“Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski learned the hard way about how trying to be everything to everyone can fail. After a serious accident with her baby, she began to consider how balance is the key to managing her career and motherhood. In her book, “All Things At Once,” Brzezinski shares her story, along with the lessons she’s learned. An excerpt.
October 30, 1998—Yonkers, New York
Her tiny body had gone limp. “She’s not moving!” I screamed into the phone. “The noises she’s making are all wrong. It doesn’t sound like her. And she’s not moving at all, from her chest down!”
I could hear the alarm in our pediatrician’s voice. “Mika,” she said firmly. “You have to get her back to the hospital. Drive her yourself, if you can. We’ll call ahead and get them ready for you.”
I followed the doctor’s orders, moving quickly, mechanically, all the time chanting, “Please make her okay, please make her okay.” Over and over. Pleasemakeherokay, pleasemakeherokay ...
I don’t remember putting my infant daughter in her car seat or driving to the hospital. I have a vague memory of pulling in to the emergency room parking lot and flinging open the driver door. I know I left the engine running, and the car angled in the ambulance zone. It had barely been a half hour since we’d been to this same emergency room, since these same doctors and nurses had examined Carlie and told me she was okay. But they were wrong. We were met in the reception area by the same hospital worker who’d checked us in on our first visit, and now he was trying to put me through the same procedure all over again.
I didn’t have time for procedure. Carlie didn’t have time. My doctor had called ahead, I explained. It had all been arranged. But I could not make myself understood, and now the mechanical fog that had gotten me to the hospital was lifting. I went from panic to confusion and finally to rage. Now all I could think was that this man and his forms were standing between my baby and the help she needed. He needed to get out of our way. I placed Carlie’s car seat gently on the floor and flew toward him, grabbing his shirt and the skin on his neck. I dug in and told the attendant in the clearest language possible that his life depended on his ability to get out of the way. Out of Carlie’s way. Then, in a swift, single movement, I rushed toward him and shoved him against the wall. As I did so, I flashed on an image of a mother summoning the strength to lift a car off her injured child. To me, it was a matter of life and death. I had to get my baby in there. Nothing would stand in my way.
From the corner of my eye, I could see one of the nurses reach for a phone — probably to call security. Then, another nurse stepped in as if to separate me from her colleague. She didn’t have to. I saw her approach and let the man go. The nurse saw me retreat and reached instead for Carlie — still in her car seat, still on the waiting room floor. In that moment the nurse must have seen they were up against the power of a mother’s instinct. Or maybe the message from Carlie’s doctor had finally reached the reception desk. It didn’t matter which.
Instantly, Carlie was surrounded by doctors, nurses, technicians. Some of them I recognized from before. But they were different now, all moving in the urgent choreography of emergency. I stood off to the side. I called my husband, Jim. He was on his way before I could finish my first sentence ... but it was a Friday, and he was coming from the city, and it would take him forever.
I watched helplessly as doctors pressed a series of needles into Carlie’s little toes, and got no response. She was awake and conscious, but she was completely unresponsive. I was still standing uselessly to the side when I heard someone whisper words that rang through my brain as if through a loudspeaker: “Spinal cord damage.”
Everything got quiet and far away. Then I heard the words echo again: Spinal. Cord. Damage. If I hadn’t been leaning against the wall, I would have melted to the ground. It was like being stuck inside one of those dreams where you want to scream but nothing comes out.
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One doctor called a spinal cord expert at another hospital. “How soon can you get here?” I heard him say.
I watched as they rolled little Carlie into an adjacent imaging room for an MRI. All I could do was wait. I felt my knees go soft and my back slide farther down the wall as a terrible thought began to take shape: this was my fault. This didn’t have to happen. We’d fallen down a flight of stairs, because I was exhausted. Because I was spent, distracted. Because I was practically sleepwalking with my baby in my arms, weighed down by my impossible schedule and worries of what lay ahead. One moment Carlie was in my arms, and then she wasn’t. One moment I was on my feet, talking a hundred miles an hour to the sitter. The next, I was in a free fall, crashing down a full flight of stairs ... bumping down hard, bouncing off the steps and up against the wall, unable to stop myself or my baby girl. When we’d finally crashed to the landing below, her tiny frame was pressed between me and the floor.
Now my four-month-old was in that imaging room, on the other side of the door, inside a giant metal machine, while I was slumped against the wall, reliving the horror of what had just happened to my precious baby girl. She was only a few months old, and I was supposed to take care of her. Nothing was more important. But at this moment all I was thinking about was how I had failed Carlie. How I let this happen. How I was to blame.
How could I have let myself get so run down, so exhausted at work that I would fumble over my own feet and fall down a steep flight of stairs with my newborn in my arms? It made no sense to me — and yet, here I was, waiting for word about what her life would look like now. Wondering if she’d ever be able to move. All for what? A blind ambition to be all things to all people? To be a super hockey mom?
After another beat or two, I could no longer stand against that wall. My legs crumbled beneath me, and I slid to the floor. At one point, I was looking at this pathetic scene of myself as if from above. I could see my face pressed against the cool, filthy linoleum of the hospital floor. I could see that I was weeping.
This was my rock bottom, and as I lay there I thought, How can I ever forgive myself for what I’ve just done?
Sometimes you have to take a step back
As a young girl, whenever I imagined my career, I always had an age-based “end date” for it all: forty. That was no target date or deadline by which I meant to have arrived at whatever job or place or purpose I’d set out for myself. No — that, to me, was the finish line.
After that, I’d be done. I’d retire into motherhood and the role of supportive wife, which I had always wanted to be at the center of my identity.
I knew early on that I wanted to be in television news — a business that is so visually oriented it naturally imposes a shelf life on the careers of most women, with only a few exceptions. I factored that in to my thinking and my plans. That might seem like a cynical or calculating view for a girl of sixteen or seventeen, but I considered myself a realist, even as a kid. I was steeling myself for the road ahead.
And, like clockwork, that’s exactly what happened. When I was thirty-nine years old, my career came to a halt, right on schedule. I walked out the front door of CBS News and thought, Wow, I was dead on. I went from the broadcast center up 57th Street to my parking garage, wondering the whole way how it was that I’d been so right about this and so wrong about so much else. What I hadn’t planned on was how depressed and hopeless I would feel about the loss of my career. How such a big part of me would be wiped away. So that was one surprise. The other was that my timeline was all wrong. The end actually turned out to be only the beginning: a new jumping-off point in my professional journey and a chance to press the reset button and start all over — from the bottom, but this time with a whole new set of hard-won skills and absolutely no fear. It was an opportunity that would lead to where I am today: on the air for five hours a day, smack in the middle of the national conversation.
Maybe it was in my genes, or maybe it was my generation. But from the day I was born, like a lot of women who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, it was instilled in me that I could achieve anything I set out to accomplish. Nothing was out of reach. It was a mind-set handed down to me from my mother and grandmother, both brilliantly talented and highly resourceful women.
And yet as I notch my twentieth year in television news, a high-profile, high-stress, high-expectations field where our shortcomings as women and journalists and wives and mothers are brought to full and prominent attention, I’m starting to realize the lessons I took from my mother and grandmother were perhaps a little too thorough. Because of the hard work and sacrifice of trailblazers before me, there are indeed many more choices available to women of my generation. There are far fewer glass ceilings blocking our rise to the top of our chosen fields. But in addition to all these possibilities I’m starting to hear a new message. This one doesn’t come from my mother, or grandmother, or any mentors I’ve collected on my journey, but from within. From me. A message I am still working to put in play before my children move on into adulthood: pace yourself.
Nothing more than a yellow caution light, but for me it is the most important lesson I can pass on to my own daughters. Go your own way. Narrow your focus. Breathe. It’s what twenty years of running and gunning and “accomplishing” has taught me. It’s not about slowing down, but strategizing for the long haul. Pull back when your gut says you should. Now that all these choices have unfolded for us, it’s important for women to accept and expect them and sort through what needs to be accomplished when. And, by the way, motherhood should never be pushed down that list, if you mean to be a mother. We should stop being so pleasantly surprised at all these inroads we’re making and start looking at them pragmatically. We need to time our career moves and our rites of passage carefully, which means making tough, clear decisions along the way.
Looking back, I realize my biggest failures always seemed to find me when I was trying to do too much too soon. When I wasn’t ready to accept that I needed to choose one aspect of my life over another — or risk crashing and losing everything. Your job can be a big part of who you are, but it shouldn’t be the whole package. Your family and relationships should be central, but they needn’t be front and center at all times. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t always get that. I get it now. For a long time I was probably the last person on the planet in a position to talk about “having it all,” slowing down, or seeking that fine balance between family and career. My husband and children would be the first to tell you that I failed to find that balance on many occasions. No question, I’ve made some painful miscalculations along the way. But it’s because I’ve taken a close, tough look at some of those missteps that I’m able to walk a more certain road today. It’s because of that effort and the support of my husband and children that the journey continues.
Now that I’ve enjoyed a level of success on Morning Joe, the daily news show I cohost on MSNBC with Joe Scarborough, many women I meet seem to want to focus on my unlikely career path. From reaching the upper echelon of CBS News, to being dumped by the network, to being unable to find a job anywhere in television, to where I am now. And the more I talk about my own doubts and struggles, the more I assess my wrong-headed turns and my ill-considered career moves, the more I see how much they mirror the difficulties of other women.
Fortunately, I have done a few things right along the way: planning for career, marriage, and family, collectively and early on. I am enormously proud of the effort I put into assembling all these aspects of my life at a time when most of my peers believed they could put off marriage and children until their careers were established.
Motherhood is one of the first things I talk about when I speak with young women about jump-starting their career — even if they don’t ask. “Don’t forget to have children,” I say. “If you want a family, don’t put it off.” I’ll usually get some confused looks and bulging eyeballs in response — as in, Did she just say that? It’s a message young women don’t often hear, but I believe it’s elemental. There’s nothing wrong with putting both family and work at the top of your list of priorities, giving each equal value and care, right from the start. I’d even argue that finding a good man is far more difficult than finding the right job, and it’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make in life, so why put it off? If that’s what you want, start reaching for it now. All of it. The sooner, the better.
Excerpted from "All Things At Once" by Mika Brzezinski. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Weinstein Books.For more about "All Things At Once" click here.
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