I’ve ‘Opt-ed In’ To ‘Lean In’ And Now I’m One Of Those ‘Maxed Out’ Working Moms Having It All

stressedThis last year has enjoyed its fair share of working mom buzz words in the media. Sheryl Sandberg with her plea to “Lean-In” and Judith Warner remarking on the trend for my generation to “opt-in” (after Lisa Belkin‘s “Opt-Out Revolution”).  Now there’s a new buzz word, “Maxed Out.”  I relate to all three.

My two-year-old daughter started half-day school this year and I thought it was a good time to get back into the full-time workforce.  My list of reasons is long and some are practical: double tuition (two kids), the fact that we can’t afford to live in a neighborhood that has a really good public school in Manhattan, the four of us can’t live in a 950 sq.ft two bedroom forever and rent in NYC ain’t cheap.  Some of my reasons are emotional: I want to have a greater purpose, do my part to fight for work-life balance from inside a white shoe law firm, to continue breaking glass ceilings.  So off to the office I marched.

Unfortunately I got the job in July and it was too late to switch her to a full-time program or move her into daycare.  So my husband and I decided we would do it all on our own.  This was the plan:  he would go into work at five in the morning and I’d drop the kids at school.  He’d pick the kids up from school at noon and work from home as much as possible.  I’d get home at five in the afternoon, take care of dinner, bath and bedtime so he could get more work done.  Both of us log on to work after the kids are in bed, we’ve eaten dinner and finished watching Ray Donovan.

Neither one of us got this schedule pre-approved by our bosses, but we’ve built up a strong enough reputation that it will slide for awhile.  Besides, it’s not our employers that are bothering us, it’s the sheer hours of work that we have to do – at home and at the office.  Some people say “we’re so lucky” that we have the kind of work that can be done at any hour, anywhere.  It’s true, this wouldn’t even be feasible if either one of us were teachers where the schedule is dictated by the students being there.  But the truth is what we are doing just isn’t sustainable.  I’m not sure how long it’s going to take, but if something doesn’t give, one of us is going to have a Katrina Alcorn-type breakdown.  In her book, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink”, Alcorn describes driving to Target for diapers one day after the birth of her second child and pulling over to have a nervous breakdown.

In an interview with Today Moms, Alcorn says the majority of working moms feel maxed out and near the point of falling apart.

We’ve been going through this huge change over the last few decades of women entering the workforce, but none of our institutions, including the workplace, have kept up with that change.

Most jobs are still made for people who have an adult at home who can take care of the kids and do the grocery shopping and fill out the school forms and attend the parent-teacher conferences in the middle of the day. That’s not how we’re living anymore.

So I think that women are basically on the brink of this dysfunction in society where we are expecting them to be able to do things that we don’t have time to do anymore. And we end up pushing ourselves, trying to make it work and end up making ourselves sick.

I suffer from this. Pretty much every day I feel on the “brink of dysfunction.” It’s true that in some ways I feel good about our choice to do it all and our ability to make it work — for now.  But ultimately, the tagline of Alcorn’s website — For Moms Who Can Do It All, But Wonder Why They Should — definitely hits a nerve for me.

(photo: rainedout)

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  • Blueathena623

    You know, I don’t know how this situation could be fixed. In terms of work-life balance, promoting a flexible work schedule is always brought up, but y’all seem to have at least a kinda flexible schedule, and you feel like breaking. And it seems like both of y’all are contributing to home/kid duties, so its not like you’re doing everything while your husband is playing video games.
    So, what can jobs do? Pay more so that families can afford to have one person stay home or, if they both want to work, pay enough that they can hire a nanny or errand person or house cleaner or all of the above? Offer more part time positions (although then companies might be crucified if it seems like they are doing that just to avoid giving benefits). What about jobs that don’t have a telecommuting option?
    I don’t know. I totally support changes in the job place so men and women, parents or not-parents, feel like they can have a life, but I don’t think jobs will ever be able to change enough to account for the mathematical fact that working x amount of hours means you have x less hours at home. Again, unless you earn enough to hire someone, grocery shopping and filing out forms will always take time, and having job (flexibility, security, shorter hours, whatever) isn’t going to magically make grocery shopping a 5 minute chore.

    • Andrea

      I hate to say it, but I sorta have arrived to the same conclusion. Working 8-10 hours a days would just be unfeasible for me. We are a family of 4. My husband’s hours can be long (he’s IT), but they can also be flexible so that he can work at home some days. However, if I had to work too (whether at home or at an office), we would give up at least 4 hours a day of work I do to maintain the household and my family. I work part time and I am very lucky, but I don’t make a whole lot of money. We could do SO MUCH more fun stuff if I worked full time. But it would also mean that my household would be chaotic: my kids would come home to an empty home, dinner would be a challenge, I couldn’t volunteer at the school anymore, I couldn’t do all the errands and household chores during the afternoon. It would mean giving up a lot of our precious family evenings (ok, after football practice and sax lessons and scout meetings, lol).

      I just don’t think you CAN have it all. No matter what you do something gives. And I think the 1st thing that gives is your sanity.

    • Blueathena623

      Yup, I agree — no one can have it all, because even basics take time. And I think it would help if people lobbied for better parental programs (like longer, paid parental leave, sick days, etc.) but also lobbied for more home/work separation. And really examined how more separation between home and work would affect them. What would really happen if they didn’t answer emails or the phone once they got home? Would they be fired, or just less likely to get promoted and/or not be seen as a team player? If its just the second, well, what can you do?
      I guess my real advice is if you have work and kids on your plate, don’t try to compete with the people who have just work or just kids/home because they have the mathematical advantage.
      And I think your situation sounds great and I’m glad it works for your family. We could also do way more awesome stuff if I worked, but since we are lucky enough that we could drop our standards and manage on one income, I prefer that. And I do mention that we are lucky because I know for a lot of people, there are no standards to be dropped, and its not like they could manage on one income just by cutting out cable and vacations, etc.

    • Andrea

      Here’s my (own) counterargument though: for some families, having to work (both partners) ain’t really an option. And I agree 100% that we need better work/life balance. Now, where I differ from most people is that I think it should be for EVERYONE: moms, dads, and child-free. I am a fan of technology, but I sometimes think it is owning us instead of the other way around. Before computers, e-mails and smart phones, when you left the office, you were done. There were no phone calls to your home phone, no e-mails you can answer, no laptop you can bring home to do more work.

      I wish there was NO need for putting in 10-12 hours (or more) a day in order to get ahead.

    • Blueathena623

      I agree with everything you said. I wish, for everyone, that the norm, if you want to stay in your position, would be 8 or 9 hours a day, and once you do those hours, you are done. If you really want that promotion or raise you could do more hours and/or be more available from home. I don’t think you should have to be on the job 24/7 just to keep it.
      And I think part of the issue is that the American workplace is not worker friendly, but part of it is also the American work ethic. Our national mindset is that we define ourselves by our jobs. That’s the first thing we ask people — what do you do? Our jobs make us feel important. Even before the economy tanked and people were more scared of losing their jobs, Americans as a whole sucked at taking vacation days. So, employers need to stop expecting workers to be connected all the time, but workers also need to be willing to disconnect when given the chance.

    • missjay

      Yeah, I work part time too for the same reasons. I think about the vacations we could take, ways we could fix up our home etc. if I brought home more money but I think the trade-off, way more chaotic daily life, wouldn’t be worth the stuff we could buy. Luckily we moved to a cheaper city when our kids were little so we can get by on me working part time. Other than winning the lottery and both me & my husband not having to work, I don’t see a solution that would be perfect on all fronts.

  • EX

    I definitely hear where you’re coming from. Although our set up is more traditional (we both work full time, regular 40 hour work weeks and our daughter’s been in daycare since she was 4 months old). I honestly don’t think there’s anything that could make the situation better except being able to work fewer hours for the same amount of money. Since that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, I just work on trying to lower the expectations I have of myself when it comes to my housekeeping/cooking/errand running. For me, at least, a lot of the pressure that puts me “on the brink of dysfunction” is internal.

  • personal

    It sounds horribly busy. Might it be possible to work 30 hours a week for a while until you can get her into a full-time place?
    I wish there were more part-time positions and sincerely feel that benefits should be required for those, too. Why not offer half the benefits for 20-hour weeks?
    (Not to be nit-picking, but there’s a typo in the first sentence. Its, not it’s.)
    Hope you manage to get some relief.

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  • MoD

    Oddly, I don’t feel as overwhelmed as I thought I would. Yes, some days are chaotic. I’ve had to sacrifice a few things. But I think it helps I don’t have much of a social life (I didn’t have one before baby, either, so nothing lost).

    My kid is a baby and that probably makes a world of difference right now. He doesn’t have expectations to do anything fun. He’s entertained by going to the grocery store with me or sitting in the grass in the backyard.

    I guess my expectations were that it would be…worse? I read so much about how crazy life is with children and to be honest it’s just not as hard as I was lead to believe. Maybe I’ll eat my words in the future when my kid has higher expectations of entertainment than sitting in a shopping cart.

  • TwentiSomething Mom

    Daycare and rent is expensive, you work hard to pay for it and still feel like you have nothing to show for it. Its frustrating and really makes me want to leave NY.

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  • Emily

    Lately, whenever I am run over by the day-to-day, I think of what Valerie Jarrett said to the graduates of Wellesley this spring: “For those of you who are wondering if you can have it all. The answer is yes, but there’s a catch. The arc of life is long, so don’t expect to have it all at the same time.”

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  • Alice

    I completely sympathize. No solutions. Been on all sides of this fence.

  • Alice

    Actually, I did have a solution that I wish employers would consider: not putting a huge stigma on women who take a “break” from their careers while their children are young. I really do believe Mom is best, but most working women do not want to risk winding up permanently unemployed once/if their children are in school.

  • Jackie_Acho

    Been there, done that. We need a new paradigm. Start here: http://bit.ly/1c0sYV5