Shonda Rhimes was admittedly and visibly nervous when she began her address to Dartmouth graduates on Sunday, in part because she was conscious of how her remarks would be posted and analyzed online.
The creator of mega-hit TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” said the prospect of giving speeches filled her with “Terror, really. Dry mouth, heart beats superfast, everything gets a little bit slow motion. Like I might pass out. Or die. Or poop my pants or something.”
A Dartmouth alumna herself, Rhimes said this was one speech she really didn’t want to give.
“I would like to thank President Hanlon for asking me way back in January, thus giving me a full six months of terror and panic to enjoy,” she said. “I almost said no. Almost.”
She did none of those things, and in fact delivered a speech so packed with honest, practical wisdom about post-collegiate life that there are several of pieces of it worthy of the tweeting, streaming and uploading she dreads. You can watch the full 24-minute speech above, or forward it to the 16:30 mark where she addressed both the male and female graduates on the question of having it all.
So you’re out there, and you’re giving back and you’re doing, and it’s working. And life is good. You are making it. You’re a success. And it’s exciting and it’s great. At least it is for me. I love my life. I have three TV shows at work and I have three daughters at home. And it’s all amazing, and I am truly happy. And people are constantly asking me, how do you do it? And usually, they have this sort of admiring and amazed tone.
Shonda, how do you do it all?
She reminded the male graduates that her advice was equally applicable to them — or at least it should should be. Then Rhimes, a single mom, spoke bluntly of the painful tradeoffs she faces in juggling a career and home life:
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.
If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous.
And yet. I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they come to Shondaland. There is a land and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work. And I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland, because I get to write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is a better person—and a better mother. Because that woman is happy. That woman is fulfilled. That woman is whole. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.
Lesson Number Three is that anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.
Rhimes isn’t even close to the first woman to question the reality of “having it all.” A Washington Post search pulls up 551 instances of the phrase. But her distillation of the drawbacks of career and motherhood, and the benefits, were as realistic and hopeful as any thread in that endless discussion.
They were the kind of remarks that are deserving of the discussion and dissection that filled her with dread about making the speech. (Commenters, you can keep that going below.).