This article contains excerpts from Jane Clayson Johnson’s new book, I Am a Mother.
As the co-host of “The Early Show” on CBS, Jane Clayson’s face was familiar to America, her voice carried authority, and she spent her time jetting off to be at the center of the big events of the day and interviewing the world’s most fascinating people. Admired by viewers, she was at the top of the heap, a place to which a hundred thousand other journalists aspired.
“My life before was exciting and intellectually stimulating and stressful and overwhelming and sometimes all of those things all at once. I loved what I did,” she said. Then she did something that surprised most of her colleagues in New York and half of America – she left the world of journalism to become a mother.
As she said, “I left one wonderful thing for another incredibly wonderful thing.”
In her new book, I Am a Mother, Jane Clayson Johnson, now married and with two children, talks about something that every mother needs to know – in some moments, sometimes desperately needs to know – and that is why it matters. It is a delightful book where she calls upon her own experience to enlighten and encourage mothers. Hers is a voice we need to hear, someone who had all the choices most people only long for, and opted for what she considers the most important thing.
“So much of our society is about measuring success,” she said. “I closed that deal, won that case, got that contract. If we can’t measure it, we can’t value it. As a mother, you can’t see the results of your work for years. So much of it is intangible, but that does not mean that it is any less important than any kind of job or title of any kind. With this book I wanted to put my stake in the ground to say mothering matters. It is more important than anything else we’ll ever do as women.”
Her expressions, however, are not sugar-coated. She acknowledges just how tough the job can be, the moments of self-searching and wondering. It is not just the middle-of-the-night feedings and the never being off duty. She has a chapter in her book called, “Can I quit now?”
“Sometimes,” she said, “The challenges of mothering, the daily physical and emotional exhaustion and occasional self-doubts causes us to devalue what we do and to devalue it in the eyes of our children.”
She admits that once in awhile while she is on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor and looks up to the television to see one of her old friends doing a high-profile interview, she has a pang, but it is far overshadowed by the sense of satisfaction she has.
I have interviewed Jane twice for Meridian articles. The first time, I caught her in a rare quiet moment. She described her routine to me as a television personality. Awake at 3:30 AM, she had to be ready for the chauffeur to pick her up and take her to the studio for make-up and hairdo. She skimmed four major newspapers as she prepared herself to walk onto the set where she would viewed by millions of viewers on “The Early Show.” During this recent interview, her baby, Will, was squeaking and giggling in the background, while she bounced him on her knee. Once she had to leave to help him and came back to say, “I think my son just finished throwing up for the morning.”
“The day-in-and-day-out of daily mothering is invisible, because so much of what we do doesn’t last, and we do it within the walls of our own home where it is not noticed. I traded in fancy lunches and fancy restaurants for something better. Still, there is no one to tap me or any mother on the back and say, ‘terrific diaper change.’ There’s no praise or recognition for the day in and day out of mothering.
“But it is the little things that make the difference in our children long term. Because you can’t measure those things, mothers are sort of relegated to be considered as high-end babysitters. That’s not true. Mothering is the work of the ages. It is the most important thing that we could be doing.
“We pay a lot of lip service to motherhood,” she said, “We give mothers awards and we occasionally say, aren’t they great, but we don’t extend them the same respect in reality. I have experienced that first hand. When I told one executive that I was leaving New York and moving to Boston, he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told him, ‘I have the opportunity and privilege to be a mother.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but what are you going to do?’
“We have to change that paradigm,” said Jane, and she hopes her book will play a role in that shift. “I want every woman to feel for herself that mothering matters, that nurturing matters, that we have to start valuing these skills in our society and really most importantly in our selves.”
Jane and her family at Chirstmas
I’m Only a Mother
In her new book, Jane tells a story of attending a dinner meeting outside of Washington D.C. two years ago, a wonderful gathering of 75 Latter-day Saints from a variety of professions, including law, business, and education. As each went around introducing themselves, the men stood up and confidently and appropriately stated their professional achievements. Then, writes Jane:
Their wives stood up – beautiful, intelligent, spiritual women. Many of them had served on boards, held degrees, and were seasoned in their respective fields. Each of them was also a mother.
But this is how many of the women described themselves.
“Oh, I’m just a mom.”
“I don’t have any credentials; I’m just raising our six children.”
“My life’s not very exciting right now. I’m just a stay-at-home mom.”
. We heard some variation of the phrase “I’m just a mother” repeated, almost apologetically, over and over again.
“Their words surprised me. I had recently given birth to my first child, and I was on top of the world. My baby was a blessing that had come to me a little later in life than usual, and I was excited and honored to finally accept the mantle of motherhood. I felt an extraordinary sense of responsibility. And power. Not as the world defines the word, but from entering a sacred partnership with the Creator himself. What a remarkable gift! I wanted to shout from the rooftops, ‘I am a mother! I am a mother!'”
Motherhood didn’t always look like a blazing possibility for her. As it is for all of us, Jane’s life turned out differently than she supposed.
When she arrived at the doorstep of Tingey Hall on the BYU campus in the fall of 1985, she had a plan for her life – detailed, precise and perfect. “The wedding colors were set (peach and teal). My dress was picked out (McCall’s pattern #7847),” and she had compiled a list of baby names. She never set out to have a career in television news, and in her book she tells how it happened. However, she had cut out a Time magazine article about Mother Teresa, where she answered the question of a reporter about how she would describe herself. Mother Teresa answered, “I am like a little pencil in [God’s] hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. Then pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used.”
Jane with Bryant Gumbel
It captured an idea that for Jane was simple, yet eloquent. The most important principle in the gospel of Jesus Christ is to submit to His will so that the Spirit can guide our lives. In her book, she described how the doors continued to open to advance her career in television news, but one door remained closed – the opportunity to have a family and be a mother. The Lord was continually revising her ideas about the plan for her life. She wrote:
As the days went by, my college years seemed like a dream from an eternity before. I imagined that the script I had written fifteen years earlier, but still never acted out, was going to continue to collect dust as I followed a different path, one with its own challenges and rewards. Then a poignant moment initiated a series of events that changed the course of my life.
I was at Ground Zero in New York City on the one year anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on our country, anchoring with Dan Rather, CBS’s coverage of that terrible day. I had returned from Washington D.C., two days earlier, where I had interviewed First Lady Laura Bush in the Blue Room of the White House. In many ways, professionally, I was on top of the world.
But I vividly felt a certain emptiness.
The emotions of the day hit me quite forcefully. I looked into the faces of those who had lost someone the year before – a husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister, best friend – and thought, over and over, Life is so fragile. The most important things we have are our relationships with our families and those we love.
I could not put those feelings aside . It hit me that there will always be another project. There will always be another high profile assignment. Make no mistake, I was grateful for the many tremendous experiences I was having. I was passionate about my work. I even felt that I was fulfilling a particular mission that I had been called to serve. But I also felt that one of my deepest longings had not been met. And that was to be a wife and a mother.
Soon after, Jane met Mark Johnson, and she experienced one of the Lord’s tender mercies in the timing of some events that “seemed more than interesting coincidences.” Mark proposed to her on a Thursday night and the next day, Friday morning, she got a call from her long-time agent in New York City. He was excited because “he had brokered a lucrative four-year network contract, working in New York City, on some very interesting and exciting projects.
“At that point,” said Jane, “it could not have been more clear to me that the Lord was laying out two very distinct choices, two vastly different paths.”
For weeks, she and Mark prayed about these options, weighed the pros and cons of this demanding opportunity that would bring travel and time away from home. During this time, she remembered a quote she loved, “If it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your soul, it is not success at all.” I couldn’t help wondering, Will taking this new opportunity ultimately feel good in my soul?
She realized that she might not just be putting her career on hold, but abandoning it altogether, but she reflected often on these words from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
In those crucial moments of pivotal personal history [we must] submit ourselves to God even when all our hopes and fears may tempt us otherwise. We must be willing to place all that we have – not just our possessions.but also our ambition and pride and stubbornness and vanity – on the altar of God, kneel there in silent submission, and willingly walk away.
Jane gathered her faith, turned down her new contract and walked away, and she experienced another of the Lord’s tender mercies. She said, “The first workday after her CBS contract expired, after I had moved to Boston and Mark and I had settled in, I will admit that I was a little nervous. After fifteen years and a very different pace of life, how would I feel? It was on that day that I found out Mark and I were expecting a child. Another coincidence? I don’t think so. The Lord, in his love and tender mercy, sends signs and confirmations in the most wonderful ways.”
And it felt good in her soul.
A New Journey Begins
So a new journey began for Jane, one where she is learning the soul-stretching and edifying lessons of what it means to be a mother and delight in the faces of the children who look to her for love and nurture. She is also hoping that she can be one in a movement to re-instill the importance of motherhood in the hearts of the nation, beginning with the women on the frontlines at home.
She had New York publishers pursuing her to write a book like this for them, but she chose to write for Latter-day Saint women because, she said, we have to support, not judge, each other in our roles as mothers.
“Whether you are single, whether you are married, whether you stay at home, or whether you are working three jobs just to get by, I want women to be strengthened by this book and to feel that what they are doing matters to them, matters to their children and matters to women everywhere who are making the world a better place because they are mothers,” she said. “We are starting to see the cracks in our culture because we have downplayed and denigrated motherhood for too long.”
Because the recognition they receive is too often hollow, mothers have to be reminded how important their stewardship is. She was given such a reminder at a critical juncture of her life. She wrote:
We were sitting in church on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when my water broke. Three days later, our little baby William was born – more than three months early, at only twenty-seven weeks gestation. At his tiniest, he weighed just over two and a half pounds.
William was in the NICU for eleven weeks. Almost every day, I would travel back and forth to that hospital to deliver breast milk and to hold him. Some days the doctors would not allow him to come out of the Isolette. And so I would sit and look at him through the glass, with all the tape and tubes and wires hanging from his frail little body. There was barely a place to touch his bare skin.
On the good days, I would hold William while he received his fortified feedings through a tube in his nose. I had read medical research that showed that premature babies who were consistently held and nurtured by their mothers were healthier than those who were not. The hospital recommended “kangaroo care” – putting babies skin-to-skin with their mothers. It was supposed to help with bonding. The doctors said it actually made the babies stronger.
For weeks I did this. But for weeks it seemed that William still did not know I was there. He didn’t respond to me in any way. He didn’t open his eyes. He would hardly move. I remember so distinctly thinking: Am I really making a difference?
A very perceptive neonatologist must have sensed my sadness. One afternoon, she came over to our little corner of the unit, put her arm around me, and with such kindness said, “William can’t express it right now, but in his behalf, let me say Thank You for being here. These babies know their mothers. And even though it doesn’t feel as though you’re making a difference . you are.
Later, with both arms through the portals of his incubator, Jane said, “The feeling came over me so strongly that as a mother, the Lord needed me.“
At that moment, she said, “I realized in a very tangible way that mothers matter and that the anguish I was going through was for a reason. What I was doing mattered for this little boy. Even when our children cannot or will not express it, we’re making a difference, and I realized it that day in the hospital, being next to my son who was really on the edge. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“All of what we have is fleeting,” Jane said. “A career, the physical things around us, our possessions, our titles – they mean nothing. They will go. What we do for our children will last forever. The love we show them and what we teach them, that lasts, that carries on. I don’t regret not doing another interview. I know there will be another high profile assignment. There will be another big story to jet off on. But I have one chance with my kids. I have one opportunity to teach them and be with them. You don’t get this time back. While everything else will go away, this is for eternity.”