'The Big Life' Author Ann Shoket On Why Ambition Isn't a Dirty Word for Moms
Even in 2017, it’s not acceptable for moms to say they have big dreams for themselves—much less go after them. (Grr. Why is that?) Thankfully, we have a kindred spirit in Ann Shoket, mom of two, Leonardo, 4-and-a-half, and Isabel, 3, and the editor-in-chief of Seventeen from 2007 to 2014. Shoket’s just written a new book that will speak to anyone who doesn’t see ambition as a dirty word: The Big Life: Embrace the Mess, Work Your Side Hustle, Find a Monumental Relationship, and Become the Badass Babe You Were Meant to Be. We asked Shoket a few questions:
In your book you write about the many dinners you hosted at your New York City apartment for the “Badass Babes”: women in their 20s and 30s who all hunger for “The Big Life.” Your “rock-star mom” dinner was the shortest—because those women had babies to get home to—but also the most revealing. Why was it so revealing?
I was at first surprised they all showed up. These were women who had big jobs and toddlers at home. Nobody said “my husband had to work late” or “my babysitter didn’t come” or “my toddler is sick.” They all said it was a conversation they’d been very hungry to have: to discuss success, and work, and families. I don’t get to have that kind of conversation with my squad either—I had never had a chance to purposely unpack for myself what it meant to be ambitious and to have kids, and how all those pieces fit together. My husband and I had never had that kind of a conversation before kids, where we had any kind of serious planning. These women, though, had all been really purposeful about their careers, and some of that involved taking risks. Some of the younger women were at the beginning of their careers, and were still looking to put the pieces together. A common theme was: This is your life—don’t necessarily take it as it comes.
Of all the decisions to make, do you think there’s a number-one most crucial decision?
Who your partner is going to be. So often I meet younger women who say they can’t find a partner who’s excited about their ambition and the sacrifices and all their wins. And it leads to this feeling of tremendous defeat, of will I ever find a partner, and do I have to make myself smaller in order to find someone. It was nice to meet these women who had not done those things—they had not made their lives smaller to fit someone else’s vision of what her life should be, personally and professionally.
I did a couple of dude dinners, but the next thing I’m going to do is talk to men more deeply. I think there’s so much more to unpack about men and women and ambition.
You got your editor-in-chief job at Seventeen at 34, then met your husband that year, married at 39, had your first baby at 40, and your second at 42. What was it, do you think, about having your career in place that paved the way to the happiest changes in your personal life too?
I almost didn’t throw my hat in the ring for the Seventeen job—I had this moment of panic knowing if I got it, it would change everything. I was thinking maybe I won’t have time to date, and I won’t find a partner, and men don’t want a strong ambitious partner. My best girlfriend said to me, “The dating you’re doing isn’t working. Just take the job and you’ll figure it out later.” She was right. The job was a steep learning curve, but after 10 months I could go to dinner like a normal human being and not have panic attacks over dessert. One night when I was out with a friend, I just leaned over and started talking to the guy at the bar sitting next to me. We clicked right away. I told him what I was doing and he thought it was cool and he told me what he was doing, and I thought that was cool. That’s how I met my husband.
I think everybody—men and women—have something they want to prove to themselves. Being editor-in-chief, knowing I could succeed at this really big job, was important for my sense of self, and helped me see bigger possibilities in the world. The one thing that is the most important idea of the big life is to get rid of all the ideas of how life should be, to see the possibilities.
How vital is it for moms to find their squad?
You need a squad—you need a sisterhood anytime you’re doing something hard. You need women bonded to each other who can help drive each other and succeed. You have to fill your social media with people who have the same vision for the future as you do. I have women I follow who inspire me, like [beauty vlogger] Michelle Phan, who took a nearly year-long sabattical from her YouTube channel at the top of her game. And [jewelry designer] Jennifer Fisher—who’s both phenomenally chic and has a family.
Your kids are really small right now. How do you handle the demands of taking care of them while staying in tune with your ambition?
My kids did not make it harder to be ambitious. They made it harder to sleep! I had to get comfortable with getting by on less sleep. They made me laser focused because I saw I didn’t have to chase every event and every breakfast. Not every email had to be sent, and a lot of things had to be delegated. I felt I needed to go deeper instead of broad. I’m not spending my Saturday afternoons shopping anymore, unless that’s at the farmer’s market or Old Navy to buy the kids swimsuits!
You talk a lot in your book about the self-doubts that creep up on us, especially in the middle of the night. How do you handle it when self-doubt or your mental to-do list keeps you awake?
I’m mad at myself on nights my kids sleep through and I’m up agonizing! I’m like “Come on, you could’ve slept!” Those things at 3 a.m. are to me the things that signal what matters—and if I listen to those anxieties, somewhere in there is the solution. I see those anxieties this way: We’re busy, you don’t have all day long to worry about every possibility, and your mind wants you to know, ‘Hey pay attention over here—your brain is saying hello, you need to deal with this!’
You write you want your book to make the reader "feel like a badass.” Honest answer: Do you feel more badass now than you did pre-kids?
Yes, I feel more sure about my direction, I feel more clear about my vision for myself, and I feel confident in my ability to take on overwhelmingly complicated challenging tasks and figure them out. But I also feel excited and nervous about what comes next. The first question I always ask at my dinners is, “If I could magically solve one problem for you, what would it be?” I want to know like the women at my table that it’s all going to turn out okay. Because this is an exciting, crazy stage of my life, and here I am at an amazing place, having just written my book. It’s phenomenally exciting to be discovering new things—and I want young women to love that feeling. It’s crazy unnerving not to know how things are going to turn out, but it’s an awesome experience to figure out what life will be and make it go your way.