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Tiffany Dufu on what being a "good mother" really means

Tiffany Dufu frequently states that her life's work is advancing women and girls, and her resume is certainly good proof of that. She has worked to increase women's representation in government by serving as president of The White House Project, was a founding member of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In initiative, and most recently founded The Cru—a peer coaching service for women looking to jumpstart their careers.

In 2017, Tiffany wrote "Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less" which is an inspiring part-memoir, part-manual about how after she became a mother, she learned to let go of outside expectations in order to achieve what was most important to her. The book has received high praise from numerous outlets including The New York Times Book Review, as well as from prominent feminists like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Gloria Steinem.

In this episode, Liz and Tiffany talk about how Tiffany learned to "drop the ball" and define for herself what makes her a good mother, daughter, wife, and career woman.


Liz: Well Tiffany thank you and welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Tiffany Dufu: Thank you for having me.

Liz: So something I like to ask all fellow mothers as part of this show is what was your view of motherhood before you became a mother yourself?

Tiffany: That's an interesting question. I mean my primary model was my own mother who was what I call a nonpaid working mom. Some people call them stay at home moms but I think that's kind of silly because they spend a lot of time out of the house and they do enormous amount of work. They just don't get compensated for it. And she always had a clean house and our hair was always corn rowed beautifully with all of these amazing beads. And she was the pastor's wife and she had a particular set of obligations that she fulfilled nearly perfectly. And so I thought that's what motherhood was.Now later my parents got divorced when I was sixteen and my impression and thoughts about motherhood changed dramatically because my dad had been the one to go to college. He had been the one to earn income outside of the home. And so when my parents got divorced my parents led very different lives. Unfortunately my mom spun into very vicious cycles of poverty and addiction and violence after that divorce with her second husband. And so my perspective of motherhood shifted to economic responsibility so I started to think, "Okay a really good mother need to be economically viable right." So I became pretty hell bent as an adolescent and as a young woman of being ambitious career wise and earning a livelihood and when I did become a mom my first premonition was not to retreat. In other words, some women have children and they want to be at home. They want to stay at home. I had children and I wanted to put my foot on the gas pedal in terms of my career. I wanted to make money.

Liz: So you took these two ideas of motherhood as perfection right and also being this incredibly hard charging career woman really, really ambitious. And then you became a mom you ended up writing this book called Drop the Ball. Can you describe what motherhood was like for you before you experienced this turning point that led you to end up writing that book?

Tiffany: Yes. So I love the way you just expressed that because for a while in my life I had these two opposing ideas of motherhood that for the first eight years of my marriage seemed perfectly reasonable because I didn't actually have kids.

Liz: We have a lot of ideas about parenting about kids before we have them don't we?

Tiffany: Exactly. So I thought you know my house is going to be perfectly clean and dinner's going to be on the table every night and it's going to be you know this kind of Leave it to Beaver home and I'm going to be this hard charging career woman. That was my impression of the way life was going to be before I actually even had kids. Once I had kids and when I say once I had kids, I mean within a few months because literally on my first day back from maternity leave when I actually went into the workforce, it was a disaster on day one. And when I say a disaster I mean like literally a disaster in the bathroom because I had forgotten to pump milk and I had gotten really busy trying to be impressive to my boss and everyone else on the first day back. And my boobs exploded and I couldn't manage the breast pump in the bathroom. And I literally ended up on my first day back from maternity leave on the bathroom floor at my office like expressing breastmilk into the toilet because I couldn't handle both the pump and the bottle. It was like literally a mess and I was crying on my way home in my designer suit with like gross milk in my nice silk blouse.

Liz: So that moment that first day was sort of that turning point for you. Is that how you think about it?

Tiffany: Oh absolutely. It was a huge turning point because it was the first time that reality hit, It was already on a collision course but I would say that was the day that the crash actually happened. And it really caused me to reflect on how I was going to be able to move forward. So the person who had always kept all of the balls perfectly juggling in the air all of the sudden the balls started like falling all over the floor and I had to figure out what am I going to do.

Liz: So one of the ways that you really worked through that was evaluating and questioning what it really means to be a good mom and you realized that there were ideas about what it means to be a good mom that were sort of in your head but deep down you didn't really believe them. So could you kind of talk to us about that? How can women better define for themselves what does it mean to be a good mom?

Tiffany: Yes. So it turns out that all of us are born into this world playing out certain roles okay. If you were a girl your first role was probably daughter. If you had siblings you became a sister, a friend, a student, a worker. Some of us eventually become wives. Some of us eventually become mothers and what I find fascinating in talking to so many women. is that even though we're born in different parts of the world to different families and different cultures, somehow all of us ended up with pretty much the same job description for what it means to be a good anything because of course we're ambitious enough that we don't just want to be a daughter. We want to be a good daughter. We don't just want to be a student, we want to be a good student and certainly a good mom. And with these job descriptions come specific expectations. When I was growing up I was going to be Claire Huxtable and she was an icon right. But when you think about the reality of her life it was quite unrealistic. I mean she was always perfectly beautiful. Her hair was always like feathered backward beautifully. Her house was always clean. She had five perfectly well behaved children. You're on number four. Just think of that. She had five that were all college bound, maybe Theo gave them a few problems but they were pretty much perfect kids and in the second season she made partner at a law firm. I mean how many women do we know that have five perfectly well behaved children that are all college bound that was made partner at a law firm? Right? Very few. So we get these ideas you know choosy moms choose Jif. Like we all know this. So whether it's advertising, every billboard. But from the moment that you were wrapped in a pink blanket you've been receiving messages about who you are and what you should be. And that's a very kind of daunting realization for someone who feels like I did, that you're in the driver's seat of your own life. But if you do an analysis and I encourage everyone to do this, just write down all of the roles that you fulfil in your life whether it's a good daughter or a good mom and then to ask yourself two questions in relationship to them. The first question is how, what does a good "x" do? Like what does a good mom do? What does a good worker do? And the second question is how do you know? How do you know that's what a good mom does? How do you know that a good worker shows up before everybody else at the office? And what you realize is that the expectations that you have of yourself come from a source outside of yourself. And once you come to terms with that, for me it was a no brainer to then figure out how am I going to recreate this job description in a way that works for me.

Liz: So in practice what did that mean? Can you describe that? That meant that certain tasks you felt burdened by you didn't have to do them because you realized it really wasn't required for your definition of what it meant to be a good mom.

Tiffany: That's it. So first I had to get to my definition right because it's very difficult to figure out what you're going to Drop the Ball on when you don't have any kind of filter and you haven't figured out what your new job description's going to be. So I started that process by first getting real clear about what mattered most to me separate and apart from what mattered to whoever was writing the script for the Cosby Show or what my mom might think you know a good daughter should be or wife should be. And at the end of that journey what I came to was that what mattered most to Tiffany was number one advancing women and girls. That's my life's work. That's why I'm on the planet. Number two, nurturing in a really healthy partnership with my husband. And the third was raising conscious global citizens. Now usually when I talk to women and I ask them what matters most to you people rattle off different parts of their lives; my career matters to me, my family matters to me. And what I try to push women toward is what do you hope to achieve in relationship to what matters most to you. So yes my kids are important to me obviously but what matters most to me is raising conscious global citizens. And that clarity helps you to them move to the second step which is getting clear about what is my highest and best use in order to achieve what matters most to me. Because if you are someone like me who is very good at keeping a lot of balls in the air, you likely have a sense that you're pretty much good at a lot of things. The fallacy of efficiency is you think well since I'm better at this I should just go ahead and do it and get it over with because it needs to happen. Well just because you're good at something doesn't mean that it's the most effective use of your time and resources. So really getting clear about what should I be doing because it represents my highest and best use. I define highest and best use as what are the things that you do extraordinarily well with very little input or effort largely because you've just done it a lot. Combined with what are the things that only you can do. Like it would be callous or irresponsible for you to allow someone else to do these things. So for example, one of the things that matters the most to me is raising conscious global citizens. One of the things that I do really well with very little effort is help other people to achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement. One of the things that I feel like only I can do in relationship to my kids is instill values in them. I can outsource school drop off and pick up. I don't feel like I can outsource the instillation of values in kids. So my highest and best use to raise conscious global citizens is engaging my kids in a meaningful conversation each and every day. That's what's at the top of my new job description. Now does it mean that there aren't a ton of other things on the good mom job description that society handed me? Sure. I am probably supposed to figure out what they were supposed to be doing since school was out. I'm also probably supposed to be sewing patches onto my daughter's girl scout uniform. But I can Drop the Ball on any of those things and know without a shadow of a doubt that I am an extraordinary mother. And that's really the filter that I use to help me figure out well that's what I'm supposed to be focused on and there's a bunch of other things that need to happen in order for our family to function or for our kids to get what they need. What are those other things that somebody else could do or that aren't going to happen.

Liz: So let's imagine that you're a brand new mom and for the first time your whole world then is about this child. How do you advise someone in that position to help figure out what actually matters most to them, especially in the beginning of that journey when you're trying to reorient yourself after having a kid?

Tiffany: Yes. I'm beaming right now because I remember that time and it's magical. I would answer that question with a story I remember a number of years ago and I tell this story in the book. I was having a conversation with my sister. I'm the oldest of four girls. My sister was really angry with our mom in this conversation and I should share that we're estranged from our mom. I don't like that word because I feel like my mom is always with me but we are. If you've ever had a conversation with someone who's really frustrated at another person you know they need you to participate in the frustration. And in this conversation I wasn't participating. I wasn't fueling my sister's anger. That was making her upset with me and at one point she says to me, "I don't understand why you're not upset and why you're not angry because of this. You know your kids don't even know their grandmother. She's never sent them a Christmas card. She's never sent them a birthday gift." Sisters have a way of really getting under your skin you know and I almost started to cry. But what I said to my sister was, "That's not the story that I tell about our mom." I said, "The story that I tell stat from the time she found out she was pregnant with me until I was sixteen years old she gave me everything that a mother could possibly give. She told me every day how smart and that I was beautiful and that I was loved and I really feel like I am the woman I am today because of what I got from her those first sixteen years. That was the role that she was supposed to play in my life. I don't think she owes me anything else. I think that the greatest gift that she's given to her grandchildren is a mother who's really empowered and that's my story." Of course my little sister was like, "You're so Pollyannaish." But the reason why I tell that sortie is because I had another Tiffany's epiphany, that's what I call them, in that moment about motherhood which is that my sister and I grew up in the same house with the same mom. She cornrowed our hair in the same direction. She made us the same church dresses. She made us the same lunch right and yet as adults we both have very different stories that we tell And what hit me was Tiffany, your son Cofe; I have a twelve year old son, could grow up and say, "Oh my God my mom was phenomenal. She was a feminist. She taught me to own my passion and my purpose and I'm married to an incredible person right now because of what my mother taught me." My daughter on the other hand could grow up and say, "My mother's life's work was advancing women and girls and yet I was the only girl that she never paid enough attention to. She always talked about how her mom cornrowed her hair. My mom did not cornrow my hair. She sent me to a salon. She was always on planes and trains and automobiles doing podcasts and selling her book. And I don't have good relationships right now because I don't feel like I got what I needed from my mother." Now both of those stories would be true. Neither one of those stories has anything to do with me. In the beginning we are so excited about motherhood that we often act as if we have control over our children's future stories. Not only do we not have control over them, we have no right to them. So I would argue that in the beginning your child isn't your reason. It isn't the purpose. You are an amazing vessel and how fortunate are we that our children chose for us to be their mothers in this lifetime. But this is their journey and I think it's really important that we not confuse or conflate our journey with their journey. I would encourage every first time mom to still get clear about what matters most to them, what matters most to you, to stay focused on that and to model for your kids the kind of person that you would want them to be.

Liz: Wow. That was so powerful and almost framed for me like this idea of dropping the ball in an area of my life that actually didn't kind of imagine that you could Drop the Ball. Not to say that we're not engaged parents but that we show up and we do our best and we do the best work that we can but that our kids have their own journeys as well and our job is not to do it all for them or figure it all out for them either.

Tiffany: Yeah. I should also say that I have met and engaged with women for whom what matters, one of the things that matters most to them is the nurturing and caring and feeding of children. And so I do think that it's important for us to get clear because it could be that your role as mother is something that's very primary to why you're here and can make a huge impact in the world in so many different ways. I want to honor that because I need those mothers in order for me to go out and do good in the world. But I think it's important that we take a moment and that we're intentional about curating what matters most and curating those job descriptions because if we don't take the time to do that by default we'll probably end up living someone else's story.

Liz: I'm definitely interested and I can kind of imagine women wondering about their partners' role in all of this. One of my favorite quotes that I've read from you is this. "I expect far less from myself and way more from my husband than the average woman." Talk to me about the power of this revelation What does that mean in practice?

Tiffany: Yes. So Drop the Ball is fundamentally; I mean it's a lot of things. It's a romantic comedy and it's a manifesto and you know it's all these things. But fundamentally it's a book. It's a romantic comedy about how I got my husband off the couch and it's a manifesto. But fundamentally it's a book about how 50 years ago we had a workforce revolution and women entered the workforce in droves. And now companies and the public see our benefit from women's ingenuity and creativity and talent in all kinds of ways that I think are going to make the world a better place. Unfortunately though we didn't have the opposite like cultural revolution at home. In other words, men didn't start running PTAs and running homes at the same rate that women started going out in to the workforce. And so our homes and our families have not benefited for men's creativity and men's ingenuity and men's talent in the way that the public sphere has benefitted from women. So what we end up with are homes that are largely run by women who believe that it's either their ordained responsibility or that they're better at it or that they've been left with that responsibility because the man in their life or their partner in their life is working outside of the home when there's a lot to be gained by men being engaged. I can give you a gazillion examples but one of the most recent ones was I spent basically a year away from home traveling because I was promoting Drop the Ball. At the end of that year I was expressing gratitude toward my husband for missing out on sleep. I expressed that gratitude specifically because whenever he travels for work it means less sleep for me. Both of us tag team in the morning. One of us gets the kids ready, the other one commutes them to school. Well when he travels for work I get up an hour earlier. I get myself ready first. Then I get the kids ready and then I get everybody out the door. Well when I was expressing gratitude he says to me, "Well thanks for saying thank you but I did not miss out on any sleep last year." I said, "Did everybody get to school on time?" He said, "Yeah. Of course everybody did." I said, "Well what did you do?" He said that the way that he manages the morning is by waking up at the same time he normally wakes up. He gets himself ready but on his way to the bathroom he basically goes into our kids' rooms and he makes this huge proclamation which is, "I am setting the timer for 45 minutes in the kitchen. In 45 minutes you need to be at the front door with your teeth brushed, your hair combed, food in your tummy, your backpacks packed and ready to go with your homework in them, your shoes on, your coats on because your mom is not here and I do not have time to get you guys ready." Which of course my response was, "They can do that?" He says, "Yes they can do it." I can give you so many examples of the ways in which having him engaged in our home has made our home run so much more effectively and smoothly.

Liz: I had the same experience this morning. I put the TV show on for our daughter and my husband walked in and said, "Oh I always make her clean up the playroom before I put the TV on for her." I'm like of course. So then she gets what she wants and I get what I want. Of course we need to do this. Let's talk about women who maybe are single mothers who maybe have a sick child. Just women who just face you know enormous headwinds in trying to just get through the day. How do these women who just have fewer resources, how can they achieve more by doing less and you talk about the village role there but I'm wondering how do you answer that?

Tiffany: Yeah. Absolutely. So one of the things that I did with the book though I have lots of conversations with women anyway was interview women who are single, women who are in same sex partnerships 'cause I though am I just like tripping because I'm married to a man. What happens when you're married to a woman. And I will say that for a lot of let's just start with single mothers, a lot of them didn't have some of the issues that I had because when you're a straight woman you know who's married to a man and you are already conforming to a very traditional notion from society in terms of what they tell us is normal, you are more psychologically tied to that societal expectation. You actually are more bought into the myth. Whereas a lot of the single mothers that I spoke to by virtue of necessity were already over that okay so they already were much better than I was at getting help from other people. I will tell you quite frankly many of their children were much more self sufficient than my children were which I actually think is better for the kids because they didn't have a mother who had the capacity or the bandwidth to dote over them. So in some ways I learned a lot from single moms. I learned a lot from women who were in same sex relationships who were dividing responsibilities according to what people wanted to do and what people were actually good at instead of kind of defaulting to these gendered norms. But what I would say is as a woman who has a bit more privilege and I might have more resources, I felt a greater responsibility to be a part of those women's village right. And it made me more sensitive to that. And so you know I would say number one, those of us who have what we have need to be paying even more attention and jumping in and offering our support and our help. And I would say to those women the village and cultivating the village is even more important and a lot of them already know that 'cause that's already what they've had to do.

Liz: Achieving more by doing less is the subtitle of your book. It's a magical concept. Can you help simplify that even more? What does that mean in terms of decision making today for me as a busy mom?

Tiffany: I think that achieving more by doing less is basically an exercise in figuring out the forest from the actual trees. There are lots of things that I do less of. I don't manage my kid's social calendar and that usually means that my kids miss a lot of birthday parties because we don't live in an evolved world in which people send birthday party invitations to children's fathers. So when it comes in my inbox and I have to ask myself my Drop the Ball question, is responding to this birthday party invite my highest and best use in raising a conscious global citizen the answer's no and that's how my kid ends up missing a birthday party. But when I think about all the things that I've been able to achieve, of running a national women's leadership organization that's trained thousands of women to run for office, many of whom ran in the last election cycle. Of being able to help grow the fastest growing network for millennial professional women, to help them create lives that they're passionate about. When I think about all the time I spent in coffee shops writing a book called Drop the Ball to support women, if any one of those things, if any of it helps to create a future world in which my daughter Ekua can grow up and she can live her passion and she can live her purpose and she can do it unencumbered by all of these crazy unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a perfect mom, I think it's worth it for her to miss a few birthday parties. I'm willing to take that risk. And that on a practical level is what for me it means to achieve more by doing less. It means that we hedge our bets and we decide I'm not going to puree this baby food today because I'm working on a better future for this child and I'm going to go ahead and be on this podcast.

Liz: At Motherly we talk about how motherhood brings out our superpowers and we often discover them after becoming moms. I wonder what do you think your superpower is?

Tiffany: Wow. Well one of them I mentioned which is helping other people to achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement. That's definitely come out as a mom because that to me is part of what it means to be a mom especially when your kids are very different from you. But I think my biggest superpower is just knowing why I'm here on the planet and knowing that if I can get to as many women as possible in this lifetime and I can share with them the same message that my mom shared with me, which is that you're so smart and you're so beautiful and you're so loved. I can whisper that in their ear through a book or through this conversation or through you know my company, The Crew, that I will have made a difference. I will have made the world a better place and that to me is a superpower because if you know why you're here then it helps you to filter through a lot of the noise.

Liz: Tiffany thank you so much for joining the Motherly podcast.

Tiffany: Thank you for having me.

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