Where: At the American Embassy, situated at Djurgården, Stockholm.
When: On a brilliant April day, 2015.
How: Surrounded by spectacular artwork, sweet Aurora playing, and the echoes of history.
Journalist Natalia Brzezinski, marrried to U.S. ambassador Mark Brzezinski, seems to have a special gift when it comes to winning everybody’s hearts, and we´re no exception. After spending just ten minutes with her we´d very happily stay on for another ten hours to listen to the story of her life. Natalia radiates rare strength, a genuine interest in other people, warmth and a strong interest in contemporary society. She and her husband has been ranked as no. 3 on Resumé´s list of super communicators, and has drawn attention to a lot of high profile issues during her time in Sweden. She refers to herself as a storyteller, and as the ambassador couple leaves Sweden, it´s clear that this is a story that will never end – The Love Story between Natalia and Sweden.
Thank you, Natalia and Aurora, for having us! Oh, how we wish that you weren´t leaving just yet.
Photo: Linda Alfvegren
What is the best advice you have received as a mother?
The best way to take great care of your family, is to take great care of yourself. “No man is an island”, which means no one person can do it all alone. Hillary Clinton said “it takes a village” to raise a child, and I think she´s right.
What is the hardest part of being a mom?
For me, it´s sometimes feeling like I am failing at so many things because I´m trying to balance so many things. Many women say when they´re at work they feel guilty for being away from their child and when they´re with their children choosing to not work they feel guilty and bad for not fulfilling their passions.
I know it´s what almost every woman says – but the balancing act of trying to be a perfect mother, be a supportive wife, be a creative professional, be a great friend, take care of your body, be a good daughter and sister, sometimes it feels like you´re drowning. But at the same time, sometimes it can be the most empowering feeling because as a woman you can do so many things at once and you can handle all these relationships. We were made to handle them. So I look at the struggles as a positive thing, because each one make me feel like a superwoman if and when I get through it!
When did you move to Sweden and what was your first impression?
As a freelance journalist for the Huffington Post, I had written about work-life balance issues for women in USA and researched a lot about Sweden and other European countries with generous family leave policies. And literally the first piece of preparation we received in Ambassadorial training on Sweden was a New York Times article on fathers taking paternity leave!
So I had visions of a land where women had it all and family values were very central, and in some ways that is what I found when I arrived here but I also have learned a lot here that the challenge around women´s empowerment is about much more than only family issues. It´s about confidence, having the courage to use your voice, having a great support network around you and sometimes ignore cultural norms to take a stand for yourself or something you believe in.
It was also more beautiful than I had even imagined. The picture that stays with me as I think of the early days in Sweden is the joy and beauty of walking my daughter home from Förskolan on a sunny spring day at Djurgården, feeding the ducks on the way or getting a “mjukglass”: our favorite ice cream and sitting on the dock by the water laughing. Stockholm on a sunny day with the canal sparkling and people sitting by the water is just the most beautiful picture in the world.
What do you do for a living and what is the best thing about your job?
I´m a journalist, public speaker and communications expert. I thrive on meeting and connecting with people. And I am extremely curious about everything in life. I´m always yearning to see more, do more, understand more. I also love to give back. If I can make a woman feel power inside her, or a young student feel it´s possible to start their own business, that feeds my soul.
The best thing about my job is that I get to feed those passions in a dynamic cross-cultural context every day. I´m constantly learning, and I get to learn from people who care about the world. I´m constantly connecting with people, trying to serve as a bridge for them to other interesting people or to America, and trying to help people see the talent and beauty inside themselves. My job helps me be a better person, and I´m so grateful for that.
How do you balance family and career?
I take a lot of help. And I also try to coach myself to realize that I can not do everything 100 %. Sometimes it´s okey if a speech I gave was just at 80 % or my hair looks crazy at an event, and it´s also okey to not be with my daughter every single minute of every day. But when I´m with her I need to be really present – no working on the computer, no iPhone, no putting her in front of the TV while I do things in the kitchen, I try to have as much of our time together be about bonding, experiencing new things, laughing together, just the two of us.
I also try to bring her to as many things with me as possible. I want her to see me outside the home in a different role, and I want her to see me as a woman standing on a stage, or speaking to a large group of men, or taking any kind leadership role. This brings us closer, helps her understand what I do when I´m not home with her and it helps me teach her to be a leader and believe in herself.
What inspires you?
My friends in Sweden that are so creative and giving. My parents who came to America with nothing as immigrants and built a life of opportunity for me. My daughter who surprises me every day with her wisdom and love. All people who break convention and use their platforms for making other people´s lives better. Entrepreneurs, artists, designers, people who create with their own two hands something new and beautiful for the world.
I never cease to get inspiration when I walk through Stockholm on a day when the sun is bright and high, and I can appreciate the beauty of the glittering Baltic and the vast green spaces. I love Stockholm.
How would you describe your style?
I like to be unconventional, adventurous and full of surprises as a person and professional, and I think that extends into my style. Sometimes I am elegant, ladylike in a modern way, other days I feel edgy, raw and all I want to wear is leather or my favorite rings with claws, skulls and teeth. My friends joke that my favorite outfit is yoga pants and cool sneakers, and thats probably true. But no matter what I wear, I want my external expression and clothes to convey authenticity, comfort and self-confidence.
I appreciate and invest in brands that invest in things outside themselves. Brands that focus on sustainability, social consciousness, ethics, quality, treat their employees well, make woman feel beautiful and strong, these are the brands of the future.
What makes you happy?
A huge hug from my daughter, a great yoga class, an invigoration bike ride around Djurgården with my husband, accomplishing that I didn’t think I could do, challenging myself, but most of all bringing people together and trying to create positive social change.
I never think I´m doing enough in life, I always think I could do more to help others or in work. When I get an email or Facebook message from a young woman in Sweden saying I have inspired her to take a risk or go for a dream, I usually cry, I am so happy!
What are you afraid of?
Not focusing on the right priorities in life. Being so impatient and driven that I forget to enjoy the present and the now. Not being successful, and perhaps more so not knowing the true definition of success.
I always think about happiness and the right balance in life, what´s important and how do I be mindful about being a compassionate, giving person and not get lost in the busy nature of life.
What would you say to yourself, if you got to meet you as a sixteen year old?
Be more kind and gentle to yourself, you are a good person and criticizing yourself will not get you anywhere. Follow your instincts, you have the right answer inside you always.
Tell us about some favorite things in life.
I love club music, street art (some of which I have displayed in the U.S. Ambassadorial residence from Chicago), outspoken people, yoga, raw food, the openness and “anything goes” nature of America, massages, traveling, different cultures, reading biographies, reading anything that opens my mind, “lagom” culture in Sweden, and my friends and family. The love once around give me so much fuel, fire and compassion.
What is the best thing you have learned from your child?
Patience. Slowing down to appreciate the journey and not just focusing on the goals and plans for the future.
That love is about giving, and what you give is what you get back. From a child when you give, you get back so much more beyond your imagination.
What values would you want Aurora to get in life from you?
Courage to speak and be true to herself, compassion for others, a social consciousness, and a freedom to be unique and creative. I want my daughter to see me as someone she can come to with anything, tell anything to and that I will always be behind her.
How do you spend a free Saturday?
Reading all of the morning newspapers before anyone wakes up, seeing the sun rice, long walk or bike rides with my family, yoga. Skype-ing with my parents in the USA , and playdates with friends and our kids. We try to keep our weekends sacred and work-free to explore museums, nature, the archipelago and rest!
What are you dreaming of right now?
Summer. The freedom and laizzes-faires attitude that comes with it.
Your favorite place?
Stockholm, because I found my identity and voice as a woman and mother here.
I love the electricity of New York, the grit and street sense of Chicago (my home town), the diversity of London, the history and passion of Rom, the style of Paris. I really love Europe and The United States, and feel so fortunate to have a life and role where I can be a bridge between both.
Who were you as a child, the dreamer, the adventurer, etc?
I have always been a dreamer!
I was an only child growing up, so I read a lot of books, and would imagine myself in various heroic roles like a President, an explorer of the Wild West or a detective! Whenever I had a dream, I also always brought a commitment and dedication to making it happened, at least in someway.
My parents always taught me that I had to work hard and never give up. Since we were not very wealthy and did´t have a network, they told me that no doors will ever be open for me so I need to find a back door, a side door or crawl in through the windows. So I guess I´m a dreamer with an adventurous spirit! Because I was never too afraid of climbing in through someone´s window!
I always dreamed to live a life where I helped people and gave back. I was inspired by the way my parents always helped others even when they didn´t have much themselves. It was part of the immigrants ethos, people of all ethnic background starting from nothing in America and struggling together. I vowed to myself if I could help people, especially those with no networks or with new beginnings, I would. And in some ways, I am doing that in Sweden today. And it is a dream come true.
Has life in Sweden Changed you in anyway?
Sweden has change me so much! I have become much more disciplined and mature, but at the same time learned to enjoy the moment, slow down, savor a long walk or not work during a long weekend (not even checking email on Saturday or Sunday, which 3 years ago would have made me feel so uncomfortable!).
This role has been so meaningful to me, and I have really found my voice in Sweden when it comes to the things I am passionate about working with: Sustainability, women´s empowerment, entrepreneurship, and leadership. I hope to continue giving back to society and helping people find their own passion inside themselves and make it in to reality.
I love Sweden and admire it´s values and I know Sweden and my friends here will be a part of my life forever.
Can you tell us about your meeting with Obama?
I will never forget meeting the President.
Usually I am not intimidated to meet famous people, this is something my parents always thought me: people are just people. Respect everyone.
But as I waited on the tarmac with my husband, the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and many others, for the President to land his airplane at Arlanda I began to feel so many emotions.
When he finally stepped out of the plane and skipped happily down the stairs, I began to cry! This was a man who had struggled so much, who had a single mother who struggled to give him a great life, who was raised in a humble way and from my home town of Chicago, and all of these thoughts made me think of my own parents who had struggled as immigrants to the United States to give me a better life. I realized that we had a President who really symbolized the American Dream and the best of what it means to be an American, and that I could connect to his life story so much.
I had practice one line to say to the President as a greeting with my husband, because I did´t want to be annoying and talk too much! When he said hello to me, I told him I was from Chicago and he began to speak to me as an old friend asking so many more questions. I had planned for a 20 second conversation and it was several minutes! I love to talk but for the first time in my life I was speechless!
He could tell I was nervous, and he was so warm and kind. The next thing he said to Mark was “Mark, aren´t the Swedes great!”. And Mark and I wholeheartedly agreed. The rest of the visit was impeccable.
Do you feel that there are any differences between Sweden and the United States when it comes to how we live everyday life with our children?
It´s statistically proven that Sweden is one of the most gender equal and family-friendly countries in the world. I think swedes integrate their children into their lives very well, by bringing them to adult events, dinners, restaurants, art openings, even work! I think it´s so inspiring to see members of Swedish Parlament with Baby Björns strapped on giving a vote, or CEO´s with baby high-chairs next to their desk because they are on paternity leave. These are all things I´ve witnessed in Sweden! Everyday life is centered in a way around the family here and I think that is something I will bring back home with me.
What are you doing in five years?
Living a life that´s meaningful, happy and fulfilling, full of passion, laughter and family. And visiting my dear friends every summer in Sweden!