I’m not maxed out. There I said it. I have days, we all have days, where there aren’t enough hours and my nerves are frayed and balls drop left, right and center. But these are just days, they aren’t my life. Eight years ago I chose to “stay home” with my kids, not because I think women should do this as a rule. I chose to stay home because I knew myself. I knew that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be and hold down a steady job at the same time. Call me unambitious, I never expected to “have it all.”
Katrina Alcorn took a different path from me, one she unfolds with grace in her compelling book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. If I chose to stay home from a platform of financial privilege (which was, in part, possible because of where we chose to live), Alcorn “chose” to take a full-time job out of financial necessity. “There was no way around it,” she says in chapter two, “we had to make more money.” In this way, hers was not, strictly speaking, a choice—at least not in the first instance. The Mommy Wars do not always hinge on the luxury of decision. More often than not, they are fought on the battlefield of necessity.
Alcorn’s book is an attempt to shine a light on just this reality: to expose deep-seated problems in American culture that curtail a mother’s options, systemic difficulties such as inadequate maternity leave and skyrocketing childcare costs that make the work/life balance a genuine struggle for a good part of the population. But she does this through the lens of a memoir. Unlike Judith Warner, who tackled some of the same themes in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Alcorn’s is not a work of sociology (though there are academic-styled interludes at the end of each chapter). It is a deeply personal account of one woman’s journey to the edge and back. This makes it, at once, both more and less effective in accomplishing its goal.
It is more effective because it is human nature to generalize from the particular. Alcorn holds herself out as an example, one voice speaking for the many. An advantaged voice, true enough, but her point is that if she couldn’t cope with the strain of being a working parent what hope is there for the less fortunate. The logic flows this way: if a lot of women are unable to balance successfully the twin engines of motherhood and career, therefore it is the system that is broken.
The book is less effective as a memoir, however, because when we can’t relate to someone’s particulars, we are unable to generalize from them and we are more likely, as a result, to attribute the glitches they experience to the idiosyncratic brew of their own decisions. This is also human nature. The logic goes like this: sure, there are cracks in the system, but I live in the same system as you and I’ve chosen differently from you and I didn’t have a breakdown. This is exactly what happened when Alcorn’s book was showcased on the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog, where she was judged, to her surprise, for her personal choices and not her political ideas.
I am not trying to defend the Motherlode commentariat—that would require its own kind of madness—but I understand where the criticism was coming from: I’ll admit it, the margins of my copy of Maxed Out are filled with little notes of query about continuing to feed the older baby at 2 am; about taking on a book contract, in addition to a full-time job, while seven months pregnant with your second kid; about travelling to a conference with a three month old; about dismissing the notion of a mother’s helper when you are barely keeping it together with “prayers and duct tape.” The question writ large I kept asking myself, though, is what, that was out of her control, would have prevented Alcorn from reaching the point of emotional collapse?
In the UK, where I live, there is generous paid maternity leave. We have part-time free pre-school from three years old. We have flextime opportunities and, on the whole, a less intense culture of expectation in the workplace. And yet, none of these practices means that women’s lives here are without the psychologically generated conflict that is a natural consequence of having small children and a career simultaneously. Some of my working mom friends would describe themselves as pushed to capacity. Some of them wouldn’t. The devil of why, for each, is in the details—of their personality, of their line of employment, of their family arrangement—even though they all live in the same relatively progressive country. A country that has, already in place, most of the policies Alcorn argues for.
“At every turn of the narrative,” Alcorn writes in the New York Times, “I use my personal choices to show that often there aren’t any good options to choose from.” This is the raison d’Ãªtre of the book, but, the more pages I turned, the less true it rang for me. Alcorn’s options weren’t bad. She had a great job that she loved, two healthy children that were in quality daycare/school and a supportive partner. The problem was philosophical. The problem was how the options looked in conjunction with one another. The options weren’t good because she wanted to do it all at the same time and to do it to her admittedly high standards (“I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming mediocre”). This is what it always boils down to. Can we fix the workplace so that women are somehow immune to the toll that trying to do two all-encompassing things at once usually takes on us (and motherhood, I would argue, is of a different quality from fatherhood in this regard)?
There is no question that America is a flawed, patriarchal and individualist society and that we should, indeed, advocate for the changes Alcorn outlines in Maxed Out. This is not, however, the only take home message of the book. Better working conditions for mothers of young children will make it easier, but they will not make it easy. Having your heart and mind pulled in competing directions is never easy. What Alcorn’s story highlights in this respect is the importance of acknowledging limitations, the structural ones that might change, just as much as the biological and emotional ones that won’t. “I didn’t know I had limits,” Alcorn says of the reason she fell off the cliff. The sooner mothers learn the potential danger in such a disavowal, the better.
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