Katrina Alcorn, a writer-editor and mom of three in Oakland, was on her way to Target to buy diapers one day in March 2009 when she had to pull over. The demands of full-time work and parenting had become too much, and the anxiety she had battled for several years took over. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Alcorn had a breakdown.
Alcorn has recovered, with the help of therapy, medication and a reduced work schedule. But it wasn’t an easy road. She has blogged about it on her Web site, Working Moms Break, sharing her story and those of other moms. Her new book, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink,” intersperses her experience with short essays on what it is about U.S. culture that is making it increasingly difficult for parents to juggle work and home responsibilities.
I recently spoke with Alcorn by phone about why so many moms are on edge and what needs to happen to better support working parents in the United States. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What is putting moms “on the brink”?
In 2009, half of the workforce was women, but all of our institutions are still set up for single-income families. The expectation is that there’s an adult at home, but that’s not how we live anymore. We’re trying to make something work that doesn’t work. My hope with this book is to shine a light on the dysfunction by telling this deeply personal story. I had a lot of advantages. My kids are healthy. I have a loving, supportive husband. I had a supportive boss. But I leaned into my career and I fell right over. I couldn’t make it work. . . . No one is taking a deep look at what this looks like and feels like and how it affects our health.
This seems to be a fairly common sentiment. Why aren’t more moms saying enough already?
We need to change the conversation. We need to get out of this obsession with individual choices. Using “Lean In” as an example, there are a lot of really good things about the book, but it’s focused on what an individual person can do to be successful. The women in my life are really capable, smart, hardworking and dedicated to their families. They don’t really need advice. Their employers need advice, their co-workers need advice, the policymakers need advice. We need to change the conversation so it’s not about what women are doing, but what society is doing. Do you want a bunch of bulletproof women to have this, what we think of as a normal life? My book is really focused on the conflict between working and raising kids. But the bigger conflict is that women have to do it all themselves.
What makes it so hard for many moms to say no, whether to a work obligation, another activity for their children or a volunteer position?
For better or worse, women are raised to be nurturers and to say yes. But I think there’s more to it. Research shows that when employers know a woman has children or is going to have children, her performance is scrutinized more. . . . If a woman is worried that she’s being scrutinized at work because she’s a mother, she’s going to be really circumspect about setting boundaries at work because she doesn’t want to be seen as someone who is not pulling her weight. I felt very conspicuous every day I left at 4:30 to pick up my kids, or because I had a special situation on Fridays. Those things came at a price. They were not free. We may put in extra time at night after the kids go to bed, early in the morning or on weekends, but that time isn’t seen the same way as the time in the office. . . . I think we need to challenge the idea that to be effective at work or be a leader you need to work long hours.
Why does the U.S. trail so many other countries in having family-friendly workplaces?
We have this idea, this legend that we’ve created about ourselves, that we’re rugged individuals and we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do it all ourselves. Personal initiative is great, but no one does anything by themselves. We’re social animals.
What are some policy changes that you think would make a big difference right now?
One of the very best things we could do is to not only provide paid maternity leave, but paid parental leave, and give fathers some incentive to take time off with an infant. . . . Sweden did this first. They had generous leave policies, but fathers never took time off. Then they gave fathers incentives to take the time, and over the years that one small change created a gender revolution. Moms started going back to work sooner, dads started spending more time with children, the pay gap narrowed, divorce rates went down, it got dads more involved at home. We have a long way to go because we don’t even pay moms to take time off with an infant. Anything that would create more of an understanding . . . and a sense of shared responsibility would help. In the workplace, if I were to wave a magic wand, corporate America needs to embrace the idea that they need to empower employees to do their work the best way that they can instead of babysitting their employees.