Zibby Owens: I'm here today with Katherine Wintsch who's the CEO of The Mom Complex, a consulting company that partners with the largest companies in the world to create better products, services, and experiences for mothers. She is a nationally recognized expert on the topic of modern motherhood and the author of Slay Like a Mother: How to Destroy What's Holding You Back So You Can Live the Life You Want. Her research has been featured on The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets. She's spoken at TEDx and was recently named a Woman of the Decade by the Women’s Economic Forum. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Richmond, Virginia.
Welcome, Katherine. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Katherine Wintsch: Yay, thanks for having me.
Zibby: I am so excited. I feel like we could sit here for hours and discuss.
Katherine: Me too.
Zibby: I’ll try to be strategic with my questions. Your book, Slay Like a Mother: How to Destroy What's Holding You Back So You Can Live the Life You Want, was amazing. I got so much out of it. I continue to get so much out of it. What inspired you write this book?
Katherine: I was inspired to write the book because for twenty years of my life, I lived with what I refer to as my dragon of self-doubt. I never felt good enough from age fifteen to thirty-five. I wasn’t thin enough, nice enough, tough enough. In my life, that meant that I was an overachiever. I was seeking approval and affection from everybody around me because I didn't have it inside of me. It was really an exhausting way to live. In my role as CEO of The Mom Complex, I had the opportunity to study women in seventeen countries around the world. I realized that we were all the same. There was this ferocious beast of self-doubt that was really holding us back and making us feel like crap. It changed my life knowing that I wasn't alone. I thought, why are we not talking about this crap? It’s eating us all alive. I went on a two-year self-help journey. I learned how to slay my dragon. Then I wrote this book to help other people do the same.
Zibby: Go back for a second and tell me about The Mom Complex.
Katherine: I run a company. It’s called The Mom Complex. It’s a consulting company. We work with some of the biggest companies and organizations in the world to better understand mothers, whether that's their mom employees or their mom customers. Then we help them tailor better products and services and support for mothers.
Zibby: How do you find all those moms?
Katherine: We have a database of moms. We call them our maverick moms. If anybody wants to sign up, you can go to themomcomplex.com. We tap into women all over the world. We paint a picture of what life is really like as a mother. A lot of people just don't know if they're not in it, all the cognitive load that we carry and the stress and the mental anxiety. It's a cool job. We’re small and boutique-y and very specialized. We work really hard and we do a great job, but we don't sacrifice our sanity.
Zibby: That's amazing. I knew I would love this book when I opened the cover. You have all these cute little quotes. One I love the most, “It’s time to shift from worrier to warrior,” which is great. Then you explain later that your husband actually said that to you at one point, took you by the shoulders and tried to get it through your head. In the opening paragraph of your book, you wrote, “Are you tired of working your ass off and still feeling like you should be doing more? Do other mothers seem to glide through life on ice skates while you tuck your muffin top into your pants and pray you'll make it through Tuesday without losing ever-loving mind? If so, you've picked up the right book.” I was like, I can't wait to get into this. [laughs] Tell me more about this worrier to warrior shift.
Katherine: Most of us spend our life worrying of this doomsday future. If our child fails the science test, they're going to be in jail by the time they're fifteen, this fast-forwarding. We live in so much fear and worry that things are going to go wrong. Most of the time, they don't. We’re better at this than we give ourselves credit for. At the end of the day, so much of the book is book the difference between struggling and suffering. Struggling is brought on by the external forces in our life. We have multiple kids. We have to get them fed. We have to get them new clothes for fall because none of them fit, whatever it is, just the struggles.
We dip down into suffering when we assume we’re the only people that are struggling. We think everybody else is perfect. They're skating around on ice skates. We’re suffering because we think we’re alone. We’re knuckleheads. We suck. Everybody else is perfect. At the end of the day, we control the suffering. If we beat ourselves up less and give ourselves some grace for going through hard times, then the goal is just to struggle. If you're struggling, you're winning. That's the human existence. You can't buy your way out of it, move your way out of it, grow your way -- you're stuck with struggling, but we can suffer a lot less. Men suffer less than we do, in general.
Zibby: You give so many tips for how to calm these voices in our heads after making people feel not alone by acknowledging that so many of us share this same negative self-talk. One of the things that I found most helpful in the book was, there are lines that you leave open in the book for people to write in that say, “What's your negative self-talk? How would you punish yourself?” Then, “What would you say to friend who did the same thing?” I went to a birthday party on the wrong day. What would you say to yourself? I'd say, “Oh, my gosh. I'm such a moron. I cannot believe I did that. I can't keep my life together. I am terrible. I am not going to be a good mother.” What would you say to a friend? You would say, “Don't worry. I've done that too. It happens. There's so much to manage.” Tell me about putting that in as a tool.
Katherine: It’s really interesting. I've studied negative self-talk, both in women and men. I'm generalizing here. For the most part, when men share the last terrible thing they said to themselves, it’s critical, like, “You missed the gym. Do better next time.” For women, it’s often cruel. It’s “You're fat. You're ugly. It’s a miracle your husband loves you.” It’s really dark. I want to do an art exhibit at some point of all these negative thoughts that are so real and living inside of beautiful, accomplished women. It’s just heart-wrenching. You can teach the voice in your head some manners. It’s not going to completely go away. We all have negative self-talk for a reason. You can really reframe it like a friend. I’ll give you an example. I was giving this speech the other day. I was showing a video. I happen to be in the video. My face came up. It was huge on this screen. My first thought was, oh, my gosh, you look awful. It was not my best moment. First of all, I heard the voice, which is literally half the battle. I recognized that I was saying that because old habits die hard. Then I said, you know what, Katherine? It’s not your best moment. You don't look great in that video, but some days you do.
Zibby: Then you felt better?
Katherine: Yeah. We have to remember that we do have good -- yeah, that was not a good moment, but I do have good moments. I do make good decisions. We have to remember the good times too. It'll help lessen the bad.
Zibby: You showed me -- not showed me, but you have this video in which you interviewed a lot of women on the mean things they say to themselves. It’s beautiful. The way you did it, it’s amazing. I’ll have to link to it with this episode. Women are saying, “I have the worst style. I'm so fat. My kids are going to get a bad role model from me,” just negative thing after negative thing. I'm looking at these women and of course thinking, no, she's not. What is she talking about? She's beautiful. Then you have them paired with other women. When they get together, they can say those positive things, like, “No, no.” Talk to me about that video. What made you do it? How can we get that to happen all the time, honestly, not just in a three-minute video?
Katherine: It was an exercise that I was doing in my workshops. I do workshops with women all over the world and get women together. That was something where I asked women to write down, what's the last terrible thing that you said to yourself? I want people to see it in their own handwriting. I always say, at some point, this stuff has to get from outside of you. We have to extract it. It was just an exercise. Then I thought, they're so terrible. They were so dark. It would be neat to do a video and to not tell the women what the video was about. I recruited them for a video for The Mom Complex about being a mother.
They had no idea that -- I remember a lot of men that were on the set, they were like, “How do you know that these women are going to show up and say terrible things?” They were just randomly recruited for this. I was like, “Oh, just wait.” They were like, “This is going to be a bust. You're paying money.” They were concerned for me. Then afterwards, this guy who was helping, in his twenties, he was holding the boom mic during the video. He came over to me. He said, “The world really needs this book. I had no idea.” I've had other men watch it and say that, “Wow, if I knew how hard my mom was on herself, I would've been a better son,” really moving people. Most of the men in our lives don't know that we speak to ourselves this way. It’s pretty hidden. I want to expose it. The more we can be honest and share and open up about the things that we’re having a hard time with, it releases the power over you when you can talk about it.
Zibby: It’s like one of those magic decoder things that the kids have where they write in secret ink. You have to get the right lens to see it through. Then all of a sudden -- I feel like your book is the lens where you can suddenly see all this stuff inside everyone.
Katherine: That's nice. People have said that. They’ve said that there are things that have been articulated in a way that they hadn’t thought of before. They feel seen for the first time. I remember feeling that way. Sometimes people say, “You have no idea how impactful your book is.” I'm like, “But I do know because I was so broken for so long.” I remember reading books and being like, she did it. I can do it. She's going to show me how. I remember the relief of feeling like I could get out of it. It was empowering.
Zibby: You talk in your book about how bad it is that moms in particular compare themselves to others. I actually did my senior thesis on social comparison theory. I'm very well-acquainted with it, how detrimental it is for all of us when we’re constantly comparing ourselves. Then as we just sat down to do this interview, I gave Katherine my “Moms Don't Have Time to Read” tote bag.
Katherine: So cute.
Zibby: Thank you. Then she gave me this amazing cooler bag with T-shirts and books and wine and everything. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I feel terrible. All I gave you is a tote bag.” She was like, “Don't compare.” Immediately, I felt terrible.
Katherine: Right, don't [indiscernible/crosstalk] gifts. That's silly.
Zibby: Tell me, why is this so bad?
Katherine: It’s bad because we make assumptions about other women. You see one woman do something well. She hosts a dinner party. She kills it. Then all of a sudden we’re like, I bet she got straight As in high school. She never yells at her children. She feels no pain when she steps on Legos. We make these sweeping assumptions about other people. It’s just not true. Then we try to live up to that. We want to be the übermom. We want to be clean like Karen and nice like Becky and smart like somebody else. We want to have this superpower. The litmus test I often ask people is, think how much we put into birthday parties for our children. It’s a little over the top. We’re very often doing it for ourselves to make ourselves feel like a good mother. I often ask people, and I’ll ask you, what's the first birthday party that you remember as a child, yours, not from photos, but you remember being at?
Zibby: I remember being at my fourth birthday party. It was in our backyard. We had a guitar player guy. We had a little hayride. I really remember because I used to be really shy. When the cake came out, I was hysterically crying because I didn't want all the attention. I went and hid. Maybe I remember that feeling of mortification. Sorry, Mom. She did so many -- the cake was beautiful. It spelled Zibby in actual cake in those letters. Yet I was too overwhelmed. That's probably not the answer you were looking for. That’s my first one I remember.
Katherine: You're on the young side. Most people, it’s seven, eight. Some people are in their teens. As mothers, we kill ourselves over these birthday parties. The child doesn't even remember until, most of the time, they're six, eight, ten years old. We’re just trying to one-up other people to feel better about ourselves. If we actually talk to other people about their challenges, asking a girlfriend, “What are you struggling with these days?” we can get other people to open it up. Then we’ll see that we’re all struggling. Nobody's free from it.
Zibby: I've learned a lot from my older kids to my younger kids with the birthday party thing. With my older kids, I wanted everything to be perfect, and printed invitations. It was a whole thing. I literally just planned my fourth child’s birthday party within fifteen minutes. I called the one gym. I sent the Paperless Post. Fifteen minutes, done. I'm just going to show up. You know what? It’s going to be fine.
Katherine: Now you know what matters. It’s the fun there.
Zibby: It’s funny. I interviewed -- oh, my gosh. Who was it? She had a whole theory of mid/max/min and time management. I'm blanking on her name. I’ll look it up. It was like, what's the minimum you can do for this task? What's the maximum? Mod/max/min or something. Basically, you can go all out for birthday parties. You can do nothing and make one phone call. Where do you want to be on this task? Then do that. Don't get carried away.
Katherine: I love that. I have a thought about that I've been talking about a lot lately. You have to choose which battles to lose. What are you going to lose at? You can't win at everything. If we treat everything as though it’s the same priority, we’re going to die trying. The truth is, not everything's created equal. I’ll give you an example. We have two kids. They're in two different schools. My husband is more involved at my son’s school. I'm more involved at my daughter’s school. When I go into my son’s school, I feel that dragon of self-doubt come back. I don't know the moms. I don't know that many of the teachers. It’s like, you're such a bad mom. Then I say, nope, this is what I chose. I chose to lose this. This was a decision. This is what losing feels like. Of course I'm uncomfortable. I'm not here that often. It releases all of that pressure to then be like, I have to volunteer more and go back on my word. I said that I'm willing to lose the battle of looking like a great mom at my son’s school. Guess what? They have two parents that love them both. They're both getting lots of -- nobody's missing out. This is a very fortunate challenge.
Zibby: I think that the pressure to be everywhere within the schools -- my kids are in four different schools this year. I can't. I just can't be at all those places. The schools are trying to help the parents too. For parents who want to be involved, it’s a great thing. That shouldn't make you feel terrible for missing every coffee. They're doing a coffee as a service. I try to sometimes reframe it. They're trying to cater to the parents. This is perfect for some parents. Maybe this level of involvement is not perfect for me. Just because it’s offered doesn't mean I have to do everything. You’ve made a decision not to feel like a bad parent. Maybe that doesn't make you look like a bad parent.
Katherine: I know. It goes back to the whole fear, and it’s not even real. People don't think about you as much as you think they think about you. People don't really care. We think they care a lot.
Zibby: For sure. Another tip in your book is being able to say no, which is relating to what we’re talking about. Do you have tips on how to say no to certain things so you don't overcommit?
Katherine: I have so many tips. [laughs]
Zibby: Great. I know you do from the book.
Katherine: I love this one because it’s really important. This is something that I learned through being a working mother. You don't have to be working to relate to it. When I went back to work in the advertising industry after I had my first child, I had a great mentor in Boston. He said, “What do you want to protect? What kind of boundaries do you want to draw?” I was like, “I want to be at home for dinner.” I thought for some reason you ate dinner with babies, which you don't, but I didn't know that. I felt like it was the right answer, so that's what I said. He said, “Okay, Katherine. I want you to think of your job like a teenage boy trying to make out with you. Your job’s job is to take everything you will give it and still want more. Your job is to draw a boundary, your line in the sand about what you are and are not willing to do with this teenage boy before the heat of the moment so that you don't cave and do something that you said you wouldn't want to do.” For example, saying in one fell swoop, “I'm going --
Zibby: -- By the way, no woman would come up with that analogy. Anyway, go on. I get it. It’s good. It’s interesting.
Katherine: Right? I learned to say no because I picture people asking me things I don't want to do like a teenage boy making out with me. Maybe it’s because I made out with too many teenage boys. I'm like, no, I'm not going to do that. It was about drawing boundaries in bold. I'm going to tell you that I'm not going to do this -- “I'm going to leave at six” -- so that you're not trying to muster up that courage every day. Then when someone's like, “No, we need you to be on this conference call. It’s on the West Coast. It won't be the same without you.” Then you cave. Okay, I’ll make out with you. You said you weren’t going to. That really helped me. People want things from you, not in a bad way. Guess what? The school fair’s still going to go on if you say no. It’s almost like practice makes perfect because the more you say no, the more you realize that the job still gets done. Everybody stays alive. You carve out a little bit of time.
My biggest tip is to put yourself on your calendar in the future. Your calendar tomorrow’s probably really full. To take a lot of time for yourself tomorrow would be unrealistic. Six weeks from now, your calendar’s not full. It has some little bit of stuff on it, but it’s not full. Put yourself on reoccurring meetings. Maybe it’s yoga or meditation or walking around the block or wine with girlfriends. It doesn't have to be healthy. It’s a reoccurring meeting every Tuesday morning, every lunchtime, whatever. Then when the future becomes the present, those will be there. Everything else will still fit, but you'll have yourself on your calendar first.
Zibby: I like that, but I'm thinking, when could I put that in? [laughs]
Katherine: You do two or three things a week to start. What I do is I color-code it purple. I call it my mojo color. Then it’s at a quick glance. If I were to look at my calendar next week, if there's not enough purple on it, it means I'm slipping back into my old ways. My old ways were the belief that other people deserved my time more than I did and that I would give it all away. If it’s not enough purple there, I have to fix that. It’s an immediate recognition for me to know. There's sometime different, too, about deleting yourself from your calendar as opposed to trying to put it there. You're saying that you're a priority. Try not to move it. Get some purple in. Again, all of this, the tips and tricks and the teenage boys and stuff, they're little hacks. At the end of the day, you have to love yourself in order to spend time with yourself, to make yourself a priority. You have to fix the root cause.
Zibby: Then how do you fix the guilt? How do you fix guilt that we have about so many things? Moms working and feeling guilty, moms not working and feeling guilty, everybody feels guilty about something. How can we release ourselves from the perpetual state of guilt?
Katherine: A lot of the guilt comes when we spend time on ourselves when we don't think we’re worthy of spending time on ourselves. There's guilt that we’re not doing things for other people, is usually where the guilt comes down to. Heaven forbid we insert ourselves into that pie. I think that's where the guilt comes from. When you do learn to love yourself and value your time with self and personal development and all of those things, I now feel so much less guilt because I believe I'm an important piece of the pie. There's only so many hours of the day. I would like to have some of them for me. I have more energy because of it. I actually feel like I have more to give away because I'm happier and more fulfilled and not so depleted. The guilt naturally dissipates when you believe that you have a seat at that timetable.
Zibby: What about this whole concept of wearing the mask of motherhood that you talk about? You've talked about it on The Today Show. You publicly talk about it a lot. How do we get rid of it? What is it?
Katherine: The mask is always walking around like, “I'm fine. I'm fine. I don't need any help. Everything's great.” What I always say about the mask is that other people might not know you're wearing a mask, but you know you're wearing a mask. Every time you lie and you say you're fine when you're not, you're basically telling your soul that that other person’s opinion of you matters more than the truth. Your soul hears it when you lie. I wore a mask for twenty years. I fooled a lot of people. Everybody thought I was very happy because I was successful. I matched the image in their mind, but I was very hollow and empty on the inside. Eventually, you have to take that mask off because you can't really truly feel loved. Showing who you really are and then feeling loved is a totally different ballgame. I had a lot of people cheering me on and saying they loved me, but I could never really feel it because I didn't believe it. It takes work. It doesn't happen overnight. It’s not going to happen from reading one book. This would be a great jumpstart for anybody on that journey. I highly recommend therapy. I had a life coach for a long time, which was even more actionable than therapy. I really believe in talking about this stuff out loud and admitting it. It'll start to dissipate.
Zibby: What else can we do on a large scale to get this -- I do feel that there's been a shift towards being open about our feelings and authenticity. I'm very open when I have big mom fails and all this stuff. Is there anything on a societal level that we can do aside from just trying to reach moms over and over?
Katherine: We’re doing some work through The Mom Complex on the corporate side of life. We’re going inside of companies and helping their working moms through some of these lessons that some might brush off as personal development, but it’s really professional development in the sense that -- I’ll tell you a funny story about this. For many women, we have to get these cobwebs out. We have to learn to believe in ourselves. I’ll give you an example. I was giving a speech recently. I asked everyone in the audience to think of the last terrible thing they said to themselves after they saw the video that you saw. There happened to be a husband and wife in the front row. Then I said, “Now share it with the person next to you.” The wife is like, “Oh, my gosh. Mine are so horrible. Which one am I going to pick? I don't want to my husband to know that I have all these horrible things that I say about myself. She stalls and she's like, “You go first.” He goes, “I can't think of anything. I can't think of the last terrible thing that I said to myself.” This woman posed on Instagram. She said, “LADIES” -- all caps -- “This is why men rule the world.” Can you imagine what you could do and who you could be as a woman if you couldn't think of the last terrible thing you said to yourself? That's the next frontier, is corporations figuring out that women have this inside of them. If they can help alleviate it, then we’ll have more to give at home, more to give in the world.
Zibby: Wow. Tell me a little more about the writing of this book. When did you write this book? When did you find time to write this book? How did you prioritize it? Did this count as a purple entry in your calendar? Was this a green?
Katherine: That's a good question. I definitely would consider it purple because it was personal and amazing. For me, it was much harder to get the book deal than it was to write the book. I had a book proposal for nonfiction. It was rejected for four years by twenty-three publishers.
Zibby: No way.
Katherine: It got better over time, thank goodness. I'm glad the earlier versions didn't sell, but lot of rejection. I just refused to give up. I knew that these tools and tips and tricks would really save people a lot of heartache. I just kept going and kept going. I finally got the deal in July of 2017. I wrote it in seven months. It was nine hours a day, five days a week for seven months. What I did was I worked one a day a week for my company. I wrote five days a week. Then I just took one day as pure family day. I had a wonderful editor. That's what she said because it was 75,000 words. That was all the edits done too in that time period. I was so glad she told me that pace. I would’ve been like, oh, I have seven or eight months. I probably would've started a lot slower. This time, I was like, oh, shit. This is serious.
I was very blessed. I have a wonderful team at work at The Mom Complex. My business partner Lauren was like, “I will run this company. We will do a great job. Don't answer emails. The one day a week, we’ll book your whole calendar. You can help, but we’re not going to bug you outside of that.” I have an amazingly supportive husband. He was like, “You got one shot to write your first book.” I had wanted it so long. I'd been rejected for so long. People were so happy to help because there was so long that we thought it wouldn't happen. I was freed up. I loved it. I loved writing it. I cried every day from my own story and getting it on paper. Also, I knew that it would help people. I just knew the relief that came from what I was writing about for me. To do that on a big scale was crazy to me.
Zibby: I'm so glad you didn't give up. Sometimes when people come in, I'm like, why would that book be rejected? Why? It’s super helpful. Anyway, I don't know. I'm not a publisher. That doesn't make any sense to me.
Katherine: They get a lot, I think.
Zibby: That's true. I guess so. What is coming next for you now? What do you want to do next? Tell me your plan.
Katherine: I'm not itching to write a second book. Most people ask that. I love this book. This is the message that I want to share. I want it to change millions of people's lives. I want to do the work for that first because I do think it’s a foundation. Eventually, I'd love to write about daughters fighting dragons. This self-doubt and everything that lives inside of young girls could be pretty interesting. Until then, I just want to get the word out. I really love to do and want to spread the word about doing speaking engagements and workshops with women. I do them for nonprofits. I'm speaking tomorrow for an organization called Girls on the Run about teenage girls. I love being in person with people. It’s a great message. I just want to do more of it.
Zibby: That's awesome. Thank you for crusading on behalf of all moms. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?
Katherine: I would say find an insider that can really help you navigate the way. I did that for this process. I worked with a woman, Kristina Grish, who had written several books. She was an editor herself. She helped me navigate. “It’s a proposal, it’s not the full thing. You've got to write it in this tone. They want to hear --” I was doing a lot of the legwork of the writing. She was helping frame everything for me. “Don't expect an agent to call you back. Reach out to fifty of them to find one. There's plenty of people out there.” I love helping people too. I'm like, “Let me tell you what not to do.” As a first-time author, it’s extraordinarily hard to get a deal. It can be done. I didn't have any credentials to be an author. I figured it out. Find a guide.
Zibby: Now everyone's going to call you. I won't give your cell phone out. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for sharing all of your advice. I really hope your message gets across. I hope everybody reads this and really internalizes it because it’s super helpful. We can all slay our dragons collectively. Thank you.
Katherine: Yay. Thanks. Thanks for having me.