Last spring, Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani had just welcomed a newborn baby boy into the world and was looking forward to taking maternity leave for the first time. She was excited to bond with her children and take a step back from the company she’d worked so hard to build to let them flourish without her. Then the pandemic hit, and just like that, all of her plans were upended.
“Suddenly I found myself canceling my maternity leave and having to save the organization that I spent 10 years building while I was homeschooling my five-year-old,” Saujani tells Yahoo Life. “I would end every night exhausted. It took everything out of me.”
On top of extreme exhaustion, Saujani says she started breaking out in acne for the first time since she was a teenager — and when she eventually contracted COVID-19, she barely even registered it because she simply didn’t have time. “I knew I felt this way, but I also remember getting onto Zoom every day and just watching the women, the mothers who worked for me, look exactly how I looked.”
Like so many other moms across the country, Saujani did her best to stick it out and hoped for the best, but when September arrived and schools didn’t open, she admits the situation began to feel dire. “We went from grinning and bearing it to barely surviving,” she recalls. “All of these people were making decisions about our lives that we had no control over; we had to find out about it on Twitter or Facebook or in the news, and no one asked us [because] they just assumed mothers would do it. That we would homeschool, be tech support and nannies, all while doing our full-time jobs.” Saujani says it’s not lost on her that this is what stay-at-home moms have been dealing with for so long.
Despite the dangerous level of burnout described, American’s obsession with perfection didn’t go anywhere, Saujani points out. “You thought that perfectionism would die in a pandemic? It’s alive and well, and you know, there’s no gratitude or sense from anywhere that we've had to do something exceptional, or like we showed up for our country in a big way, you know?” says Saujani. “I think so many of us feel like we're not seen and we can't complain about it.”
As the daughter of refugees, Saujani can’t help but look back on how hard her own parents worked to give her a good life in this country. “They had to literally save and scrap everything to give us opportunities, and I think about what they would have done if they were living through the global pandemic, and they wouldn't have been able to make it,” she says. “So much is broken fundamentally in our society, but that also means that we have the opportunity to build it back better.”
As we speak, Saujani is on a mission to do exactly that with her Marshall Plan For Moms, a “get moms back to work” initiative that she debuted in December 2020 — the same month that, according to the U.S. Labor Department, 140,000 women lost their jobs. “Our labor market participation is where it was in 1989,” she muses. “We lost 30 years of progress in nine months.” The reason for this, she explains, is two-fold: So many women can’t afford childcare or to cut back their hours, while many other mothers held positions in healthcare, education and retail, which simply weren’t pandemic-proof.
“To get back into the workforce, we're calling for a 360-plan; a Marshall Plan For Moms to build it back better,” says Saujani, before adding: “We’ve relied on mothers too much and we haven't valued their work enough, so what I'm excited about is that maybe, just maybe for the first time, we can start to really value it.”
In order to get moms back to work and bringing in money, the campaign is calling for several measures to be taken — including offering direct parents to moms who have their paid labor in the workforce replaced by unpaid and unseen labor at home; passing policies like paid family leave, affordable childcare and pay equity; retraining programs to make sure women can fill jobs that exist; and finally, planning to safely reopen schools five days a week.
It’s a bold plan, but Saujani is determined to see it through and spark these conversations that need to be had. “I've gotten a lot of criticism on the left and the right for different reasons,” she says. “But that makes me excited because it shows that we're on [track] to having a conversation about the unpaid labor that women across the globe offer in society.”
So far, 50 highly influential women — including celebrities like Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Gabrielle Union — have called on the Biden administration to implement the Marshall Plan For Moms. Additionally, the Washington Post published a letter signed by male allies who support the plan, and New York congresswoman Grace Meng recently introduced the initiative as an official piece of legislation that will help mothers return to the workforce. In other words: You could say we’re off to a promising start.
While Saujani holds myriad different titles at this point — founder, CEO and author, among others — she admits that her most important role will always, always be mom. “As someone who fought for a decade with fertility struggles to become a mother, I hold this role dearly,” she says. “But I'm also the mother of two sons, and I want them to see what I do as an example of what they should be doing.”
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