What Matters

This is the real me.
10/16/2017 08:01 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2017
Center Street

Excerpted from Gretchen Carlson’s new book, Be Fierce.

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Here’s one thing you might notice about the cover photo of my new book, Be Fierce. I hardly have any makeup on at all. There’s a reason for that. When you’re putting on false eyelashes every day, which is standard for women on cable TV, it can destroy your natural ones. With no reason to wear the fake lashes over the last year, I’m happy to say my once naturally long eyelashes are growing back!

I was one of the last people to be convinced to try the fakes anyway. One early morning when I was especially tired, my makeup artist said it might be a good idea, and then I guess I got hooked. The pressure all women feel to pursue a glossy ideal is magnified when you’re on TV. Not just the eyelashes, but the heavy makeup too. I still remember the day I rushed home after my show without taking off my makeup. My son Christian took one look at me and cried, alarmed, “Mommy what happened to your face?” These days my kids and everyone else are more likely to see me without makeup, and the reprieve has been liberating. I’ve been stripped of a face that may have looked glamorous, and I’ve gone back to the basics. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a powerful metaphor for what I’ve been through. For me, going back to the basics is not just an external reality. It means getting in touch with the person inside — who I am off the set as well as on. And re-examining what really matters beneath the surface.

TV is a visual medium, so people easily get focused on the optics, the glamour. They may be less inclined to notice how hard we work. I think it’s sometimes difficult to see us as regular human beings who have self-doubts just like everyone else. I’ve learned that building self-esteem is an ongoing process; it’s figuring out how to rise and brush yourself off after you’ve been subjugated or sidelined. It’s about rediscovering the real person beneath the façade. It’s about building yourself back up — standing tall, without the makeup and the eyelashes.

My focus during the last year has been appreciating what really matters — getting down to the guts of who I am on the inside and what’s truly important. It’s not that I’d lost sight of it before. I know what’s most important to me, and that doesn’t change. But when a major shakeup happens in your life, it’s time to slow down and be more aware of the daily encounters that have lessons to teach. It’s unbelievable how many small moments have enriched my life and shown me how blessed I am.

The Good People...

One day I was doing an errand in my town, and I came to a stop sign at a particularly difficult intersection. I waited for a bus to go by, but because I had a blind spot in my SUV, I didn’t see the tiny car behind the bus. I drove into the intersection and slammed into the little car, going over the top. It took out the front end of my car, and his front bumper flew off amidst other damage.

My first reaction for some odd reason was feeling totally calm. (Over the last year, one thing I’ve noticed is that I don’t react to calamity the way I used to.) The guy I hit wasn’t so calm. He got out of his car yelling and waving his arms. Enraged, he picked up his bumper and threw it into the grassy median nearby.

I felt terrible. “It’s my fault. It’s totally my fault.” I said, “I didn’t see you. I’m so sorry.” I handed him my insurance information. He looked down at it, still steaming, and then he looked up in surprise. “Are you really Gretchen Carlson?” he asked. I said, “Yes.”

His entire demeanor changed. “Oh, wow. OK.” he said. “You’ve been through a lot. I’m really sorry.”

When we can look beyond our own lives and feel someone else’s reality, it creates a miraculous connection.

I was incredibly touched by his words. I mean, I trashed his car, even if it was an accident! But he was able to look beyond his personal loss and outrage and feel empathy for me, and I treasured his response for that reason. It showed me once again that when we can look beyond our own lives and feel someone else’s reality, it creates a miraculous connection. I’ve learned on countless occasions in the last year that people can be so kind and caring. It’s made me take stock of the ways I can also turn everyday encounters into meaningful human moments. I’ve found that no one is a stranger in the instant of contact. We hear a lot about how our modern culture has an “empathy deficit”—but each of us can turn that trend around by reaching beyond our personal problems and truly seeing what others are going through.

Life Happens...

I was incredibly busy the morning the bird came. I had meetings scheduled, a book deadline, and piles of paper stacked on the kitchen counter. But in the background I was aware of a regular sound, a beep or a tweet, that at first I thought was a smoke alarm battery going off. Annoyed, I followed the sound to my garage, where I found a baby bird perched inside a bag of sports equipment. He must have been there all night, since the garage door was closed.

I opened the garage door and waved my arms at the bird, hoping he’d fly away. When he didn’t budge, I realized that maybe he couldn’t fly. Or maybe he was afraid to try. (I know what that feels like! I had my own moment of deciding to take a big leap without knowing if I’d land on my feet.) What to do? I left the garage door open and returned to the kitchen, but the anguished little chirps kept coming, distracting me from the work at hand. Finally, I called the local animal control office, looking for advice, and they promised to send someone out. Within an hour, two very serious and professional khaki-clad agents were standing in my garage studying the situation. All this for a tiny bird — I was impressed!

We debated options. They thought the bird might have been separated from its mother, but nixed the idea of physically putting it outside where it could be seen. It was raining and cool, and the little bird was too fragile for the elements. They recommended that I just wait, and if the bird was still there in a few hours they’d come back.

I went back to work, and a couple of hours later I realized I hadn’t heard a peep from the garage. I ran down to look, and the bird was gone.

Maybe he’d finally summoned the courage to leave on his own. Maybe Mom had come and rescued him. By the time I closed the garage door and returned to the kitchen, I realized that I’d devoted most of the day to worrying about that bird. My long to-do list was put on hold because sometimes life just happens. I thought about how many times I’ve complained about interruptions, saying, “I don’t have time for this!” The truth is, we always have time for what’s important, even if it’s just a chirping bird.

Attending the Time 100 Gala on April 25, 2017.
Ben Gabbe via Getty Images
Attending the Time 100 Gala on April 25, 2017.

Moments Of Truth...

As I keep learning, life does have a way of waking you up to what really matters. When my Ob-Gyn found a lump on my breast one morning during a routine breast exam, everything came to a complete halt. There’s a before-and-after sensation you feel when something like that happens. Before she discovered the lump, my worry list was long — I’ve always been a worrier. But after, everything I thought I was worried about faded into the background. It goes to show it’s not always obvious what really matters until it smacks you in the face.

I was elated when the tests revealed nothing to worry about, but the sensation of letting go of all my petty concerns felt familiar. I found myself remembering a terrifying incident the previous year. I’d been flying back to the United States from a trip to Croatia with my husband and friends. We’d changed our flight at the last minute to leave more time to make a connection, and Casey and I grabbed the last available seats, which were in an exit row with no window. Our new flight path was over the Alps, and I didn’t know about the wind tunnels until the plane started rocking and leaning so far to one side I thought we were going to tip over. I’m a pretty experienced flier, but I had never felt so much jeopardy. I was clinging to my kids’ pictures and crying, and even Casey was nervous. I sobbed to him that we were going to die. After everything I’d been experiencing, was this the way my story would end? Of course, that’s not what happened, and when we emerged shaking from the plane and hugged our friends, nothing else seemed as important as just being there alive. Oh, and downing a double vodka!

Trial And Error...

“Mom,” my daughter Kaia asked on a sweltering summer day, “Is it possible to fry an egg in the sun?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I’m going to try it.” She got an egg from the refrigerator and took it outside to the patio.

I followed her out. “I think the temperature has to be much higher,” I told her — to which she replied, “I want to see for myself.”

She cracked the egg and poured it onto the stone, where it sat, a wobbly yellow blob. It didn’t sizzle, it didn’t harden. Nothing happened. Minutes ticked by and we stood in the hot sun and waited. Finally, Kaia sighed and went into the kitchen to get a spatula to clean up the raw goop.

Later, after the cleanup, I realized we could have Googled it. But I liked the way Kaia rejected an abstract opinion in favor of her own hands-on experiment. She was disappointed, of course, but she wasn’t defeated. She immediately started looking for other ways of frying an egg — outside the pan. A budding scientist!

A lot of our life’s choice are comprised of trial-and-error. We try one direction, it doesn’t work and we move on to the next. This can-do spirit is part of the human experience, but it’s striking how often our defeats, large and small, seem to paralyze us. How much better it is to look at the adventure of life as a constant opportunity for reinvention.

I’ve reinvented myself many times in my life, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But the goal is always to strive and change. Now, I often tell women to keep a list of things they’ve always wanted to do in life but never got around to. Think about your passion, and the ways you can stretch your identity. Surprise yourself by taking a risk.

Taking Control...

When life throws you a curve that’s beyond your control, it’s time to focus like a laser beam on those things you can control. My last year has been emotionally dizzying. Every day I wake up and feel a different emotion. For me, one way of taking control is to focus on what makes me feel good about myself — what improves my wellbeing. For example, I started Pilates, and I loved the challenge that took me out of my head and gave me such a sense of accomplishment. And I went zip lining — maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I felt elated when it was over. It’s not a novel thought, but it’s absolutely true that when you take care of your health and energy, and take some physical risks, the rest follows.

I was embarrassed at first to be involved in such a public controversy, and I wasn’t sure what people would think.

Another lesson is to really cherish your loved ones. Again, no big revelation, but it needs to be restated. When you’re struggling, the temptation is to cut yourself off, when just the opposite is needed. I was embarrassed at first to be involved in such a public controversy, and I wasn’t sure what people would think. But my friends brought me back and kept me sane. One of them even gave me a set of pink boxing gloves signifying my immense fight and victory!

I’ve also found it so rewarding to have a little more time with my kids. That includes moments that a mom remembers forever. Walking into school to do some business a week before school started, I said to Christian, “Hold my hand just right now, because I know you’re not going to let me when I actually bring you to school next week. Just hold Mommy’s hand for ten seconds when we’re walking into school.” He looked at me and got this shit eating grin, and then took my hand. Afterward, when we went to get his hair cut we were walking up the stairs to the barber and I said, “Let’s do it again. Just hold Mommy’s hand for ten seconds before we get to the top.”

Mom,” he groaned. But he took my hand.

My kids are getting to ages when they’re separating and becoming more independent. But sometimes I think they need their Mom now more than ever. I’m so happy to be there for them.

Everywoman...

Taylor Swift presents at the CMA Awards in Nashville, November 2, 2016.
Terry Wyatt via Getty Images
Taylor Swift presents at the CMA Awards in Nashville, November 2, 2016.

Do you ever find yourself thinking that some women have so much star power that they literally can’t be sexually harassed? That they have some kind of superwoman immunity? It’s not true. No woman is immune. I often talk about how this is every woman’s story, and that’s why I’m so impressed by Taylor Swift. Not only did she experience an ugly sexual advance, but she did something about it — dramatically and publicly. She’s a star, but she’s also everywoman.

In 2013, as part of a photo shoot, Swift says that Denver DJ David Mueller grabbed her butt underneath her skirts. She was horrified, disgusted and upset. She didn’t report him to police, but she and her mother called Mueller’s boss, who fired him. Two years later Mueller sued Swift for $3 million., claiming defamation. She countersued for $1. She knew the truth, and instead of quietly settling, she boldly allowed the case to go to a public courtroom.

On the stand, she was unwavering and brave. When Mueller’s lawyer asked if she felt guilty that he’d lost his job, she replied, “I’m not going to allow you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions — not mine.”

The jury unanimously ruled in Swift’s favor. When women like Taylor Swift stand their ground, it gives new confidence to others — especially her young fans who now see that they can speak out for themselves.

Something Good...

When I lost my job, a wise friend told me, “Something good will come out of this. You’ll see!” I have to be honest, I wasn’t too sure what that would be. Early on, when I used my public profile to speak out on behalf of women, some of the social media feedback wasn’t so kind. “You’re really milking this for all you’ve got,” someone posted on my Facebook page. I rolled my eyes, and then I had an epiphany. Yes, I would milk it! In the past year, I’ve found ways to do that — writing a book that’s an empowerment manifesto for women and girls, lending my voice to efforts in Congress to make the legal process fairer for women who experience sexual harassment and discrimination, and putting my money where my mouth is by starting the Gretchen Carlson “Gift of Courage” Fund, to financially support organizations empowering women and girls. The more I explore the opportunities to make my voice count, the more I see how desperate the need is. So, if some disgruntled people want to say I’m “milking it,” let them.

On stage at the Forbes Women's Summit, June 13, 2017.
Gary Gershoff via Getty Images
On stage at the Forbes Women's Summit, June 13, 2017.

My greatest joy has come from working on ways we can fix the actual problems women face. I’m thrilled to be partnering with the All In Together Campaign, a non-partisan women’s civic leadership organization, on the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative to empower and train women to get involved in civic and political leadership – and to have a voice. I’ve always believed that when women’s voices are heard, on an equal footing, whether that’s in local communities or the halls of Congress, change can happen. The GCLI will hold workshops in nine cities across the country in 2017-18 and also offer women in lower socioeconomic statuses helpful counseling on domestic violence and sexual harassment.

As I’m putting the finishing touches on this bonus chapter, I’m happy to report that I’m doing so makeup free with no fake eyelashes. This is the real me — and that’s what matters. I know I can face the world without shame or apology, to be strong and fierce and fully myself without having to “play nice” or go along with other people’s ideas of who I should be. I hope to inspire you to find the real you – to speak up, stand up and be heard.

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