I’m thrilled that we’re discussing Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn this month for our Brilliant Book Club. It’s a personal story of how juggling the demands of work and parenting caused Katrina to “max out” and break down emotionally. She connects her own experiences as a working mom with her thoughts about the changes that we need to make as a society to make working mothers happier, healthier as well as better parents and workers.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts by our fantastic Brilliant Book Club team:
“Are You Maxed Out?” by Omnimom’s Lauren Apfel
“Can You Be Maxed Out If Your Boss is YOU?” by Mommy, For Real’s Stephanie
“Maxed Out: Our Bodies, Ourselves, and The Personal is Political“ by Left Brain Buddha’s Sarah
“Everyone Has Limits, Not Everyone Has Choices” by Urban Moo Cow’s Deb CG
In Fear of Maxing Out
Like Lauren Apfel, who writes in her post about the book that she doesn’t feel stretched to her breaking point, I’m not “maxed out” right now.
Sometimes I’m stressed out. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the demands of a toddler. Sometimes you might find me in tears after an hour-long attempt to put an overtired and screaming little boy down for a nap. Sometimes I look at our current financial situation and panic, realizing that our (mostly) one-income family situation is completely unsustainable for the long-term. Sometimes I walk past the bookcase of academic books (now unused) and piles of research papers in my “study” — the hundreds of books and articles that I used to write my dissertation over the course of several years — and I feel like I’m cheating myself, not using my training and talents to achieve more, to live up to the expectations of others (and myself) for my continued success.
Yet here’s my truth: I live in fear of becoming a maxed out mom.
I wrote a more traditional review of what I thought about the book’s themes two months ago. All of my thoughts and reflections are still true for me. Here is some of what I said:
[Alcorn] writes, ”One day I went home sick from work and 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 maxed out.”
Now this is where I thought the book would start to annoy me. I hate cautionary tales of fragile women not being able to hack it in the work world, only to retreat back to the home. I know every woman’s personal story is different, but too often these stories seem to be implying that women are better off not even trying to juggle work and family. And they seem to be about blaming the woman, rather than confronting the deep structural gaps — in maternity leave, in sick leave, in workplace culture — that make parents’ lives — women and men — so difficult. Women’s experiences are reduced only to “personal” choices, stripped of any cultural or institutional factors that significantly impact their lives. The discussion then becomes about why this individual woman can’t cope with her life, seeming to blame her, rather than asking bigger questions about our society, our government policies, and our workplaces.
But this book is different. Completely different. She weaves research and social critique into her personal story. And her personal story is riveting, painful to read, and almost unbearably relatable. I read the book in two nights, staying up way too late for a mom of a toddler, because I literally couldn’t pull myself away from the pages. Her story is full of memorable details: those innumerable everyday moments of life (from small annoyances to outrageous injustices). (One that stands out in my mind is the e-mail from a colleague after she has been storing breast milk in the office refrigerator — after pumping in the public bathroom or conference room. The subject line is his e-mail is “bodily fluids,” and then the message states, “I’m against them being stored in the company refrigerator.”)
Ultimately, this book is about change: how we as women and as parents need to confront this incompatibility between work and home life. And confront this challenge together. Change needs to happen at every level, from the home to workplace culture to government policies.
Here’s the message that I took away from the book: you are not alone. If you feel “maxed out” and “on the brink” of losing something — losing your mind, losing your job, losing your mental and physical health — stop personalizing it and take action. And not only are you not alone and not crazy, but there are understandable reasons for that stress.
And now, months later, as I reflect upon the book again, I have realized something deeper about myself: I am more terrified of being “maxed out” than I am of the what-ifs (what if I could have become a tenured professor? what if I had turned my dissertation into a book?). I am more scared of being a maxed out mom than I am of my current inability to provide greater financial security for our family. I am more scared of a life in which I am only “keeping it together with prayers and duct tape,” as Alcorn describes the lives that many working women face.
I am making sacrifices — my own career advancement, my family’s savings — because I know I couldn’t do it all. Actually, I couldn’t do half of whatever “having it all” entails. I’m trying to cobble together my own writing career path for me. This is the truth: I am not a (mostly) stay-at-home for the sake of my son, or my husband. My son loves preschool, and I know he would be happy with full-day day care as well. I’m doing this for me, my own mental well-being and happiness, based on hard-won knowledge of my own temperament as a writer and an introvert.
I’ve become an obsessive fan of the political thriller TV show “Scandal,” which features Kerry Washington as a Washington “fixer” of scandals named Olivia Pope. She and her team are so dedicated to their clients and to their firm that they call themselves “gladiators.” They’re passionate, obsessive, driven, willing to sacrifice their lives to Olivia’s causes. They pursue success at all costs, to themselves or to others.
I’m not a gladiator. I’m not even a part-time, mediocre gladiator who takes lots of naps. Right now I’m okay with that. Maybe in five years I’ll try to be a gladiator, or maybe I’ll never be one.
But here’s the thing: I hate the fact that other women find it difficult to be gladiators for their jobs (or modified parent-gladiators) as well as happy mothers. I already have excellent child care, a very supportive husband, and the potential to have a career with flexibility (university teaching or research). But that’s still not enough to enable me to be a gladiator. I’m not built that way.
But I want lots of women to be able to be career-focused gladiators. For other women, the lack of those structural conditions — not enough sick time, not enough maternity leave, lack of quality child care, an unsupportive spouse (or lack of spouse in the first place) — makes the difference between finding and keeping a fulfilling, well-paying job and being able to support their families without losing their minds. For these women, because of differences in financial circumstances or personalities, they want to be gladiators at their jobs, but there are so many ways that their lives are harder than they should ever be. They’re ambitious, goal-directed, and willing to juggle the competing demands of parenthood and work.
And here is why I loved this book: because of its emphasis on action. Because it says to women, those who are striving to be breadwinners, productive employees, and even leaders in their fields, that there are millions of other women like you. It’s not your fault that structural conditions are this way, that modern parenthood is increasingly demanding, that we live in a society that is individualistic rather than supportive to working parents. And the book also demonstrates that there is the possibility for change, if we as women — no matter what our choices or current situations — fight for it.
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Have you picked up your copy of The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship? All four of us — Lauren, Stephanie, Deb, Sarah, and I — are contributors!