All Things at Once
by Mika Brzezinski
Weinstein, 288 pp., $24.95
Nearly 50 years after The Feminine Mystique, the consensus appears to be that women have achieved parity with men in nearly all aspects of their professional lives. The larger question still looming in many women’s minds is not about shattering glass ceilings but enjoying this equality. The recent Shriver Report, which discussed how government and communities can support a nation in which half the workforce is made up of women, was simply the most recent and well-publicized work in a line of research devoted to the new gender landscape.
Overwhelmingly, the common theme is not how to achieve equality in the workplace but how to enable women to “have it all.” Is it possible for women to pursue careers while fulfilling their traditional roles as wives and mothers? What does it mean to succeed? And when will women finally be happy? All Things at Once is an attempt to understand this new gender equality and what it means for women and their families. The cohost of a popular cable television program, “Morning Joe,” Mika Brzezinski offers a tell-all of her climb up the competitive ladder of television journalism and her effort to do “all things at once.”
Her chronicle makes a running start, offering readers—especially young women—sound advice. At a time when women are encouraged to pursue a career, almost to the exclusion of marrying and having a family, Brzezinski is forthright in her criticism: “There’s nothing wrong,” she writes, “with putting both family and work at the top of your list of priorities, giving each equal value and care, right from the start.” In fact, she goes right to the edge of claiming that the modern feminist movement failed women altogether: “For the life of me,” she says, “I can’t understand why so many women wait until the age of thirty to even think about children. And that’s just the start of the conversation for them.”
Despite her firm hand, Brzezinski isn’t calling for the return of Betty Draper. In fact, she makes it clear that there will be times when a spouse and children “needn’t be front and center.” But as it turns out, in Brzezinski’s case, these “times” were most of the time, and the focal point is a terrifying near-tragedy in which Brzezinski describes being so fatigued—presumably from trying to uphold an impossible work/life balancing act—that she tumbles down a flight of stairs while holding her four-month-old daughter.
At first blush, she seems to be painting an honest picture of what gender parity means for a lot of career women—juggling, stumbling, and sometimes falling.
And while she claims it was a huge “wake-up call,” an incident that led her to “take a step back,” that wasn’t quite the case. The fact is that Brzezinski chose a very demanding career—at times to the detriment of her family, as she freely admits—and her fall was a function of anchoring an overnight newscast, not a result of running frantically back and forth from the boardroom to the bake sale.
If, by no longer doing “all things at once,” Brzezinski means she moved up the ladder and found a job with slightly less brutal hours, then that’s a different story than the one she pretends to tell. Yes, she tried to have it all—professional success, family, even personal time—but in the end she describes her priorities clearly: She “relished the positive attention” that came from her television work, and when she was fired from CBS and returned home, “the role of wife and mother didn’t even come close to defining me.”
Every woman’s work/life preferences are different, but Brzezinski opens herself up to judgment. She is frank about her absence from her two daughters’ lives, telling readers that, even after the 9/11 attacks, she didn’t make it home to see her children for three weeks. And even during noncritical times (such as writing this book) she misses her older daughter’s school graduation.
Readers are likely to feel embarrassed for her as she opens up about her choices—and I suspect many would be repulsed by her glibness. But her decision to pursue a career, often at the expense of her family, is not the problem of this memoir; the drawback is that she tries to engage in an important conversation in a dishonest manner.
In one of many feigned moments of honesty she writes, “I tried double-hard to be everything to everybody and got quite far.” Well, sort of. As she describes it, she tried her best to be everything at work. But the same cannot be said of her efforts at home.
Brzezinski had an opportunity to offer something original to this ongoing conversation, something that might even offend both men and women: Sometimes women are going to place their careers way above their families, and in the end, they’re going to be satisfied with their decision. Readers might have chastised her selfishness and called her nasty names, but she would have shown honestly that the work/life scale doesn’t always balance out.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a visiting fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.