USA Today: Sarah Brokaw knows how to have ‘Fortytude’
When Sarah Brokaw was 4, she went to Florida on vacation with her family. One night they all went to a restaurant with live music, and the young Brokaw ended up with the microphone in her tiny hands. She went from table to table serenading diners with her rousing rendition of Five Little Monkeys.
EXCERPT: Read why it’s never too late
The little girl grew up, graduated from Duke, earned a master’s degree in social work from NYU, lived in Japan, where to her delight no one was impressed with her last name, then ended up as a therapist in Beverly Hills. It was there she had what she calls a “sparkling moment,” an epiphany. At 38, she was invited to her 20th high school class reunion in New York.
“I had no husband. I had no children. My decision was not to go. Absolutely not,” she says. “And then I realized I was being the biggest hypocrite.”
As a therapist who coaches women on to how to lead better lives, she quickly realized she had to practice what she preached. What came out of that moment is a new self-help book on sale this week, Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life –Through the 40s, 50s, and Beyond (Voice, $23.99).
The two Brokaws, father and daughter, are bantering lightheartedly about life and relationships in his office at 30 Rock, a fifth-floor aerie that looks down on the famous ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center.
“He’d say I was the princess,” she says.
“I would say that,” he agrees.
He would also agree that she is rarely happy with his wardrobe. Today is no different when a photographer arrives to shoot the two. “No sweater. No tie, Dad. It’s too Mr. Rogers.” He changes without a protest. (She, dressed in corduroy jeans, a casual black top and high boots, says she packed clothes far too casual for a New York book tour.)
Where they will go for dinner later is also not up for discussion.
“I choose,” she says.
As her father – at 71, a special correspondent after stepping down as anchor of NBC Nightly News in 2004 – checks his phone and wanders his photo-filled office, she settles down on the sofa to talk about her new book. It’s filled with common-sense exercises women can use to maneuver their way through midlife. Not only that, they can have a good time doing it, wrinkles and biological clocks be damned.
She held more than two dozen group sessions with women across the country and gleaned five core values they need to call upon – grace, connectedness, accomplishment, adventure and spirituality.
Writing the book was her own therapy.
“Research is me search, as they say,” says Brokaw, 41. “It was a way to help myself. It was scary to see what was happening to me because of my age. It was helpful and revitalizing, actually.”
When asked where this newest author in the Brokaw clan got her smarts, her dad (a best-selling author himself) is quick to answer: “Her mother’s genes.”
Life decisions are no longer difficult for her
Ellen Archer, president and publisher of Hyperion/Voice Books, calls Fortytude a “crucial road map.”
It “speaks to the art of aging gracefully … and it truly is an art,” Archer says. “The book opens up many discussions on vital life decisions women in midlife confront.”
Sarah Brokaw chose to highlight everyday women on this road, not the famous. “So many of their stories are told repeatedly,” she says. “But everyone can relate to the women in my book.”
Not that she didn’t try to gather a few famous voices at first.
She asked actress/comedian Tina Fey but was turned down. Brokaw suspects that might be because Fey has a memoir, Bossypants, coming out next month. In addition, an essay by Fey in last week’s New Yorker deals with Brokaw’s main theme: What’s a woman of a certain age to do?
“The second-worst question you can ask a woman is: Are you going to have more kids?” writes Fey, 40, star of the sitcom 30 Rock who made waves for parodying Sarah Palin. “This is rude. Especially to a woman like me, who is in her ‘last five minutes.’ By that I mean my last five minutes of being famous is timing out to be simultaneous with my last five minutes of being able to have a baby.”
Brokaw understands all too well.
“It’s a perfect example of a woman who is experiencing that moment,” she says. “What’s her next step? How do you play all the roles and play them well? Mother. Actress. Do you have another kid or not?”
Brokaw says asking such life questions isn’t as difficult for her now. She has learned to relax and practice the core values in her book.
“Life is going to have unexpected events. How you’re going to respond to them is what’s important. What helps me and other women is to discover our authentic voices. To listen to our gut.”
She credits her parents, who have been married nearly 50 years, with who she is today.
“While they’d love to see me married, they’ve always encouraged me to make my own path,” says Brokaw, who has two married sisters, Andie 42, senior vice president of interactive media at Warner Music Group, and Jen, 44, a physician. Each sister has two daughters.
Her father jumps in.
“The important thing is for them (his daughters) to be happy. We have enough friends whose kids are in bad marriages. We’re blessed with three strong women …”
So, does Sarah Brokaw at least have a boyfriend these days?
“There is no shortage of men,” is all she’ll say.
“There’s a surplus!” her father adds. “It’s a matter of choosing. I’ve singled out any number of them. ‘How about this one?’ I’ll say.”
It’s the book she wishes she had in her 20s
Sarah Brokaw says she “just doesn’t care as much anymore. I’ve decided not to listen to what society says, what society wants from me. … It’s the woman’s responsibility to take pride in where we are in our lives.”
Running marathons helps her, she says. And surfing. “It’s the moment where nothing else matters. It’s a metaphor for life. How am I going to approach that wave, respond to the events thrown my way?”
Much of Brokaw’s advice to women is as simple as taking the local train, both metaphorically and literally.
“We’re so fixated on getting somewhere. We don’t let ourselves remain open to other possibilities. Why are we so determined to go a certain way? You’re going to get there eventually. I’ve been on the local train these days.”
She was looking for just such advice early on. Brokaw says she read Gail Sheehy‘s groundbreaking Passages when she was 23.
“I thought she provided some good information, but it didn’t give me any tools that would have helped me back then. … I wish I’d had this (her own) book when I was in my 20s.”
Times are different, and better, for women now, she says. Older women are now being showcased, for one, not ignored or discarded. Jennifer Aniston. Demi Moore. Annette Bening. “The media are finally catching up.”
So are women who are taking matters into their own hands.
Brokaw, for instance, had her eggs frozen at 37, calling it a “painless process” but “emotionally hard.”
She’s also not against plastic surgery unless it becomes addictive. “It’s your choice,” she says.
And, of course, she is not against therapy. She says she was the first in her family to see a therapist. Her solid Midwestern parents understand.
“Sarah has had a life-long interest in these kinds of issues,” says her dad. “She’s always wanted to know what makes people tick.”
Brokaw says her mother, entrepreneur and businesswoman Meredith Brokaw, remains her mentor, although she says “we couldn’t be more different” in approaching life – emotional vs. pragmatic.
Once comparing herself unfavorably to her two married sisters, Brokaw got no sympathy and a quick response from her practical mom.
” ‘Whatever your qualities are, capitalize on them and merry forth,’ ” says Brokaw, reciting her mother’s advice.
“Or, as we say, just suck it up!” adds her dad.
Sarah Brokaw nods her head and laughs.
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