Not maxed out, and not on the brink

Several people have asked me about Katrina Alcorn’s new book. Called Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, the book argues that society isn’t particularly supportive of parents. You’ll get no argument from me there. Of course, the book also gets at that through Alcorn’s own tale of how she couldn’t have it all. With 3 kids and a full-time job, nobody had been to the dentist in a while and so forth. So she had a bit of a breakdown and announced that she just couldn’t do it anymore.

I will put it out there right now that I haven’t read the book. I’ve been told it’s very well-written, but I’m just not in the mood now for another can’t-have-it-all manifesto. Is life hard? Sure, sometimes life is hard. It would be much harder living in the parts of the Philippines destroyed by a typhoon this past week. None of that means one shouldn’t argue for flexible hours or work-from-home policies, or that a different society might have built a Social Security system primarily around parental leave rather than retirement. But it does argue for keeping the woes of colleagues giving you dirty looks when you leave at 4:30 to pick up the kids — even though you have a supportive boss — in perspective.

If I were prone to different narratives, I could use some events from my own life recently to announce the craziness of the modern world. I just cranked out the draft of a 40,000-word book I’m doing — on the side! — in a month. That’s 20 work days at 2000 words a day. Add in the other things I’ve got going on, and I’m working nights and weekends. And doing good mom things like volunteering at the book fair! I’ve also got laryngitis at the moment, which is really funny for doing interviews. I suppose I could construct a life-is-crazy narrative of racing from the book fair to interviewing a particular businessman/philanthropist yesterday and barely being able to croak out my questions (for the record, he thought it was funny too).

But I don’t feel maxed out. I don’t feel on the brink. Why is that?

A few thoughts, because they may be helpful to others pondering this as well.

1. I largely control my time. I certainly have commitments — speeches that involve travel, deadlines based on publication schedules — but I control a lot. This is no small thing. If you can control when and where you work, one IBM/BYU study found that you can work way more hours without work/family conflict. A lot of the women I’m interviewing for Mosaic have, one way or another, negotiated or created a lot of flexibility for themselves too. It’s not just that they’re self-employed (though this is a great option — and it’s what Alcorn ultimately chose to make things work). People say, off hand, that they work from home once every other week or so, or they mention on their log being at a school event at 2 p.m. This flexibility is not used daily, but it exists, and that opens up a lot of possibilities.

2. Money helps, too. The women I’m interviewing for the Mosaic project, by the guidelines I put on the project, earn a lot. Money can be used as a tool to make life easier. If you don’t like doing laundry, you can outsource it. People with school-aged children sometimes pay the person doing afternoon childcare for more hours than they officially need, so someone is available to do errands. When there is slack in your budget, everything is less stressful. Of course, childcare is expensive, and good childcare even more so, but quitting your job is expensive too. Spending money on a home support system that keeps you productive is an investment in your lifetime earnings and your life’s work.

3. I don’t do stuff that will drive me crazy. We don’t do a whole lot of activities. We may add a few more, but we have a strong bias toward activities that happen at school after school. It’s so convenient! I know that the kids will whine about elaborate dinners, so I generally don’t bother. I make sure they eat some fruits and veggies, and we’re fine. I volunteered for the school book fair yesterday, and while I know that my son liked to see me there, I also saw very clearly that I wasn’t actually needed. Not only was the school librarian on duty, so was the mother running the whole book fair, plus 3 other parents. If it doesn’t work to volunteer at future events, there’s no need to get stressed about it. Also, I’m just not that romantic about things. In addition to taking time away from work to visit the school yesterday, I patiently took dictation last night on a few pages of the Star Wars Episode 7 book my son is writing. Nonetheless, he still informed me this morning that it was the worst day ever because I wouldn’t let him watch Power Rangers over breakfast. That’s life. 

What’s your strategy for avoiding being maxed out?

30 thoughts on “Not maxed out, and not on the brink

  1. We make a lot of money, but my parents did not (and my mom’s dual working parents did not). Still, they were able to spend on things that were important, and one of those things that was important was hiring people to drive my sister and me to places we needed to be during regular working hours when my parents had to work. A college student can take kids to the dentist. Like my grandma always said, “Hire good help.”
    Similarly having quick healthy cheap food routines is important. I have a bunch of these standard meals memorized, and the microwave has made things even faster.
    And the reason I have these standard meals memorized is because from an early age I was taught to do chores, and I started cooking the occasional meal by myself at age 7. Kids can chip in and take off some of the burden. My six year old is in charge of things pertaining to him. Sometimes he forgets to bring his homework or a jacket (or to wear Wednesday dress clothes), but that just reminds him next time.
    I don’t have to be everything all the time. I can even delegate the mental load for things as my children get older. And they can handle that. Kids are more capable than many of us think.

    1. @N&M – yes, forgetting to wear sneakers on gym day, and not getting to participate, does teach you to remember these things in a way that constant nagging does not.

    2. Love this, and need to remember it…the initial investment of time/frustration it takes to teach your kid to do it on their own is WORTH IT in the long run. Not only because it helps you, but because, you know…that’s also your main job as a parent, right?

      1. Love this article and love these comments. Teaching my kids to clean takes more energy on that particular day than if I did it myself, but it pays dividends pretty quickly- most notably that I don’t feel like a doormat or maid as I follow my kids around and pick their stuff up for them.

        Also, thinking about what I can learn from my husband when it comes to parenting and keeping the home: lower my standards because nobody cares that much on the tiny details, and lower standards gives me more time for other things I enjoy more.

        1. @Katherine – seriously, no one cares on many little details. The house will just get dirty again in the morning, but you’ll never get that hour back.

  2. I really enjoy reading these positive stories of working motherhood (like yours and N&M’s above).

    Hearing these maxed out or opt out stories always makes me wonder two things – do these people have a supportive spouse? And how much of this stress is self imposed – based on what we feel like we “should” do…take the kid to every appointment, go to every field trip, volunteer at every bake sale.

    Your experience at the library is instructional – might as well as save your time and energy for something where your help is really needed/uses your unique talents/is something you really care about.

    1. @Susan- I don’t really know the details of Alcorn’s story. In the media stories, the line is that she had a good job, healthy children, and a supportive spouse, and it was still hard, so imagine how much harder it would be for everyone else.

      There may be a lot of self-imposed “shoulds.” But that’s hard for anyone else to do anything about. Ultimately, we all have to live our own lives.

  3. Laura, I think your first point is spot-on. If you can control your own time, that’s half the battle won.

    It’s not even that one would use these flexible arrangements that often but knowing that they exist for the dentist, doctor, etc. is a huge load off a mother’s mind.

    I say that because my current job is the worst in terms of flexibility in my 19 years of working full-time, and I feel it.

    1. @Marcia- yes, that was one of the findings in the BYU/IBM study. People didn’t have to be using the flexibility, or working at home particularly often, to get the benefit. And it was big — people who had to be in certain places at certain times could only work 38 hours per week (technically a bit less than FT) before a significant number had work/family stress. For people with flexibility, they could work 57 hours a week before experiencing that same level of stress– that is 50% more hours. As I’m seeing in these time logs, people don’t use the flexibility all that much. It’s just its existence that helps. Obviously, not all jobs can have that but a lot can, too.

      1. I’ve seen work, I think by Bob Pollack, that shows that having a “grandma” in the area helps women stay employed etc. not because Grandma is doing appreciably more childcare, but because Grandma is able to pick up emergency childcare. Just having someone there in reserve to take care of a sick kid helps a woman’s career. On our recent survey of women faculty, emergency childcare was one of the top things they said they needed. Not that the university is going to do anything about that.

  4. I love this post. I think that letting go of some of the ‘SHOULDS’ is absolutely key, and the more we can all talk about that (and give each other permission!) the better. i think lack of ‘SHOULDS’ is one of the main reason that men don’t tend to struggle in the same way with balance – or at least not as openly. they tend to not think about ‘shoulds’ and instead just ‘are’. that is my aim.

    from a practical standpoint, completely agree with a) hiring help whenever possible and b) making things easier when possible (your example of choice of after-school activities is a great one, or another example might be choosing to live somewhere cheaper/more convenient rather than somewhere more ‘glamorous’.)

    interested to see what others have to say, too!

  5. I agree with letting go of the “shoulds” and focusing only on the things that are truly important. What chores/errands can you outsource? What do you really love to do with your kid that makes working in the evening worthwhile? What do your kids enjoy doing with other people (who can take them off your hands while strengthening those relationships)? Then get rid of the crap and don’t feel guilty!

    Whether we like it or not, there IS more societal pressure on women to have more things be important. For a man, going to work and being a good provider and loving father is the expectation. For women, going to work, being a good provider and a loving mother is just the beginning. There’s also the expectation to be involved in school, keep the house clean, cook all the meals (from scratch, thanks Michael Pollan), do all the errands, and keep up with all the family commitments and finances. If the man does any of that “extra” stuff then he’s an awesome partner. If the woman lets any of that stuff drop, she’s a bad mom.

    I think it’s good to get the word out that it’s not true. It has made a huge difference in my life to have someone someone come in to clean every other week, and I never cook. Never. Either my husband cooks or, if he is not home, I throw together a can of soup and salad (or similar) and feed the kid from a jar or a tube. BUT, we will never confess either of those things to my MIL, who is still a big believer in traditional roles.

  6. Love this post and completely agree. These are “first world” problems, and it embarrasses me sometimes that we complain about them.

    As for myself, I admittedly make good money. I have someone who cleans my house and does my laundry and my grocery shopping. I cook really simple meals, and we eat out at least 3 times a week. I refuse to spend my whole Saturday cleaning my house and cooking. I run a few errands, exercise, and spend time with my girls who I don’t see as much during the week. I also REST. I just do not function well without downtime.

  7. I am a full-time working Mom. My daughter is going to middle school next year. For the last few months, I have been trying to come up with a solution to be home when she gets out of school. I keep hearing that middle school is tough for girls and they need additional support and guidance during that time. She has been going to a gymnastics after-school program for the last few years. It has been a good solution because she got exercise and had fun after school but she has other interests.

    I finally asked my boss if I could change my work schedule to 7:30am – 3:30pm when the 2014 school year starts. He had plenty of time to work it out with our HR Director and I just got word yesterday that it has been approved. I am so excited!

    I think if we plan ahead, research our options and think outside the box – a solution can be worked out.

    Thanks for being a shining example that women can be in control and have a full life. It isn’t easy but it is worth it!

    1. @Jeanne – glad to hear your schedule worked out. You can see how it goes, and perhaps your daughter will start to want to do something new after school. Then you can change again! The important thing is to make it keeping working for your life.

  8. YES to point #1. I really don’t feel that horrible stress because I know that should I need to, I could move my work around any “life” I need to live, whether for my kids or myself. This means sick kids, field trips, doctors appointments sure. But even occasionally taking an afternoon off to get stuff done or get my hair cut. that way, these things don’t pile up and cause that feeling of overwhelm. But it is definitely a privilege to have that flexibility and I empathize with those who do not—in those cases, yes, you need “grandma” or hired help to be your flexibility. So if you work a low-income, inflexible job and don’t have family nearby, yes then you would be maxed out and on the brink.
    Also agree with prioritizing the kid stuff that matters. We went once to a class party and were pretty much ignored by our kid after an initial hello. However, he recently started expressing dismay that we never come to his field trips. So my husband went this week, and he was over the moon excited! we both can do this and since its become clear that its important to him, we will.
    Also agree with lowering standards/ keeping things easy. Multiple kid activities is one thing my husband and I agree would wreak havoc on our lifestyle and would like to avoid. Outsourcing when feasible. And just letting go of the guilt/inadequacy for things. This is my own personal issue, but I do sometimes feel like I should “step up my game” and send something home made to the class party, or make a creative halloween costume rather than recycling last year’s Old Navy special…No way fathers worry about this and I need to stop, too.

  9. I love your points about time and money- one of my friends with fibromyalgia says that God/nature gives us time, money and health and to an extent, we can trade one for the other.

    I also love other commenters posts about flexibility, hiring good help and having a supportive spouse.

    My job is a fixed hours, butt-in-seat job, but my husband has recently gone on the first grade field trip (2 hr), attended the Veteran’s Day parade with the kids (and then worked 2 PM to 11:30 PM instead of a standard day) and signed up for preschool conferences (which he will attend instead of me)

    I’m so glad ONE of us has a flexible job.

  10. I just interviewed Katrina for my radio talk show, Doing What Works, and it was one of the most thoughtful discussions we’ve ever had.

    Katrina picked up her kid at school one afternoon when another mom strolled over to ask why she wasn’t at work. “I burned out,” Katrina admitted. There wasn’t time to brace herself for the woman’s reaction. “Oh, yeah,” she replied without hesitating. “That happened to me once.” They compared notes, and a superficial friendship was suddenly anything but.

    I only recently discovered your blog, Laura, and I love your contention we all have more time than we think — if we would but examine our choices. It’s an empowering message.

    It also happens to be one that Katrina followed. She’s letting the rest of us in on how she did it. One way was to talk with other women about their lives — only to discover many of them were also sick from stress.

    Some of us need life to unravel before we make the big changes. Katrina doesn’t regret her crisis of spirit — and she has the opportunity to help a lot of people, I think, by admitting it wasn’t easy to get her life back. But she did, and I have a lot of respect for her for sharing the messy parts of her story.

    I congratulate both of you for the work you’re doing in the world.

    1. @Maureen – thanks! There are a lot of women who aren’t sick with stress. We start looking for what we want to see.

  11. Hi, Laura and others–
    I have read the book and it is compelling and engaging…and stressful. It stressed me out reading it! I am a working mom of two (a toddler and a teenager) and I have a big job. At times, honestly, I do feel maxed out. At capacity. However, I think that the author’s journey is more about the societal pressures that are put on women/we put on ourselves to live a certain kind of life, rather than about working moms who “can’t have it all”.
    I can have it all: I have a significant job, a strong marriage and kids that I am deeply invested in. And it’s working, most of the time.
    But the reason I think we get maxed out is because we have very unrealistic expectations for ourselves (or we pick up our culture’s unrealistic expectations).
    Also, we expect that struggle means things are going badly. Being a working mom is incredibly tough, it is a struggle. However, anything worthwhile in life is hard work. That doesn’t mean that we work ourselves to the bone to the point of becoming sick.
    I am in an intense stretch of life right now. It can be overwhelming. I also know that these choices are worth it–I am growing a family and a profession that I am deeply committed to. I am sacrificing a lot right now: a regular exercise program, most social events, and a perfectly ordered house. But, the toddler will grow up. This season is short. The exercise routine will return. I will see my friends again. It’s a season. Hang in there, women! Let’s keep our eyes on the longview and realize that this hard work (if we are invested in jobs we care about), but there is a lot of beauty and wonder in the midst of the chaos.

    1. @sarah- thanks for your comment. Yes, anything worth having in life is going to have some tough elements to it. I also think that stories can be told lots of ways. You can look at three negative events and decide that life is overwhelming. Or you can look at three positive events and decide that life is good. The events are occurring in the same life. But Alcorn is writing in a world where the constant narrative is can’t-have-it-all. And unfortunately, she’s now contributing to that.

  12. The number 1 stress reducing thing I do with my money is save it so that I have a sufficient buffer that I need not feel trapped in my job. But that takes time to build. I am glad I built that buffer before I had kids- because the kids make it harder to build a buffer, but makes having it even more important to me.
    The number 1 work-related thing I do to keep from feeling maxed out is to make sure to goof off purposefully. I.e., not to whittle time away procrastinating on the web aimlessly, but to force myself to stay focused and productive most of the time so that I can take half days off from time to time.
    The hardest thing for me in all of this is recognizing when I need to take some time to myself. So I do tip over into feeling maxed out more often than I’d like. But I’m getting better at that.

    1. @Cloud – glad you are getting better at that! I went out to dinner tonight all by myself. Then I came home and read a magazine in the bathtub. It was great.

  13. Well count me in on being someone who is tired of hearing the, “My life is crazy!” narrative. I also feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in the past several months (years?) and I AM very busy, but I am also loving it AND the work life balance I currently have for myself. This is all possible because we have outsourced all child-related chores so that we can have fun when we see our daughter rather than do laundry. And like you said, it’s an investment. I just want to thank you for NOT being a martyr. If you like your life, why is it not ok to say that? We women need to give ourselves permission to be happy.

  14. One word of caution about volunteering at school…Don’t measure the need for your presence there just by the amount of help that is needed to pull off an event. I volunteered at school because it allowed me to know the kids with whom my kids spent the school day. I also wanted to be known by my kids’ friends. The effort to know and be known resulted in intangible benefits that were so valuable in relationships as the tweens and teen years came on. I had built a foundation of trust and respect with my kids’ friends that created lasting relationships…Such a blessing for all of us.

    1. @Leslie- of course. But it’s also important to see, particularly with my kid’s school, that volunteering *is* primarily about what you’re saying — being seen by him at school, and getting to know his friends. It’s about that relationship — and not that the school is short-up on labor (which it clearly isn’t). So I should look for volunteer opportunities where I definitely will be around my kid, and which work for our schedule. For other needs, donations are a good substitute.

  15. First-time commenter here. Laura, I love your work (since 168 hours ), and I cannot emphasize enough how much I appreciate that you are pushing back on the cultural narrative that women cannot work and have a satisfying career. I also have not read the book, but a review said that the author did not have childcare to cover all of her and her husband’s work hours. That is likely one of the big problems right there!

    I work full-time as an environmental attorney, serve as a local elected official, and have two children under the age of three. (Got pregnant and had my second child in office.). Overall, I live a life that, although hard, is joyful and fulfilling. When people ask how I do it, I say, “live close to work and don’t marry a jerk,” I.e., don’t waste time commuting (I walk most days), and marry someone who helps out equally in childcare, chores , and mental load re contractors, appt., etc., which I absolutely did. Marrying a good partner is probably the most important thing a professional woman can do for her career!

    1. @Katherine- thanks so much for your comment (sorry for the delay in it being posted – I have the filter set aggressively due to some time-consuming spam attacks).

      The commute is definitely one of those things people don’t think about as much as they should. A life is lived in hours and the commute happens a lot– consuming hours daily. I have been familiar with several families who moved far enough out of big cities in the hopes of affording more house, good schools, etc. All of which are good desires. The problem is that the commute adds so much to the day that, more often than not, mom winds up scaling back on work — doing something less prestigious but local. Again, nothing wrong with that, but you want to make such a choice mindfully, not under duress of feeling like you’re spending your life in your car or on the train.

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