For the average American mother, “opting in” really isn’t an option—it’s a necessity.
Thanks to the high cost of raising a child (it's now an estimated $241,000 per kid, not including college!) and the fact that the job market remains stagnant and wages are static, many families require two incomes. This reality, coupled with ambition, is why women now serve as primary or substantial earners in two-thirds of American households.
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Yet, in spite of its robust female workforce, the U.S. lags far behind other countries when it comes to enabling mothers to successfully juggle careers and kids. For one, companies aren't legally required to offer paid maternity leave, which is a given in countries like France by law. Put simply, working mothers get short shrift, argues Katrina Alcorn in her new book, "Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink."
Four years ago, while raising three children and working around the clock at her dream job as a creative director at a design agency, Alcorn suffered a breakdown on her way to buy diapers. After quitting her job, she decided to examine not only the personal decisions that push working moms to the edge but the social and political forces at play too.
The result is a counterpoint book to Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In," which—along with countless career experts and blogs—advises women to just work harder without considering the many ramifications. Intrigued, we asked Alcorn to share some key insights from "Maxed Out."
LearnVest: You argue that “leaning in” can lead to burnout, but scaling back can also cost you, no?
Katrina Alcorn: I don’t think scaling back is always the right thing to do, and, of course, everyone’s decision is personal. The reason that I wrote this book is because we can’t solve the problem on an individual level—it’s also a societal and systemic problem.
Still, if you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to make less money or reduce your hours, you should at least consider your worth. Women are now the better educated half of the population. Companies who have women leaders make higher profits, and do better on the stock exchange. So our companies need us. When we realize how valuable we are, we can advocate better for ourselves.
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By advocate, do you mean seek out flexible schedules that allow for more work-life balance?
Sure, there is a benefit to, say, working from home for a day or two a week. But at the same time, flex-time policies don’t always work—there’s often a stigma for women who use these opportunities. Companies sometimes grant flex-time on a person-by-person basis, so if you receive it, there’s jealousy from other workers, and then you feel like you’re not supposed to be using it.
When I was at my dream job, I had worked out a flex schedule, and there was an undercurrent of sludge from some of my co-workers. Even though they loved me, there was subtle guilt-tripping that occurred. What I learned is that you need to ask, “Is there something that you need from me?” This way, you’re not getting defensive about your schedule, and you’re bringing the conversation back around to what needs to get done.
I also advocate for a management strategy called ROWE: results-only work environment. ROWE’s founders argue that job burnout isn’t a woman problem—it’s an every person problem. The solution is for companies to throw out the concept of time, such as enforcing set office hours. So your evaluation is predicated entirely on how you do your job.
One thing I hear a lot is that “balance” is a yuppy complaint. The reality is that it affects women and families at all income levels.
Sheryl Sandberg’s advice is to “keep your foot on the gas," which you say is "the surest way to drive ourselves over the cliff.” So what can you do to avoid burnout?
Conversations about "having it all" and "leaning in" all too often devolve into a discussion of personal choices, leaving working mothers feeling individually responsible for their inability to cope. We are not supported the way we should be.
That said, I will say the one thing that worked especially well for me was cognitive behavioral therapy. Unlike many forms of therapy, where you can talk about your problems for years and still feel the same, this technique changes your thought patterns and behavior. In my case, I was able to retrain my mind to stop feeling guilty about everything.
You argue that policy is the real place where positive change can be made. How can women get involved?
Join MomsRising, an advocacy group lobbying for policies that so many other industrialized countries have, like paid leave, which would make a huge difference for many women. One thing I hear a lot is that “balance” is a yuppy complaint. The reality is that it affects women and families at all income levels. And changing policy changes culture. For example, paid maternity leave reinforces the idea that it is valuable to take time with your newborn child.
What’s more, child- and mother-friendly workplace policies would allow more women to continue to work when they want to. Women are burning out, but I don’t think the solution is to quit your job. We’re better off when we’re working—families are more stable when there are two income streams. And there is immense value to having an identity through your career the same way that you do through motherhood and other aspects of your life.
Ultimately, I also want husbands, bosses and policymakers to read "Maxed Out." It’s undeniable that it can’t only be maxed-out women advocating for workplace reform.