If you were narrating your story, what would it sound like?
“She’s the luckiest girl in the world.”
It’s said that you make your own luck. Well, yes, but I’ve also had a lot of good luck. Perhaps not always in the traditional sense – I didn't have a pony, but I did have a home, a library card and a sister to protect me. So many good things have happened to me and I’ve been right place at right time.
I’m lucky to have come from a really modest background; it didn’t make me want things as much as to do things. My dad was a genius but lazy, and my mom was a dreamer who dreamt of so many things she didn’t ever get to do. But she introduced me to reading and words and books. And I think that introduced me to the idea that a girl could get out of Ohio, and that turned into a huge appetite to do something, to get out of that environment, to pursue my mother's unfulfilled dreams.
Do you make your own luck? Some say you do. Yes, I worked hard. I earned a full academic scholarship, worked several jobs to pay expenses and took every possible internship to gain skills. I ended up in Washington, DC in my last semester of college, and despite landing one of those 'best ever' media jobs in a big Midwestern city, I said, “I’m not going to go back to Ohio.” I was lucky then too to win a job on Capitol Hill; lucky again to earn the trust of my boss, who won his Senate election and named me his press secretary at age 22. And that was a fantastic springboard.
And I was also lucky that, as I moved through my career, I landed the perfect job for me at a big ad agency. It was like, ‘Bingo!’ All of my talents and things that I loved doing were put to use. A lot of people work their whole lives and are never in love with their job. To be able to say, "This is me. This is everything I ever wanted to do. This makes the most of me" – I loved that job.
What are you doing now?
I’m an adjunct professor at George Mason University. I teach writing for PR, intro to PR, and then I created a PR and social media course. It’s the third year I’ve taught it, and the challenging thing is that I have to be a constant student, because my students’ skills change every year. The first time I taught it, my students weren’t really using social media that much. The crop I have now, they’ve been using it for fun for years. So my goal is to help them transition their use into a strategic professional use. And I lead an annual program in London, which is the most fun thing ever.
What were the hardest decisions you had to make in the past?
I’m working at a big agency. I knew I was really, really good at what I did and I liked it. I was effective. I was productive and that felt great.
And then came the hardest decision I ever had to make. I was really good at what I did; I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning. I had a terrific, successful husband. But we wanted to have a family. Being a mom was something I wasn't so sure of and I often felt like the novice that I was, that all moms are. I decided to go back to work three months after I had my daughter, and I worked for another couple of years. Then I decided that I really wanted my children to have the life that I grew up with, where I had a stay at home mom.
How did those decisions turn out? Any regrets?
My children and I had a wonderful, fun-filled decade together. I hope they remember it that way too. I redirected my creative energy and management skills into their childhood, which turned it into a bit of a wild ride, but a full one.
So, becoming a stay-at-home mom proved to be a good decision in that my children, I think, are better for it. But I always had the lingering sense that I wasn't doing what I should be doing. I probably should never have quit. As happy as I was to see their smiles, dry their tears and chase them through the park, I just felt like I should have been doing more than that, because I felt capable of more. I was capable of more. Every day, I ended up with that feeling: "I haven’t done enough today. I haven't accomplished enough."
When my daughter was 13, I started doing freelance writing, and then I became a freelance writer for a small business, and then I took on a client, then went back full-time in house… and it felt great again. Treatments for cancer (which worked, yay!) yielded back problems and then, I had to reinvent, again. I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s. I took the GRE at 55 – I don’t advise that. If you haven’t been in a classroom in 35 years, it is challenging. The whole experience was the essence of being outside of your comfort zone. After graduation, I was lucky enough to become an adjunct professor at George Mason where I teach PR & Social Media and Writing.
I have only a single regret, and this may sound odd. If there was any one thing I could do over, it would be to have more children. I wish someone would have told me how incredible it would be, how amazing it would feel, to have these people in your life. My children are two of the most interesting people I know. How fantastic it would be if our family unit could have been a total of five, or maybe even six...what about seven?
Are there things that you spent years stressing out about that turned out to not really be that big of a deal?
You cannot be 100% 100% of the time. Even with high standards, you have to be able to say, “You know, that was today, and good was good enough.” Otherwise you’re going to beat yourself up over and over again. Just move on.
What do you wish you had spent more time doing over the years?
I wish that when I was younger I had paid more attention to my friends. If there’s anything that has sustained me through difficult times, it’s my friends. You don’t have to pretend for them or be strong for them, you can totally screw up and your friends will help you through. I think so many of us say, “Oh, I’ll call her tomorrow.” Or, “She’ll understand.” I wish I had called when I should have. And I do that now – I always call, I get to that lunch, that book club – no matter what else is going on, I make it happen.
How have you balanced your and your partner's goals and ambitions with your marriage?
I was really lucky that my husband turned out to be the great guy that he is. I have friends who fell in love and got married, and their spouses ended up not being such a great match. So I’m lucky that he ended up not being a jerk, being a very involved father, being very supportive of me at every stage of my career. He was supportive when I was a young executive and just as supportive when I was a stay at home mom. And he’s very supportive now!
I think we’ve been able to balance everything is that our goals have always been the same:
1 – Family. Our family is very tight knit unit of four. All of our cross relationships are very strong.
2 – We both share a strong belief in the importance of education. So the sacrifices we made in order for our kids to receive the highest level of education were never conflicts.
3 – A lot of couples stress often about things and money. We were fortunate in that those things weren’t high priorities.
At the end of the day, things aren’t very satisfying. What’s satisfying is our unit of four being so tight. And the experiences that we were able to share with our children, that was really satisfying. I think if we had been married in our early years, we would have never survived. Gary and I are about as different as two people can be. We grew up in very different backgrounds, so it was quite a merging of two people into one. But we started off with those common goals.
What would you say your highlights have been?
My work at a big ad agency: I really loved everything about it. I was promoted rapidly to a very senior role, and the work that I did earned a lot of recognition. We routinely submitted our campaigns to competitions, and I won three ‘Addies’ the year my daughter was three. Everything about it was like, “I’m on top of the world.” Being able to be that successful and have the recognition of my peers.
My son helped me prep for the GRE and I walked into the classroom, way out of my comfort zone, at age 55 to pursue a master's degree. When I graduated two years later I thought long and hard about just not walking when I got my masters, and I had an older friend who said, “Just do it.” I put the cap and gown on, It felt damn good to walk across that stage.
I think every mother feels that the accomplishments of her children are a highlight. My kids both went on to grad school and when they graduated, my husband and I had reached one of our goals: to give our children a fine education.
My greatest pride is the course I created in PR and Social Media. It’s an elusive and ever-changing syllabus that is so dynamic I wake up most nights wondering if I've checked for the latest updates. I'm also proud of the text I wrote to help students pave their pathway in public relations. It almost killed me, but the deadlines were met. "Proud" – and “love” even – doesn't begin to describe how I feel about the students who send post-grad notes with their progress.
And the low points?
Losing someone you love it’s always the lowest point of your life.
My mother was ravaged by devastating breast cancer at only 68, and it really just took the fuel from my fire. She had never had a mammogram, and she died savagely but quickly. It turned out to be lucky for me, because every doctor looked at me twice due to my family history. I had regular mammograms, and when I was diagnosed with breast cancer it was in the early stages. Early detection saves lives, as I am able to stand here and say. So her death probably saved my life.
What do you think has changed the most for women over your lifetime?
So many things have not changed. Some of that is brought home to me by the current political climate. I think that the presidential campaign has served to point out the things that have changed and the things that have not. Yes, there are so many more opportunities for women, and, yes, women are welcome in the C-suite.
But… not too long ago I was invited to serve on the board of a private organization. I went into meetings ready with all kinds of ideas and analysis. And the response I got was, “We don’t really want to hear from you. We just want you here.” They wanted me at the table, but they didn’t necessarily want to hear what I had to say.
There are many more opportunities, and I think you can have it all, but my personal take is that you can’t have it all at the same time. I think you can have a very successful career and be ambitious and achieve high goals, but I think you have to figure out the right way to balance that with your other goals. For me, it ended up being more like chapters than one ongoing magazine article: the first job, the next job, the mommy job, the part-time job, the grad-school job, the teaching job.
What would you like to see continue to change and improve for women?
I feel like the glass ceilings are everywhere and, if anything, they seem higher than ever. I think the Trump-Clinton campaign has brought to the forefront a lot of attitudes about women that we thought we had destroyed in the 70s. There’s a lot of work to be done to create a level playing field in all realms. It’s not just corporate American where we need the playing field to be deepened. I’m happy to see that we have many positive role models in business, but I hope that, in politics, women don’t disdain it and say, “I’m not going there.” We need everyone in politics. We need everyone to participate in this process. I’d like to see more women in politics because that’s one of the fundamental ways we’re going to see change that has been lagging. I can’t even believe we’re still talking about equal pay for equal work.
Looking back at the past 50 or so years, what words of wisdom would you have?
All of our mothers have probably shared this: “You really need to accept the things you cannot change.” Many of us spend 20, 30, 40 years trying to change things that can’t be changed. You can’t change people; you’re not going to change your boss, your colleague, your spouse or your partner. And you’re not going to change the nature of your children. If you accept people exactly as they are, you get the opportunity to enjoy all of the wonderful things they contribute to your life. It’s worth setting and keeping high standards for yourself. Be the person that shows up. Be the person of quality. Be the person that others rely on.
Where do you see yourself in five years, ten years? What does "retirement" look like to you?
Well, I wish I could retire right now! I think I see that happening maybe in the next five years. What we envision is a pretty active life working with young people. I am enjoying the most rewarding productivity of my entire life right now because I’m helping launch people’s careers. I can be really focused on helping students acquire the skills they need as they go out in the workplace. And my husband is beginning to teach as well and to experience that. There’s a joy in helping young people launch their lives. I see us both continuing to work with young adults in a professional career/development type way. It does keep you young. I can Uber anywhere.
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