An Intimate Conversation with Susan L. Taylor

Susan L. Taylor is editorial director of Essence Magazine and winner of the 2006 NAACP President’s Award. The owner of a cosmetics company, Taylor started at Essence in 1971 as the fashion and beauty editor. She was a newly divorced, single mother without a college degree. Over the last 30 years, she has balanced work with raising her daughter, finding new love, writing three books, graduating from college and becoming Essence’s editor-in-chief. Recently, I spoke with her about life and motherhood and her career. This is a transcript of that conversation:

CP: Congratulations on receiving 2006 NAACP President’s Award. What an honor!

SLT: It raised the bar for me. It means that I have to step up and do more.

CP: What was it like establishing your career as a writer/editor and being the single mother of a toddler while attending night school to earn your college degree?

SLT: I tried to make sure that when I decided to go back to school I selected a school that was near home. I called it the great triangle. From Times Square in New York City at 43rd Street to my school at 61st Street and Broadway to my home at 64th Street and Broadway. I went to Fordham University, which has a downtime campus in New York on the property of Lincoln Center. I tried to make it easy for myself. When I look back on it every moment was filled. It was a time when I didn’t take the best of care of myself. I was trying to do all that I needed to do for the magazine and keep my daughter supported and try to not miss a beat in school or at work. Also that was a time when my resources were so much better then they were when my daughter was much younger. So I was able to have some kind of support.

CP: It must have been a challenge as a working mother and a professional woman and a student. What lessons do you feel those struggles taught your daughter?

SLT: That we have to set the agenda for ourselves; we have to set our own expectations. Not let anyone else dictate what they think we should be about and take that as truth so I wasn’t there to try to be. What I did was I created a culture here at Essence. I made it OK for employees to bring their children because I was bringing mine when she was young. And that was helpful. I started off as a fashion and beauty editor so we would be in the studio when my daughter got off from school. So she grew up doing her homework and having her dinner in the back of photography studies. That was long before I went back to school. When I was in school, I would go home and we would do our homework together. Those evenings I was out late I, I would make sure that I called that I stayed engaged. And I didn’t know this early on – when we are with our children we have to make sure that we are fully present. That we are not there and on the telephone, there and stirring a pot, there and reading a paper but that we are making eye contact we’re asking them questions and we’re really listening. I try to make sure that my daughter at least had the best of me and I wasn’t giving her what was left over.

CP: I saw a quote that identified you as “black publishing’s inspirational godmother.” What do you want your granddaughter to know about you? How do you want the people that are closest to you to think of you?

SLT: With love. More than anything I want my granddaughter to trust me. I want her to be able to trust telling me the truth. To trust telling me the things she is hoping and dreaming for herself. To trust letting me know when she has made a misstep. To trust that I will tell her the truth about my own life. To know that being with me is a safe thing. I would like for everyone in my life to feel that way, people who are my colleagues and certainly my family and friends. That here is a place of authenticity where you can be who you truly are. I’m trying to live my life without judging people. I think I’m not always successful but that’s my goal.

CP: Writing is a tremendously personal profession filled with rejection – how has your experience as a writer and an editor who shaped you are as a mother and grandmother?

SLT: The rejections haven’t come because I have been writing in a very defined space where what I need is truth-telling. I don’t think that the editors around me have always said “You know that editorial is not singing yet, you need to do…” I’ve been in this little cocoon which is really quite sweet. Even though the outreach has been phenomenal — we have 7 million readers. When you’re working on a magazine and you’re really at the space where I am where we are looking at the truth of women’s lives and we’re looking for solutions, I think that it has really helped me to understand myself better. As you’re investigating the lives of others to do reports, to create content that is relevant to the issues women are contending with, you are looking in the mirror. You are seeing yourself. You are seeing your own mother and daughter. You are seeing your friends. So it’s made me a student of myself. It’s helped me to understand that other people have issues that I may not have and I have some that they don’t have. It’s helped me be more tolerant more understanding. Dealing with psychologists as we do so frequently in preparing content for the magazine, it has taught me a lot about the human psyche, the emotional world. It’s been phenomenal to be at a place where you are serving people and growing yourself.

CP: A lot of women struggle with being mothers and working, especially working single moms. What would you tell them as they reconcile those conflicted emotions (the need to provide for their children while being good mothers to their children)?

SLT: Having those competing pressures of having a job you have to hold down or running a business and being a mother or being a single parent – the competing pressures truly put you under stress that will make you sick. The most important thing that we know as women when we are pressured on so many fronts is that we have to have the courage to carve out time for ourselves. Sometimes when you see all the things that you have to do, you don’t think that’s possible but it’s always possible. You have to put yourself in charge of your life and in charge of your schedule. I learned this. Did I know it when my daughter was growing up? I wished I had learned it earlier on. But, I find that it’s important to not burn the midnight oil and try to do things on both ends –burn the candle on both ends. What I like to get up a little earlier than the children in the household have to get up. I recommend that and having those 30 to 45 minutes for yourself, a time when you are just sitting quietly and thinking about the day. A time when you may get up and do a little exercise. A quick yoga tape and then take a quick bath. I love getting in that bathtub! And laying there for about 10 minutes. All of that takes maybe 45 minutes. And now you’re ready to engage in the day so that you’re not screaming at your kids, shouting at your kids, because you’re in a calm state. You know where your keys are, you don’t need four cups of coffee because you’ve worked out. And then I think it’s important when we’re awake that we organize ourselves, we have things in their proper place. The children are out the door, you go to work and you’re in a calm space. We don’t have to be the last ones in the office. We don’t have to prove to the others around us that we are working as hard as we believe people want us to work. We should know what the tasks are at hand and feel comfortable saying “I can complete this at home” and do it. I think its meeting deadlines, being in an environment that really respects that you have a personal life as well. And most very smart organizations are trying to encourage people to have some kind of for work/life balance because you are a better worker when you have time for yourself and when you are taking care of yourself. People at large organizations also have an opportunity sometimes to take meditation classes during the day, to go to the gym during day. Some large organizations have gyms that offer that, not where I am. But, I think that the most important thing we can do as single parents or being a mother and a wife and a worker is to make your own life and your own balance your number one consideration. When you are treating yourself well then you are not mistreating the people around you. Single mothers absolutely have to have partnerships with other women. Where we can support one another, taking care of children. So this is what I did with my sister friends. My daughter would spend a weekend with her friend, the next weekend the friend would come to our home. When my daughter was in school so of her friends who lived a distance would come and be with us right after school and they would spend the night there. And then my daughter would go to their house on the weekend. So, single mothers absolutely need to trade off with childcare.

CP: I think that’s all mothers. I think having that time to reconnect with your husband is also important for your marriage.

SLT: Yes. That’s true.

CP: I read in an interview with you that your original columns as editor-in-chief for Essence were created by “my own life and what I was hungering for — peace and contentment and a deeper understanding of myself and also of the fear and stress that combine and cause us anxiety and illness.” What you are saying right now really resonates in that quote and I feel those elements — peace, contentment, a deeper understanding of self probably made you a better mom. And think that’s great advice for pretty much any woman to strive for those things. How would you recommend that women strive for that place?

SLT: The most important time we must take is quiet time. Those 10 minutes in the morning – I love early mornings — where you are just are sitting and listening inwardly. Understanding what your needs are. Are you meeting them? Are you creating a space in your life for yourself? That’s the hardest thing to do. Self love is the critical piece. Because if we’re not loving ourselves, we’re not going to love anyone else well. We’re going to believe that our mates are going to be giving us something that we should be giving ourselves. Women need to know we don’t need anyone’s permission to love ourselves. It’s rare that anyone is going to say, “Don’t work so hard. Don’t cook that meal. Don’t run to take the children to the next class or lesson. I’ll do it.” What we have to do is engage people. “Sweetie, could you run the vacuum while I fix the meal?” I think when you put Honey or Sweetie or any endearment before, we can get our mates, our partners, to do anything you want them to do. All too often what we are doing is speaking harshly. “Can’t you see that the kids need to go to the dentist?” His mother took him to the dentist so he believes that the mother of his children should do that, you know? We have to give people assignments: our children, our mates. And we have to assign to ourselves a place where we can be alone, a place where we can be reflective, a place where we can be in touch with things that make ourselves joyful and feel fulfilled. That’s why I decided to go back to school. I was really feeling insecure about my presentation and I hadn’t read enough. I hadn’t written enough. I don’t think I’m a good writer. I couldn’t allow that insecurity to take hold of me which would have created anxiety. What we forget is that for every problem, whether it’s being an overwrought single mom, whether it’s being a pressured wife, mother and worker, whether it’s having an illness that is ruining your life. No matter what the challenge is there is a solution. If only we take the challenge to a quiet place. And ask ‘What has this come along to show me?” When we’re under stress and we’re being pressured, it doesn’t mean just keep drinking coffee so you can stay awake and keep producing. It means I have the ability to really reassign my energy and what I give my time to. I think one of the big things is to understand we can’t do everything every day. “What is critical this day?” That’s the question we should ask ourselves every morning. “What is critical this day?” When you answer that question thoughtfully, you realize, “There’s a soccer match. I can’t stay for the whole thing, but it’s really important that I pass through. That my daughter see me. And that I hug her and cheer her on. And then I have to go and take care of this project. But I know that I have to show up there.” But sometimes, this is what I did, I would sit at my desk doing work that I could have easily taken home and done it with her while she was doing her homework. I didn’t know that early on.

CP: I think these are such important messages for moms. I think that our culture has given a message to women that the needs of others come before our own. It does such a great disservice to our population that they are running fueled on coffee, or coffee and nicotine. We are fueled on drugs other than the drug of our own completeness. I think our wholeness is what makes us better human beings.

SLT: You are so right. You know what it requires? Courage and self love. Self respect. Believing you are worthy of your own time. Believing you are worthy of having a place where you don’t have to get up and do. Understanding that your life is a gift and that you come before your family. Your well-being is more important that anything else you can ever attend to. Because when you are under stress and you are not doing well, not feeling well, and not behaving well, you are throwing your family into a chaotic situation. So the most important work we women have to do is to take care of us, to nurture ourselves, nourish ourselves, and make sure that every day when you face the world we are brining the best of who we are. And we can’t do that if you are working from sun up to sun up. We can’t do it and we can’t do it well.

CP: We don’t recognize the fact that we set the example for our children — our sons and our daughters — in our treatment of ourselves. How does how we treat ourselves get telegraphed to our kids?

SLT: My mother would always tell me this and I didn’t understand it when I was a young girl. She would say to me, “I love me more than I love anyone else.” My mother knew that. She would carve out her time and go upstate New York every summer and she would leave us in our father’s care and mommy was gone. I understand it now. I understand why my mother made sure that my brother knew how to cook, clean, iron, and take care of himself. So he wouldn’t think that his wife was just there to serve him. We teach our daughters how to value themselves by how we value ourselves by creating parameters. Proudly I say that my daughter has never seen a man disrespect me. And she wouldn’t tolerate disrespect in her own relationship.

CP: This is a powerful message for single moms in the dating world. How you put yourself out there and how you are treated creates a message for your children. When did you remarry?

SLT: I re-married when my daughter was 17.

CP: How did that affect your relationship with her?

SLT: It was interesting. At first it was a problem for her because now my energies, my attention wasn’t fully on her. There was another person who I was in love with and who was up close and personal. Interestingly enough, when I was first remarried, my husband did not move into our home. He stayed in his apartment, which was around the corner from my mother in Harlem, and my daughter and I continued to live together. When she went off to college, then he moved in.

CP: Why did you make this decision?

SLT: Because the apartment was small and it was only months before she was leaving for school. And we would let her leave and then we would try to reconfigure our lives and see how we could make a home that she could come back to. At first she wasn’t welcoming very welcoming of him. My husband is younger than me (five years younger) and she thought, “Who is this young, handsome guy coming into this house to talk to my mother? Is he real? Is he going to hurt my mother?” She had to fall in love with [my husband, writer] Khephra [Burns] and she has.

CP: I have a good friend who recently split from her husband and re-joined the dating world. It’s hard for me to see her struggling as a mom who is also dating. The good thing about her in the dating world is the affirmation of herself (having men confirm she is attractive) that she didn’t have in her marriage. It’s been a powerful message for her. What advice do you have for dating moms?

SLT: One of the worst things we can ever do, Robin, is stay in a relationship that dishonors us. And that means in your personal life or professional life. Sometimes, when you are struggling financially and you feel that you absolutely need your job, you tolerate things that you shouldn’t. Either you change your mind about it and say, “This is really about this mortgage payment and it’s really about making sure that my children have the resources that they need to go to college.” And it’s shoring yourself up and understanding that somebody is treating you in appropriately in the workplace. I always say, “Hurt people hurt people.” It’s people who are wounded and they don’t mean to but they inadvertently bring their pain with them wherever they go and they treat other people unkindly. So, if you see others through the right prism, you don’t take their bad behavior personally. And sometimes it just ameliorates the situation and empowers you in a way that helps you to step up and be of assistance to that person. I had that experience early on in my profession. I had to say to a boss who was abusive, “I’m going to be the brave one here because nobody is going to tell you this. The team is unhappy and not performing up to speed. We know it is not your heart, it’s your hurt. We need you to be more sensitive.” And he was very, very appreciative. These are the things being said behind your back — this doesn’t allow someone to contribute. You have to create the space for that to happen. What you do is you gain respect. I just don’t think anyone should tolerate being mistreated. It erodes your self-esteem, especially your relationship with your children. It teaches your son to be abusive and not respect women. It teaches our daughters that it’s OK to tolerate disrespect and mean-spiritedness.

CP: When we don’t have children, we can create excuses for behaviors. Becoming a mom made me reevaluate and ask myself, “Is this a message I really want my children to learn?” This is a wonderful opportunity of motherhood. What do you do to create a new internal monolog? Where do you start?

SLT: We’ve come full circle. You start with yourself in your quiet space. If you don’t create a space in your life to ask your critical questions: “How are you doing? How are you feeling? Where are you hurting? What in your life is not working? Where do you feel dishonored?” If you are not brave enough, courageous enough to create that space and ask those questions honestly, then you will continue to tolerate that behavior. Everyone experiences pain but suffering is a choice. It means that you are going to continue to live in a painful place. It’s amazing to me that people will stay in a dysfunctional relationship for decades for a variety of reasons – money, children, where am I going, who is going to let me. Once you answer those questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean separation. It might mean sitting down and saying, “Sweetie, we are not going to live like this anymore.” Whoever is the most evolved, most spiritually aware has the greater responsibility in the relationship. We have to be honest without being confrontational or blaming without blaming someone. You have to be able to say, “We’ve been having problems. Let’s go get a book. Let’s get some counseling. Let’s sit with the rabbi, the imam, the minister. Let’s decide we are not going to stay in this unhappy place.” You’ll find that path to where you need to be. Very often, women look for mates to make us happy. No one can make us happy. You have to come to relationships with your joy. When you come in joy and be the love you are seeking, whether he brings you flowers or not matters less. I’m loving me, I’m bringing me flowers. I’m dating me. I know what I’m doing on Friday night. I’m going out to get a massage! When you take good care of yourself, you become a shining example to everyone around you about how they should treat you. We teach other people how to treat us by how we treat ourselves. Any place that you are hurting or any part of your life that is broken (your heart, a medical challenge, your job), you need to realize that we are made in the image and likeness of the creator and you can create something else. Change what you need to and that’s really what it boils down to.