June 20, 2019
Elise Loehnen is the Chief Content Officer at Goop and the well-known right-hand woman of Gwenyth Paltrow. Before coming to Goop, Elise had a high-powered career in magazines, working at Conde Nast Traveler and Lucky. Today, Elise serves as a frequent go-to spokesperson for Goop, co-hosts the Goop podcast, and is a mother to her two sons, Max and Sam.
In this episode, Liz chats with Elise about postpartum depletion and what our healthcare system can do to better serve women before, during and after pregnancy.
Liz: Elise, welcome to the Motherly Podcast!
Elise: Thank you for having me! Thrilled to be here!
Liz: Ok, so something I love to ask every guest is, what was your view of motherhood before you actually became a mom yourself?
Elise: I guess, honestly, I would say a little bit of ambivalence. I never grew up feeling extremely maternal. I knew I wanted to have children, so it wasn't, I didn't need to be talked into it, but I, I had no idea, I think before you have children you have no idea what it's going to feel like, and you really, you can't anticipate it. My husband and I adopted two cats, and I was like okay, this is, this is either, there's like some sort of tragedy coming in the sense that when we have a child I will love that child more than I love my cats, which felt unfair, or I will love the cats more than I love my child, which also seemed unfair. I just had no idea, in a way, what maternal love would feel like.
Liz: so, to ask you the sort of unspeakable follow-up question, like, what does maternal love feel like?
Elise: it's sort of a visceral feeling, it's almost animalistic. It's just, you know when you're like, "I just want to eat your face!" I just have this like consuming fierce adoration of my boys in a way that's not like, oh I love and admire you for your personality. it's not based in anything they do or the way that they are, it's just this deep heart love of just protectiveness, you know? It's almost like a weird energy cloud is how I feel about the love that you have for your kids. It's unlike anything else. It's not how you love your partner, it's not how you love your own parents, it's this for me at least, almost this animal-like ugh. Like I just love you, like that's how it feels.
Liz: So, you talked about how, maybe you didn't have ambivalence about becoming a parent, like you always thought you might become a mom. But you're certainly not an ambivalent person, you've had this powerhouse career. Tell us how you got from working in magazines to managing and leading the content operation at goop.
Elise: yeah, it's interesting. So, I grew up at Conde Nast. I worked there for almost a decade before I moved to Los Angeles. And throughout my career, I managed to do a minimal amount of management of other people. I always tried to take jobs where I was just responsible for myself with a high degree of being an individual contributor with a lot of output, if that makes sense. Then I moved from New York to Los Angeles to take a deeply unglamorous job at this comparison search company here that wanted to create editorial and create relationships with readers at the top of the funnel. And it was a major leap because I went from working at brands that people recognized to a company that nobody had heard of, even though they were interact, it was one of the largest fashion and shopping sites online.
But I knew I needed to get off of the Titanic, and having safety and security at that point, it was just me and my husband but I knew I needed to have a viable and long career and that I couldn't sort of go down with the boat. And so like you, I was like, I have to do something here. So I moved to Los Angeles to learn about the internet. I was one of only a couple of creatives at a company full of engineers, and digital product people and businesspeople. and it was an incredible learning experience and so much fun. And throughout that, one of the things I had always done on the side was to write books. Either as a co-writer or a ghostwriter. And I was working on a project with Tracy Anderson, which is how I came to know Gwyneth. Because at that point Gwyneth owned half of Tracey Anderson's gym business so I started working on all the positioning copy for the gym, and I met Gwyneth. And she was so involved in naming the classes, and how to describe them, and the name of the studio in Brentwood. And when she moved from London to LA, this was now 5 years ago, I met with her to sort of talk about goop. And she wanted to discuss, she wanted to understand how to scale and create sort of an editorial function that was more than just two people. And then I joined her maybe a handful of months after that, and she was occupying this kind of fascinating white space and really doing her own thing. And that's one of the things that I really love about working with her that's true to this day. She just works off of instinct, she works off of what she perceives to be as needs or opportunities in the market and is unabashed and will not be cowed from sort of pushing those conversations forward and moving the conversation along. And there's obviously resistance to that at times, but I think she's a great model for women of like, you just have to keep pushing.
Liz: What I've read about Goop's sort of corporate culture. so you're known for having this primarily female C-suite, Yay! which is exciting to read about and so many goop executives, including you and Gwyneth, are mothers. How does that fact, the reality of parenting, shape office culture, especially working for a wellness brand that's trying to bring that into daily life? So, what does that look like for you at the company?
Elise: Well, the leadership as you mentioned is primarily female, we have one man on the executive team, and just a couple on the wider leadership team. And the company itself is 80 percent women. So it's really important, I think, not everyone is a mother at this point but that we model how to do both in a way that, again, it's never gonna be perfect. You're never gonna show up for work every day, because there are gonna be times when you're gonna need to be home with your sick child. And likewise, you're not gonna be at every school event. But I think it's important to us that we model enough flexibility for women and I think it, we believe, and we're not alone in this, that women are incredibly productive and capable of so many things. I know everyone says you can't multitask. But if anyone can multitask its women, particularly moms. What we believe is there's already so much stress that comes with work and there's so much stress that comes with parenthood, that the only way to sort of alleviate it and help people broker both is to make sure there's enough flexibility so that if your child is sick or you need to work from home, that the stress of already being out of the office is not compounded by a corporate culture that frowns on that or shames you for that or punishes you for that. Because I think if you ask any mom what you need, at least I feel this way. I don't want a year of maternity leave. I just want ongoing flexibility and the ability to manage my own time and work autonomously and know that I'm gonna be able to deliver as best as I can against all of the various demands. But I can only really do that when I feel like I have power and autonomy in my own life. So, I think that's what we try to drive, and the corporate culture that we try to create, and you just get so much more out of people. And you might get more out of them at 11 o clock at night, it might not always happen at 10 o clock in the morning, but in this modern world of connectivity, that's fine. Because I think there's nothing more stressful than having a stressed child and not feel like you can go and attend to that because someone at work is watching your comings and goings.
Liz: How do you think that motherhood has made you better at your career and in your sort of daily work life?
Elise: I think that it has created a needed check on me. You know, I tend to, my addiction is work, and I think that there are times particularly as my kids have gotten older, where the insistence of mommy, come play with me, is stronger than my laptop. So that has been helpful for me to like really create more boundaries around work. so that I give my children as much as I can and when I am available to them. And I think it's just, as you know, having a child is like wearing your heart on the outside. I just think your level of empathy goes through the roof to the point where you know like I'm not interested in watching sad movies anymore.
Liz: I can't watch Game of Thrones. I'm not capable of it.
Elise: Nope. Like nope. Nope. So, I think that's a profound shift that's one of the hardest things to navigate. Like the anxiety, the what ifs. Like suddenly you're, when it's just you, it's like who cares. You feel invincible. But when you have children it is such a different emotional game out there and your desire to leave a better world escalates, your desire to use safer products escalates, and that's a lot to manage. That I think is the most overwhelming part, not the physical labor of parenthood, but the emotional labor is the hardest part of being a mom.
Liz: Absolutely. And goop has done so much over the last decade to bring the conversation about physical and mental wellness into the mainstream. But that mental burden is still so real. And the idea of self-care seems sometimes like laughable in the daily grind of motherhood. How do you personally build self-care into your daily life as a working mom, but also, what challenges do you see out there for other women who really struggled to find that balance?
Elise: I mean it's really hard, and I have a tremendous, working at Goop I have tremendous resources and access to incredible people to help me, and so I realize I'm at a major advantage in that. But I think culturally, obviously we need things like paid family leave so desperately in this country, and most women get no leave when they go back to work. And then I think we need to do a much better job of supporting women physically after childbirth. And I know they just changed it from 6 weeks to I think three weeks for a postpartum visit. But even that, other countries leave us in the dust in terms of other women rebuilding their Pelvic floor health, making sure their nutrients are back in order. If you're deficient in iron, if you're deficient in B or D, all these things have an impact on depression, on your mood in general, and nobody looks at those things. Doctors aren't even looking at hormone panels to make sure things are in check. You have to go in and complain and complain and complain and mothers don't have time to do that so I think we need a reclaim and rebuild of health for women after having babies. It is very depleting, even if you eat perfectly and you supplement, when you have a child they take everything that they need, thankfully, but they leave you kind of as a shell. And the effects of that on culture, I think, are just a ripple effect of moms who are totally wiped out, going on to have another child and then becoming more depleted. You know we've written about postnatal depletion and talked to a lot of experts about that. But it sort of sets you up to always be behind, and I think moms need every advantage possible in order to deal with everything that's coming.And I think particularly for postpartum depression and anxiety, which can be incredibly debilitating, particularly when you really want to be bonding with your child. Like, you have to deal with the physical parts of that first. So I would say like that has to happen. And I—you know have help doing all of that, building all my immune system. I needed all of that a lot of help to get myself back in order so that I have the energy to exercise and I have the energy to care about myself on top of everything else. But that's the primary thing, It's just like eating well, I do take supplements. I try to exercise three or four times a week. But yeah, like you said, I get a pedicure now, like two times a year. That's a joke. Those instances I'm like, yeah, never gonna happen, never
Liz: I love the term postnatal depletion. It just really strikes at this need and the way that we sort of take from women and don't actually serve them. And it's abundantly clear that our culture does such a poor job of caring for women and their physical and mental health along this journey of motherhood. And trust me, there is no disagreement here. What I'd love for you to do though is paint a picture of what it would look like for the average woman to have access to a world where she is physically and mentally supported, that she's whole, that she feels vibrant, and resilient for all of the things that are demanded of her in motherhood.
Elise: I would love to. I think that our prenatal care in this country is good. I do think that before women have children, there should be a certain amount of education, I think one going into it really repleted and in sort of a good state, like not anemic, etcetera, like all those things that can be very exacerbated by pregnancy. I think just basic labs need to be, that's more the functional world of medicine, that should be part of the conventional world of medicine as well, I think women should get a baseline look at their hormones before they have children so they can bring themselves back thereafter and look at what's normal or what's not normal for them.
And you know, one of the things that I know horrifies women, and I didn't know about this until I had children, is that in terms of our toxic load, which we all carry because of PCPs, and PFOAs, and personal care products, and our water and our soil, like we all, the average baby is born with chemicals in their system already that are not organic. And so I think for women to know that and do some sort of detox, you can get a lot of that out of your system before you have a baby. And then I think after is obviously critical. It's making sure that women are set up to be able to ask for help, that they have empowered partners who are participating at more than 50 percent in terms of taking care of the baby, and changing diapers, and swaddling. You know, Oscar Serelak is a functional doctor who actually wrote a book for us on postnatal depletion, he has this quote like, there are no visitors, only helpers. But really, setting up a structure so that people, in the months after the baby are born, that they're put to work, whether it's bringing food, or picking up diapers or trash bags, or running the dishwasher, that there's no extra pressure on women to sort of also entertain these guests who want to meet the baby.
And then also, we mentioned basically paid family leave, which is essential. and then I think there's this ongoing testing of making sure that your, that you are sort of rebuilding those labs and that your hormones aren't' completely out of whack they will be for a while but they're naturally starting to settle again because a lot of women post-pregnancy end up on sort of this autoimmune spectrum or a full-on autoimmune disease they don't know why, that happens but it's, a lot of it comes after having babies and I think it's because a lot of women get depleted, and then they have this baby which adds to the stress, and then their hormones are out of whack, and then it's this slippery slope of never recovering and never recovering and never recovering until suddenly their thyroid is gone. So doctors need to do a better job of aggressively helping women instead of treating them like they're hysterical. That was my own experience and that's sort of why I got so interested in this. I had incredible sleepers, both boys were incredible sleepers. and I went to my doctor at 6 weeks, and I was like, I feel terrible, something is wrong. and he dismissed me, he was like, you have a newborn, of course you're tired I'm like, I'm telling you like, I don't feel well. And I'm getting a decent amount of sleep and finally I think I went back and was like, you have to test me and he would only test my iron and I was extremely anemic, which is my tendency so stuff like that, I shouldn't be on the mat with my doctor about a finger prick, you know?
Liz: how did that experience of knowing that something was wrong with you and being invalidated by your doctor, how did that shape this approach that you've had to why wellness matters so much for women and mothers in particular?
Elise: because my dad's a doctor, my mom's a nurse, I'm fairly literate in medicine and always have been an incredible sort of self-advocate. I immediately know when I need an antibiotic, and when I have a UTI, whatever it may be. I'm good at self-diagnosing, and to be rebuffed again and again by my wonderful OB-GYN. He was great, both of my deliveries were great, but I'm strong, and if I'm running into this I can only imagine what's happening to women. And what we found with the particularly the sort of content around postnatal depletion which was a viral story for us, of people just being like, oh my god, that's me and other stories about autoimmunity in particular. it's these women writing in saying, yes, I was ignored by my doctor. Selma Blair, I don't know if you follow the news on her, but she's a perfect example for someone who probably had undiagnosed MS for decades. So culturally, and I think 99 percent of conventional doctors would agree with this, we have to do a better job culturally of listening to women instead of treating them like hypochondriacs and dismissing them because these things start small, and they start treatable and then they escalate until you have a chronic disease that has no cure and we're really good at acute medicine in this country. We're good for the most part at delivering babies, we're good at setting broken legs, we're good at heart attacks. We are terrible at chronic disease and preventative medicine. We have to change the system that believes that you don't deserve care until you have a disease code that can be submitted to insurance and you're sick. We need to focus on keeping people well and that's really women because we're more complex, our hormones are more complex. We have children, we go through more hormonal shifts than men. Perimenopause, menopause, matrescence. And we have to be far more aggressively working with women to keep them well because our families depend on it and our culture depends on it.
Liz: I love that we're at a moment too where people are saying, you were postpartum for the rest of your life after you have a baby. But so many women, maybe they're fine at the beginning, but they reach a moment in motherhood, they reach a point where they just feel so burned out. What can we do if we reach that point, and really how can we avoid getting to that point of that utter feeling of burnout that so many of us have experienced?
Elise: That is the question for the ages, and I think that again, I would go back to the physical part first, because I think when you are depleted or anemic or any of these very simple to treat things you have no energy, and everything feels totally overwhelming. And I think it's it has to start there, sort of in that basic blueprint for wellness, like building your immunity so you don't get destroyed by every virus at preschool.
Liz: There's a lot of them!
Elise: there's a lot of them. That's when it starts to feel just overwhelming, like I can barely drag myself out of bed, much less conquer the boardroom and show up for the PT meeting. And I think a big part of it is learning how to say no, and that goes back to our conversation about not being triggered. So for me, and this may not be the right choice, but as a working mom, I'm really not involved in my son's kindergarten. I can't volunteer, I don't. And I, I don't know, maybe that's embarrassing. but I don't have the time resources to do that, and I wish I could, but I was sort of driving myself crazy by saying yes to things that I really didn't have the bandwidth to deliver against and I made a call that I wasn't going to do it, and I would use that energy instead at home with Max and I would be that mom. Like, I'm the mom. I'm sure there are many of us. And getting comfortable with that has been difficult, but that's a place where I think women need to have more boundaries as to what is essential for me, what is essential to my partner and the functioning of our relationship, and what is essential for our children, and if it's not an immediate yes, than it's a no.
Liz: I love that quote. I think that's such a great philosophy and honestly, something that we've heard consistently from other women doing amazing things from home and out in the world. So Elise, at motherly, we talk about how motherhood really helps bring out our superpowers. These really powerful forces within ourselves that we maybe didn't know that we had until we become moms. What superpowers did you discover after becoming a mother?
Elise: That is a great question. What are my superpowers? I mean, efficiency. I think if I was always capable of getting a fair amount done that now, man, I can sort of, the amount that I can accomplish in 20 minutes stuns me, you know? I've managed to sort of find the time within the lack of time to continue to create and I think part of it is, it's really taught me how to understand my energy level and when I'm feeling energetic I seize those hours and those days to just take care of business whether it's things that need to be attended to at home or stuff for my kids or work projects or side projects that I'm working on and I just like, I sort of wait until I feel inspired and then I tackle it, instead of just forcing myself to slog through even when I don't have the energy, does that make sense?
Liz: It makes sense, and I hope it means that you're giving me permission to not do all of the things when I really don't feel the energy to do all the things.
Elise: Exactly. there are times when I'm like, I am going to root into this couch and eat popcorn and watch bad reality tv for four hours, or I'm gonna get in bed. I think that's the other thing with being a working mom, there are times when like, I need to get in bed for four hours, and my husband can deal with it.
Liz: well, great advice and Elise, thank you so much for joining us today on the motherly podcast.
Elise: Thank you so much for having me.
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Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.