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Maria Shriver: ‘Just Who Will You Be?’

In "Just Who Will You Be?: Big Question, Little Book, Answer Within," Maria Shriver writes about the difficulty she had adjusting to ending her successful career as an NBC News correspondent when her husband became governor of the nation's most populous state. Here's an excerpt:

Not too long ago, I was whining to my teenage daughter. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!”

She took me by the shoulders, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I hate to break it to you, Mom, but this is it for you! You are all grown up! You’re cooked!”

I jumped out of my chair. “Not so!” I shot back. “You may think I’m over, but I’m not done yet! I’m still a work in progress, and I’m writing my next act now.”

I told her, “You wait and see just who I will be!”

She rolled her eyes, turned up her iPod, and went off to find a saner person to talk to, like her little brother.

When she left, I wondered, “Is she right? Is this really it? Am I cooked? Am I over?”

Or do I get another shot at asking “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Back when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time wondering just that: “What am I going to be when I grow up? What’s my life going to be like?” I worried about it, because all my friends seemed sure about their futures. They wanted to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians. Me, I didn’t have a clue.

Then when I was sixteen, my dad ran for Vice President of the United States. (That’s me at sixteen on the back of this book cover at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.) I was lucky enough to fly in the back of his campaign plane with all the working journalists — the ones who were asking all the questions and seemed to be having all the fun. Right then and there, I discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up: a TV journalist.

I wanted to be the woman on your television screen, telling you what was going on in the world, telling you what you needed to know. I wanted to be that smart, successful TV newswoman.

At first, I was too scared to tell anyone about my dream, worried that people would think I was crazy. After all, back then there weren’t that many women on television. And I came from a family where everybody was in politics. So wanting to be a journalist was a weird choice, to say the least.

But after college, I set out to make my dream a reality anyway. I started at the bottom getting coffee and worked my way up to be a news producer, then a reporter, then a correspondent, then an anchorwoman. And I loved it. I just assumed I would be in TV news for the rest of my life. After all, that’s who I was. That’s what people called me: “TV newswoman Maria Shriver.”

But sometimes life happens to you, and — bingo! — your idea of who you think you are just goes up in smoke. That’s what happened to me.

One day out of nowhere, my movie-star husband announced he was running for Governor of California. Just sixty days later, he was elected. And because NBC News was worried that there might be a perceived conflict of interest between my news job and his political job, I was asked to resign.

Just like that my career was gone, and with it went the person I’d been for twenty-five years. And before I could say, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!” — I became someone new, someone they called “the First Lady of the State of California.”

“Say what?” I thought to myself. “The First Lady of the State of California? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s not me! I didn’t grow up wanting to be the First Lady of anything!”

But there I found myself, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. And if that weren’t enough of a shock, then this little incident just about pushed me over the edge:

I was out shopping in Santa Monica with my son. Along comes a guy handing out leaflets. He gives one to my son and then motions to me and says to him, “Are you with that woman?”

“Yep!” my son says.

The man asks, “Is she a model?” I give my hair a toss.

“Naaaah,” my son says, looking over at me. “She’s a housewife.”

My neck snaps. My big beautiful movie-star glasses just about fly off my face. As the nice gentleman walks away, I grab my thirteen-year-old son’s collar and shriek, “That man just asked you if I was a model, and you told him I’m a housewife?”

He says, “MOM! That’s because you are a housewife!”

I’m still shrieking, “No, I am not, I am NOT! I’m a journalist!”

“WERE a journalist, Mom!” he shoots back.

And I snap right back at him: “I’m an author! I write books!”

Now he’s digging in. “You’re not writing any books now — are you, Mom?”

“Well, I’m a mother, for God’s sake! A mother of four! You could have told him I’m a mother!”

“Everyone’s a mother!” he says. “Face it, Mom! You don’t have a job!”

I hate to admit it, but I grabbed him by his lapel and got in his face: “Listen, you!” I hollered. “I am the First Lady of the State of California!”

He rolls his eyes that awful way teenagers do and says, “Mom! I hate to break it to you. Daddy was elected, not you! Get used to it. You’re a housewife!”

Talk about comeuppance. It didn’t matter that I’d always trumpeted child rearing and the work done at home as the most important job in our society, but I believe it is. But at that moment, I was shocked by my son’s description of me, because for thirty years when I wrote something after the word “occupation,” it was never the word “housewife.”

Right about then, smack-dab in the middle of what felt like a world-class identity crisis, my nephew called to ask me to speak at his high school graduation.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I bellowed at him. “How can I give you kids any words of encouragement when I’m struggling myself?”

Like any eighteen-year-old boy, he didn’t hear me and just kept pressing on. He insisted I was the number-one choice of his senior class. I didn’t believe him for a second, so I turned him down again.

He got creative. He said several presidential candidates had called begging to be the graduation speaker. He said various young movie stars had their publicists working the phones, trying to wangle an invitation. He said a certain real estate tycoon called and threatened to humiliate the entire senior class and their parents in the Wall Street Journal if he didn’t get to speak at this graduation. None of it was true, of course, but he was trying to make his case.

He said, “See, Maria? You should be proud my class turned all of them down and picked you!” He’s such a suck-up. But I held my ground.

So he did what any good Catholic would do: he played the Guilt Card. I’m a sucker for guilt.

“Mar-EEEE-a!” he whined. “You’re my one and only godmother! I’m only gonna graduate once! Don’t you love me? Don’t you care about me?”

So I caved.

Now, I’ve been giving speeches to audiences big and small for years, so you’d think this one would be the easiest thing in the world. But forget it. I went into a tailspin.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what on earth these students wanted to hear from me. Did they want to hear from the Old Me or the New Me? And who was that? And what could I tell them? My own kids make sure I know that everything that comes out of my mouth is either boring or, worse, uncool, and that they know all of it already, anyway.

I stressed out trying to figure out what I could say. I ate licorice.

I stressed some more. I ate Dots.

I stressed out even more — and wiped out a bag of Swedish fish.

And then I wrote. I wrote in longhand on legal pads. I wrote in my room, in my office. I ripped it up, I threw it out. I wrote on the Lifecycle, on airplanes. Early in the morning and late at night. Starting over and over, driving myself nuts, trying to figure out exactly what these high school seniors expected to hear from me.

Finally I finished, and I was sure it would, as my mom says, “suck.”

But then on graduation day, I got a surprise. After I delivered the speech, people came up and urged me to turn it into a book, so they could remember it. And not just the kids. Parents also came up to say, “I wish I’d heard that message when I was a kid. And you know what? I needed to hear it now, too.”

They all told me that what struck a chord with them was the question I’d posed in that graduation speech. It wasn’t just “WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?” It was, “WHO will you be? WHO is the person you want to be? Who is the YOU you’ll become? Who are you?”

And it turned out that writing that speech was a great thing for me, too, because it helped me redirect myself. It helped me get out of my tailspin.

Oh, not right away, because sometimes I’m a slow learner. But as time went on, as that question turned and churned inside of me, I began to answer it, learning a lot about myself in the process.

I’ve learned that asking ourselves not just what we want to be, but who we want to be is important at every stage of our lives, not just when we’re starting out in the world. That’s because, in a way, we’re starting out fresh in the world every single day.

From "Just Who Will You Be?" by Maria Shriver. Copyright © 2008 Maria Shriver. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.

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