him, 'don't worry, it's a replica!'"
In learning more about Meredith it was apparent that the story of her path hasn't been unwrinkled or temperate, although at sixty years of age, when continuing to prosper in a media career is more the exception than the rule, she's still approaching things the way she always has; a way that fits with and around her family -- she's operating the way she has all along, on her own terms.
Toward the end of our time I asked her to explain one variable that has enabled her to accomplish all that she has personally and professionally, thereby having it all and doing it with gusto. Without a second delay, expressing absolute conviction, she simply said, "I've always had faith in myself and my capabilities. Not in an arrogant way, I've just always had that faith."
At times our bright orange training flag will flop around chaotically in unexpected winds, reminding us as wives, friends, career women and mothers, we may have it all but we won't always feel as if we're doing it gracefully and that's a guaranteed part of the ride. Other times it'll stand nimble and elegantly while the vigorous jostling of our many roles will barely alter it. Through Meredith I realized we can have it all and do it all in our own way and on our own terms; that the most reassuring of all are the moments when we can stand solid, trusting fully in our potential regardless of the accompanying storms, and that's when we'll look up to discover that our flag is colored a vibrant red -- the one we can detach from ourselves and mightily stake into the ground in victory.