Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, answers five questions from Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, about maxed out parents, the media frenzy around Lean In, and her hope for what we can do for women who do too much.
Brooke Warner: You wrote Maxed Out because of a very personal experience you had. Can you talk about the inspiration for the book and how you came to the understanding that what happened to you was the result of being maxed out?
Katrina Alcorn: Yes, the book came out of a pretty traumatic work experience I had. In a nutshell, it’s about my experience trying and utterly failing to manage a demanding full-time job after my third child was born. Instead of “opting out” I “leaned in” for six years. Eventually I burned out very badly and had to quit my job.
After I stopped working, I started talking with other women and realized how incredibly common this experience is—pushing ourselves to the point where we become sick with stress. I started researching this issue and realized I had an important story to tell about what a bind American women are in after they have kids. There’s just so little support for us to balance work and family obligations. The irony is it doesn’t have to be this way. There are great examples of countries and companies that are making it possible for women to work and raise their families without killing themselves.
Brooke: Being a “maxed out” mom seems to be such a widespread phenomenon. Do you think there are maxed out dads? And if there are more women going through this, why is that?
Katrina: Yes, there are maxed out dads! I received an email just yesterday from a single dad who heard about my book and said, “Don’t forget about dads! It’s happening to us, too!” He’s absolutely right. Dads are getting more involved at home, and studies show they’re experiencing more work/family conflict than their dads did.
But men and women still tend to experience this issue in different ways. The cultural expectations are very different for us. Studies show women do a lot more of the work at home, even when both parents work. Women also multitask more, feel more guilt about working full-time, and have less leisure time than men. Not surprisingly, we’re at a much greater risk for anxiety and depression than men, too.
Brooke: One of the things that struck me about your book was how much more intense things got once you decided to have your second child. In your case, you already had a stepdaughter, so it was in fact a third child for you and your husband. What are your thoughts on how this phenomenon (being overextended/maxed out) plays out if you have one child, two children, or more? Does it escalate in intensity with each child a couple brings into their family?
Katrina: Yes, it sure does. A friend once warned me that having two kids wasn’t twice the work of having one, it was like, ten times the work. Now that I have two (three on the weekends), I know what she meant. In my book, I talk about how I learned to manage my time and my guilt about working full time after my first child was born. Although it was hard, I learned to make it work. But after my son was born, no self-help technique in the world that was going to resolve the ridiculous demands on my time.
It’s not just about the number of kids you have. There are all kinds of factors that affect our ability to work and raise our kids. Do you have family around to help? Can you afford to pay for extra help? Are your kids healthy, or do they have special needs? Are you a single parent? All these things factor in to whether we can manage it all, or not.
Brooke: You have a different take on Sheryl Sandberg’s urging that women should “lean in.” In fact, you wrote this in a blog post reviewing her book:
The main problem I have with Sandberg’s book is her criticism of women who “lean back” at work, particularly when they begin to contemplate having a family.
“If my generation was too naïve, the generations that followed may have been too practical,” Sandberg writes. (p. 15) “Many of these girls watched their mothers try to ‘do it all,’ and then decided that something had to give. That something was usually their careers.” She goes on to make a case for why women should reconnect to their professional ambitions, and give more to their careers.
Now I’m just a few years younger Sandberg, and the last thing the women I know need is to be chided for being too “practical” and protecting their energy and time. Women of Sandberg’s and my generation have made ourselves sick trying to manage the ridiculous demands placed on us.
Why do you think the media was so quick to glom onto Sandberg’s message, and how do you hope you can reframe the conversation to make things better for working moms?
Katrina: I think that whenever there’s a hard problem—whether it be gender inequality, global warming, poverty, whatever—it’s easier for people to focus on individual choices, rather than collective choices. When we’re talking about how to get more women in leadership, Sandberg’s advice is easy to get your head around. Women just need more confidence! It’s easier to talk about that, than about all the unsexy structural issues that hold us back.
I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water—I’m sure Sandberg’s lean in advice is helpful for some women, in particular, younger women who are just learning to find their voice, or older women who lack confidence. But if we limit the conversation to what women should do, we will never solve the real problem. To me, the real thing holding women back in their careers is bad workplace culture, and bad government policy. No one wants to read a book about policy, so what I tried to do with Maxed Out was tell an entertaining and highly personal story, and then sneak some of the research and policy stuff into it.
Brooke: When you meet other maxed out moms (or dads) today, what is your advice for them? And on that same note, what is the number one thing you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
Katrina: I wrote this book primarily for women like me, who are struggling to “have it all” but feel they’re coming up short. The number one thing I want them to know is that if they feel like they’re failing, they’re not alone, and it’s not their fault. I end the book with ten things that every reader can do to make a small change for the better. Each thing is aimed at creating change in our homes, our hearts, our workplaces, or society at large. The important thing is, each one is really easy, because I don’t want anyone to max out!
Watch Katrina's amazing book trailer (2 minutes long):