Activist Reshma Saujani on Guilt & Ambition
Estimated read time: 5 minutes
Last week, Oath hosted All the Feels (ATF), a virtual summit to explore the emotional journey of parenthood. The ATF newsletter continues that exploration in the form of essays and interviews about topics like shame, awe, overwhelm, and play. Welcome to the first issue!
I’m Lindsay, Oath’s Head of Content and Community, and mom of two boys, ages 5 and 2. In today’s issue, we feature Reshma Saujani, an activist and founder of Girls who Code and Moms First. During her talk at the ATF Summit last week, Reshma expressed her frustration with societal expectations that place the blame on women for not “leaning in” enough, when in reality, the workplace was never designed for moms to thrive. We’re told to color code our calendars or get a mentor, when what we really need is paid leave and affordable childcare.
What struck me most about this interview was Reshma’s refusal to make herself a poster child for unconflicted ambition. Even though she’s made it her life’s work to fight for gender equality, she is still candid about her mom guilt. Even though she is fighting for the ability for moms to have the kind of separate identity at work that dads have always had, she is open about the fact that she finds motherhood all consuming.
In other words, she’s human. This helps me understand what Reshma is fighting for in another way: it’s not about women getting what men have always had. It’s about reimagining a society where everyone gets to be fully human—and demanding that workplaces accommodate our needs, rather than forcing us to conform to theirs.
Lindsay, Head of Content & Community @ Oath
A Conversation with Activist Reshma Saujani
Lindsay: What did your journey to becoming a mom look like?
Reshma: I wanted to be a mom my entire life. From the time I was a little kid I remember I would literally name my stuffed animals and treat them like my children. When I was in my 30s, I had finally met the right partner and was ready to start a family when I had a miscarriage. And then another, and another – and that struggle went on for years. It was heartbreaking. I finally had my son Shaan, and we knew we wanted to keep going and eventually we were blessed to find a surrogate to bring my younger son Sai into the world. I’ve never worked so hard at something in my life, and I think that really contributed to the pressure I put on myself as a parent.
Lindsay: In your book “Brave, Not Perfect” you encouraged girls to move away from perfectionism and toward bravery. Does this advice apply to parenting, for you?
Reshma: Absolutely, I think for women in particular we are always trying to be the ideal mom, and in our culture that’s measured in time. The problem with that is we also think of the ideal worker as someone who is always on, always available, and so those two ideals collide. I read a study that the average working mom spends more time with her kids today than a stay at home mom did in the 1960s. And so of course we don’t sleep, we have no time for ourselves, it’s totally unsustainable. Bravery as a mom means learning when to put yourself first, no matter how selfish or uncomfortable that feels.
Lindsay: When do you feel most confident as a parent?
Reshma: I feel most confident when I’m really in the moment with my kids and connecting with them emotionally or helping them sort through a problem. Those are the moments when I’m not worried about whether I work too much or if I’m feeding them the right snacks or ruining their chances of getting into Harvard. I know they feel loved and supported by me, and I know that I was meant to be a mom.
Lindsay: What are some areas where you've struggled with confidence as a parent?
Reshma: I 100% suffer from Mom Guilt. As a public speaker and a CEO my job requires a lot of travel, and every single time I get on a plane I feel it. I’ve always tried to be open with my kids that mommy is out there fighting for justice, for women and girls, and they are real empaths – they actually get that and they are proud of me. But I still think this is really hard for a lot of parents, especially when we spent so much more time at home during the pandemic. People always tell me not to worry about it, the kids won’t remember, and I think yes but I’ll remember. It’s hard on me too.
Lindsay: You’ve written a lot about bravery and embracing failure. Have you had any parenting "failures" that caused you to see things differently, feel differently, or change something?
Reshma: One of the things I’ve really learned from my son Shaan is to slow down – literally, he’s a slow poke. I always say he gets it from my husband because I am the opposite, I do everything quickly and usually several things at once. It used to really test my patience and I would get so frustrated and want to do things for him, or tell him to stop doing his little dances when he needs to be brushing his teeth. But I’ve relaxed a lot, and I’ve learned to not only take my kids for who they are, but to open myself to what they are teaching me too.
Lindsay: Do you think having a child has impacted the way you think / how your mind operates?
Reshma: Being a mom has opened my eyes to how little support parents have in this country, and that’s what led me to starting Moms First. Other cultures aren’t this way. We are the only industrialized country without paid leave, child care costs more than the mortgage, and it especially impacts women. It’s not just our government; our workplace cultures are stuck in the Mad Men era where it’s (wrongly) assumed that men are the breadwinners and they have wives at home taking care of kids. You don’t see it until you become a parent, just how much the system is set up for you to fail – and so at Moms First we’re fighting to change that.
Lindsay: If someone who didn’t know anything about kids or parenting asked you to describe what parenting is like, what would you say?
Reshma: I would say that it’s constant: it doesn’t stop when you go to work, when you go to sleep, when you’re at girls’ night. It’s beautiful that way, it’s boundless, but it’s all consuming.
Have you ever been told that you need to improve yourself when the real problem was lack of support? Shoot me an email at Lindsay@oathcare.com to share your story with me!
What we're reading this week
👩👦 Motherly's State of Motherhood 2023 Among this year's findings: Nearly 2X more women became SAHMs in 2023 than 2022. And among all mothers, mental health is a top concern. Nearly half are seeking therapy—and anxiety is the top reason why. (Mother.ly)
🪞 Raising a Daughter with a Body Like Mine "I worried that any child of mine could become collateral damage in my eating disorder. Instead, she’s allowed me to see myself through the eyes of a mother." (The Atlantic)
🏥 Maintenance, Hvidovre A short story that captures supremely odd and surreal feeling of being in a hospital postpartum. "I didn’t want to go in and see to my child. The strangeness of what the diaper hid frightened me." (The New Yorker)
🌓 Olga Ravn on the Eerie Side of Childbirth The author of the story above discusses it. "The days after giving birth are as if you’re living on another plane. The boundaries between individuals become porous—this thing when you give birth and go from being 'two in one,' then for some minutes you are one body with two heads, and then two different people. The story, I think, centers on these dizzy hours where all limits between bodies seem to disappear (an almost hallucinatory experience)." (The New Yorker)
🪟 The surgeon general says loneliness is as deadly as smoking "The US Surgeon General is sounding an alarm: Americans are more lonely and socially disconnected than ever, and it’s a serious threat to their physical and mental health that demands urgent policy action." (Vox)
🐣 There's No U.S. Paid Parental Leave, So Newborns Better Get Their Sh*t Together One in four American women must return to work just two weeks after giving birth. So why not teach their newborns "boil water to prepare formula, handle credit cards to buy diapers and practice avoiding electrical outlets and other household dangers"?