Are You a “Maxed Out” Mom? Why American Moms Are On the Brink

maxed out

When Sheryl Sandberg told us to “lean in,” I was confused. I thought I had tried it, but I still “fell over.”

When Judith Warner updated us about the “opt-out” generation that now wants back in, I was confused once again. What was it that I’m doing? Am I opting out right now? Did I want to opt-out? For how long?

Then I got tired and put down the books and articles. I didn’t recognize my story, my concerns in these media discussions. My experience –and every woman’s that I know — seemed impossible to reduce to sound bites and catch phrases.

Motherhood is raw. In many ways, it is primal, all-consuming, and — above all — an emotional experience. Before I had a child, I thought I knew the emotions of happiness and sadness, anxiety and even anger. For me, motherhood intensifies every feeling that I had before. When I’m stressed, I’m so much more stressed. When I’m overwhelmed, I’m so much more overwhelmed. When I feel joy being with my son, I feel that joy more intensely than I ever did before.

Nothing that I read about motherhood, balance, and identity reflected this emotional experience of trying to meet the demands of parenthood, work, marriage, and everyday life.

Then I read Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.

It’s about one woman’s story, the author, Katrina Alcorn, an accomplished design consultant, living in Oakland, California. When Katrina was 37, she — using that dreaded media phrase — “had it all.” She had three young kids, a successful career that she loved, a wonderful husband, and then she had a nervous breakdown. She realized that she couldn’t do it all, even with the supportive husband and sympathetic employers.

She 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.

Here are a few of the suggestions that Alcorn makes:

1. Practice saying “no”: Stop worrying about letting others down and learn to say “yes” to yourself.

2. Be an ally to other women: Stop judging other women and cut all women some slack, remembering that cultural and institutional forces make finding balance difficult for all women.

3. Sign up for MomsRising: She’s donating 10% of the proceeds from the book to this organization that advocates for the needs of mothers. They lobby for parental leave, flexible work schedules, affordable childcare, and other policies that improve working families’ lives.

I’d encourage all women — working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, child-free women — to read this book to understand why so many women are trying to “have it all” and beating themselves up for failing at it. Her vision for a healthier and happier way to work and live is important for all members of our society to understand.

Do you feel “maxed out”? How do you cope? What would make your life happier and healthier?




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23 thoughts on “Are You a “Maxed Out” Mom? Why American Moms Are On the Brink”

  1. I must read this book. I’ve felt Maxed Out since the birth of my first. The work & responsibilities just never end. Even when the kids get older & it does get a little better then sports and activities and homework & CCD or other religious classes get piled on top & it’s dizzying. Oh, and the schedules never stay the same. So everything is a moving target & somehow you are supposed to keep track of everything, which of course I never can. I totally agree w/ you that we need society & governmental change but I also can help but feel that parents make everything 10,000 times more complicated than it has to be. And the school doesn’t help either. Oh, and I just got a threatening note from the Choir teacher about how important it is to be on time (starts b/4 school at 7:45 a.m.) & if you can’t make every practice, then maybe you should think about forgoing this year & sign up next yr. It’s Choir. Let’s get a hold of ourselves. Why does everything have to be high stakes?

    1. I definitely agree that parents need to take more responsibility for making their lives more complicated than they actually are. My son isn’t old enough to have outside activities, but I’ve seen the effects of overscheduling kids as a teacher. That’s such a great point!

  2. Sounds like an amazing read!

    I was “maxed out” last year after returning to work from maternity leave. Then I had three work-related traumas and never went back. I’m done.

    I truly believe that for me, there’s no such thing as “balance”. I tried for years to strive for it but I don’t believe it’s obtainable for me. There’s always something tipping the scales a little bit more and I give to that area, pull back a bit and then something else is tipping the scales. I cope by making sure the scales don’t tip too much in any direction.

    I’m writing this book done as a must-read. Sounds riveting.

    Wishing you a lovely day.

  3. I think the first thing we could do is help mothers who are in grossly underpaid jobs get more help. Somehow. I don’t know how, I know nothing about policy but I taught the children of those stressed out moms, working before, during, and after their kids get home from school and the students were totally frazzled too, not to mention struggling in their academics.

  4. Okay, I love your book reviews, but seriously, half of my amazon bill is due to you!! 🙂 This book sounds fascinating ~ our culture needs to do so much more to support parents and families and children….

  5. Sometimes I do feel maxed out. Then I feel guilty because I am a SAHM. I think about the working moms and think, “What are you complaining about?” I am really trying to learn to say no. I used to have a really hard time truing people down – again with the guilt. I have found, though, that the more you do it the more comfortable it gets.

    1. That is so true, Lisa. I’m basically a SAHM mom too, and I could relate to everything in the book. The book is about moms primarily, but really about families juggling and struggling.

  6. Ok, that didn’t make me cry. I definitely recognize myself in it — and more so, friends who are working full time. You are so right that our society is not structurally set up to deal with a two-person working family. It’s just not. There is no room to breathe. I feel it myself and I’m “only” working part-time.

    Great review. I agree with Sarah’s tweet – I spend more on Amazon due to you than anyone else!!

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  8. Maxed out? Absolutely. And I think the kicker for me is that I beat myself up about it…I think I am the one who just can’t keep up, can’t handle it all well, can’t just manage.

    1. Oh, Liz, you’re definitely not the only one! For her research for the book, she interviews women about how they cope, and she finds that they all say the same thing: they feel like they’re the only ones but they’re not!

  9. Thank you for writing this. I feel maxed out every single day and feel angry at myself and guilty that I am not managing my time better. Whether I’m trying to catch up on blogging, or my job, or making sure that my time with my son is the best it can be, I just feel like going back to bed most mornings.
    I am going to buy this book. You are awesome for sharing it.

  10. Great review! I had not even heard of this book so I’m glad to know now.

    I think I’m pretty good at saying . . . too good sometimes. I have remind myself to say YES sometimes. I live in hear of overcommitting.

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  12. I honestly thought I had it all when I worked at a daycare and had my kids with me all day. It seemed like the best of both worlds. But it burned me out good! I needed a break from all the neediness. I became a better mom when I took a different job and gave us each our space. I think I became a better wife too. Things aren’t perfect now, but I am certainly much happier and much more relaxed.

  13. Man, I tapped out years ago, but that was for health reasons. This sounds like a fantastic book to help me put one foot in front of the other as far as balancing goes. One day I plan on returning to working world. Thanks again for sharing this!

  14. Wow. This sounds like something I need to read. I absolutely feel maxed out. I always feel like I’m failing in one area of my life – at least. I definitely do too much and have too high expectations for myself. But I was even more maxed out when I was working full time.

    When I was pregnant with my second and having early contractions, I knew I had to leave. I loved my job and it was a great company, but as you said – there was a basic incompatibility between my life as an employee and my life as a mom. It wasn’t working.

    I’ve been freelancing ever since and it’s great – but there’s still no “balance.” Life is still out of whack. And I’m still trying to figure out how to fix it.

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