The New York Times Magazine profiled Meredith Vieira this weekend, in anticipation of her joining the "Today" show on Sept. 13. In the hands of Times writer Lisa Belkin, Vieira comes off as self-deprecating, likable and a little scatterbrained (all of which she probably is), but also as a mom who opted out of her career to raise her children (which she really isn't).
Belkin, who first extolled the joys of opting out in a controversial Times Magazine piece in 2003, highights Vieira's family-first attitude. She provides examples of maternal consideration and casts her as a kind of mommy-wars role model: "Her repeated insistence that there was no paycheck big enough, no title prestigious enough, to give up her home life has made her a heroine to viewers who pay attention to such things." NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, who recently hired Vieira for "Today," agrees: "I think part of her appeal is she does have all her priorities in order," he told Belkin, "and she has been able to balance her work and family in a way that our audience admires."
Vieira also presents herself as a maniacally devoted mom: "Vieira is careful to say she does not think less of women who were more willing to leave home than she was and even allows that maybe she is 'a little extreme' in her desire to be with her children," Belkin writes. "'The juggling act just never worked for me,' she says now. 'Maybe it was the three miscarriages, so all I was thinking about was a healthy baby, or maybe its just who I am, but I never wanted to prove I could be macho. And I was quite successful not proving that, wasn't I?'"
But Belkin doesn't distinguish between perception and reality. Vieira also acknowledges, "I am the breadwinner in this family." She did leave certain jobs ("60 Minutes" in 1991, and later ABC's "Turning Point") because she wanted a better work/family balance, but that doesn't mean she wasn't working. She hosted "The View" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and made $5 million a year doing it! Before that, she was at "CBS Morning News," working in the middle of the night to be able to be home when her kids woke up. She may have had some control over her hours in those years, but it's likely she worked like a dog a lot of the time.
These mischaracterizations are unfortunate for multiple reasons. Vieira is a woman who has made tons of money and been personally involved in raising her own kids, and that is fantastic. It's probably come at no small cost to her free time, but nevertheless it's a coup. Why can't we laud Vieira for being the successful working mother she is? What does it say that Vieira's professional cachet is brokered on dutiful mommy virtues like having "all her priorities in order," and not being "macho"?
And holding her up as someone who opted out, and then "won" by coming back into the workforce on her terms, is dishonest about the realities of opting out. It's hard to go back to work with gaps in one's risumi! It's also hard to demand flextime or walk away from a job if you don't have ample savings in the bank, as Vieira does. Pretending as if she went home and hosted play dates for 15 years, or as if her jobs weren't real jobs, is dismissive of both the realities of the job market and Vieira's extremely successful career. I'm glad to see Vieira getting recognition, but it's disheartening to see her getting accolades in all the wrong places.