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?