Having It All: Moms on the Brink, A Book Review

working-mom-juggling-baby-and-work-300x200My kids were covered in the remains of bribe-food – you know, the stuff you buy on the highway in the hopes that your insanely loud children will chew quietly for a half hour?  We’d just arrived at my parents’ house for Labor Day weekend.  My kids were thinking: aquarium, amusement park and ATV rides with grandpa.  I was thinking, ahhhh, a few more days to ignore the imminent future: the three drop-offs at three different schools, the homework, the school physicals I forgot to schedule, the shoes and lunchboxes and backpacks to be bought and filled, the draft novel skulking around inside my computer looking for love, the health insurance claims to be filed, the title list to be pulled together for the school book fair.  You’ve been there, you know how it goes.

As I ushered my kids out of the car, an email flashed across my iPhone, asking if I could review Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink for Project Eve.  The email described the author, Katrina Alcorn, as “a 37-year-old mother of three with a loving husband and a dream job when one day, on the way to the store to buy diapers, she had a nervous breakdown.”  Her book, a firsthand study of the impossibility of having it all, would explore how the American workplace is hostile to the needs of parents.

I looked down at my dirty-faced children, now bursting with excitement over this new installment of summer fun, and wavered.  But a familiar little voice inside me whispered, “Why not?”  How could I turn down Katrina Alcorn, mother of three, who managed to lose her mind and still publish a book?

“Happy to do it,” I wrote back.

A few days later, amusement park a distant memory, I was writing page ten of my fall to-do list before bed, and I was anything but happy.  I flipped through Maxed Out and felt my eyes go to the watery brink.  Did I really think I had the time for this?  The concentration?  I was so tired, and it wasn’t even the second week of September.  To make matters worse, somehow my son’s dirty gym clothes were in my bed with me, along with some multi-colored food crumbs I couldn’t identify.  I started skimming the book’s afterword: bullet-point advice to working moms on how to avoid burnout.

Okay.  Bullet points I could handle, right?  Bullet points were probably invented by and for tired moms.  First on the list was “Practice Saying No.”  Ha!  A lot of good that advice does me now, I thought, trying to read through glassy eyes.  Alcorn writes:

Many working moms are allergic to the word no.  We feel compromised that we’re not able to give our all as workers or as moms, and so we feel obliged to say yes, again and again.  But our energy is a precious resource.  If we keep giving it all away, one day we’ll find we have nothing left.  We have to cultivate compassion for ourselves and find ways to say no… It’s not about letting other people down.  Saying no to others is about saying yes to yourself.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to take her advice.  I banged out a new, solidly-NO email to her publicist.  But before I pressed send, I saw her, Katrina Alcorn, staring at me from her photo on the back cover.  Big eyes, kind face.  And I knew I couldn’t let her down.  Sisterhood and all that.

打印A couple hours later I was almost done with the book, and I could not stop reading even though it had become the deep, dark of night.  When I began, I had the feeling that Alcorn was taking my precious energy.  But after a few chapters, I realized she was giving me energy.  I wasn’t doing her the favor, she was doing me one.

Her story is riveting, and it is one that will resonate with any mother, or woman thinking of becoming a mother, whether she works outside the home or not.  The value of this story is in the personal details – Alcorn shares how the mundane demands of her life build and crescendo to a place that becomes untenable. She speaks with a self-deprecation and honesty that makes her story very relatable.

Maxed Out reminded me of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lammott – an all-time favorite of mine.  After the birth of my first child, I read Lammott’s diary in two or three page snippets during the total silence of the middle of the night feedings.  Along with my son, she became my steady companion during a time that was surprisingly lonely.  She was able to express feelings I was having but could not quite articulate in my sleep-deprived haze.  It made me feel better to know that someone else was having the complicated feelings I was having about motherhood.  And was having them worse!  A lot worse.

Alcorn, likewise, gave me that wonderful feeling of not being alone.  She too felt overwhelmed by the daily stresses of balancing far too many obligations, of having far too many people asking for too many things.  Not only did the book offer me camaraderie in my own stressful mom moment, but it also expertly synthesized the underlying causes for that stress – from systemic problems in our workplace, to the economic challenges related to having children and paying for childcare, to the social dynamics of the workplace, to our own self-doubt.

One of the most intriguing elements of Alcorn’s story is the evolution of her relationship with her female boss.  At the book’s start, Alcorn seems very lucky.  She works for an unconventional web design company run by a fellow mother who seems to get what it means to be a working parent and who promises a more accommodating schedule.

Little by little, however, this seemingly understanding boss begins to increase her demands and decrease her tolerance for a reduced work schedule.  She is burdened with her own obligations and has too much work to be done by too few people.  She has high maintenance clients whom she cannot afford to lose.  Her team needs to perform.  Sound familiar?

operating-instructions-book-anne-lamottWhen Alcorn decides to have another child, she explains, “I couldn’t help but feel I was cheating on my job by having another baby.”  Indeed, her boss begins to resent Alcorn’s reduced hours after the birth of her baby, saying, “I worked full-time when my kids were babies … I never had the luxury of working four days a week.”  But her boss doesn’t make returning to work after the birth of her baby easy.  There isn’t even a private place for Alcorn to pump breast milk at her office.  She has to endure the public bathroom or conference room.  And she actually receives an email from a male colleague with the subject line, “bodily fluids,” that reads, “I’m against them being stored in the company refrigerator.”

Alcorn’s book is a wonderful combination of these big outrageous moments, with the more subtle, poignant moments working moms face.  I loved the chapter when Alcorn stays up all night holding her sick child, not because her child needs her to, but simply because it feels good to spend time holding him.  There are never hours in the busy day to hold her baby like that.

Maxed Out is full of engaging anecdotes.  Alcorn’s description of how mothering children is a lot like managing a staff of adults is priceless.  It is interesting to see how the skills she builds as a mother serve to her advantage in the workplace.  Her odyssey through the mental health world is also fascinating.  She is given drugs and antidepressants to address a situation that is actually caused by the overwhelming load of being a working mother, not some chemical imbalance in her brain.  I particularly enjoyed reading about an exercise she completes in her anxiety self-help group – to walk slowly along the perimeter of the wall and simply concentrate on what it feels like to walk.  Try it at home; it’s particularly cathartic.

Alcorn contextualizes her own personal story by weaving research about women in the work force throughout the text in mini-chapters.  These mini-chapters contain interviews of other working moms, summaries of articles by sociologists, journalists and psychologists, discussions of how the U.S. legal system fails working parents and suggestions for how to change the workplace to make it more parent-friendly.

For someone who hasn’t done a lot of reading on the subject of parents in the workforce, these asides may provide an excellent summary of the topic in bite-size installments that are very easy to read.  But these sections add little new to the debate and do not feel particularly fresh.  At times they are a distraction from Alcorn’s personal story, which is, for me, the heart of the book.

After staying up far too late to read her book, I woke far too early to the same crumbs in my bed, breakfast to be made and ten pages of to-dos.  But saying “Yes” to Maxed Out has made my fall load seem a little more manageable.  I must confess that I did not leave her book hopeful that the systemic difficulties facing the working mother will ease any time soon.  But I am more conscious of the priorities and limits in my own life, more conscious of the need to slow certain moments down and more willing to eliminate some items from my to-do list altogether.  What about you, what will you say yes to this fall and why?

131 COMMENTS

  1. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Genuinely rarely should i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you may have hit the nail about the head. Your idea is outstanding; the problem is an element that insufficient persons are speaking intelligently about. I am delighted we came across this during my look for something with this.

  2. Hmm it seems like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for rookie blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  3. Cool blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your theme. Thanks a lot

  4. Hi, i believe that i saw you visited my blog so i got here to “return the choose”.I’m trying to in finding things to enhance my web site!I assume its ok to make use of a few of your concepts!!

  5. I do trust all the ideas you have introduced for your post. They’re really convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too short for newbies. Could you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

  6. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any way you possibly can take away me from that service? Thanks!

  7. Howdy, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam responses? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can suggest? I get so much lately it’s driving me insane so any help is very much appreciated.

  8. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I am hoping the same high-grade blog post from you in the upcoming also. In fact your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own blog now. Actually the blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a good example of it.

  9. A lot of what you state is astonishingly accurate and that makes me ponder why I hadn’t looked at this in this light before. This piece truly did turn the light on for me personally as far as this specific subject goes. Nonetheless there is actually just one point I am not necessarily too comfy with and whilst I make an effort to reconcile that with the actual main theme of the position, allow me observe just what the rest of the readers have to say.Well done.

  10. Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

  11. I’m writing to let you be aware of of the impressive experience my wife’s child had going through your webblog. She picked up numerous pieces, which included what it’s like to have an incredible giving mood to let other individuals very easily understand a variety of multifaceted topics. You really exceeded our own expectations. Thank you for presenting those precious, healthy, informative and also fun tips on this topic to Lizeth.

  12. Hey would you mind letting me know which hosting company you’re utilizing? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you suggest a good internet hosting provider at a fair price? Thank you, I appreciate it!

  13. It is the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you few interesting things or advice. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!

  14. Together with everything which appears to be building within this particular subject matter, a significant percentage of viewpoints are generally relatively exciting. However, I am sorry, but I can not subscribe to your entire idea, all be it stimulating none the less. It looks to everybody that your opinions are not completely rationalized and in fact you are your self not even thoroughly certain of the assertion. In any event I did enjoy reading it.

  15. My husband and i got really fortunate that Michael could round up his reports by way of the precious recommendations he got through the blog. It’s not at all simplistic just to continually be giving away procedures that many the rest might have been selling. So we consider we have got the blog owner to give thanks to for that. The illustrations you made, the easy site navigation, the relationships you assist to promote – it’s everything wonderful, and it’s really leading our son in addition to our family reckon that the topic is cool, which is exceptionally mandatory. Many thanks for the whole thing!

  16. There are some attention-grabbing closing dates on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. There may be some validity but I will take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as nicely

  17. Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

  18. Hiya, I am really glad I have found this information. Today bloggers publish only about gossips and net and this is really frustrating. A good website with exciting content, that is what I need. Thank you for keeping this website, I’ll be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can not find it.

  19. Hi, Neat post. There is a problem with your site in internet explorer, would check this… IE still is the market leader and a large portion of people will miss your great writing due to this problem.

  20. Thank you, I’ve just been searching for info about this subject for a long time and yours is the best I’ve found out till now. However, what about the bottom line? Are you positive concerning the supply?

  21. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Genuinely rarely should i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you may have hit the nail about the head. Your idea is outstanding; the problem is an element that insufficient persons are speaking intelligently about. I am delighted we came across this during my look for something with this.

  22. It’s arduous to search out educated folks on this matter, however you sound like you already know what you’re speaking about! Thanks

  23. My husband and i got really glad Michael could carry out his inquiry via the ideas he obtained through the weblog. It’s not at all simplistic to just choose to be making a gift of solutions others might have been making money from. We really acknowledge we have got the blog owner to be grateful to for that. The main explanations you’ve made, the easy site navigation, the friendships you can help foster – it is most overwhelming, and it is leading our son and us imagine that the theme is interesting, and that is extraordinarily serious. Thanks for the whole thing!

  24. I am very happy to read this. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the accidental misinformation that’s at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this best doc.

  25. Throughout the grand pattern of things you actually receive a B- for effort. Where exactly you actually misplaced me ended up being in the details. As they say, details make or break the argument.. And it could not be more accurate in this article. Having said that, allow me reveal to you exactly what did give good results. Your article (parts of it) is definitely extremely convincing and this is probably the reason why I am making an effort in order to comment. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. 2nd, while I can certainly notice a leaps in reasoning you come up with, I am not certain of exactly how you seem to unite the details that produce your final result. For the moment I will yield to your position but wish in the future you actually link your dots much better.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here