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Book Excerpt: Actress Christine Baranski Recalls Daughter’s Lesson in Pride, Pluck

The following is an excerpt from “What I Told My Daughter: Lessons From Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women,” edited by Nina Tassler, former chairman of CBS Entertainment, and Cynthia Littleton, Variety’s managing editor, TV. The book is out this month from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster.

On a flight to London, where I was headed to shoot a film version of “Into the Woods,” I listened to the cast album of the Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical. The opening lines of the song “No One Is Alone” — “Mother isn’t here now/now you’re on your own” — brought tears to my eyes.

The lyrics reminded me of the many times I left my two daughters when they were young to go off to work. How many of us working mothers leave the house hoping that one day they’ll forgive us? Hoping that one day they’ll understand that we were trying to set an example and instill in them the importance of independence, integrity and strength of character — the qualities that will allow them to be on their own one day.

I’ve always encouraged my daughters to dream big, get a first-rate education and trust that hard, persistent work will ultimately pay off. “Aim high,” I often told them, “but muddle through gracefully.”

For my older daughter, Isabel, mud, in fact, was a key factor in one of those life lessons that occurs at unexpected moments. My girls grew up in a small rural town in Connecticut where my husband spent his childhood. Being country girls, their lives at a certain age revolved around horses. In spring, summer and fall, they went off every day to an unpretentious local barn run by a no-nonsense woman named Bonnie. They loved nothing more than the smell of fresh air, liniment and horse manure.

Isabel leased a large, handsome horse named Moca. He was, of course, her surrogate boyfriend. Her fella. All her prepubescent energy, her passion and rapture, were channeled into that four-legged being … rather than a two-legged boy.

“How many of us working mothers leave the house hoping that one day they’ll forgive us?”
Christine Baranski

And Isabel had her work cut out for her, because Moca was headstrong and stubborn; she took pride in her ability to tame his strong will. But the real measure of her success with Moca would come at the big autumn horse show, an auspicious event that required weeks of preparation.

Isabel felt an acute sense of anticipation, anxiety and emotion leading up to the show, which took on an Olympian sense of importance in our home. I could only stand by and hope for the best.
Best would be a blue-ribbon showing by Isabel and Moca. But just getting through the day without an injury would be a relief for a parent standing helplessly on the sidelines. Watching your child complete a series of jumps has more drama than a Broadway opening.

When the big day came, there was much ado for Isabel about getting dressed, grooming the horse, getting the two of them to the right place and being ready for the competition.

Alas, horses can be unpredictable creatures, especially this one. Isabel’s fella decided to stop dead in his tracks on the first big jump, sending her flying. She was not hurt, but it was a rainy morning, and she was covered in mud. She was stunned, humiliated and exasperated. Her fella unceremoniously dumped her, after all that preparation, and on the first jump.

Isabel tearfully met me on the sidelines, angry and shaken, wet and muddy, and announced her decision to go home. She now hated that horse and declared that trying to tame him had been
a big waste of time.

I let her vent in the car for a little while. Our home was only about 15 minutes away. Carefully, I suggested that she reconsider the situation. I told her that this event, this experience, was no longer about a horse, a ribbon or a defeat of any kind. It was actually a chance for her to reveal her true character.

I told her to take some deep breaths, go home, change clothes and return in time for the next event. Getting back on that horse would be her real triumph. Life would indeed present her with
thousands of such setbacks, big and small, I said. It was the exercise of character that mattered.

Finally, I assured Isabel that she would look back on this day with pride and humor if she got back in the saddle. She did, and Moca dumped her again. She remounted without hesitation, gave him a round of sharp whips on the neck, and after about six attempts finally got him over that series of jumps.

It was not a performance worthy of a blue ribbon, but she got a huge round of applause from the crowd that clearly recognized her pluck.

Today, Isabel laughs every time she recounts that muddy day, and she remembers it with fond detail.

Christine Baranski is an Emmy- and Tony-winning actress and co-star of CBS’ “The Good Wife.”

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