On April 16 of this year, Hoda Kotb phoned into her usual spot on NBC’s Today Show to announce that she had adopted her second baby girl. One of the two anchors of the nationally broadcast morning news show and a co-host of another morning talk show that she headlines, Hoda and Jenna, Hoda Kotb is the epitome of success in the journalism world. But her priorities differ from the typical “success story”: when Kotb returned from her maternity leave almost five months later, she articulated how much that time with her new baby, Hope, and her other young daughter, Haley Joy, had meant to her. Whether we are mothers or single women, or working in careers or at home, we can all learn from the unique perspective of a seasoned, successful working woman, who is also a 55-year-old mom of two little ones.
We are more than our achievements (and our failures)
When Kotb returned to Hoda and Jenna from maternity leave in September, it was clear from both what she said and how she said it that she had realized—maybe for the first time in her life—that she was more than her professional successes. Kotb tried to articulate her feelings: “And I think I was defined—before—by what I did. . . . It [maternity leave] just reminded me that I feel very clear about life suddenly. I’m gonna work as hard as I’ve ever worked, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back—but I also know that I have my world in check, for probably the first time, I think, ever.”
“You had the perception of being so successful, but you didn’t have what you have right now,” guest co-host Maria Shriver responded to a tearful and nodding Kotb.
In a world that tells us that we are what we do—our achievements, our talents, our work—it is refreshing to hear someone, particularly someone in such a prestigious and well-paid position, uncover the myth that we are defined by what we do. The beauty of realizing that we are not defined by our accomplishments also means that we are not defined by our failures. Regardless of how successful we are or aren’t, of what we’ve achieved or failed to achieve, we are always more than our résumé. Once we realize that what we do does not determine our worth, we are freed from the pressure of needing to be successful in order to “be someone”; we are also freed from the false belief that our failures deem us worthless.
In the same conversation, Kotb mentioned that she came back “more whole” from maternity leave. “How are you more whole?” Shriver interjected. “I feel like . . . complete.” Kotb responded, before becoming choked up. This is not to say that women have to be mothers to be “complete”; rather, Kotb’s simple statement elucidates how success—climbing the corporate ladder, money, fame, or prestige—does not leave us feeling “complete,” no matter how much of it we have.
Living for others elicits satisfaction
So where does a feeling of “completeness” come from, if not from one’s job or bank account? Kotb’s comments illustrate the fulfillment and purpose that motherhood has provided her —which is certainly encouraging to hear in a society in which motherhood is decreasing.
It might seem that motherhood would really be a change from a successful career: on a daily basis, particularly during maternity leave, one can imagine that Kotb spent much of her time meeting the many physical and emotional needs of her newborn and toddler. In caring for her littles, she was living a challenging lifestyle, but she clearly found it fulfilling. Living for others by caring for her children brought her unprecedented joy.
While not all of us are mothers, Kotb’s sentiments still carry significant weight. Underneath Kotb’s personal story is her realization that living a life of selflessness, a life lived for others, offers meaning, joy, and purpose. One does not have to have children to understand the joy that comes from living a life for others. Whether that means working in a helping profession, volunteering your time with charities, coaching or educating others, taking care of an aging parent, putting the needs of your spouse ahead of your own, or simply going out of your way on a daily basis to do something seemingly simple for someone else, living life selflessly and generously can offer deep satisfaction.
Slowing down makes us better versions of ourselves
In a culture that encourages a “harder, better, faster, stronger” approach to life, Kotb acknowledged that sometimes actually being away from a job makes one better. Referring to the length of her maternity leave, Kotb stressed, “It’s a privilege to work in a place where they let you take it off, but you just wish more places allowed it because you come back better, you come back more whole, you come back ready. Like there’s nothing I want to do more now than come here and do this [work].”
Whether it’s maternity leave, a mental health day from work, committing to fewer activities (or children’s activities), or getting a babysitter for an hour, sometimes rest, slowness, or taking a break from something—even something we love—can revitalize us with more energy, focus, and strength. Instead of doing more, more, more, pausing—whether for a minute or several months—can actually allow us to return as better mothers, friends, employees, or students.
Further, when we slow down, we allow ourselves to be present—to our children, to our spouses, to our friends, to ourselves. When we clear up a little mental space, we can be fully present with those around us, and we can be more mindful with our own time. Whether it’s maternity leave or coffee with a friend, we can all benefit from slowing down a little and being more present with loved ones.
To be sure, every woman’s experience of maternity leave is different. Some women, like Hoda Kotb, find it enjoyable and a welcome break from their work life, while others find it stressful and challenging—and some women find it a bit of both. It’s certainly heartening, though, to hear one woman’s story of wisdom and direction gleaned during maternity leave.