Her bona fides are widely known: She’s a fourth-generation Kennedy. Daughter of Eunice and Sargent Shriver. Separated spouse of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Former first lady of California. Mother. Journalist. Author. Yet when Maria Shriver welcomes visitors into her light-filled Los Angeles office, she introduces herself simply as “Maria.”
In person, she seems a strong presence, tall and more curvaceous than one might expect — and serene, unlikely to be rattled.
Raised Catholic, she wears bracelets of Tibetan-style prayer beads, and amid the images of angels and crosses in her work space are statues of Buddha and compassion goddess Guanyin, candles and inspirational messages. “Difficulties are opportunities for inner growth,” reads one. “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why,” reads another.
All around are framed photographs: Shriver on the dais at The Women’s Conference, a Southern California gathering she hosted from 2004 through 2010; Shriver with Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey; Shriver and her four children: Katherine, 23; Christina, 22; Patrick, 20; and Christopher, 16. (Noticeably absent in the photos is Schwarzenegger, who we’ve been warned is off-limits as a discussion topic.)
When she is asked which of her many roles is her favorite, Shriver pauses, then says, “I’m trying to get away from roles. I used to identify myself strictly in terms of my role, but when your roles fall away, part of you falls with them.”
At 58, Shriver has experienced spectacular achievements, but certainly more than her share of losses. Aunts, uncles and cousins have been tragically taken, and in 2009 her mother died, followed in 2011 by her father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease; toward the end, he no longer knew his daughter’s name.
Shriver gave up her job as an NBC News anchor in 2004 after her husband was elected California governor, to be a better advocate for him; in May 2011, just months after he left office, the couple announced their separation after Schwarzenegger admitted to secretly fathering a son 14 years earlier with the family’s longtime housekeeper, Mildred Baena.
Though their divorce is not final, Shriver clearly is moving on. While still placing a priority on her children, she is now taking time to focus on herself. “That’s certainly been a struggle for me,” she says.
Shriver recently signed back on with NBC. She runs two websites — The Shriver Report, about societal issues American women face, and Maria Shriver, which profiles people she calls “architects of change.” (Learn more by watching the video at the bottom of pages 2, 3 and 4.) In January she will publish her third “Shriver Report,” about women living on the brink economically.
Referring to 2011 as a year in which “I was trying to reimagine my life,” Shriver tucks a tendril of her long, thick hair behind an ear and says, “You have to be willing to let go of the life you planned in order to make the life you’re meant to live.”
AARP: For a time, you, like many in the sandwich generation, juggled simultaneously caring for your kids and your parents. What was that experience like?
Maria Shriver: It’s emotionally challenging trying to raise your kids — and parent your parents at the same time. That’s challenging no matter what economic group you’re in. There’s a gaping hole in my day that was taken up talking to my brothers about my parents, talking to doctors about them, going cross-country, managing stuff. But not a day goes by that I don’t miss my parents. If I had a choice to have them here, I’d do that all again.
Your oldest children have now graduated from college. Are you still really involved in parenting?
MS: I feel that it’s my job on a daily basis to love my four children unconditionally and to focus on them. I still have a son who’s in high school. I work any job around him and his schedule.
You recently went back into television journalism. How does that fit in?
MS: I’m blessed that they let me come back in a limited capacity. My goal is to put my toe back into journalism so that by the time Christopher leaves for college, I’ll have something that I can transition to full time.
Has it been hard to get back into that work?
MS: When you leave your career, it’s hard to find your way back. People move on. Things change. The technology’s different.
You recently hosted a series on Alzheimer’s. What message did you most want to get across?
MS: That Alzheimer’s is a boomers’ disease. And that young people should care about Alzheimer’s because they’re going to end up taking care of their parents — financially, emotionally and physically. It rattles your whole family dynamic, and it’s not something that’s going to happen some other time. It’s happening now — at the rate of every 68 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s.
Your NBC beat is women’s issues. Why that focus?
MS: I spent a long time living that beat — being a child of the women’s movement and the mother of daughters who want to do it differently. And that beat includes reports on women and men: men’s changing gender roles; women’s financial, emotional and spiritual health. How we interact with men. How we raise our sons.
Next page: The "power of the pause." »
There’s an obvious connection to your upcoming “Shriver Report.”
MS: Seventy million women and the children who depend on them are living in or on the brink of poverty in America.
At The Women’s Conference we had these power women discussing “Can I have it all?” I started to think about the women who are left out of that discussion. They’re immersed, doing it all and looking around, saying, “Where’s the help? How are we supposed to make it?” They’re not invited to the power conferences. They barely have time to wash their hair! I wanted to find out what those women need, what we could do differently.
So much of your work seems to be aimed at bringing about positive change in people’s lives.
MS: I’m really big on elevating people. I always say to my kids, “Our job here is to elevate each other. The world knocks you down.” I like that to be my work. That’s what I feel I’m good at.
Not too long ago you spoke at Katherine’s college graduation about “the power of the pause,” the importance of stopping and evaluating where you are in life. Have you always been able to do that?
MS: No, no. I’ve had to work hard at that. Sometimes people will say to me, “Remember that?” And I’ll think, “I don’t.” I was going so fast that I don’t remember that at all. My path was so focused on journalism. I’ve worked to understand that I’m not my job, that things change beyond your control, that I am not worthy because of what I do. I tell my children that your worth comes from esteeming yourself.
It’s tough to change those long-held patterns.
MS: But you can. My kids go, “This is hard.” I’m like, “Well, did somebody give you an easy card?” And “Hard,” as I say to my kids, “builds esteem.”
So just how do you build your esteem?
MS: First, you have to slow your life down to find out if you’re actually living the life you are meant to live. Are you just gliding? Are you a dead woman or dead man walking? I know a lot of people who talk about being that. They hate their jobs, their lives. It’s such a sad commentary on our society. I was not brought up to put myself first, but you have to — because if you’re not whole, you’re not going to be a good mother, a good partner, you’re not going to be good at your job.
It’s your job to know who you are. What do you value? What’s your mission? What makes you happy? It’s your job to figure that out today, because that’s really what you’re supposed to be doing here.
How did you learn to do these things yourself?
MS: [Rolls her eyes.] A lot of reading, talking, listening. And pain teaches you a lot of this stuff, too.
How much does faith play a role in your life?
MS: It's critical. But it's a faith in God, in a higher power, and a faith in yourself, that you will survive.
You’ve talked about taking the armor off — letting go of expectations and being true to yourself.
MS: That’s a lifelong job and probably the most difficult thing anybody does. If you don’t do it, you’re buried under that.
What about grief and loss? Does that factor into the armor people put up?
MS: You can’t go through life without experiencing grief and loss, but we don’t have a culture for handling grief. People don’t wear black for a year. Someone dies, and 48 hours later it’s, “You’re OK now, right?” People don’t want to feel their grief. They want everything to be back to normal. If you’re awake and not medicated, you’re consumed with grief. Understanding that there’s not something wrong with you, and that you will get through it, is probably one of the most important things you do.
My daughter recently gave me a great quote: “Be kind to people, because everybody you know is engaged in a really tough battle.” I believe that everybody is walking around this way. You just have to pull the scab back and, ook, out it comes. I think it’s good. Out it comes.
How do you feel about aging?
MS: Aging is a fact of life, but you are never ready for it. But I don’t think about it that much. I try to surround myself with lots of young people who are full of life and energy and ideas. My parents did that, too, and I always thought it was smart.
When I toured college campuses with my kids, I thought, “Oh, how I wish I were their age!” But I don’t really. I’ve led a wonderful life. I’ve had great experiences and fulfilled a lot of my dreams and then some. I’ve been loved, and I’ve loved. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s.
Do you have regrets?
MS: Probably everyone does, but you don’t want to become consumed with regrets. You can say, “I wish that hadn’t happened. That’s an experience I don’t want to repeat.”
What else would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
MS: A lot. I’d like to try a silent retreat, because I talk a lot. That would be challenging! I’d like to get really good at meditation. I’d like to get really good at accepting love. I’d like to get really good at unconditional love.
Next page: Living in an empty nest. »
Sounds like you’re doing a good job of that with your children. Is your mom your model for your parenting style?
MS: I’m a huge fan of my mother’s, but I’m a different kind of mother. My mother didn’t touch me, but you can’t give what you didn’t get. I’m sure my daughters will be different mothers than me. I said to them last night: “You will be imperfect. We all are. And you will do your best. Stay open. Keep learning.”
Do you fear having an empty nest?
MS: I think that if you’re awake in your life, you fear being alone. But if you face that fear, realizing that ultimately we all come in alone and will end up alone, you enjoy your alone company.
Do I prefer a house with 20 kids in it? Yes. Do I feel that I can’t wait until they’re gone? No. But do I think I’ll be OK when they’re all gone? Yes. And I’ve worked to make sure they know that.
Are you looking forward to grandchildren one day?
MS: Christina says that when she has kids, she’s going to give them to me! I’m counting on that! If not, I’ll probably take someone else’s kids! I might start a day care center! Who knows?
Coming from a large family, you probably feel very comfortable in a home full of people.
MS: I’m not a big fan of living alone. I share a house in the summer with two of my brothers, and I love it. Maybe someday I’ll join a commune! I’m looking for people all the time who want to live with me!
Are you happy?
MS: Yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy sitting here, talking to you. But I don’t think happy is like, “Happy, happy, happy!” I think that you can only know happy if you know sad, and if you don’t lie to yourself. The other day a mother at my son’s water polo tournament said, “Contentment is so underrated.” I said, “Wow, that’s true. I’m content. I have it good.” Look, a huge part of the world is starving. We’re OK.
Do you want to find love again?
MS: I’ve been blessed by my parents’ love, by the love I had with Arnold, by the love of my children and my friends. I think that carries you through. We’re so consumed as a society with “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “Are you married?” We miss the love that is staring you right in the face. I feel surrounded by love. I feel blessed now here in my life. Yeah. I feel blessed.
Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.