Maxed Out in America: Can We Help Mom?

Could our American culture maxing out us Moms? (And Dads?)

Yup. It certainly is. And support for this stance can be found full throttle in the book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.

As a testament to the rising fever pitch of modern day challenges in raising children, Maxed Out joins the good company of books like Bringing Up Bebe, and a litany of articles in the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic that seek to understand why American Moms seem so stressed to our every last nerve.

Maxed Out is refreshing because author Katrina Alcorn validates the feelings and experiences many women feel, through so precisely describing the dysfunction that exists for working moms in our great nation of rugged individualists.

Instead of having to brace myself through chapters of research smartly woven into a narrative story like in other books, I relaxed as I realized that it’s essentially a memoir, with just 2-3 pages of research thoughtfully interjected at the end of most chapters. As a working woman who’s made career choices wearing my Mom Hat, the book is exceedingly relatable. My heart goes out to Alcorn often, and many times it’s like she is writing thoughts and experiences I’ve had directly and indirectly as a working parent.

Women Must Battle the American Culture

But this isn’t a book just for working moms (working outside the home, that is). It talks about the decisions that women make – to work, to stay at home, to try something in between. And it definitely underlines in bright, bold marker the pitiful deficiencies in our political and social systems to support American parents. Consider this:

“… The real conflict, which we all feel either directly or indirectly, is between all parents and the economic policies and social institutions that don’t value the act of caregiving, that make it so damnable difficult to raise our children, stay economically viable, and keep ourselves and our relationships in tact. Politicians of all stripes (mostly men) extol family values, but do we really value families when we don’t offer parents paid time off after the birth of a baby? When affordable, quality childcare is out of reach for so many families? When so few women have the support they need from employers to breast-feed, and half of us lack paid sick time?”

The book resonates with the work I did last year with a team of women producing a report on how to advance women in the workplace. While we offered a list of action items at individual, organizational, and policy levels, the very existence of the report is another example of how hostile our workplaces and culture is to working parents. The most haunting words of Alcorn’s book seek to conclude our absurd circumstances:

“We are devastatingly overworked and simultaneously lack the government, workplace, and familial supports that exist in most other developed countries. The American Dream tells us if we just work hard enough, we’ll get what we want. But the research shows that for working moms, hard work is not enough. 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 just as if they don’t have children. If you don’t like it, hire someone else to raise your children. And if you don’t like that, then quit. Except, of course, you can’t quit, because you can’t get by on one income.

Well, then, if it’s too much work, don’t have babies!

And there you have it. America’s delusion of rugged individualism, taken to its absurd conclusion: the end of the human race.”

HA! Brilliant.

Life is Different Now, Individually and as a Society

Among other topics, Alcorn talks about how many working women can’t bear the thought of becoming mediocre after being successful, when the opportunity and blessing arrives to have children. And she writes about how less happy our lives are as moms today: “Our lives have changed dramatically since the ‘60s, but the institutions around us – government, workplace, and marriage – have not kept up. Mothers today are on the front lines of a deep dysfunction in society, trying to make up for the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that is now expected of us. This, I believe, is a big reason why we are less happy than our mothers.”

The book brings to light the reality that “it is crazy to put working parents in impossible situations where they are bound to go crazy and then act as if there’s something wrong with them for going crazy. This is not an individual pathology that can be solved with a pill … This is a massive cultural pathology.”

My reminder, in my dining  room, to have more fun daily.

My reminder, in my dining room, to have more fun daily.

Keep Your Mind and Body Healthy

The book also speaks about the mind-body connection, something I have been exploring more as I consider how to fit meditation in my life (having only managed to do it once since November). “Many of us live almost exclusively in the realm of the mind. We’re always thinking about what we’ve done or what we’re about to do. We are never fully in our bodies. If anything, our bodies are an inconvenience,. It takes time to eat, to wind down from the day, to go to the bathroom. Time when we should be working or picking the kids up from school.” She also encourages women to sweat (exercise), eat (mindfully and to nourish) and sleep (more).

Finally, Alcorn wonders about our communities. She notes that parents become increasingly isolated as they have children, with social circles shrinking. This adds to the stress and pressure to get everything done, because we’re doing it with little help. She wonders, “If it takes a village to raise a child, where are all the villagers”?

If this leaves you feeling angry, try not to be. Yes, we need to make change happen, but I’m realizing there’s no place for daily anger—especially after reading this article on anger in my favorite magazine, Experience Life.

I wish I had more time to advocate for more of the changes we need. Time is a valuable commodity when one is overloaded and unsupported by our social, political, and economic systems deficiencies. At least I keep up with Moms Rising, a group Alcorn touts for its effective advocacy efforts. My Vienna Moms group is having a book discussion, since I shared the book on our 500+ list serv and it sparked interest. Perhaps by sharing knowledge, we can talk together about how to make more authentic lives for our families and ourselves.

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