Neha Ruch: The @MotherUntitled Founder on Leaning in- in A New Direction
A week after my daughter started preschool my husband and I attended a virtual parents happy hour. This meet-and-greet Zoom party was meant to replace the in-person party they usually throw every September, where parents bond and become best friends (or so I’ve heard). But these days things are different so there we were, one square on a screen, trying to be friendly and engaged from our couch. It came time to go around and introduce ourselves, say where we’re from, and what we each do for work.
As each square came to life and told their story I noticed my heart start to beat fast and hard out of my chest. Mom after mom relayed their job—lawyer, marine biologist, chef, techy start-up person—and it became clear I was the only one who didn’t have a full-time job to relay.
At that point in my life I was a former fashion editor, turned stay-at-home mom, who was sorta kinda trying to be a freelance writer. I was already embarrassed about how my professional life had stalled (thanks 4 rounds of IVF, 2 cross-country moves, and a little something called a Global Pandemic), and being the only one without a career on this call only made it worse. The shame was very real, and I was so relieved when, by some stroke of luck, the group got distracted talking about bedtime routines and my turn was miraculously skipped. Phew.
The reason I’m sharing this story is that when I first met Neha Ruch of Mother Untitled, and started following her account, I felt a moment of recognition. An undeniable comfort. Or as the kids say, I felt seen. Not only is she a fellow mom (of 6-year-old Bodie and 3-year- old Lyla), but she also took a step back from her professional path to focus on her family, and then, as a result, found herself on a new path, just like I did.
After reading her thoughtful articles (on topics like navigating grief over an old career), her smart posts (on common fears like losing your identity as a SAHM), and her useful script templates (like one titled Guide to Preparing for a Career Pause), I thought back to that Zoom call.
Had I come across her platform earlier I would have been prepared for the what do you do for work? question. I would have been armed with the language to help communicate the phase of life I was in, and I would have known it was ok to take a step back without throwing in the proverbial towel. I would have also known that motherhood is full of different seasons, none of which are permanent, and, above all, that I can be both an ambitious woman and a stay-at-home mom—something I never accepted before coming across her platform. So if you are sitting here reading this and you too are suddenly having that feeling of recognition, know that I see you. Neha sees you. You too can be both.
Talk to me about the moment you decided to start Mother Untitled, and what your mission is for the platform.
I started Mother Untitled after my first year in motherhood in 2017. I’d made the choice to pause, and eventually downshifted into consulting only two days a week. When I graduated business school there was such a stigma, the Lean In movement was at its peak and it was driving a lot of the messaging around women in the workplace. So even though I felt really confident and clear in that choice, I was certainly feeling the judgments about it.
That Thanksgiving there was a conversation where I more acutely noticed the contrast between myself and my circle, and observed the disempowering narratives and stigmas surrounding the choice to stay home and downshift to focus on family. So during one of my son’s naps that holiday week, I wrote out a mission to create a new narrative, and a place for like-minded women in this stage of life. I started tinkering with the name, bought a domain, and began to write blog posts. Over the following six weeks, I recruited a friend to design the site, tapped some mom friends to weigh in, and launched a week after my son’s first birthday.
I think of Mother Untitled’s job as twofold: to help women feel confident in this stage of life, and to help society re-examine the opportunity for growth in motherhood. In doing both, we allow women to openly embrace this part of their life without penalty on the other side. Ultimately, our culture’s recognition of moms as relevant and connected during these years allows female talent greater confidence in returning to work and advocating their worth. In the absence of having the built-in maternity time that many other countries have, women in the U.S. have to create it for ourselves. We need to give ourselves that window to make the right choices for our families, but really the onus is on culture and it starts with allowing moms the grace to be in the in between.
On your platform you talk about the “grey area”—what is it and why is it something that society should be paying more attention to?
The black and white notions of the stay-at-home mom and working mom are so antiquated. There’s so much space in between those two concepts, which includes women taking thoughtful pauses—that’s the grey area. I believe I am here now because of the time I took off. It allowed me to grow personally, to check my ego, to experiment in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was lucky to find my own spot in the grey area, but I think especially now since the pandemic, there is a wide range of freelance and flex opportunities, and this conversation is growing.
Flexibility has become a critical value. It’s a really empowered moment in time where women get a chance, if they have the privilege to be able to, to stop and reevaluate what works for them right now. For a long time I think we associated the SAHM mom with luxury, but really I think the privilege isn’t to stay at home or to go to work—the privilege is to get to choose. It’s not just about if you have the resources to stay home, it’s also whether you have the resources to go back to work. It can swing both ways.
What should more people know about women who are in that “grey area”? What should employers and hiring managers know about them?
I’ve now interviewed over 200 women who have chosen paths that make more room for motherhood. These women bring an average of 12 years of prior career experience, and have intentionally decided to recalibrate for this chapter of their lives. There is substantial personal development and skillset expansion in motherhood—raising young kids is like leadership training in creativity, efficiency, communication, and empathy.
We are also living in a time where technology allows constant connection and learning. That means women have an opportunity to flex their creative muscles, stay on top of industry shifts, network, and even sharpen the skills specific to their industry in digital formats. Taking a pause often gives them room to clarify what they want their contribution and impact to be, so you’re looking at a group of highly motivated, thoughtful women.
Talk to me about your definition of ambition. Why do you think moms should rethink that word?
After I had children, I recalibrated my versions of balance over and over, shifting from staying at home entirely, to freelancing alongside motherhood, to eventually working part-time two days a week. With each shift, I had to be clear on what success looked like because even measuring myself against the year before wasn’t fair, and would set me up for failure if I didn’t recalibrate. When we compare ourselves to other people’s success metrics or optimize for the wrong metrics, that’s when insecurity and unhappiness creep in.
Ambition can come in a lot of different forms, but I think women feel like they are somehow letting down the generation before them if they choose to shift their ambition to family life. But, for the sake of everyone’s mental health, we need to change that because we’re not operating in the 1970s anymore. If we can reframe ambition as trusting that we can make the right choices for our whole selves, including family, it allows us the confidence to keep growing. Whether the choice is to be a working mother, a fully at-home mother, or a mother in the grey area, if it lets you and your partner be the best versions of yourselves, then your kids are going to be alright. It’s important to tune into what’s right for right now.
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