To my mother, the artist
Just be elegant.
—Emilie Benes (my grandmother)
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.
“Name?” he asked calmly. “Social Security number?”
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.
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.
The 2008 presidential election was a real eye-opener for me in this regard. Throughout the campaign, we were regularly visited on the Morning Joe set by women who were changing the career-marriage-family ideal by their powerful example. Our show was in its infancy, but we had quickly become an important stop for candidates on the road to the White House. We traveled from Iowa to New Hampshire and to almost every other state in the run-up to Super Tuesday, broadcasting live for up to six hours a day, on location, before jumping back on a plane and heading off for the next political battleground. Between road trips, the candidates came to us. The experience gave me a spectacular front-row seat to a compelling moment in our nation’s history, as we elected our first African-American president, but more than that it allowed me to consider yet again the changing face of the American career woman. I was one of the first broadcast journalists to conduct an extensive interview with Michelle Obama, our future First Lady. I found her to be a magnificently intelligent and truly modern woman, one who balanced her career, her children, and her marriage with the struggle to break through subtle and not-so-subtle racial barriers—all with abundant grace and good cheer.
I admired Michelle Obama all the more once I admitted to myself that there had been times in my own life when grace and good cheer were in short supply. My own ambition and drive had sometimes caused me and my family great trouble and hardship. I used to feel guilty about every small success at work, because it pulled me from the joys and wonders unfolding at home; and I felt self-indulgent about time spent with my family, because it distracted me from my career. I wanted to see myself as a kind of superwoman, giving my all to my husband, my children, and my job at all times, but I could never seem to get it right. I moved about feeling like a salmon trying to swim up Niagara Falls.
For years I denied that reporting, storytelling, and performing on the air are a big part of who I am. Instead of celebrating that and focusing on it when appropriate, I rushed around plugging holes and trying to compensate for it and give everything else equal time. What I have finally learned is to embrace this part of my identity and redefine my other, equally important, roles. Sometimes, this means making difficult decisions. I might have to spend time away from our children. Their day-to-day needs might have to be met and managed by my husband, or my friends, or a hired caregiver while I take a sideline role.
Many working women grapple with this issue. “Giving up control” of the children, very often to a nonfamily member, is a big source of tension and stress in a lot of two-career households. Personally, I’m a bit of a control freak, and there were times when I felt a little lost, knowing I was not fully in charge. And yet, over time, I learned that my kids are better off being with me when I can give them all of me. For a long time I tried to push ahead through tremendous exhaustion just to say that I could do it all. I wanted to show the world that I could manage a career with crazy hours, be a wife, run a household, and take care of small children. In the end—or, at least, in that end that found me at thirty-nine years old being cast off from CBS News—I saw that this was impossible. We all paid a price for that lesson.
Joy. Knowing who you are. Hitting the right notes, at the right time. This is the kind of having it all that my mother managed to capture years before me. She did things in her own way, in her own time. As a child, I watched her struggle as she and my father navigated through their conflicting interests. Like me, she knew at a young age what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to be an artist. A sculptor. She had been an art history major at Wellesley, and taught art history at Boston College. She hadn’t started exhibiting her own work just yet, but she was getting there. She took on the art world and all its challenges as well as marriage and three children. Her sense of self took a hit in 1976 when she was forty-four years old, just about the same age I am now, as I write this. She packed up her hopes and dreams and moved me, my brothers, the dog, the ducks, the cat, and the rabbit from New Jersey to Virginia, so my father could accept a job as President Carter’s national security adviser and she could try on the unfamiliar role of dutiful Washington wife. She reminded us every step of the way what she was giving up. At times, she let us know loud and clear that she would rather be pursuing her art. Parts of her new life were utterly boring to her. Tedious. Frivolous. And it’s only now that I appreciate the trade-off she made, between hearing her own voice and answering the call as a wife and mother—all equally important to her.
I get it now. I get that my mother was biding her time, pacing herself until she could achieve her goals. She was a proud and passionate and boundlessly talented woman taking a step back from her artistic dreams and signing on instead for the opportunity afforded my father and our family. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to embark on a truly unique adventure. The reality of my mother’s situation was that she put a huge part of herself on hold, and hit that reset button for my father, for our family—and for our country. She was still an artist, but for four years she was an artist on pause, counting the days until she could hit that button again and put herself back in play. Even as a child, I could sense she was frustrated—like a racehorse stuck at the gate. She kept up with her work in fits and starts, but during that period she was constantly setting aside an essential piece of her identity, and then picking it back up again. In all that time, she never lost sight of her goals as an artist.
We finally talked about this, in a weirdly public way, after I had my own children, at a time when I thought I had it all figured out. I was sadly mistaken—deluded, really. I still thought I could do anything, be anything, overcome anything. More than that, I thought I needed to do all these things in order to be . . . well, me. I was working as a correspondent for CBS News. One of the great benefits of my time at the network was that reporters were encouraged to pursue stories of personal interest, and that kind of freedom led me to do a piece on my own mother for the Mother’s Day edition of CBS Sunday Morning, with Charles Osgood. I went back home to Virginia with a crew and turned the camera on my mother, and what I got back was a revelation.
There in front of a vast audience my mother finally opened up about what that move to Virginia had really cost her all those years ago. And, crucially, I was finally open to hearing what she had to say. It took listening as a journalist and not just as a daughter for me to really hear her, and to figure out how her picture fit alongside mine. On that fine spring day, when I was coming into my own as a wife and mother and reporter and my mother was coming to terms with the choices she’d made as a younger woman, we reached a wonderful patch of common ground at my parents’ mountaintop property in rural Virginia—a place where my mother’s massive wooden sculptures peek out of the landscape. I think the camera helped, because we had the sense that we were pushing these buttons for the record. We’d talked around some of these issues before, but here it would matter. There would be others listening in. This time, my mother knew that I would have no choice but to pay attention, to get the story right.
“Be honest,” I said, when we’d reached a point of pause in our discussion. “Do you see yourself first as a mother, a wife, or an artist?”
“Oh,” my mother said, with her wonderful, strong European accent. “That is impossible to answer, because I am all those things at once.”
“All things at once,” I echoed, and for the first time I realized the sheer weight of my mother’s dilemma nearly thirty years earlier. She kept so many plates spinning it’s a wonder so few of them dropped, and a separate wonder she managed to keep them all intact. But it was only now, here, on this return trip to the place of my growing up, with a CBS News crew in tow, that I allowed myself to really hear my mother’s story. There was no note of complaint in her voice. No tinge of regret. Just the bittersweet truth that one has to be patient. That we can’t really have it all right away. Not in full measure. That takes time. Pacing. Determination. Strategy. A sense of self. And as I sat and listened, I realized for the first time that my mother had managed to find that perfect balance.
It had taken her fifty years, but she got there. While I was still very much a work in progress, lacking that same balance in my own life.
What I took away from this public exchange with my mother was that it’s right and good and necessary to carry all these different pictures in our minds as we move on in the world, but it’s also right and good and necessary to step back every once in a while and bring just one of those pictures into focus. To see everything you believe yourself to be, even if you can’t be all those things all the time. She did that beautifully. I think of the fits and starts she endured as a younger woman, and the groove she seems to finally be in now, working in her studio every day. I picture her tirelessly preparing for her next big show—aptly titled “Family Trees.” It’s an expression of life, love, us. But mostly it’s an expression of herself—fully realized.
Yes, we can be all things at once, my mother told me. In fact, we must. But we must also accept that we can’t do everything all at once. It’s about mapping out, navigating, and constantly renegotiating your career, marriage, and family plans. All equally important—and all, ultimately, at once.
The Secret Shapes of Trees
BEFORE WE WERE in the fishbowl of Washington politics, our family lived in relative obscurity in Englewood, New Jersey. It was a busy household. My father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, taught Soviet studies and foreign policy at Columbia University, where he headed the Institute on Communist Affairs. My mother, Emilie Benes Brzezinski, was an artist working to find her voice. Dad commuted into Manhattan while my mother worked in her studio in our basement. There was my eldest brother, Ian, and then my brother Mark, and then me. Active, disciplined, worldly people, my parents expected their children to keep pace. There were always big projects going on at our house. And there were always animals, which would inevitably lead to dramatic “disaster” scenes, like when the dog ate my rabbit, or the dog ate the neighbor’s dog, or the neighbor’s dog ate our ducks!
If you ask my mother, she’ll say I was the hardest one to raise. She had a point. Surrounded by two brilliant brothers and two wise and eccentric parents, I struggled to fit into our intense family dynamic. The bar was set fairly high in our household, and I’m afraid I didn’t always rise to meet it. My father wrote important books and gave important speeches, and his world revolved around power and influence and being an expert on geostrategic relations. My mother, meanwhile, was an amazing artist, at that time working in plastics.
My parents worked to foster big ideas in each of us—ideas I couldn’t always get my head around as a little girl. My brothers seemed to manage this more easily. Even at an early age, they seemed well on their way toward foreign policy careers of their own—one as a Republican and the other a Democrat, a sign of the freethinking that blossomed in our home. During the 2008 presidential election, Ian worked as a McCain supporter and Mark worked for Team Obama, with me navigating the middle in the rapidly changing world of television news.
From time to time the scene shifted to my grandmother’s house next door. I spent almost every day there. My grandmother, also named Emilie Benes, made it a special point to cultivate me and to share the stories of her transcontinental life. My grandfather’s uncle had been the president of Czechoslovakia, so my grandmother married into a family of prominence, and she made an effort to hold up her end. She spoke eleven languages and taught me one of them, French. She raised two sons and a daughter, my mother, ultimately on her own, which was a rare and brave thing in her day. She came to the United States by way of the U.S.S. Hilary during World War II. My grandfather had been appointed as the consul general for Czechoslovakia, based in San Francisco, and together they packed their three children with everything they could possibly wear and carry and boarded the ship in Liverpool to cross the Atlantic. On the way, the Hilary