Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

In what should be entitled “Maxed Out: American Working Moms on the Brink,” Katrina Alcorn recounts her personal experience as a woman trying to advance her career and raise children at the same time (with just a few statistics and policy suggestions spliced into each chapter). The problem is that memoirs are only worth reading if they are very well written, historically important, or totally relatable; and I’m sorry to say Alcorn’s doesn’t qualify.

Her tale is decently written, but interesting anecdotes and remarkable turns of phrase are the exception rather than the norm. I also can’t believe that her experience is representative of working moms. She extrapolates from surveys indicating that working moms feel anxious, the confessions of a handful of her friends, and her own crippling panic attacks and depression to the conclusion that working moms suffer from a “chronic state of busyness, stress, and exhaustion.” She puts her finger on a real problem but overestimates its severity, since her own experience almost certainly falls at the far end of the spectrum. I am not a working mom, but I know many whose frustration with the juggling act does not come anywhere close to causing a mental break. Who knows, maybe Alcorn and her friends are the norm, not my pals; but I certainly hope not.

That said, Alcorn’s memoir may hold some appeal for working moms that I just can’t understand. I’m sure it offers valuable validation and commiseration. Here are a few of my favorite quotes – if only the rest of the book had been as funny or significant it would have been a read I could recommend:

  • “Like a lot of men, Brian had two modes of conversation about work – Ahab-level obsession and slacker-level indifference.”
  • “When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains start to malfunction in all sorts of bizarre ways – we lose our emotional resilience, our tempers, and our ability to sustain logical thought. . . . Which means the vast majority of parents with children under the age of two are the emotional equivalent of stumbling, bleary-eyed drunks looking for a fight or a warm place to take a nap.”
  • “The bar was so low for dads. Dads were like clowns at the party. Show up, make everyone laugh, take a bow, then disappear before the mess had to be cleaned up.”
  • “Because while I could have done those [self-care] things, I couldn’t have enjoyed them [whereas my husband could].”
  • “And so, in the fine tradition of exhausted, guilt-ridden mothers everywhere, I had alienated the person I most depended on – my husband – and upset the person I most wanted to protect – my child.”
  • “As it turns out, managing temperamental toddlers had been excellent training for managing creative professionals like Thomas. The skills I picked up at home worked equally well, if not better, at work. I listened. I offered options. I set limits. I eschewed ambiguity. I did not engage in emotional turbulence. I kept my cool and waited it out. I was always available to problem-solve, and I did not hold grudges. I refereed disagreements . . . the way I [did] at home. I gave both parties a chance to air their complaints, then enlisted their help in coming to a mutually agreeable solution. When they succeeded, I heaped on the praise.”
  • “In her book If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, Ann Crittenden says that mothers excel at work, not in spite of our parenting experience, but because of it. Raising children teaches us to sharpen our focus in the midst of distractions, enhances our interpersonal skills, and develops our ability to motivate others – all transferable skills.”
  • “For someone young and single, this might sound like a dreadfully dull way to spend a week, but as any busy mom can imagine, I was in Getting Things Done heaven.”
  • “An essay I once read by the historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore helped me to make sense of the alienation I felt. She explains that we didn’t used to be parents and nonparents. For most of human history, to be an adult was to help care for children. . . . We lived and worked in the constant presence of children, sharing the work of raising them. Then, as the birthrate began to go down, our familiarity with children, and our collective sense of responsibility for them, began to change.”
  • “Mommy Guilt is like herpes. You never really get rid of it.”
  • “I felt so lonely. I wanted my mom. . . . There were no friends I could call . . . . Asking another stressed-out, sleep-deprived mom to spend the night with you at the hospital was like asking to borrow a month’s salary.”
  • “Research shows that when their children are older and women want to return to their careers, many cannot.” (No citation offered.)
  • “Our lives have changed dramatically since the ‘60s, but the institutions around us – government, workplace, marriage – have not kept up. . . . [T]here aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that is now expected of us.”
  • “Cruel irony. I had yearned for years to have more time with my children. Now that I finally had time; being around them was a torment. I felt as if my ears would bleed from their shrieks and happy squeals. I loved them, of course . . . but all I wanted was to lie down, alone, in profound silence.”
  • “The problem boils down to this: Most jobs do not accommodate people who have children. Instead, we have this unwritten, unacknowledged, and unyielding expectation that working parents will make the accommodations necessary to do their jobs as if they don’t have children.”

2 thoughts on “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

  1. The important quote from your review is “I am not a working mom”. Obvious it depends on the hours you work and how demanding your job is, bit there is a reason the book is a top seller on amazon.

    • Definitely! That’s why I included that information. I can only review the book from my perspective, try as I might to consider others’. I’m glad it spoke to you and that lots of other parents find comfort and commiseration in it as well. Thanks for reading, Christine!

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