Working Mothers, Let's Stand Out!

"Having it all" seems to have died a slow and unceremonious death.

Now we American women talk about blending, integration, "managing it all", or giving it all up in favor of digital detox, yoga and a simpler life. Less stuff, less stress, and less enterprising women in the workforce using their unique voices to challenge the fundamentally broken status quo.

Am I the last naive idealist still expecting to live and work in a culture that empowers both men and women equally, and gives them equal responsibilities?

Actually, I know I'm not. I hope that the era of women's internecine battles has come to an end. I hope we're embarking on a renaissance of women's mutual empowerment. A movement is brewing into a steady boil in America around working mothers. But where is it going?

Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, The White House has added passion and legitimacy to the fact that we need women fully active in all parts of society; that the voice and economic power of mothers is crucial.

It's time for America to start truly empowering women. We're embarrassingly behind the world in this realm, even though we proclaim to be the most equal and free society in the world. Equality is partly about self-actualization, and American women are not equal or liberated to the degree that they can and should be. This fact hurts our productivity, social cohesion and innovativeness as a nation.

Many might disagree and tell me that "having it all" is a fairy-tale. But I know this fairy-tale exists.

I've traveled to a future where some women do have it all, or at least "have more". And these empowered women help make this small place "punch above its weight" in terms of entrepreneurship, technological advancement and a foreign policy voice in the world.

It's also a place where men can have it all too. It remains a challenge, but it's a mainstream challenge embraced by society as a whole. This mythical place is Sweden.

At 27-years-old with a 2-year-old colicky daughter, I moved to Stockholm, Sweden as a confused new mother searching for my voice and a sense of balance.

Fate would have me land in a country with one of the strongest legacies in gender equality in the world. Today Sweden has a self-proclaimed "Feminist Government" and "feminist foreign policy". The nation provides a form of inclusive subsidized daycare beginning at age 1, and about 480 days of shared paid maternity and paternity leave.

It's a country with some of the highest percentages of women's full participation in the workforce, and nearly equal representations of women in Parliament.

It's also a nation where women make basically as much as men. "On average, women's monthly salaries are 94 per cent of men's when differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account."

I found Sweden to be a place where a woman can be feminine and also be a leader.

Beyond the infrastructure and stability the generous welfare state provides for the family, the real source of change is a cultural. Men are open to undertaking traditionally "female" roles at home and work, and vice versa.

There's an all-inclusive culture around the family. I've seen women bring their babies to the front row of Stockholm Fashion Week, male CEO's in finance bring their toddler sons to work while on paternity leave, and female Parliamentarians bring their babies into the sacred hollows of the legislative body to cast a vote or argue the merits of transatlantic trade. My friends who are male tech founders take time off to be at home, and are often spotted doing their conference calls with Manhattan venture capitalists from a park bench in Djurgarden rocking a crying infant.

In America, we desperately need both this type of culture change and a policy change.

According to a 2013 Pew Study: 16% of American adults say that the best growing environment for a young child is to have a mother work full-time, 42% believe it's best for mothers to work only part-time, and nearly 1/3 say mothers shouldn't work outside the home at all if they want well-adjusted kids.

I was raised by a working mother, and was a "latch-key" kid. My "nanny" was her office desk where I was told to keep quiet and write stories to entertain myself. From my mother, I learned independence, self-reliance, assertiveness and a passion for standing up for others and for myself. And after all those years scribbling stories by her side, I even became a writer.

Swedish women have everything my mother would've have wanted and many American women today are fighting for -- daycare, longer paid maternity leaves and job security after babies-- yet they still aren't reaching the top.

"Just 3% of the 145 Nordic large caps have a female CEO, compared to 5% of Fortune 500 firms," cited John Stoll in a Wall Street Journal blog. In my time exploring the tech scene, I also found a lack of female founders of large-scale, high-growth companies.

In this paradox, I learned my greatest lesson: there's no perfect place for equality. We can look Sweden, or Denmark or Australia, but many of the struggles lie outside "the system" and in between the lines, even deep within us. Is it also "us" not just "them," that causes inequality? Are we standing up for ourselves?

There's a Swedish cultural norm called "Jante Law", which emphasizes not standing out. Thus Swedish women suffer from both a cultural norm and a gender norm to keep quiet, be nice and never promote themselves in overt ways.

I think all women from all cultures suffer from a bit of "Jante". We must break out of the chains of what "we're supposed to act like". We all talk about women's empowerment a lot but no one is going to empower us. We need to empower ourselves. And then when we're strong in who we are, we have a responsibility to teach and empower other women. As women, we must stand out and stand up.

This is where I think Swedish, and European women, could learn from Americans. It took the experience of living abroad to make me appreciate how deft Americans are at communicating, raising their voices loudly against unfair bias and empowering individuality and diversity. As a young girl in Chicago public schools, I was trained in public speaking, writing and delivering speeches, outlining and executing goals. I was told often at home and at school to believe in myself, and that nothing can stand in my way if I dare to dream.

The sky is truly the limit in America, and we're encouraged to reach and exceed our limits.

Perhaps this is why in spite of the lack of social safety nets we're seeing sky-rocketing numbers of American Millennial women founding companies and even reaching the echelons of youngest female billionaires, like Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

These role models and aspirational aspects of our culture give young girls some incredibly dynamic ingredients for leadership!

The paradox lies in the fact that we're empowered spiritually but not physically, in our voices but not in our hands and feet. And once we bring life into the world, our chances of professional success begin to plummet.

In the United States our decline in working women as compared to Europe is directly attributed to Europe's proactive expansion of paid parental leave, flexible work and daycare, according to a study by economist Francine Blau, and Laurence Kahn of Cornell University, as stated in this New York Times article.

In fact, if the United States had similar policies to Europe, women's labor force participation rate could have been seven percentage points higher just by 2010, Blau and Kahn concluded. file:///Users/natalia/Downloads/FemaleLaborSupplyWhyIsTheUSFalli_preview.pdf

I feel extremely lucky to have spent my most formative years as a woman in Sweden. It has forever changed me. Mostly because I realized I'll never be a perfect mother. And that's okay. There's no perfect mother, nor perfect choice around motherhood.

The beauty lies in learning from each other as women from different cultures and different parts of the world, and finding the formula of what works for us individually. And then the most important part: no judgment.

I've now moved back home to Washington, D.C. and discovered that I want to keep learning from other women and men, and being a bridge and a vehicle for other women to learn from each other's struggles, falls and successes.

I believe this is the only way we can form a new movement of women-- gladiators for equality-- who know we're better as humanity when we, men and women, girls and boys, work together instead of working and growing apart. This is the reason I will be launching a new podcast on the plight of modern, entrepreneurial women called "Stand Out" with podcast company Acast.

I'm still determined to have it all-- love, children, passion, professional fulfillment, and yes, even time for yoga-- and with a lot of luck, dedication, planning, and help from my family and friends, I know I can find my own form of peace and balance. And the courage to always stand out with my ideas and stand up for others.

Follow me @Natalbrz, @acaststories, #standoutpodcast #nataliabrzezinski on Instagram to learn from each other and create a podcast community focused on empowerment of men and women.