In 1998 I returned to work six weeks after giving birth to my second daughter, Carlie. Her big sister, Emilie, was just 2. This wasn’t an easy gig either — I was a 30-year-old mom doing an overnight anchor shift on CBS News’s Up to the Minute. I was utterly exhausted, which resulted in an unfortunate pre-broadcast routine. At 10 p.m. every night I would report to the office bathroom to cry.
Even though I was an anchor, I was technically a freelancer and not entitled to company benefits, including paid parental leave. I was convinced that if I took any more time off, CBS would replace me and I would never work again. So I went back before I was ready, feeling like a total failure both at home and at the office.
One night I rushed home at the end of my shift to relieve the babysitter. I was completely flustered — holding 4-month-old Carlie, talking 100 miles an hour, and trying to hand over cash — when I suddenly fell down a very steep set of stairs.
I knew what had happened: I was so tired, I had missed the top step, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt myself land on Carlie as we crumpled at the bottom of the staircase. She squirmed but didn’t utter a sound.
At the hospital I overheard doctors talking to a spinal-cord expert. Devastated and weeping uncontrollably, I had only one thought: “Break my back. Please. Just let my baby be OK.”
Eventually we found out that Carlie’s femur was broken, which, compared with the nightmare scenarios swirling in my head, was good news. Then reality set in. I have an infant daughter with a broken femur. And for what? Because I felt I had to go back to work right away?
Carlie was in traction for five weeks and in a body cast for 10. I knew then that I had to place a higher premium on my health so that I could be there for her and the rest of my family.
So, I took medical leave for three months and went into debt immediately. It was really hard, but I learned that I needed to be thinking ahead for the long haul.
These are issues that most women still face. According to the paid-family-leave advocacy organization PL+US, one out of four U.S. mothers returns to work just 10 days after giving birth. Federal law allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the fear women feel of going into debt or losing their jobs is a very real thing.
VIDEO: Badass Women Radio Show with Mika Brzezinski, Co-Host of Morning Joe
I didn’t lose my job. They weren’t going to get rid of me for that. Careers span decades, and if you need to move sideways in your 20s or 30s instead of charging forward, it probably won’t impact you in the long run. But if you don’t do what you need to do for your health, trust me, you’ll be thrown off track.
It took me a long time, but I now live every day making sure I know my value. It’s a liberating, powerful, and rewarding attitude. When I want to see my kids at school or help them move into a new apartment, I just tell my producers at MSNBC that I’m not going to be in, and that’s that. I don’t apologize or agonize about what will happen. I love my job. But if I need to take care of myself or my family, that’s what’s going to make me do my job better. And no one at work wants me in the office if it means my head is going to be spinning like the child’s in The Exorcist.
As for my kids, well, they turned out beautifully, despite all my mistakes. Carlie recovered from her broken femur and went on to become a track star in high school.
My hope is that my girls learn from me. I want them to be able to take care of themselves, to stand up to powerful people, and to have confidence in their abilities. I’d like to think it’s getting easier for women to know — and grow — their value.
My message today: Work on your voice. Practice. Speak in public; look at the technicalities of talking and articulating in real time. Push yourself to explain your needs. I tell women, “No one will do this for you.” The race you are in is not to get ahead but to find your true voice. Get to work. The rest will come.
An updated edition of Brzezinski’s book Know Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth is available September 25.