Are You a Maxed Out Mom?

Katrina AlcornKatrina AlcornThis week the internet was a buzz after hearing about the concept of being a maxed out working mom. They were chatting about Katrina Alcorn, and her book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, where she opens up about her own experience of a breakdown as a working mom after the birth of her third child. She weaves her personal experiences of trying to have it all with family and career alongside research to enlighten the reader on what causes a mom to become maxed and how it can be avoided.

As a working mom myself, who is pregnant with her second child, I find myself wondering if I'm maxing out as I have a hard time slowing down and saying no for fear of not being taken seriously in the professional world. Though my profession as a teacher is different form Alcorn's work in the corporate world, I found our stories to be similar, which is why I was so very grateful when an opportunity came for me to interview Alcorn. Read on to find out if you are a maxed out mom and Alcorn's thoughts on how to change it all.

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Can you describe a typical day from your maxed-out phase and then a typical day now? What are some of the big differences for you?

A typical maxed out day was non-stop motion from 5am to 10pm-Wake at 5am with baby. Get self and children ready for the day. Run out the door at 7:30am to catch train to work. Non-stop meetings from 8am - 4pm. Run out the door at 4:15pm to catch train home. Pick up kids at daycare and school. Make dinner, give baths, soothe nerves, oversee homework, put everyone to bed, clean up, pay bills, spend 1-2 hours catching up on work, collapse in bed.

Note: No time for exercise, no time to talk with a friend, barely any time to go to the bathroom!

Now, that I'm self-employed, a typical day may involve the same amount of actual work, but there's no commute, and no office to get dressed up for (unless I have a client meeting). I often take a lunchtime break to hike with another self-employed friend. Yesterday I chaperoned a field trip with my son's first grade class. I could never do that before.

How do you feel the unpaid maternity leave status in the US contributes to the "maxed out" working mom?

We're so exhausted in the weeks and months after giving birth. A lot of us need time to establish breastfeeding; and both moms and dads need time to bond with a new baby. Not having paid parental leave means a lot of moms are back at work within three weeks or less after giving birth. Many dads get zero time off. The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries in the world that doesn't guarantee this benefit. It's shameful.

What are your thoughts on "leaning in" when working moms sometimes feel they can barely stand up?

There's a time to "lean in" and there's a time to "push back." Personally, I'm glad I leaned into my career-it's been great for my confidence, and my ability to support myself and my family-but after what I went through, I wish I'd pushed back more. In other words, I wish I'd advocated better for myself. After my son was born, there was a lot of pressure for me to return to work full time-I had my stepdaughter and daughter to take care of, along with a new baby, and my husband was working really long hours. I knew I wasn't ready to be back full time, but I did it, and it was a mistake.

Do you feel that that there are certain industries that cater to the working mom and her lofty goals of having it all, while helping her attain balance?

Honestly, I don't know. People say health care is supposed to be better, but it depends on where you work. I've heard from thousands of women around the country with stories of maxing out, and they're in every profession-doctors, nurses, attorneys, social workers, child care workers, teachers, engineers, people in marketing and finance, architects, web designers, the list is endless! Often, it depends on who your manager is-a bad boss will make your life miserable in any industry.

What do you think are the big triggers for working moms that send some over the brink?

There are so many factors. These are the big ones from what I've seen: the number of kids you have; whether you're single or in a relationship; whether you're in a happy or unhappy relationship; whether you have family to help, or can pay for extra help. Do you have a long commute? How much flexibility do you have in your work schedule? Do you have a child with special needs? All these things are factors…

What small changes can women ask of their employers so life is more reasonable for all involved?

About half of us have jobs that are compatible with telecommuting, and yet, we're still showing up at the office five days a week. Even asking for one day a week to work from home can make a big difference for many of us. Everyone's situation is different. Other people are better off working a flexible schedule, or a part time schedule, or doing a job share. There are many, many ways to be productive workers, and still be happy and sane.

Do you feel balance for a working mom with high aspirations is possible? How can they make it work?

Yes, I do. But it will take employers changing their mindset. Right now we have a cult of long hours-it's a sign of status for people to say they're busy all the time, or that they worked all weekend. It hasn't always been this way. It used to be a sign of status to have leisure time.

What's more, research shows that we're actually less effective at work when we work long hours. When we work chronically long hours, we go into what is called a "negative productivity cycle." Anyone who has tried to lead a meeting with distracted, overworked colleagues knows what I'm talking about here.

What are the signs for working moms to know they are falling apart versus being stressed? Don't all moms get overwhelmed?

Yes, we all get stressed. That's perfectly normal. But if you're reaching your limit, trust me, you will know. For me the signs were panic attacks, insomnia, and I lost interest in eating. I had no doubt I was reaching my limit, (my body was really good at telling me!), I just didn't think that quitting was an option, so I kept going.

What policy changes would you recommend so that working moms will overall feel less like maxing out could happen to them?

There are many, but here's one small change that I think would have a huge ripple effect: We need to give fathers incentives to stay home with a new baby.

Sweden is the best example for this. For years, they offered new parents more than a year of paid parental leave, but only mothers used the time, and Sweden had the same kind of problems we do with gender inequality, the gender pay gap, etc. Then the government set aside a month or two just for fathers…Fast forward a couple decades-this little change has caused a gender revolution. Fathers started bonding with their babies, and voluntarily taking on more responsibility at home. Mothers returned to work earlier. The pay gap between men and women started to close. Employers saw that work-life balance wasn't a "women's issue" and they started offering more options for flexible scheduling. Even the divorce rate went down!

I'm pregnant with my second child, and a teacher who is back to saying yes to taking on new endeavors at work. Once baby sister arrives, I worry that I will go back to my conflicted moments of when I had my first daughter and worried about how others viewed me because I shirked off responsibilities when I first went back to work. Like people stopped asking me and assumed I couldn't do anything extra, when all I really wanted was a balance of it all. What advice do you have for me so that I don't become fully "maxed out," though I'm already feeling so, as I worry people will feel I'm checking out?

Great question! There is no easy answer here, because the fact is, women's job performance is scrutinized more after they have kids. It's been studied. It's not just you feeling self-conscious. But I think the important thing to remember is that your health and sanity is so important to your beautiful babies, and your employer. No one benefits if you burn out. So advocating for what you need is really good for all concerned, whether they realize it or not.

What are some ways we can help liberate working moms?

There's a new management strategy called Result-Only Work Environments (ROWE) that I'm really excited about. I talk about it in the book. In a nutshell, what ROWE says is forget about clocking in and out of an office, forget about tracking your vacation and sick days. In fact, forget about tracking your time at all. Instead, employees are held accountable to results. It doesn't matter when and how they get work done. All meetings are optional.

It's sounds too good to be true, but companies like Gap Inc. say that productivity has gone way up since they converted to ROWE. This is a game changer, not just for working parents, but for anyone who wants to have an interesting career, and still have a life.

-By Tracy Brennan

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