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Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code on replacing perfectionism with courage in motherhood

Reshma Saujani is the Founder & CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit working to close the gender gap in tech. She has been named on Fortune's "World's Greatest Leaders" list and Forbes "Most Powerful Women Changing the World" list and is nationally recognized as someone who is truly changing the technology landscape.

In 2010 Reshma became the first Indian American woman to run for Congress but lost to the incumbent Democrat in her district. While the loss was devastating, she learned a lot through the experience of campaigning about the socialization of women and girls, which she writes about in her new book, Brave, Not Perfect.

In this episode, Reshma chats with Liz about her experience of being a mom to her son Shaan, how we can raise our girls to be risk-takers, and how we as mothers can unlearn the deeply ingrained perfectionism within so many of us.


Liz: Well Reshma, welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Reshma Saujani: Thank you so much for having me.

Liz: So a question I always have for my guests is, tell me about your view of motherhood before you became a mom yourself.

Reshma: Oh my God. I didn't think it would be this hard. I did not think it was going to be this hard. I think maybe I romanticized it. I think that I had married a feminists. I felt like we'd have this really kind of equitable fair share and everything would be 50:50. And then when I had my son all my I guess mis notions about what it was going to be like just went out the door. I realized how messy it is and I've embraced the messiness.

Liz: Why did you think you didn't know it was going to be this hard?

Reshma: Oh my God. I feel like we romanticize it in culture. I feel like we don't talk about it right. Even if you think about you go on Instagram and you have these women who have these beautiful pictures of them and their kids and everything looks so perfect right. So like we don't talk about how exhausted you are, how draining it is, how you never have time for yourself, how maybe you don't want to sit with your kids and teach them how to trace letters right. Maybe you just want to have a glass of wine and read The New York Times. And like nobody talks about it that way. So I felt like when I was feeling that way that something was wrong with me. And it wasn't until I started kind of sharing it on social or talking about it to my friends that people were like, "Oh no, no, no. I feel the same exact same way." Then I felt like I was normal.

Liz: It's almost like this idea of perfectionism is carrying over into motherhood in that only showing the perfect version. I mean honestly I had a moment with my kids this week where I'm like, "Well that's not going on Instagram." I handled that extremely poorly and I'm mad at everyone and of course I'm not putting that on social media. But when I don't and I only put the fun moments or the funny moments you know we're not telling the full story.

Reshma: Let's be honest. When I had; I have a picture of Shawn pulling my hair and the likes. No one likes to see it. And so I like rebelling against that personally and just you know like showing the real stuff and if you don't like it I don't care. But I'm not going to keep telling a lie. I think that's kind of what we have to do. Yes, perfectionism is so tied into everything that's wrong with motherhood and it's complicated about motherhood.

Liz: Well this podcast is all about having honest conversations so let's start talking about it. In your Ted Talk, you coin this line that I love. Everyone loves. And it's really sort of defined in your book and your activism which is that we're raising our girls to be perfect and we're raising our boys to be brave. So what do you mean by that and why does it matter?

Reshma: Look I mean if you go to any playground you'll see what I mean. Like we tell our boys to like crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump. And with our girls we're like you know "Be careful honey. Don't swing too high. Did you take that toy away from her? Like give it back." So we're constantly teaching our girls to silence themselves, to put others feelings before theirs right. To look perfect, to be perfect right. And it's causing them to feel like when they get older that they give up before they even try right. They start getting addicted to perfection and as we become women perfectionism is literally making us sick. Women are twice as likely to be depressed than men and then from a leadership world perspective we're feeling like we have to be perfect to lead and so it's become toxic in our lives. It's really socialized from the time that we are 30 months old.

Liz: It gets socialized when you're pregnant and people find out if you're having a boy or girl. They start making comments or they'll even say, "You know you look a certain way" so they're already making all these gender assumptions, just about you and the way you're carrying or just finding out if it's a boy or a girl. It starts really early.

Reshma: It starts. That's the first question people ask, "Is it a boy or girl?" Yeah I mean it's really. It's funny, I also think that we pass this down generation after generation after generation. Like I don't know about your mom but my mom was like, "You know stand up straight. Did you gain ten pounds? I don't know if you're going to get that job." She was always so critical and I watch sometimes how my sister is with my niece and she's so critical. And so we're constantly almost like passing down our unrealized dreams or potential on our daughters. We're making it so much harder on them. But with our sons we let them be flawed. You know we let them to be mediocre. We let them be a mess and we don't have the same expectations on them and it's crippling for our girls.

Liz: How did you come to this revelation in your own life? Tell me the story of identifying perfectionism within yourself and in the broader world.

Reshma: Yeah look for me I think my parents came here as refugees. I felt like this country that they had gone through so much that I had to be a good little girl. And so I always got "A"s. I didn't talk out of my turn at school. I obeyed and followed every single rule that was in the house. When I got older I always wanted to be in public service but I worked in finance right. I worked for the man and I ended up in these jobs that I like hated. But I knew my parents were proud of me. And I finally got to this point in like my early thirties; I think in your early thirties is when you're like, "I'm not young anymore." I can't keep waiting until the next year to do the thing that I want to do. Now is now. And I was in this job that I hated and it's funny. My best friend calls me and I'm at work. Your best friend always calls when your life is falling apart.

Reshma: And then I go into this windowless conference room and I just cried. She was like, "Just quit." And I did and I ran for Congress in this race that like I have no chance of winning. But it was the best ten months of my life and I lost miserably. I mean like not even close. I'm broke, I'm humiliated. I know either people are laughing at me or feeling sorry for me. But the thing when I woke up the next morning I thought to myself and it was a shock to me, I was like, "Oh my God. I'm not broken." I'm not broken. I had thought for so much of my life that if I tried for something that I really wanted, because I really wanted this, and that it didn't work out then it would physically break me. And so it was a huge eye-opener. I was like I can do other things. I can be as brave as a moonshot. I can try other things that could not work out and I could be okay. But I could be happier and it was that quest for joy, wanting to really be in; you know in the way you said when you're in your flow which you're probably already working on right now and I certainly am in my work, because I'm doing what I want to do and not what I think I should do or what I'm good at. That's very different.

Liz: And what I'm seeing more and more in sort of parenting conversations is that this idea of people are recognizing that encouraging our kids to try things and fail and then build up their resilience to try again. They're starting to really value that. Do you see that as well and what do you think it means to fail?

Reshma: Look I say to people throw out your parenting books. They're wrong. In the name of building confidence we have killed our children's confidence. You know my parents never read my college essay. They didn't know where I applied to school. Parents are hovering and helicoptering and what they call it now, snowplowing in ways that are so toxic for their children. They don't let them fail. They don't let them; whether they don't let them fall on the playground and get a scraped knee right. They don't let them face disappointment. If they're bad at soccer they pull them out and put them into gymnastics just so they can feel like what it's like to be great at something. All of that is creating zero resistance, zero tolerance. They don't know what it's like to feel rejection you know or get critical feedback. I mean you think about any great athlete; athletes sit at their ability of feedback you know what I mean and rejections. So they have a coach who's sitting there saying do it again, do it again, do it again. That's how you excel right, not if someone's telling you, "You're amazing. You're great. You didn't make a mistake." That's a false sense of security and so when that's lifted from them in the real world it's soul crushing.

Liz: So how do we start that process not just for our girls but for our children in general? What does it mean? How do we start to let our kids have that experience of failure?

Reshma: First I think we have to exercise some patience. I realize that as a working mom, even with my son, he's like, "Let me put my socks on." I'm like, "No let me do it" 'cause I just don't have the patience right to sit there and let him keep trying over and get the wrong. I mean it's frustrating right. I've got to have the patience to let him fail. A lot of us in this kind of go up world, we just don't have the patience. So identify patience. Secondly it's really important I think for your kids to kind of get dirty and messy and to build things and use our hands. And so like for our boys we're often allowing them to tinker in Legos , which is so important, and block building is so important. Often times we don't expose our girls to that. But you know when you build something or you fix something you start getting comfortable with a challenge. I don't know about you but I didn't have exposure to that when I was young so when I got older if my phone went black I'd be like to my husband, "Hey. Can you fix my phone?" Or if I've got a toy that felt a little complicated I would get frustrated with it in a few minutes if I couldn't figure out how to do it. Now I sit with that frustration and I let myself learn how to be challenged. And so I feel like you've got to do that with your kids at a very, very, very young age.

Liz: In talking about the difference between how we socialize boys and girls even from a very early age, this was something that you noticed and realized that this sort of culture of perfectionism and not experimentation was one that was really hurting girls and boys. So can you tell us the story of how you noticed this and how you came up with the idea for Girls Who Code.

Reshma: Yeah. You know for a while for Girls Who Code I'm not a coder right. I was definitely one of those girls that thought I was bad at math and science. I end up running for this congressional seat. I lose and you know I said to myself, "I don't want to go back to the private sector." Of all the things that I saw on the campaign trail what's the thing that really moved me. I remember going into these CS classrooms or robotics class and I would see a ton of boys and no girls. I knew that being the daughter of refugees that it mattered what your skillset was, that if you wanted to get a chance to march your family up into the middle class that you had to get a job that was going to pay well. These tech jobs were paying well and there was a lot of them. It felt like we were leaving women and girls behind.

So I spent two years kind of learning everything that there was about women in tech, why we weren't there, what was happening with girls and coding and came up with an idea of doing a free summer camp. I just launched my first one in 2012 and it clicked. Now seven years later we've taught 185,000 girls. We've reached millions through our programs. We have 6,000 afterschool clubs, 80 summer emersion programs, hundreds of college loops. That's how Girls Who Code started.

So, this piece about bravery; I think a lot of girls, if you ask most girls, who's a coder they often think it's a male genius. They often think that they cant do it. They're just not "smart enough." When girls were first learning how to code, when girls would make a mistake they wouldn't show their teacher their line of code. They'd rather say, "I don't know how to do it." It was so interesting that this idea of perfection or bust right. You're giving up before even trying. That's what inspired me to do this Ted Talk. I do this Ted Talk and I get thousands of people who reach out to me and be like, "I do this. My wife does this. My daughter does this." And so I spent again two years researching and saying, "Is there this idea about that we teach our girls to be perfect and that if we taught them to be brave we could create a different world." After two years of research and writing this book I was like yes.

We do live in a sexist, racist world. But while we fight that, while we fight for equality, we have to give women and girls strategies to thrive in the existing world. And to me, so many of us hold ourselves back because of perfectionism. And so we don't get those promotions. We don't get those opportunities. We take ourselves out of the game because of perfection. And so how do we unlearn that? I wrote this book and I have some strategies in it that I actually think that you can unlearn perfectionism. That doesn't mean you're one and done. That doesn't mean one day you just wake up and you're brave, not perfect. It is a practice that you have to engage in on a daily basis and it's exciting and it brings you. It makes you happier. It brings you joy.

Liz: One of the ways we can actually do that is by raising our daughters in a different way. So can you talk to me about what those strategies are that you identified to help raise our girls to be brave?

Reshma: Yeah. I mean so I think the first things is about getting them to get dirty and messy. Stopping yourself when you see that your daughter spilled something on her and every bone in your body wants to just change her dress and clean her up. Let he be messy. Let her not feel like every; she has to walk through life without every bow in her hair. We do that right. So many of us are afraid to leave the house without a full face of makeup on to go to the grocery store. I mean come on right. So I think stopping that picking and prodding and fixing and straightening. Stop doing that to your daughters and stop it as young as you possibly can. The second thing and studies will show that when girls are building blocks they'll build very low, stable structures that have a story with it. Boys just build high and kick it down.

Liz: Sounds right.

Reshma: You know like teach your girls to build high and kick it down. You know take them to maker fairs. Teach them how to code. You know expose them to books. I love Aida Twist, A Scientist and Rosie Revere the Engineer. Expose them to stories about rebel girls. Expose them to stories about fierce women that are just creating and innovating and that are not perfect. Like oftentimes even when you watch the shows that you're watching with your kids, everything always has a happy ending. Life is not a happy ending. You can make mistakes. You will fail. You will get your heart crushed. Let that happen to them at an early age. It's kind of like falling in love. Imagine if you never fell in love before how hard it would be to put yourself and your heart out there. If you protect your daughters from failure or the slightest bit of making a mistake they'll never be able to take that big risk.

Liz: Let's do it. As I told you, I have a daughter and I have two sons. I'm expecting a third. I'm a boy mom too as you are and reading about these gender issues and thinking about it from the perspective of raising a daughter and the unique challenges there and the same with raising a son. There was a study out just last week that showed that American parents are actually increasingly comfortable with girls breaking outside of gender norms and still not comfortable with boys doing the same. I'm wondering as a boy mom how do you talk to your children about gender and values and how can we be the generation that also frees boys from these stereotypes as well?

Reshma: Yeah I feel so strongly. My husband and I got in a fight about a nightlight a couple years ago 'cause Shawn wanted a nightlight. So I went to Bye Bye Baby. I bought the nightlight. I plug it in and go into my room. Sure enough my husband comes up five minutes later, takes out the nightlight. Shawn screams. We do this dance for like and week and finally I'm like, "What is your problem? He's afraid of the dark." He looks at me and doesn't skip a beat. He said, "You know I gotta toughen him up." To my feminist husband I said to him, "Look. If Shaan were a girl would you let him have the nightlight?" To his credit he was like, "Oh my God. You're right. I would." So it's like we spend so much time telling our boys to be tough, to be strong and to not be vulnerable. We gotta stop that too. My son is a cautious. He is not jumping off any monkey bars. He is cautious. He is kind. He is like a little Ghandi. I have to protect him from the rest of the world trying to kill that because it's not seen as being a boy. Yeah look. I think that what's so awesome about this time that we're in is we have these men who want to be our allies, who want to be supportive of women, who want to elevate women, who are feminists. But we need to make sure that we raise them to allow them to be too.

Liz: Let's do it. You talk in your book about the fact that this pressure of perfectionism can sometimes hit working moms the hardest. How have you struggled with that yourself in your own career?

Reshma: Oh my God all the time. You know when I first had my son I just could not lose the baby weight right. I was one of those women who was breastfeeding just took off the pounds. If anything it made me keep them. I remember like I'm CEO of an organization and the best time for me to get to the gym was at 7:30 in the morning. That was the time my son was waking up. That was the time the dog wanted out. It was the best time for me but the worst time for my family. So the most courageous thing I feel like I've ever done in the past couple years is just walk out the door and be like, "Y'all figure it out." So I think it's so important, especially when you are a mom, to stop being a martyr and putting everybody's feelings before yours to the point where you're actually physically sick. So that's a huge lesson that I've had to learn. I also spend most of my time I feel, glaring at my husband 'cause I'm like he doesn't feel the same way I feel. It's—and I'm like why do I feel this way? Why do I take two red eyes in a row just because I want to be home in the morning to see my son where he doesn't do that? He doesn't tell me to do it. It's something I put on myself. Again it's this mom guilt. I'm worried that I'm a bad mom 'cause I work too much. I'm worried that people are judging me. I'm worried that I'm going to irrefutably harm him. That is so much about perfectionism. It's so much because I feel like I want to be the perfect mom and do everything so totally right and I'm afraid to make the slightest mistake because I think it will be fatal.

Liz: And then how do you talk to those perfectionist thoughts once you've been able to identify them? What do you tell them instead?

Reshma: Yeah I mean I'll give you a great story. After my book tour Shawn, my husband and I were coming back. We're at the Delta line. One of us gets upgraded, me. Now I've just come off 15, 16 hour days but I of course look at my husband and I'm like, "Baby, you take the front of the bus. I'll sit in the back with Shawn." I'm in a five hour flight. I'm on my ninth episode of Paw Patrol. I'm getting M&Ms thrown at me. I am just sitting there seething right. All I wanted to do was have a glass of wine and go to sleep. But I am in the back of the bus with my son. I'm like, "Why did you do this? Oh 'cause I need to be a martyr." Yup. This is mom guilt and even though there's an hour left in the flight I marched up to the front, looked at my husband and am like, "Switch." I was just proud of myself. Even though I was four hours too late I caught myself doing it and I reversed course.

Liz: You are really changing the conversation about perfectionism but you're also living this out. What's an example of something you're working on yourself recently in terms of finding a place where you want to be more brave?

Reshma: I mean I still have to check myself. I mean recently after I came off this book tour; the book was an international bestseller, number four on the list. I kept thinking of; going home at night thinking why didn't I sell as many books as Michelle Obama. It was crazy. I was like, "What's wrong with me?" My husband would have had a party for every bestseller list he hit but it was never enough. It's never enough for us. It's really the thing that I'm really working on because I think that is such a huge problem that we all have right. Like if we can't find joy in our successes then what do we have right 'cause then we're constantly striving for what? For what? And so that is again the perfectionist mindset that I'm constantly battling of this thing of it's never enough. I'm never enough. And it literally I think has real physical consequences. That's something that I'm constantly working on, is being enough.

Liz: Reshma at Motherly we talk about how motherhood brings out our super powers. These innate powers within us that we only discover after becoming moms. I'm wondering what do you see as your sort of motherhood super powers?

Reshma: That's amazing. I feel like it made me so much more; motherhood made me love myself more and allowed me to kind of go deeper in who I am and what my insecurities were and what my flaws were and be okay to kind of go to those places and try to work on them. It made me love more right. Like I feel like my son has just taught me how to love. Motherhood has been the best thing that's ever happened to me.

Liz: Thank you so much for joining us today on Motherly podcast.

Reshma: Thank you. It's so awesome talking to you. Thank you so much.

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