Forget “Having it All” with Amy Westervelt
It’s a motherlode of an episode this week! We’re talking all about kids, work, and how the two fit together—or, way too often, don’t. From family leave policy to flex time to all the weird stuff people say when you opt out of kids altogether, we’ve got tons to discuss.
Our guest today is Amy Westervelt—a journalist, podcast host, producer, the founder of podcast network Critical Frequency, and a mom to two kids. And now she’s also an author: her new book is called Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It.
Whew, that is a lot. And that’s actually how Amy ended up writing the book! It’s a hell of a story, and it led her to a deep-dive into the history, politics, and policy decisions around working parents.
I took off literally an afternoon to have a baby and mostly also didn’t even tell the people that I was working for that I was pregnant—because with my first son, I did tell people, and like 80% of my freelance work disappeared and never came back… I felt kind of proud of myself for really not even pausing a beat to have a kid. And I felt like that was kind of a messed up thing to feel. I was like, “why am I patting myself on the back for the fact that no one even knew I was pregnant?—Amy Westervelt, author, Forget “Having it All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—And How to Fix It
We talk with her about:
- Why we need to make more space for taking care of others. “There’s a certain amount of caregiving that’s required to make society work and that can be in the form of parenthood, it can be in the form of taking care of elderly people. It can be in the form of taking care of yourself. All of those things are kind of necessary.”
- Why she started asking male CEOs how they balance work and family. “Oftentimes, it’s like, ‘I have a lot of paid help or I have a spouse who’s a full-time parent.’”
- What she does to decompress when all her responsibilities and ambitions start to add up. “So, when I start feeling really, really overwhelmed, the thing that helps me the most is to just go be alone. Whether that is sitting in a room for ten minutes or going on a walk or whatever.”
Also in this episode:
- Sara and Katel talk about their own decisions not to have kids
- Katel experiences the sadness of a Bagel Thin
- Sara ditches a judgey OBGYN
- And, Sara and Katel get hyped to announce their first big workshop together, at Lead Dev NYC
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Running a business is a lot of work. Thankfully, Harvest makes it easier. Harvest is a project planning and time tracking tool that helps me keep my clients happy and my life a little bit less hectic. You can track clients and projects, manage time, send invoices, and a whole lot more. I’ve used it for years, and I hope you try it too. Check it out free at getharvest.com/strongfeelings, and when you sign up for a paid account, you’ll get half off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings for 50% off your first month. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out]
SWB Hey everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel Ledu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Our guest today is Amy Westervelt. She’s the author of Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It. And she also runs the Critical Frequency podcast network, which we love. We met her at Werk It—the podcast festival we went to last fall—because an acquaintance told us “oh my gosh, you have to meet Amy, she’s amazing.” And it was so true. She’s awesome.
SWB Yes! It was really great to talk with somebody who, like us, has a lot of different things going on at any one time. [both laugh] She’s really busy. But she’s also a mom and that’s a perspective that neither of us have, so I thought that was so powerful to hear from her.
KL Oh my gosh, I know. I can’t wait to get into all of that. But before we do, I have not seen you in a minute! How are you?
SWB Yeah, I’m alright. You know, I had a bit of a busy week last week and I’m feeling a little bit behind because I took some time off to go visit my mom in Arizona. And she’s been dealing with some health stuff, so I was both there for her and trying to spend time with my mom, but also I have a bunch of projects that are just starting to kick off and I have a lot of things that I needed to keep moving forward. So, I had a lot of working-not-working moments, [both laugh] where I was maintaining the veneer of working, you know? [KL laughs] Where I’m getting the emails out the door, getting a proposal out the door, that kind of stuff.
SWB While also really trying to be present and available for my mom.
SWB So, I’m good, but I’m also feeling now like okay, I didn’t really have a weekend and now I’ve got to have this whole week where I get a lot of shit done. You know? Sometimes that’s a little bit tough.
KL Yeah, it is tough. I totally get that. The first half of last week actually, Jon and I were in Florida visiting my in-laws. And it was really nice to be somewhere warm like not six degrees like it was here. But I was also still trying to check in on work and get a few things done and juggling that while being with family is super tough. And we were also just sort of in a dead-zone of connectivity. The cell towers were [laughs] not really working or something and normally if I was on full vacation mode, I would have been like, “oh, well too bad! I’m just not reachable.” But because I was trying to check in and stay connected, it just stressed me out a little bit.
SWB I hate that feeling because on the one hand, I don’t want to be online the whole time, but also if you have a lot of things going on, you don’t necessarily want to be totally offline. And then I just think I need to be prepared to be totally offline. I don’t want to be surprised by being totally offline. [both laugh] That does not work out well.
KL That is totally the feeling. And sort of in that vein, there’s also something that happens for me at least when I travel and I don’t really think about what I’m eating, I just do whatever is easy instead of making a big effort because I’m already thinking about being somewhere else. But I realize that when I’m traveling with family and sometimes it’s stressful, it can sometimes just take all my energy to be there and be easy versus making sure I’m meeting all my own needs. [laughs]
SWB Yes. I totally know what you mean. I definitely just sort of am like, “no, Mom, don’t buy any groceries for me, I’m not here that long.” Then I’m there and I’m like, “gosh, there’s really not a lot [KL laughs] happening here.”
KL Yeah, yeah. Or you’re used to your own stuff—
KL —and you’re like, “oh, this is different.” It’s the planning thing, you know. So, when we left to go home, we were both ready.
SWB Oh boy. Was there anything good about your trip?
KL It was great. I don’t mean to sound like it was a terrible time. The best part was absolutely spending a bunch of time with my niece. She’s so fucking awesome. She’s two and she’s getting a real personality and she’s sassy and she was really sad when Jon and I left, so that was really sweet. It just made me think about how lucky we are that we live pretty close to our nieces and nephews and it’s nice to visit them a lot.
SWB I wish I saw them more.
KL Oh, totally. You did make it out to see your nieces at Christmas, right?
SWB Yeah, so I saw them at Christmas and took them to the ballet. So, they’re six and almost four. And we went to see The Nutcracker, as you do. They were so excited about the idea and, you know, going to see a real, professional ballet. They’ve both taken ballet classes.
KL Uhh yeah.
SWB So, we go to The Nutcracker and I was a little bit surprised by this, but the younger niece was super into it, my older niece was just [laughs] grumpy the whole time!
KL [laughing] Oh no!
SWB She was such a miserable wreck the whole time we were there!
KL Oh no!
SWB And then there was also just so much squirming.
KL So much squirming, yeah.
SWB Yeah. And I accept it, I get it.
SWB But I’m also not acculturated to it. I don’t live the squirm life, you know?
KL Yeah. Just like being near that, you’re kind of like, “oh this is a different energy.” [laughs]
SWB Yes, yes. And it’s a lot of energy.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB I was also staying at my mom’s house with my brother and his wife and their children, which meant a lot of people. So, guess who slept on the air mattress in the living room?
KL Aunt Sara? [laughs]
SWB Yes. Guess who go to be surprised by small children first thing in the morning poking their little heads up over the back of the couch to see me [laughs] on the air mattress?
KL Adorable the first day… and then… [both laugh]
SWB Oh gosh, yeah. I was like, “I need a door that closes.” [both laugh]
KL Mhm, mhm.
SWB Love you, but I could really stand to have a door that closes.
KL Yeah, yeah.
SWB So, I guess it’s kind of clear I am not a parent, I am not quite [laughs] prepared for the constant needs of small children.
SWB But I do definitely like to spend time with them.
KL I mean, neither one of us has kids. Did you always know you didn’t want kids?
SWB No… but I don’t know that I ever really knew that I wanted them either. I think that I just sort of assumed that that was what people did for a really long time.
KL Mhm. Yep.
SWB I mean, in the same way that I remember thinking that 22 was a really good age to get married because that was the age my mom was when she got married.
SWB And then thinking about that now, I’m just like, “oh no.” [laughs] That’s terrible. [both laugh]
KL [laughing] You’re like, “oh gosh.”
SWB I think that as I got older and sort of had more time to think about different ways adulthood could look and different experiences to see different ways that adulthood could look, eventually it kind of occurred to me that I didn’t really want to have kids. And I sort of kept waiting to see if that was something that started to make a lot more sense to me or sound important to me. And it just kept not happening. And then at some point I was like, “I just don’t think that that’s what I really want. Or I don’t think that that’s like a strong driver for me.”
SWB It wasn’t like I had some big proclamation. And in a lot of ways I actually really resisted that because I felt like that’s a lot of pressure to have this binary choice—you want kids or you don’t want kids.
SWB And I was like, “I don’t think so, but I’m just not going to close that door until I feel like closing that door.”
SWB I don’t know, how about you?
KL Yeah, that makes sense. Similar I think. For a lot of my thirties I actually was in that same boat where I was like, “well, I don’t think I want them, but I don’t want to put a stake in the ground and say no never.” Because I also was with a partner who I don’t think was as necessarily decided. We were both leaning in the same direction, but I think his door was a lot more open. So, I kind of wanted to be able to have a conversation if it ever came up. It’s definitely in the last five years or so we are firmly like, “no, this isn’t right for us” for a bunch of different reasons. But I also I think really struggled with that idea of it being so binary.
SWB Yeah! As somebody who doesn’t have kids, do you know what I really hate the most though? [KL laughs]
SWB I hate the judgement. The weird judgment about that.
SWB Like as if that’s anybody’s business.
SWB I mean, don’t get me wrong. I know that when people do have kids, they also get judgement and people who think that it’s their business. [laughs]
KL Oh my gosh, yes.
SWB But yeah, I really hate feeling like whether I have children or not is something other people who I’m not partnered with should care about.
KL What’s the worst time you’ve ever been really judged for it?
SWB Okay, I don’t know if this is the worst time, but it was so unexpected to me that it became very memorable—I remember it so clearly. So, I was at my OBGYN. And she was a younger woman and I was just there for an annual exam. And so because she was a younger doctor who was probably around my age at the time—like early thirties—I sort of assumed that she’d be cool.
SWB Which is maybe a bad assumption! [laughs]
KL I mean…
SWB But we were having this conversation about IUDs. And one of the things she was telling me is how quickly you can be fertile again after you remove it as selling point for them.
SWB Which is fine. That’s a very reasonable thing to communicate, especially as she was talking to a married woman in a heterosexual relationship in her early thirties. So, statistically that’s probably useful information for a lot of people.
SWB And I’m not mad that she wanted to talk about that, but then she asked me if I had plans for kids. And I was like, “no, I’m good.” You know, I didn’t even say that.
KL Yeah, yeah.
SWB I told her that I didn’t think so, I was most likely not going to have children and I definitely wasn’t planning on it in the near term. And I swear she looks at me and she makes this big, pouty face.
SWB And she goes, “awww! Why not?”
SWB Like she was personally disappointed. [KL laughs] And I mean, my mother has never had that kind of reaction.
SWB And I’m like, “lady, trust me, this does not affect your life at all.”
KL Yeah! Exactly. Let me make my decision. [laughs]
SWB I know. And I actually switched doctors after—not just that. There was a couple other similarly judgy comments where I was just like, “I don’t need this in my life.” But what about you? What bugs you about how people talk to you about kids?
KL I mean, I think I just really don’t love the trope that people who don’t have kids are instead choosing a career. Like I didn’t decide not to have kids for my career or in order to do the work I’m doing. I’m sure it’s true for some people, which is also a perfectly fine and reasonable decision. And I don’t know, just as I figured out what I am going to focus on and prioritize in my life, it just hasn’t been such a black and white decision. It’s not one or the other. Yes I’m invested and excited about the work that I’m doing and maybe that work takes up a lot of my time, which I really enjoy because I’m excited and passionate about it. But I also know about myself that I need a lot of solitude and I am really prone to anxiety. And for me, those don’t jibe with having kids. Just for me. I also just simply don’t have a strong desire for it, which I think you touched on earlier and I think that’s such an [laughs] important thing to pay attention to. And I know that doesn’t necessarily make sense to some people, but it doesn’t have to.
SWB You know, I was thinking a little bit about some of the things that Amy said. And she talked a lot about as a parent having to make a lot of trade offs. And I think that’s relevant here. Sure, are there career trade offs when you have children? And are your trade offs different because you don’t have children? Absolutely.
SWB But I think this idea that you’re going to be choosing career or choosing kids is so damaging to every decision on all sides. I think it’s important to recognize that there are tons of trade offs that we are making every day constantly, whether or not we have children. Trade offs are part of life. But it’s not a simple one for the other, it’s a lot of different small decisions that add up. And so there’s just so much more nuance we need to have in this conversation.
KL Yeah. One of the things we heard from Amy too is you can do both. You can do all the things that you want to do, but it just takes some reorganization and some reprioritization. And yes, things might look different.
SWB I think one of the other things though that Amy helped to highlight and that you see in a lot of places is that yes, you can pursue lots of different things as a parent, but there are a lot of really specific structures working against being a parent in the workforce. Or I should actually specifically, let me be clear—being a mom. Like did you know that there has been a number of studies—there’s a lot of data about how having a baby helps men’s careers, but hurts women’s careers?
KL Yeah. [laughs]
SWB Some of it has been around for a while. There was a study that came out, I think it was 2014, that was showing that on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6% percent when they have children if those children live with them. But women’s earnings decrease 4% for every child they have.
KL No. I’m shaking my head no. [laughs]
SWB But the reality is it’s absolutely not the same. The way that people interact with you at work is not the same and sort of the anecdotal stories about how men are treated when they tell their bosses they’re going to have a kid versus how women are treated [laughs] are so different.
SWB I remember I was working at an agency several years ago where there were a lot of dads who worked there. And there were very few moms. There were a couple of moms, but the moms who worked there did not have little babies, they did not have toddlers, they had kids who were a bit older. And a couple of people got pregnant while I worked there, but nobody came back from maternity leave, which I think is really telling.
SWB And it’s totally fine to not come back from maternity leave, it’s not that. What I think is telling is that this wasn’t a workplace where people could come back from maternity leave.
SWB I remember there was a woman I worked with who was really great at her job and really great to work with. I thought she was a really valuable employee. She was awesome. So, she had her first baby and she wanted to come back with some flex time. Now, it was very common in my office that people would work from home pretty regularly. They mostly didn’t have a schedule like, “I work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays” or whatever. But people routinely worked from home one or two days a week—not a big deal. So, she wanted to have some flex time and she wanted to have a little bit more consistent schedule about when she was working from home. And her boss, who was a woman actually, a woman I had really looked up to before, she really—from my perspective—pushed her out. Because she was like, “nope, this is a 24/7 job and you’ve got to be available for your clients.” And I’m sorry, her main client was an amusement park or something. [KL laughs]
KL Not critical. [laughs]
SWB I mean, you know…
SWB I don’t know what kind of 3am amusement park disasters happen, let’s hope none.
SWB I guess that might be [laughs] a big problem if it did, but the reality was I think that was just silly. And she basically was like, “I’m not going to make any accommodations for you just because you had a baby.” I mean, that’s what the message was. And the thing is, humans need accommodations all the time because they’re human.
SWB And she was great at her job and I think she felt really pushed out. And one of the things that I realized about this other woman who I had looked up to who had been a leader in this firm was I think she had really internalized so much sexism and misogyny. And she was like, “well, I had to do all of this to get ahead, so you should have to do it too. Why should I have any accommodations for you because I had to push my way through this man’s world by myself.” And that just sucks. That’s not a mentality that I want to carry forward. And so that’s what I really realized—that she wasn’t somebody that I could look up to in that regard because that’s not a world that I want. I want to be able to say, “wow, that was hard for me when it shouldn’t have been and I would like to make it easier for the next people so they can focus on just doing great work.”
KL Yeah. Anyone deserves to want and make happen for them more flexible work time or accommodations that help them do their job better. It doesn’t matter. And I just really don’t like the assumption that if you don’t have kids, you must have an endless amount of time to do work. And if you do have kids, you must not be a career go-getter, you’re only on the baby train.
SWB And yeah, I think you’re really highlighting too that it feels like you’re kind of fucked either way. Because obviously, if you have kids, then there’s this perception of you not being serious about your job or whatever. Like, oh you must not actually want the promotion because you’re having a baby. But also if you don’t have kids, there’s this perception that you should be able to throw all in all the time on work, right? I don’t actually think that, for example, this agency was a 24/7 job for anybody, whether they had an infant at home or not. It is not that important.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB But there’s also this perception too that if you try and set boundaries as a person without children, then somehow you’re being selfish. That it’s selfish that you want time for yourself or selfish that you’re not going to work on the weekend because you want to binge Netflix. But that should be okay. You should not have to give everything to work or everything to children or anything to anything. You should have some autonomy over how you decide to spend your one very small bit of life you have.
SWB Anyway, something that I really loved when we were talking to Amy is that she helped to drive home how much all of us really need to care about this, in whatever life we’re in. So, for example, men need to care a ton about issues around things like maternity leave and family leave in general. But specifically around how does your office treat working moms? I think that that’s super important because ultimately the way that an office is going to look at somebody like a working mother—that is a reflection of how they look at people, how they look at humans. And I just think we are so interconnected, we are so reliant on each other to make any community work. But American culture is so individualistic. And I think what we’re really seeing is just the ways that that individualism is a lie. The way that it breaks for everyone. So, for me, I want to be really informed about and advocate for moms and families with kids even if that’s not my life because workplaces that work for moms I think are just better for everyone.
KL Completely. I learned so much from Amy. Let’s talk to her. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Amy Westervelt
SWB Amy Westervelt is a journalist, a podcast host and producer, the founder of a podcast Network called Critical Frequency, a mother, and the author of a fantastic new book called Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood–and How to Fix It. Amy, there is a lot in there! Welcome to Strong Feelings!
Amy Westervelt Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SWB So, let’s start with the book, Forget “Having It All.” It just came out in the fall, congratulations.
AW Thank you, thank you.
SWB And we read that you wrote the book after you had a revelation in your own parenting life. And I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about that story?
AW Yeah, so my second child was a total mistake. [laughing] I mean, that sounds bad, but not planned. And also I had really decided that I was going to have just one kid and that was it. And at the time I was self-employed and my husband was trying to start a company, so he didn’t have an income. So, I was supporting all of us and also because I was self-employed, I didn’t have maternity leave. So, I took off literally an afternoon to have a baby and mostly also didn’t even tell the people that I was working for that I was pregnant—because with my first son, I did tell people, and like 80% of my freelance work disappeared and never came back. So, I was really nervous about that. And then the thing that really, really made me think, “oh, I want to write more about this” was that I felt kind of proud of myself for really not even pausing a beat to have a kid. And I felt like that was kind of a messed up thing to feel. [laughs] I was like, “why am I patting myself on the back for the fact that no one even knew I was pregnant? Go me!” So anyway, I wanted to look at both the history of how certain expectations of women vis-à-vis motherhood came about and how those things sort of shaped policies that impact women whether they have kids or not. But also how feminism then added on to that in not always positive ways.
SWB What do you mean by that? So, what are some of the ways that that hasn’t necessarily been positive?
AW A lot of the sort of second wave of feminism was really kind of trying to turn women into men essentially. [laughs] It was a lot of “oh, we need to get in the workforce, and we need to mimic the success path that men have been on.” And in a lot of ways that sort of automatically counts out mothers. And there was actually kind of infighting in the feminist movement—and still today you’ll find it—of people basically thinking that if you choose to have kids, that you’re choosing to basically subjugate yourself to the patriarchy. And it does kind of feel that way and it’s not that I think that system doesn’t exist or that you aren’t taking on a role that has a lot of patriarchal baggage to it. However, I kind of feel like the idea that it has to be that way or that something that only women do should be considered a negative by the feminist movement seems strange to me. I also feel like a lean in style of more corporate feminism has really contributed to this feeling that the goal should be that women are doing everything. And I feel like that contributed certainly personally to my feeling of like, “oh, wow. I’m so great. I had a baby and I didn’t even take time off and I didn’t even tell anyone I was pregnant. What a power woman.” [laughs] And I just I think there are some issues with that kind of notion.
SWB Yes, absolutely. [laughs] We’ve talked about a little of this on the show. Me and Katel aren’t parents, but we’ve definitely talked about the idea of what it means to be powerful or successful or ambitious is to be push, push, push, push, pushing the whole time. And it’s like, well, what about being a human and what about the idea that taking breaks is good? What about the idea that it’s okay to acknowledge, “hey actually, I just had a baby and I need time” and making it a world where that is more okay.
AW Yeah, and also I don’t know any men that want that life either, you know what I mean? Why are we striving for this thing that the people who kind of invented it and first benefited from it don’t want either?
SWB Yeah. I remember you wrote an article before the book that got a lot of interest that was about the way having it all kind of sucks. And in that article you talked a lot about how stressed out you were and sort of realizing in it all coming crashing down on you that you did have this second child and so much work to do and so much laundry to do. [AW laughs] And I’m really curious, when that article sort of blew up and you started looking at writing a book, was that kind of a scary thing to do? To kind of add one more thing to your list?
AW Because the essay I wrote—which I wrote in the middle of the night, I really like didn’t think anyone was going to read that and then it went crazy and I was like, “oh there’s a lot of editing I would have done had I known [laughing] so many people were going to read this. But my agent was like, “oh, you should write a book proposal about this.” And initially I was like, “I don’t really have time for that.” But then it was kind of easy to write and I feel like when things are easy to write, those are the things that you should be writing. So, I kind of already knew what I wanted to look into. And then on the research side, it’s kind of my dream to just be in a library all day long. So for me, it felt like a huge luxury. The one thing that did add major stress was that I did not understand that the word “advance” in book publishing does not mean that you actually get anything in advance. [laughs]
SWB [laughing] Oh my gosh, this was a sad sad sad thing I also learned! Any of our listeners out there thinking about advances—an advance is also usually broken up into multiple parts and some of them come not actually before the book comes out, which you’re like, “in advance of what precisely?!” [all laugh]
AW Exactly! I know! I was thinking that I would get money in advance so that I would be able to take time away from other work to be able to do the book, but I didn’t get my first check until after I had submitted the manuscript already. So, that was super stressful. And my husband actually was kind of off and on working. He was doing some consulting work, so he was able to sort of plan his work around being able to sort of be the primary parent if I needed to go away and do research. Or we have a lot of cheap motels around where we live, so there were several times where he was like, “just go to a hotel for the day and get a bunch of stuff done.” [laughs] And so I did do a lot of that, which was kind of the only way it could have happened really.
SWB What are some of the things that you learned about family leave policies and cultural attitudes about working parents and working moms that surprised you?
AW One thing about the initial wave of colonists from Europe was that there was a lot about the way that they approached religion that has crept into how we approach families and therefore a lot of work-life stuff. They were Puritans of the Calvinist tradition, which meant that they kind of believed that every person was able to interpret the Bible on their own. They were very big on rejecting the aristocracy in general and that included in the church. So, this idea that a bishop, for example, has a better understanding of the Bible and can tell me what I should be thinking about my relationship with God was something that they’d sort of generally rejected. And that—I didn’t realize that the sort of American individualism thing wasn’t just that these people had left everything that they knew and come to this place that they didn’t know anything about and whatever, but also that that was kind of their approach to life in general. And then the way that that kind of bleeds into the family thing is that they really double down on the whole nuclear family idea. [laughs] So, this had started happening a little bit in Europe and in England, but in America it took on a sort of extreme form. In part because these were people who were physically away from their extended family, right? So, there was no way to really have the sort of family village that we talk about today. [laughs] And then also because in each family, the father was in charge of not just the household, but also to make sure that everyone in the family made it to heaven. [laughs] So, they were just sort of responsible to themselves. And they did have community involvement and the church and all that stuff, but ultimately each family was really sort of an island unto itself. And I feel like you really see the reverberations of that all throughout our history. It’s still very much ingrained in people’s minds today that families should work shit out on their own.
SWB Who needs universal healthcare?
AW Exactly, exactly. Yeah! That’s the thing that I think is interesting too is a lot of times when we talk about the politics of motherhood or work-life balance or whatever, sometimes people will be like, “oh I don’t have kids, so that doesn’t apply to me.” But actually these things really impact a lot of policies that really kind of affect everyone and definitely impact how the workplace has been set up. So, I think it’s kind of interesting for people to understand the forces behind this stuff. Because also I feel like we have this tendency to be like, “that’s just how it is.” It’s like, “well no, there was actually a small group of people, who had some pretty crazy ideas and [laughs] we could totally change that. We’re different people with different ideas, we should be able to change things.”
SWB Yeah, we talk about this a lot. We don’t have kids, but we understand that we need to have workplaces that are okay for people who have kids—both because those people are people who are valuable, but also because it’s like, “okay, well when you’re in a culture that doesn’t allow for that, what else doesn’t it allow for? What kinds of norms does that create that actually do affect everybody?” And if you want to think about it as we need to have a cultural system that understands that humans are humans, which means that things happen to them [laughs] or that they have they have a variety of stuff going on in their life. That’s something that’s true for everybody, right?
AW Yeah! And that there’s a certain amount of caregiving that’s required to make society work and that can be in the form of parenthood, it can be in the form of taking care of elderly people. It can be in the form of taking care of yourself, [laughs] you know? All of those things are kind of necessary. Even if you want to look at it purely from an economic standpoint, those things are necessary for the economy to continue to run too. So, this kind of constant dismissal of those things is a problem. And the other thing is too—I write about this in the book a little bit and I’m working on a piece about it now—what’s happened in the absence of workplace or governmental policies that support any kind of life [laughs] outside of work and especially that support working parents is that a lot of times people without children are being asked to shoulder that burden. So, I know in my case, I worked at a public radio station for a while. And at one point in time, we were all women in the newsroom and all but one of us had kids. And the woman who didn’t have kids was constantly being asked to work overtime, to work weekends, to be the person who’s on call and can drop everything. And there was one night where I was leaving and she was staying late yet again, and I was like, “you know, it’s really unfair that you keep getting asked to do this just because you don’t have kids. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a life.” And she was like, “I really appreciate you saying that because it’s also this thing that I feel like I can’t say anything about because then I’m being a bad feminist and not supporting other women.” And I was like, “man, that’s something that a) we need to be able to have conversations about this stuff more openly because oftentimes there’s a way to arrange the schedule so that everyone is picking up slack where they can. But also because it’s totally unfair that people without kids are being asked to sort of close the gap on policy issues.
SWB It’s almost like we’ve got a patriarchal culture that punishes women no matter what they do. [KL laughs]
AW Exactly, yeah! Because it’s also the women without kids who are being asked to shoulder the burden much more often than the men. Our whole society is about individual success, right? But who is constantly being asked to put themselves aside for the greater good? Women.
SWB And who gets to have individual success because so many women are putting themselves aside for the greater good?
SWB It’s so interesting to kind of dig into all of these assumptions that get tied together. And I’m curious from there—I know that when we start talking about things like, how do we deal with parenthood in the workplace and how do we deal with paid leave, etc., we start hearing from people like, “oh, we should just have a system like they have in Sweden.”
SWB And let’s call that this gold standard. And it does sound like a dream in a lot of ways, but one of the things I know you’ve written about is how that might not actually be a very useful example for us in America. Or that’s not necessarily a straightforward thing to work toward. And I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about that?
AW Yeah! I mean, a lot of the ideas I have for improving things are along Scandinavian lines too. However, I think that the thing that gets missed out of that conversation a lot is the fact that we also need to shift cultural and social norms in order for policies like that to actually work. I hear a lot of people being like “Sweden” and not really taking into account that like, “okay, you could very easily implement Swedish policies here and have minimal uptake of them because the culture still punishes people for behaving in that way.” So, I started looking around to see if anyone else had done this—had gone from a sort of patriarchal capitalist society and tried to implement Scandinavian policies. And I realized that Japan had done exactly that. So, they had sent a contingent of people over to Sweden and Denmark and Norway to do some research, gather up some information, write down specific policies, and bring them back and implement them. And so it was like all the things you hear about here that will solve the problem. It’s equal paternity leave, flex time for working parents, subsidized daycare, extended maternity leave. They were even giving actual paid incentives to have kids because they’re very worried about their birth rate, which is another thing that we’re hearing about all the time in the US right now. So, what they found was that more than a third of fathers in particular wanted to be taking advantage of these policies, but only 3% actually were. And it was mostly because they just felt like even though technically it was allowed, it would be frowned upon. And so they started doing—maybe 10-15 years ago—this whole kind of propaganda campaign around involved fatherhood. [laughs] So, they had all these posters of famous guys, you know, wearing their babies or coaching their kid’s soccer team or whatever. And I’ve talked to a bunch of people who grew up in Japan and are now in their forties or fifties and they’re like, “oh, yeah, you see stuff now that you would never have seen when I was young. You see a lot of dads with baby carriers and strollers and you see them showing up to kids’ events.” And that was just not a thing ten, twenty years ago. But then they realize, “oh, we need to get at the workplace culture thing.” So, they are now I think just about two years into a program that is aimed specifically at executives and bosses at big companies to try to train them around the idea that this is actually positive for the workforce. And they have a big emphasis around eldercare now too because the other impact of the declining birthrate is that you have a huge eldercare problem in Japan. And you have a lot of employees who might not have kids, but have elderly parents and really have to take some time out to help. So, they’re sort of managing all of that. And I just feel like that’s probably a more useful example for us in terms of okay, what are the what are the cultural norms that we have in place that would be a blocker to policies actually being effective?
SWB Yeah. I love that story so much because I think it does speak to some of those cultural factors that are going to get in the way of any policy change here. And also I think to the idea that what you’re really talking about is kind of the long game. This isn’t a short-term solution. But speaking kind of practically for somebody listening who is looking at this and thinking like, “okay, well what should we be doing? What should I be doing in my workplace? What should I be doing in my home? What should I be doing in my local government?” What would you advocate for people to start with?
AW I feel like a big part of it is just normalizing certain things. So, for example, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about creating stronger networks with other parents of your kid’s friends or coworkers who also have kids. And trying to figure out ways to better support each other. And then I also feel like actually talking to bosses about this stuff in situations that are not fraught and charged, you know? Like talking to your boss about needing time off the moment that you need it and then getting into the discussion about how the workplace supports family is almost destined to fail because you’re in an emotional state at that point. [laugh] There’s a company that I consulted with for a while and there was a woman there who I thought did a really masterful job at this because she was very pragmatic with her boss and she just sort of brought it up to him like, “hey, I think we’d have a easier time recruiting really talented women if we did a couple things to make the workplace a little more accommodating to women in particular.” And at that point she didn’t have kids and she wasn’t talking necessarily about the work-life balance thing. She was more just like, “ we have a bro culture.” [laughs] And so then he was kind of like, “oh I’m open to that.” And so she kind of pulled together a group of women at the office who were all interested in looking at ways to get at this. And they started implementing some pretty subtle things like, “okay, we’re going to have a woman on every client call and whenever we’re presenting about successful projects and stuff like that. And we should try to have at least a couple women a quarter.” Things like that that really had no negative impact on anyone because they were kind of happening behind the scenes, but it did start to sort of gradually shift. And then once they got that going, then it’s like, “okay, well, let’s talk about how we can arrange our flex-time policy to give people a little bit more control who need to pick up kids early or who want to leave the office at like four because they are training for a marathon or whatever and then they’ll be back online at six.” So now—two years later—she had a kid and that workplace is extremely perfect for her because [laughs] she helped to start to put those things in place long before they were an urgent need for her. It was just something that she saw in the workplace that she wanted to change. So, that all takes a lot of time, and a lot of patience, and a lot of emotional energy and again, often falls to women to do. But I do think that those kinds of things really help because a lot of times it is really being able to show examples of these things that help to kind of move the needle. The other thing too is that there’s actually a ton of research around how both flex time—to a certain extent, although people have to kind of be careful with how they implement it—and on-site daycare are huge drivers of productivity and retention and all kinds of things that actually are positive for the bottom line. So, I think in the workplace conversation in particular, shifting the way we talk about it a little bit away from the language I feel often the GOP uses to get rid of these things, which is it’s a cost and it’s a responsibility and you’re asking the company to take care of something that’s your personal thing and whatever, to really looking at, “hey, like this is something that’s good for productivity, the bottom line, all that stuff.”
SWB And I think about this a lot in terms of things that I wish more men would do. I’ve definitely heard of people—with Intact, this is a big thing because there tends to be these high salaries—people who have lots of options for lots of different jobs, which puts them in this place where they have relative power. And hearing men say things like, “oh I started asking potential employers about their family leave policies and I started saying that that was a factor whether or not I had kids or wanted kids, that I wanted to know about that.” And normalizing that this is a thing that people ask about and that people expect that you have, to me was really powerful. So, it’s not just on you when you’re the one who’s pregnant, it’s on all of us every time we have a conversation about it.
AW Yes, totally! Also, I started—there was a period of time where I was mostly reporting on business and it was often on tech because I was in the Bay Area and I started asking male CEOs how they balance family and work. [both laugh] Because it’s just not something—I mean, it’s ridiculous how every woman CEO gets asked that. And if they don’t have kids, they get asked, “did you career come into that decision?” So, I started—and I think little things like that are helpful too because it gets them thinking about like, “oh well, how do I do that?” Oftentimes, it’s like, “I have a lot of paid help or I have a spouse who’s a full-time parent.” [laughs]
SWB Absolutely, I think that’s a great question.
KL It totally is! And that is something I want to ask a little bit more about In addition to writing the book and being a parent yourself to two small kids, you’re also the founder of an indie podcast network called Critical Frequency and a freelance journalist, and a host of some of the podcasts on the network. How did you find time to write the book with all the other stuff happening in your life?
AW The honest answer is I don’t get that much sleep. [KL & AW laugh] I often have to stop work at 4:00 and deal with my kids until about 8:00 and then get back to work at like 8:30 and work until 1:30 or 2:00. And then they get up at like 6:00. Fortunately, I have always been a person who functions fine on like four hours of sleep, although I’m sure that’s not healthy [laughs] for the long run. And it is something that is sort of situational too. That’s been my schedule this year. Next year, I’m going to try and really focus on the podcast network and not take on as much freelance journalism. I kind of was like, “okay, for this year I’m going to do this really crazy schedule and get some stuff done.” Because also the reality is that you do kind of postpone your own life for a certain amount of time when you have kids, whether you take time off or not. Enough though I didn’t take any time off, but because of the financial burden I had to basically take on a bunch of marketing copywriting jobs, consulting jobs—stuff that isn’t my actual career—just to be able to make enough money. But I kind of felt like I had some catching up to do on things that I wanted to do two years prior that had been sort of been derailed. So yeah! Now I… I don’t know. Recently, for some reason this year—I think I probably burned myself out on the late-night thing—so I can now basically not stay up past 11:00 anymore. [all laugh] So, my new thing is waking up at 4:00 and doing work before the kids get up, which actually…I think I might be a morning person! I’m actually a little bit more productive in those hours than I was at night. So, I’ve shifted it around a little bit. But yeah, I mean the childcare thing is a pain too. I have one kid in school and I thought that that was going to make things so much easier, but it’s actually worse. I really feel like this is a big cultural thing that needs to shift too that I feel like almost never gets talked about—the public school system in the US is 100% set up for families that have at least one full-time parent, which is like 25% of American families now. So, that needs to change! [laughs] They’re constantly like, “today we’re going to have a minimum day…surprise! Or today we need parents to show up at 11am for some event,” or whatever. And the shitty part about that too is that if you can’t make it, not only do you feel bad because you didn’t go, but it’s creating negative experiences for the kids too [laughs] because they’re like, “well, my mom was the only one that didn’t come.”
KL Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s not—
SWB You’re bringing back a lot memories for me for being in volleyball and my mom never could come to the games.
AW Yes! Which I’m sure she felt bad about too! Yeah, yeah.
SWB She tried very hard.
SWB So, you are doing a lot. You’re not sleeping enough. What do you do when you have those moments right now where you still feel like you’re kind of failing at being a mom or failing at work or failing at all of it at the same time? How do you get through all of those potential negative feelings?
AW Yeah. I mean, I have those feelings together often [laughs] and I definitely think about… Well, a) I think it’s funny that my book is called “Forget Having It All” and yet here I am trying to do five things at once. [laughs] I’m not doing a good job of forgetting it. So, when I start feeling really, really overwhelmed, the thing that helps me the most is to just go be alone. Whether that is sitting in a room for ten minutes or going on a walk or whatever. I have to do that. Occasionally my husband will be like, “maybe you should go and spend the night in a hotel.” [all laugh]
KL I mean I think that’s probably…
SWB I mean, yeah!
KL So, you mentioned that you are going to focus more on Critical Frequency this year. Tell us a little bit more about that. What drove you to build your own podcast network, rather than join an existing one or stay independent?
AW Yeah! So, I was working at a public radio station and had been working there for a couple of years and had kind of realized the sort of deal with NPR news is that you get a lot of tape and you basically get rid of everything that’s not a straight fact being shared. [laughs] So for me, I felt like there’s so much storytelling that people do and that’s the part that’s kind of interesting to me about reporting is that I get to talk to a lot of people who don’t often get asked about themselves and who get really excited to tell me their story. So, a friend of mine and I started a podcast to basically use all of our extra tape. And it did fairly well. And then I sort of caught the bug and was like, “this would be a good idea for a podcast, I’ll make it!” And then at a certain point I realized that I was making—between the ones I was doing myself and the ones that I was helping other people with—I was working on like four or five podcast at a time. And this was when a lot of the platforms were giving much more attention to networks than they were two individual podcasts necessarily. So, I thought, “well, we basically have a network. I’m hosting all these feeds through one account already. Why don’t we just do this and see if it helps?” But I also kind of looked around the industry and felt like as it’s getting more professionalized, it’s starting to kind of look a lot like other media and really be dominated by like the same people who dominate every other channel of media, which is mostly middle-aged, white men. [all laugh] So, I felt like not only did that mean that there were probably certain stories or types of stories that were getting left out, but also because they all had come from only a public radio background, I felt like on the business side there were a lot of things that were being missed too. So, that time like in a lot of the rest of my work life, I was sort of having to do whatever work paid the most. And it was mostly not work I enjoyed. So, having this outlet to be able to 100% control what I was doing from both a business perspective and a creative perspective was something that actually really helped me get through the year. And having a diversity of voices is not about checking a box or being able to brag about it in marketing materials. I genuinely feel like that diversity brings value and that’s held true. Like this year, we’re putting out a couple different shows that have formats that I’ve never heard anywhere else. We’re dealing with a lot of people whose stories are just not what I’m hearing on other networks and it is actually bringing in an audience to us. And I think we’re we’re in a position to just think more creatively about how to find audiences, how to build revenue, all of those kinds of things. So, it’s exciting for me and it’s worked out! I’m now drawing a full-time salary from the podcast network.
SWB That’s great. Before we go though, I want to make sure that we can ask you a little bit for some insight. Both because you’re an expert on things like parental leave and also because you’re a parent. We know a lot of our listeners have kids and they tell us they’re trying to juggle all of these competing desires. They want to have time with their families, they want to do the right thing as parents, they also want to go on walks in the woods by themselves. [laughs] They want to pursue all of their different career ambitions and creative projects. And then they also want to have their own sense of identity. And you’ve written a lot about this and you’ve written about “forget having it all” like you mentioned, while you’re also still kind of trying to. What do you tell parents—and especially mothers—who are struggling to come to terms with the trade-offs that they need to make? Or what do you tell people who are trying to decide which trade-offs are right for them?
AW I think the main thing that I’ve kind of come to is that you have to stagger things and you have to kind of be okay with that. And also realize that actually not doing all those things right at this second is okay. You can actually be like, “you know what? This year, I have a baby and I just need to be able to feel like an okay parent, get the hang of this thing, and keep one foot in my career.” I think you kind of have to pick two things. [all laugh] And this is advice that I’m giving myself right now too because I’ve just spent a year where I did three things and it was definitely one too many. If I had it to do all over again and I had a newborn and a job at the same time, I think I would spend a considerable amount of time building out a network of people—some paid some no—that would enable me to be able to do like a few other things without feeling like I’m abandoning my kid or doing a bad job of parenting.
SWB Yeah. So, investing in that community building, which of course can be really hard for people.
SWB And especially for any of us who don’t have endless money to spend on paid help, it’s very difficult.
AWYeah, it is. Trading off—finding another mom that’s in a similar position and and figuring out ways to trade off can be super, super helpful. We did that for a while when we just had no money for a babysitter. Well a) my husband and I did it with childcare in general. We couldn’t afford childcare, so we would just stagger our work schedules so that we were trading off taking care of the kid. And then also with friends, we would trade off date nights, so that I would take care of all the kids one night and then my friend would take care of all the kids one night, [laugh] so that we could go out without having to pay for babysitters. So, little things like that that you can do to get yourself some time I think is kind of crucial.
SWB I love that. And also, I like to take care of my friends kids when I can or do some some babysitting for them, which I think is—
AW Bless you!
SWB —the kind of thing that more of us who aren’t having kids could totally do!
SWB We are definitely out of time, so we want to wrap up by just asking you—where can our listeners find out more about you and your book and your work?
AW Well, the Critical Frequency podcast network is on all platforms and I host a show called Drilled on there that’s not at all about parenting. It’s about climate change, [laughs] which is kind of tangentially related. I also host a show called Tell Me About Your Mother, where I talk to people about their mothers and often times my stuff kind of comes out too. And then I have a website—it’s just amywestervelt.com. And there’s a bunch of stuff on there about the book and you whatever I’m writing recently and all that. So, yeah! Oh and on Twitter @amywestervelt.
KL Thank you so much for joining us today. It was awesome talking with you. Thank you.
AW Yeah, you too. Thank you. Thanks a lot!
Promo: Peace of Mind
[music plays for four seconds before voice comes in over the top]
Bhi Bhiman I’m Bhi Bhiman. I’m a singer-songwriter and producer. I’m a dad and I’m an America. Peace of Mind is an experiment. It’s my new album, but I’m releasing it as a podcast. I’ll dig into the issues that inspired these songs with guests like Reza Aslan—
Reza Aslan—None of this is permanent, it could change like that.
BB And Rabia Chaudry—
Rabia Chaudry—That’s America. The great thing is we can do something to change it.
BB Subscribe on your favorite podcast app and join us for some peace of mind. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah Of The Week
SWB Okay, okay, okay. I have a huge fuck yeah this week.
KL Ooh, what is it?
SWB Me and you are gonna host our very first big workshop together!
KL Oh my gosh, I’m so excited. It’s at Lead Dev in New York, which is a conference in April. And I’m so pumped because I’ve just heard so many good things about that conference.
SWB Yeah, I have too. And I’m really excited about this because it’s the first proper thing we have out there that we came up with on our beach retreat a couple of weeks ago.
SWB So, I’m really excited that we were able to put something together—put something this workshop curriculum, and get it out there and into an event. And it’s still just a few works after we had the retreat. So, that’s really exciting to see that work come together.
KL I know. It’s so exciting and really cool to see something that we were talking about just recently actually come to life.
SWB Yeah! Okay, so I’ll tell people about the workshop just a little bit. So, the workshop is all about sharing your work—this is something I feel pretty strongly about. I do a lot of speaking, I do a lot of writing. And so what we’re going to talk about is things like if you work in tech or design, how do you find a topic that you want to speak or write about or want to be known for? How do you develop that kind of perspective? And how do you get confidence to present that at work—like in internal sessions or at meetups, or at conferences, all of that stuff. So, I’m really excited to take some of the things I feel like I’ve built as expertise and help more people learn about them.
KL I know, I can’t wait either. I’ve been thinking so much about the work I do with authors at A Book Apart and helping them develop their books from the initial pitch through the final product. Working with them on marketing and selling that book so that it’s a meaningful addition to their professional lives and their professional personas. And because I’m only working with a handful of people at A Book Apart at the time, I’m just so excited to have an opportunity to hopefully help and work with a lot more folks!
SWB Yes. And you know, I’ve spent so many of the past years writing for other people in my field and speaking about stuff in my field. And I’ve gotten to do that in so many cool places. It has allowed me to see a lot of parts of the world, which has been pretty cool. That’s not everybody’s goal necessarily—
SWB —but that’s something that’s been pretty cool for me. It’s also gotten me more comfortable in front of a lot of different types of groups. I’ve talked to a lot of students, I’ve talked to a lot of executives, I’ve talked to everybody in between. And I want to kind of share more of what I’ve learned. And I want to make sure I’m making some space for more people to be able to get out there and have their ideas heard. And particularly when I first started speaking, I remember that I would go to a lot of events and there would be like no other women or [laughs] one other woman who was speaking. [KL laughs] And that was a little bit lonely. In the events that I go to, that has gotten a lot better. A lot of that is also because I will not speak at events that are not more diverse than that.
SWB So, as that has changed for me, that’s something I also want to think about—what is my role in helping that change even further. Is it time for me to kind of seed some of that space that I have had to some new voices and to some people who are more underrepresented in the field? How can I invest some of my professional visibility that I’ve built into helping other people become visible?
KL I love that. And I think that is so important for us to keep in mind as we do this together.
KL That’s a really exciting part of it.
SWB Yeah. So, the Lead Dev conference is the lead developers, so it’s more focused on engineering, but we’re really doing this workshop for anybody in tech/design sort of loosely speaking who just wants to feel more confident and prepared to share ideas. So, if you’re interested in that, you can check it out at bit.ly/leaddevnyc. But we’re going to be doing this workshop as much as we can this year. I think we’re going to have a couple of short versions too, so half day or couple hour versions. So, I’m very excited about that. And I just want to say fuck yeah to us launching a workshop and putting out for out there. And a huge fuck yeah to helping more people put their voices and ideas out there!
KL Yes, fuck yeah.
SWB Fuck yeah! Well, that is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and it’s produced by Steph Colbourn at EditAudio. Our theme is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. And thanks to Amy Westervelt for being our guest today. And thank you all for listening! If you liked our show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—make sure you get strong feelings right in your inbox! You can get our newsletter by going to strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]