One of the most persistent myths about the modern women’s movement is that activists believed we could “have it all.” On the contrary, we knew it was impossible. That is why we demanded universal child care for parents, paid parental leave for men and women, government-subsidized day care, on-site care for children, equal care of children and the home by men, and part-time jobs, health care and flexible work schedules for parents. These reforms were common in most European countries. In the United States, they challenged our deeply held belief in individual solutions.
So from where did the myth come that a woman could “have it all” without “doing it all”? Helen Gurley Brown’s popular 1982 book, “Having It All,” certainly popularized the idea that women could, in fact, have everything—a career, children, a husband and great sex. Even before her book appeared, however, magazines had begun offering advice to the new working mothers just entering the labor market. They prescribed how women should dress for success, assert their authority, flaunt their skills, reach for the glass ceiling, give their children “quality time” and end the day with the sexual passion of a woman who did none of the above. In short, women gained the impossible “goal” of becoming the perfect working mom. They could have it all, if they did it all.
This madness has hardly gone unnoticed. During the last 40 years, dozens of books have described and analyzed the impossibility of “having it all.” Some of these books advise women to “lean in” and reach for the glass ceiling. Few address the sticky floor that keeps most women in low-paid, marginal jobs. At least once a decade, The New York Times Magazine features an article about women who have opted out of their careers.
“Maxed Out: Mothers on the Brink” is a memoir by Katrina Alcorn, one middle-class working mother who, at age 37, suddenly discovers she can no longer be a superwoman. While heading for Target to buy diapers, she suffers a panic attack, stops the car and desperately calls her husband. Sobbing, she realizes she is falling apart.
There had been warnings. Alcorn realizes that she thinks about her children while at work and obsesses about her work when playing with her children. Sleep escapes her, as does concentration. Yet in many ways she is blessed. She and her terrific husband own their home. She has a fulfilling and high-paying career in Web design. Her husband shares the child care and housework, they have three healthy children, great local child care—no nanny—and she has an understanding and flexible employer.
Nevertheless, even though her middle-class family requires a double income, she quits her job. She tries cognitive therapy, then psychiatric treatment. She becomes so confused that she can’t tell whether her anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are helping her recover or undermining her sense of self. Then she creates a blog for women like herself, to which many working mothers contribute and describe their lives. Out of that blog emerges this book.
Alcorn’s struggle to understand her breakdown saddens me because she doesn’t understand the broader world in which she labors, and sees herself as alone. It is as though she lives in a bubble, unaware of the many decades women have struggled to ease the lives of working mothers. She feels guilt at every turn, when she should feel angry that so little has changed for working mothers.
There is little that is new in “Maxed Out.” There are literally dozens of books that have described the impossibility of being a perfect working mother. Something has to give. In the aftermath of the women’s movement and a changed economy that now requires two incomes to support a middle-class family, working mothers all too often burn out. These pioneers of the post-feminist age, as sociologist Lillian Rubin once put it, experience a certain “joylessness” because they are completely exhausted, even when both partners contribute to their joint income and take care of the home and their children.
This is a memoir that will provide consolation for women like Alcorn who don’t understand why they are overwhelmed by stress. They won’t feel so alone. For the rest of us, it offers little that is new, except the details of her particular breakdown. Did she never hear about or read Judith Warner’s 2006 book, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety?” Between chapters that vividly describe her decline, Alcorn places inserts of several pages, full of statistics and references, in which she demonstrates that she has finally read the articles and books in which others have explained the conditions that caused her breakdown. For example, she notes that working mothers suffer from the “Time Bind” that sociologist Arlie Hochschild so brilliantly described in 2001. Elsewhere, she notes that other countries offer part-time jobs for parents with young children, lengthy paid parental leaves, flexible work schedules. All this information is derived from scholarly and popular books that have appeared within the last 40 years.
Amazingly, Alcorn barely mentions the media-generated debate that exploded when Anne-Marie Slaughter revealed in a July 2012 Atlantic article why she left her fast track, high pressured job working for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Slaughter’s article went viral, setting off a round of attacks and rebuttals about the possibility of women enjoying—not just enduring—family and work. Even a superwoman like Slaughter—blessed with a helpful husband, and enough wealth to buy domestic help and child care—could not do it all. Although she described the insane work policies that made her neglect her family, she implicitly blamed feminism for promising a false dream. It was too hard, the hours too long and the sense of guilt too pervasive. So she returned to her former life as a high-powered professor at Princeton University, which hardly qualifies as opting out of trying to have it all.
What Slaughter—and Alcorn—fails to understand is that the modern women’s movement sought an economic and social revolution that would create equality at home and at the workplace. For magazine and book publishers, however, it’s more profitable to publish another article or book that blames feminism or the individual for the agonizing choices faced by working mothers. Every year brings one more article on the Death of Feminism or Why Women Can’t Have It All. It’s good for sales. Exhausted by their lives, working mothers buy up copies, hoping to better comprehend their sense of failure and despair.
True, “Maxed Out” is a memoir, but the author seems clueless about the historical and economic world in which she unravels. Until she wrote her pamphlet-like inserts that appear between the chapters, she clearly didn’t grasp that her breakdown was the result of a systemic problem that is unique to the United States.
She never mentions that activists in the women’s movement made child care one of their three demands in 1970, when they marched down Fifth Avenue in New York, an event that made the movement into a household word by the next day. Nor does she recall that feminists and child care advocates pushed comprehensive child care legislation through Congress in 1970, only to witness President Richard Nixon veto it the next year. She seems oblivious to the history of women’s struggles for working mothers.
Reading her memoir is like watching an anguished woman discover, for the first time, what thousands of activists and scholars have been discussing and analyzing for the last 40 years. She never seems to “get” that the personal really is political and that her problems have a political solution, until, that is, she writes a blog, and then a book. Even then, her story is told as if nothing similar is happening in the world around her.
What’s missing in the book is any recognition that working mothers’ problems should be at the top of the political agenda. Many people gasped when President Obama, in his inaugural speech, even suggested that the government should pay for preschool education. Imagine the response if he had suggested universal child care, one year paid parental leaves, part-time jobs for parents with young children or tax incentives for companies and corporations that embraced “family-friendly” policies.
American political culture still embraces individual solutions for nearly everything. If you have a child, it’s your responsibility. Can’t find child care? It’s your problem. Your employer won’t allow you to take paid parental leave? Well of course not. That’s what most of the rest of the world does and moreover, it stinks of socialism.
“Maxed Out” may offer some women consolation that they are not alone. But it is also a cautionary tale about a profit-oriented society that expects people to work 60 hours a week, at the expense of families and individual health. In the end, Alcorn returns to work as a freelance consultant, and the book concludes on a happy, upbeat note of individual redemption. But we have no idea how the “price of motherhood” will affect her old age.
At the end, Alcorn tacks on 10 things working mothers can do to help themselves. Her most political suggestions—donating to candidate funder EMILY’s List or joining grass-roots organizer MomsRising—do not exactly constitute a political agenda for working mothers. Nor does she explain what these excellent groups have tried to achieve. Alcorn begins her book with the words, “Much ink has been spilled instructing women to have it all—thriving careers, happy children and satisfying marriages.” She’s right. But “Maxed Out” required more than the story of one working mom’s decline. What’s needed is a broader political and economic context in which working mothers can understand their situation.