Gretchen Carlson is the American TV news veteran who paved the way for the #MeToo movement...
Following her sexual harassment claims in 2016, Roger Ailes, CEO and chairman of Fox News, was forced to step down and Carlson received a reported $20 million settlement from the network. What followed was a cultural wave of female empowerment. Carlson was named one of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’. She went on to write the New York Times bestsellers ‘Be Fierce’ and ‘Getting Real’. A mother to Kaia, 15 and Christian, 13, she first stepped into the spotlight in 1989 when she was crowned Miss America while representing her native state of Minnesota. Her news career began as a political reporter in Richmond, Virginia and CBS News soon followed. She became a host of Fox and Friends at the Fox News Channel, where, for eight years, she got up at three am each day to go to work. “I was always sleep-deprived working the early morning shift,” she says. “And I’m not a napper, but it was great when the kids were little because I went to work four hours before they ever woke up and was home by noon when they were home from pre-school so they never missed me! I have always been a busy person so fitting in kids with work was hard but not incredibly overwhelming.” In our exclusive interview, Carlson offers an insight into her life, what led her to bravely speak up against the system – and how we can all be encouraged to find our voice. Image: Brigitte Lacombe | Words: Claire Brayford | Go to www.gretchencarlson.com
Tell us about your childhood – how did your parents raise you?
With discipline and the mantra that I could be anything I wanted to be – with hard work. My mother used to tell me that every night when she put me to bed, she would say: “You know Gretchen, you can be anything you want to be in this world. God has given you many talents and he expects you to use them.” My mother was my rock and foundation, teaching me how to be driven and goal-oriented, how to persevere in the face of anything and never ever give up. My father taught me grace, humility, patience, how to listen and certainly how to have a sense of humour. These are lessons and values I am passing on to my children.
And how did you feel when you discovered you were pregnant?
I always wanted to be a mom. I remember being in the hospital with pneumonia when I was a little girl – maybe five or six – and my room had a window right into the newborn room. I continually asked the nurse if she could lift me up to see all of the babies. As hard a worker as I have always been, I always knew I wanted children. I waited until I was 35 to start trying as my career had taken me all over the country, and I was stunned to find out getting pregnant was not going to be easy. Turns out my eggs were prematurely aging which was a shock since my sister had become pregnant easily and she was two-and-a-half years older. The first day I went to the fertility doctor, he suggested that I should consider a donor egg in order to get pregnant. That was also a shock. I remember crying on a bench in Central Park and calling my mom and saying: “How could this have happened?” Before starting fertility drugs, a new doctor suggested I get a test done to clear out my fallopian tubes. He said the procedure helped some women get pregnant without having to go through IVF. Although the procedure was very painful — surprise, surprise while on a cruise with my husband in Europe a few weeks later I was waiting for my cycle to start to begin the fertility drugs and it never happened. I finally decided to get a pregnancy test in Lisbon, Portugal. The directions were in Portuguese but I somehow figured it out. Waiting for the results was excruciating! And I couldn’t believe it when it said ‘pregnant’. My husband wasn’t in our cabin at the time so when he came back I said: “We’re pregnant”! And he said: “We can’t trust a Portuguese pregnancy test. You have to go to the ship doctor!” Funny since we were the youngest people on the ship — the ship doctor didn’t have any pregnancy tests. I’m sure when they called me the next morning to say they had one, they had gone to the same pharmacy I had been to the day before. Nine months later we had Kaia Carlson Close. And 21 months later we had Christian Casey Close after being successful again with the same procedure.
Tell us about those early days of motherhood...
I loved being a mom. It was especially challenging though because I worked full time — first for CBS NEWS as the CBS NEWS Saturday Early Show co-host and a CBS NEWS correspondent travelling a lot, and then as host of Fox and Friends at the Fox News Channel where I got up every day at three am to go to work for eight years. Kaia had a medical problem for the first year of her life, which was challenging. She had a rare blood tumour behind her eye called a hemangioma. It protruded out from her eye socket and make her eyelid droop. We had to make many serious decisions about her health from when she was just three months old. Surgery was not an option so the only treatment was steroids — also controversial. Hemangioma grow at a rapid rate for the first year of a baby’s life and the fear was that the tumour would become so big it would obscure Kaia’s vision. I spent almost every other day at the doctors with my new baby trying to watch it closely and find the best treatment. We chose the steroids and had to do it twice since, after the first time, the tumour grew back. Each morning as I gave her the grape-flavoured drug I knew I was giving her poison (steroids have side effects like moon face, heightened emotions and behaviours, possibility of stunted growth and cognitive delay) but we felt we had no choice – without treatment, she may have gone blind. After the second round of drugs, Kaia’s hemangioma receded and today as a beautiful 15-year-old you would never know we had so many trials with her health as a baby.
How did you juggle your career and little ones?
I breastfed both babies, Kaia for six months, Christian for three. As a working mom, I wanted to have that extra connection with my children and I believed it was healthier for them as well. I spent most of my maternity leave pumping so I could store up enough milk in the freezer for several months once I went back to work.
What kind of mother do you strive to be?
Present. I believe women are made to feel guilty about being away from their kids if they happen to work. I have never felt any guilt. I’m a better mom because I do work and feel like I’m providing a great roadmap for them when they grow up and pursue their dreams. When I’m working, I’m not spending time with them but when I get home I am 100 per cent focused on them. It’s a great balance. What else do you love?What else do you love?
What else do you love?
No matter how long or hard a day, everything becomes more relevant the minute I see them. Christian especially makes me laugh. He has a great sense of humour and wakes up almost every morning with a smile on his face and a great attitude! Recently he looked at me and said: “Mom you are just my scrumptious shrimp!” (I’m not tall!). Kaia, is so organised and has so much tenacity in wanting to do well. She is such a hard worker and so giving to others. I also want her to remember to stop and be proud of herself and take time to relax.
What do you hope never to forget?
When Kaia was three we decided it was time to give up her pacifier. This was going to be tough as she liked it 24/7. We prepared for a few weeks before and on her birthday we put all of them in a box to give to the ‘Easter Bunny for other little babies’ and dropped them off with our doorman in our building in NYC. That night, when she went to bed, she was crying for her pacifier. When I went into her room to try and comfort her I said: “Remember, we gave all of them away? They’re going to other little kids who need them more than you do now.” And she said: “Mommy, you can just go downstairs to the main floor of our building and get new ones at CVS!” Christian I called my ‘angel baby’. While Kaia was not a great overnight sleeper, Christian would go to sleep with just one lullaby and rocking, and many times make it all the way through the night. Aged two he turned into a highly energetic boy but until that time he was my ‘angel baby’. I still look at my kids each night and see their cherub faces and know how lucky I am to have them. They are a great joy and accomplishment in my life.
What was the most important thing you learnt from bringing the case against Roger Ailes?
When I jumped off the cliff all by myself in bringing a sexual harassment lawsuit against my boss at Fox News, there was no #MeToo movement or Times Up pins. It was just me, all alone, taking on one of the most powerful men in the world. And my children were my paramount concern. How would they fare? How would they be treated? Would they be ok? Turns out I underestimated them. Just three months after my resolution was announced, it was the first day of school and I was really nervous. But Kaia, came home and said, “Mom, a lot of people asked me about you today and what happened to you over the summer… and mommy… I was so proud to say you were my mom.” And a couple of weeks later when a few fellow students at school had been making her life rough and she hadn’t found the courage to stand up to them, she came home again and said, “Mommy, today I finally dug deep to do what I needed to do. I told that one this and this one that. And mommy, I did it because I saw you do it!” A year later I was at a town hall on CNN talking about harassment. When I came back home, Christian, was waiting for me in the kitchen. He said, “Mommy, was that statistic that other woman on TV said true? That once every 73 seconds a woman is harassed or assaulted in our country?” And I said: “Yes, I’m so sorry to tell you that is true.” And he looked at me and said, “Mommy, I want to be a part of fixing that.” Giving the gift of courage happens one person at a time. And even if I only felt that I had given it to my two children, it would be enough, but I know it’s so much more. I’ve found out giving the gift of courage is contagious. And — look where we are today — in a cultural revolution with women finally being believed and men who’ve harassed them being held accountable.
What do you want to teach your children about achieving their dreams?
We have a family mantra that we never, ever give up. Just because you’re losing in a basketball or Monopoly game, you have to finish what you start.
What has given you strength in difficult times?
I am a person of faith – so that is usually my sense of strength. I feel it’s important to give children the basis of faith as a foundation in their lives as well — so when they become adults they can choose what path they want to take but at least I have given them what I was given. I believe when they realise they aren’t alone in the world when feeling lonely or anxious, faith can be a huge support system.
What kind of life do you want your children to live?
Kids are so overtaxed and overworked in today’s environment and parents in general are overprotective. While I am a hands-on mom, I’m also cognizant of how important it is to allow my children to also be in charge of things in their lives and learn how to fail in order to ultimately succeed. My kids know that we as parents are all about effort into whatever they are attempting to do. With schoolwork, we expect effort and hope for good grades, but it’s the time and commitment that is the important part. And if they don’t follow through on that there are consequences. I used to have a sticker chart up on our refrigerator when the kids were younger. There were five categories for them each to receive a star each day. If they received four out of five stars they earned 30 minutes of technology time. The tasks were: make your bed, practice piano, don’t burp, don’t hit your sister etc. Kaia almost always got five stars and didn’t even care about technology time but Christian often wouldn’t get the stars and really did care. It’s important to set parameters so they learn how effort and doing what’s expected earns rewards or penalties. That’s life. I can’t tell you how many parents would see the sticker chart and want one for their family.
How important is it to let your children fail?
I believe that you can only truly appreciate success when you fail. It’s overcoming your failures that teaches you resiliency in life and how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even during hard times. I often tell them what happened to me one day in 10th grade. All in one day, I lost the class President election, I didn’t make the Oklahoma play ensemble, and I didn’t make a singing and dancing group I auditioned for. It was a tough day. My grandfather then asked me if I knew how many times it took Thomas Edison to invent the lightbulb? He told me Edison had more than 2,000 failures first!
What kind of work ethic will you instil in Kaia and Christian?
The same one I grew up with – we put 100 per cent effort into everything. When they complain they don’t want to practice their piano, I say: “Don’t you like how you end up sounding at the recital? And don’t you feel good about yourselves?” When kids put time into something they realise very early on that they get better at it and that builds self-confidence and self-esteem. Also a hard work ethic is something no one can ever take away from you no matter how hard they try.
What do you want them to learn about material things?
Being from Minnesota, I was raised to value every dollar and every day. I am trying to instil the same values in them — especially living in the NYC area where it can be hard to not get caught up in material things.
What excites you about the years ahead?
Seeing what they become in their college years, careers, marriage and their own children, which I hope I’m around to see. I come from a very close family and grandparents meant everything to me so I hope I can do the same for my children’s children.
And finally, how have your children changed your world forever?
Every day my children give me hope that tomorrow will be a better place for everyone. They bring optimism and through their young lives I feel assured that the world will finally learn to respect men and women equally and society as a whole.