Maxed Out

American moms on the brink.

Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Oakland author Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

Much ink has been spilled instructing women how to have it all — thriving careers, happy children, and satisfying marriages. You will find no shortage of magazines and self-help books bursting with snappy, upbeat directives like “Lose the guilt!” “Lean forward!” and “Don’t let yourself go!” Taken together, their message is this: Work smart, keep a positive attitude, and everything will be just fine. 

Years ago, when I was first coping with the competing demands of a new baby and a new job, I reached for those books with both hands. With their help, I learned how to “Stay ahead of my schedule!” “Make dinner in ten minutes or less!” and “Succeed at staying fit!” 

I was so pleased with myself back then. No one was more organized, more efficient. When other working moms complained about how hard their lives were, I listened sympathetically, but secretly I thought: She’s just not trying hard enough.

But after my second child was born, the limits of time management became clear. No four-week Power Program or Efficiency Work Flow or other Jedi mind trick could resolve the ridiculous demands on my time. 

One day, I went home sick from work and then never went back. I never even cleaned off my desk. I fell into a profound despair, plagued by panic attacks, insomnia, shame, and dread. After almost six years of “successfully” balancing a job and family, I had completely burned out. A yearlong journey through medication, meditation, and therapy began. As I learned over the months to heal my body and my mind, I sought the answer to one question: What the hell happened?

My collapse didn’t make any sense. I was a smart, capable, healthy person. I had a loving husband, a supportive boss, healthy kids, great daycare, a good income. If I couldn’t manage a career and a family, then how were other working moms doing it, women who didn’t have those advantages?

When I first attempted to write [Maxed Out], a few months after I stopped working, I did so in a kind of feverish delirium, writing every moment I was not with my children. That first draft was what I thought of as a typical memoir — it was an intensely personal story about my life as a working mom, my attempt to “have it all,” and my miserable failure.

It was my story, but it didn’t tell the whole story. I knew I was not alone in my “failure.” All around me, I saw women staggering through their days, trying to make the best of their own difficult circumstances. At work or at the park they made self-deprecating jokes about exhaustion, but once you scratched the surface, it stopped being funny. They suffered from panic attacks and depression, heart palpitations and hives, migraines and mysterious coughs that wouldn’t go away. Many had tried antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or both. Most fantasized about quitting their jobs. Some actually did, trading their chronic time deficit for regular ol’ debt.

 It seemed gauche — selfish, really — to complain. After all, we were all living the lives we’d chosen. We had what we thought we wanted — beautiful children, and a level of financial independence that our mothers never knew. None of us could make sense of the wretched state we found ourselves in. Most days, it felt like our lives were being held together by Band-Aids and Elmer’s glue. What were we doing wrong? 

I started researching the topic of women and work in earnest, and in 2010 I launched a blog called Working Moms Break to share my thoughts about what I was learning. It was my own personal consciousness-raising period. Over the next couple of years, I heard from thousands of women and men around the world. Their stories helped me make sense of my own. Then I rewrote the book. 

It is time we realized just how maxed out this generation of women has become. It does not have to be this way. And frankly, we deserve better. My deepest hope is that if we can see this problem for what it really is, perhaps together we can do something about it.

It’s Time to Call a Truce to the Mommy Wars 

Every mother I know has felt judged, at one time or another, about her choice to work or not work, most often by other women. Stay-at-home moms are overcoddling and wasting their education. Full-time “career” moms are coldhearted, reptilian women who care more about money and status than their own children. 

Oh, but the judgment doesn’t stop there. Mothers who stop at one kid are depriving their child of siblings. The ones who have more than two kids are accelerating global warming. Mothers who don’t breast-feed long enough are going to give their children asthma. Mothers who breast-feed too long are weird. Helicopter moms are overscheduling their children, turning them into type A, anorexic basket cases, while the rest of us are depriving our children of important enrichment activities. Health-nut mothers judge others for putting Fritos and unnaturally flavored juice in the lunch box. Meanwhile, everyone pities the children of health-nut mothers, who have to eat that gritty whole-grain bread and the brown-spotted bananas. 

These are the kinds of judgments that get passed around casually in our personal lives. Then there’s the public arena. There was the furor over tiger moms with the publication in 2011 of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Should women push their children harder to be “successful” in school, music, and other pursuits? Next we were outraged over the May 2012 Time magazine cover, which showed a mom looking defiantly into the camera while breast-feeding her toddler next to the headline “Are You Mom Enough?” Are women breast-feeding too long or not long enough? This happened around the same time everyone had to weigh in on the pregnancy of the new Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer, and her decision to take only a couple of weeks of maternity leave. What’s wrong with her, anyway? We had barely settled back in our seats when we had to rise again to join the kerfuffle over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which quickly became one of the most widely read articles in the history of the magazine. But instead of having a dialogue about the structural issues that Slaughter said are holding us back, much of the reaction to her piece came back to personal choices. Should women change their definition of “having it all”? Should we learn to be content with what we have?

Why are we so obsessed with women’s personal choices? Why are we so quick to judge mothers?

Maybe we judge because we feel conflicted about the choices we’ve made. We’re afraid of screwing up what we’re constantly reminded is the most important job we’ll ever have — raising our children. We point the finger at others as a way of feeling better about ourselves. We wrestle with our feelings about how our own mothers raised us.

Whatever its cause, all this judgment is, of course, a distraction. The real conflict, which we all feel either directly or indirectly, is between all parents and the economic policies and social institutions that don’t value the act of caregiving, that make it so damnably difficult to raise our children, stay economically viable, and keep ourselves and our relationships intact. Politicians of all stripes (mostly men) extol family values, but do we really value families when we don’t offer parents paid time off after the birth of a baby? When affordable, quality child care is out of reach for so many families? When so few women have the support they need from employers to breast-feed, and half of us lack paid sick time?

As one author pointed out in a May 2012 New York Times opinion piece, “If ‘the conflict’ continues to be framed as one between women … it will continue to distract us from what we should really be doing: working together — women and men together — to change the cultural, social and economic conditions within these crucial choices are made.”

Do You Compare Your Insides to Other People’s Outsides? 

Most of us do, even though we know better. We’re social creatures. It’s natural to make comparisons. But, we inevitably wind up comparing how we feel to how other people seem

This may in part explain why so many mothers feel so much guilt. We look around at the women we know from the office or the kids’ school and see patient parents, happy marriages, and well-adjusted children. And we think, Why can’t I be more like her? 

Recently, I asked several friends — all women I deeply admire — to send me a paragraph or two about the things you can’t see about their lives from the outside. 

Here are a few examples of what real-life, enviable, put-together-on-the-outside women are really thinking. Think of them the next time you feel as though you’re doing everything wrong: 

“Anneke” — Mom of one with coveted job in high-profile nonprofit

What people don’t see about me (or maybe they do!) is how anxious and cranky my commute and job make me. Ever since I went back to work (and stopped breast-feeding), when I have a day of nonstop, back-to-back meetings, followed by the inevitable email backup, followed by the mad rush to the train to do day care pickup for my toddler, followed by her not wanting to get into the car seat and screaming and crying in the parking lot at the top of her lungs, I find myself hyperventilating in the car and I have to take an Ativan by the time we get home so that I can literally breathe. I’m cranky toward my husband when he gets home, annoyed with our dog. I manage to hold it together all day and be professional, upbeat, and on the ball (I even manage to work out at lunchtime a few days a week), but by the time evening comes around and I’m trying to cook, I’m a mess!

“Jenny”—Pioneering mom of two in the world of high-tech

What people don’t see about me is that I’ve been on the edge of a panic attack for the past six to eight months—just started seeing a therapist. Worst time of the day is 5:35 pm, when I get home from picking up my twenty-one-month-old and three-and-a-half-year-old up from day care/preschool and we’re all starving, grumpy, and don’t know what’s for dinner.

I’m sick of being the main breadwinner and fantasize about moving to a little town where we can live on a farm and I can be with my kids all day and raise chickens.

“Alexa” — Glamorous mom freelancing in the music industry; her house looks like a movie set

Each day that goes by where I am not fully employed in my industry, I feel as if my career slips further and further out of reach. When I am ready to jump back in full-time, who is going to want to hire a forty-two-year-old mom, when there are twentysomethings chomping at the bit to do my job for longer hours and less pay?

 My mind swirls with this thought and others:

“I need to volunteer more at his school.”

“I need to start running again in the mornings.”

“How come my son can’t memorize his Tae Kwon Do student creed?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done private school so we could save money for college.”

“Fuck, I have no 401(k).”

“I have to remember to water my zucchini garden when I get home; how do I get the tree rats to stop eating them?”

“I need to make more friends outside my marriage.”

“Do the other moms think I am weird because I am gay?”

“Do the other moms think I’m hot?”

All of this could take place in my head in the same five minutes. I smile on the outside because to describe what’s going on inside would make me seem off my rocker. I cry in my car on the way to pick up my son and then turn on the air-conditioning full blast to cool down my face and unpuff my eyes. It doesn’t really work, but I say I have bad allergies.

“Gillian” — Creative stay-at-home mom whose talent could give Martha Stewart a run for her money

I never know what to say when people ask me, “Are you a stay-at-home mom?” To me, that implies that one parent works (and is able to support the entire family) and one parent agreed to not work and happily does all the home stuff . . . which I guess is me, but I don’t remember “agreeing” to this arrangement at any time. I have a small business I am trying to start and I teach a couple of classes a week, on top of all the housework, all the pickups/drop-offs, all the shopping, all the bill paying, all the everything.

Most of the time I am crushed with the weight of the financial debt. I feel helpless and angry that I can’t make more money myself to pay it down. I feel stupid and childish that I am 33 and have no savings, no investments, no 401(k), nothing. I have ideas, goals, dreams that seem so unrealistic in my day-to-day life that it feels as if they will never happen.

“Samantha” — Nurse with clear priorities around work and home and the perfect part-time schedule 

What people don’t know about me is that being a mother isn’t satisfying the way I expected it to be. I tried so hard to become a mama, and sometimes I think that I lost sight of why I wanted to have a child, what my motivations and expectations were. My daughter is amazing — healthy, happy, energetic. It’s just that spending time with her is often not as gratifying as I once believed it would be.

Sometimes I feel guilty about not wanting to have another child — as if people think I’m cheating my daughter, or I’m not truly part of the two-kids’ “Mommy Club.” I’m content with the kind of work that I do, but the daily grind of parenting and working outside of the home often overwhelms and bores me at the same time. Career advancement is on hold since I only work part-time. I thought I would be fine with this, but I feel torn between spending enough time with my daughter and putting enough energy into work. 

A GI Bill for Moms

Both anecdotal and empirical evidence show that women’s opportunities in the workplace have a way of mysteriously evaporating after they have children. The news media began to refer to this phenomenon as the “Mommy Track” in 1989, after a career consultant named Felice Schwartz set off a furor with an article in the Harvard Business Review. In the article, she claimed that women managers cost corporations more than men do, because they require things like flexible schedules to accommodate their pesky family responsibilities. 

Schwartz suggested that companies divide their female employees into two groups, based on their level of career commitment. Group 1: “Career-primary” women who’d be willing to work long hours, travel extensively, and, when needed, relocate without letting any personal obligations get in the way. Group 2: “Career-and-family” women who’d happily accept lower pay and a dead-end job if it meant they could take a sick day when little Johnny had a fever.

In other words, Schwartz’s proposed solution was to take the implicit Mommy Track, in which mothers are informally and unfairly passed over for raises, choice assignments, and promotions, and make it explicit corporate policy.

There are more problems with this strategy than I care to list, but here are a few:

1. It’s exploitative — taking advantage of women when they most need their income to support a family.

2. It’s unrealistic. Our needs (both men’s and women’s) change over time. How many of us — with children or without — can truly put career front and center at all times?

3. It’s discriminatory. (No one suggested dividing fathers and nonfathers into separate groups.)

4. It shows an amazing lack of creativity, requiring women to fit into the existing work culture, rather than finding ways to make that culture work for everyone.

Companies need women at all levels, and they especially need women in leadership roles. Numerous studies have shown that companies with more women in leadership roles outperform their competitors. They do better on the stock exchange, and they make higher profits.

Many possible reasons have been put forth for this correlation between more women and healthier companies. It could be that we’re better listeners, we have a more “open and inclusive style of management,” or the fact that diverse groups (such as those that mix genders) tend to make better decisions. One recent study published in Harvard Business Review suggests that women may simply be better leaders. Or maybe, as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi pointed out in a 2012 interview, the years some of us spend raising children actually give us important diplomacy and interpersonal skills. (Important biographical note: Pelosi spent more than a decade as a stay-at-home mom with five children before running for political office.)

All too often, employers look at the years we stay home with young children as a black mark, wasted time. Even a request to work a reduced schedule is seen as a lack of commitment to our jobs.

 This is what needs to change — this attitude about the time people spend caring for family. Instead of pushing us onto the Mommy Track, employers should be looking at creative strategies like job shares so women can stay in leadership roles, or better “on-ramps” to help us transition back to the Fast Track when we’re ready.

Government, too, can help by providing incentives and programs to help working parents. This isn’t an ideological argument — throughout our history, politicians of all stripes have stepped in to help correct economic deficiencies. Just one example: In 1944, faced with millions of veterans coming home from World War II with valuable skills that did not easily translate to the workforce, Congress passed the GI Bill. The bill provided loans to start new businesses, and tuition and living expenses to attend college. One needed only ninety days of active duty to be eligible — no combat experience required.

This investment in the future of our country unleashed a massive amount of untapped human capital. By the time the program ended, in 1956, more than two million veterans had attended college and more than six million had received some type of training with help from the program. Today, historians and economists conclude that the GI Bill was one of the most successful, profitable government programs in US history, speeding our long-term economic growth and helping bring about the emergence of the middle class. For every $1 invested, the government and the economy received almost $7 in return.

Why wouldn’t we make a much smaller, but similar investment for mothers and fathers who take years off (unpaid) to raise children? It wouldn’t just improve the economic stability of families; it would be an investment in the economic well-being of our country.

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