Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink Paperback – Aug 28 2013
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Having now read both, I found Alcorn's book far more relatable and realistic to me. Alcorn sounds like 95% of the women I know: smart, hard working, determined not to let anyone down, neither family NOR employer NOR spouse, at the cost of their collective sanity. Unlike Sandberg, most of us can't afford unlimited daycare and housecleaning help. We're leaning in so hard, we're almost face down. Alcorn weaves in hard data about the lack of support for working families in America with her own work-related descent into despair and the slow climb out, so it reads like great memoir and important nonfiction in the same book.
"Maxed Out" seeks to further the discussion that "Lean In" started but takes it beyond what women themselves need to do better and points at the institutions and practices that could provide systemic solutions to benefit national productivity. Alcorn's story, so calm, measured, yet urgent, is an important perspective in the debate.
Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink was just that kind of book for me.
It arrived on our doorstep at about 5pm on Monday evening. I tossed it on the mail table and immediately got lost in the swirl of the evening's cooking/homework/music practice/eat/cleanup/bath time routines. But around 8:30pm, with the kids safely dreaming of sugarplums, I made a beeline for it (I'm a sucker for a new book). I had every intention of just reading one chapter and then dutifully getting back to my normal work or my "third shift" as I call it. But two paragraphs in - and I was a goner.
I inhaled it in one sitting. It was impossible to put down.
As I lingered over the last few pages, I felt as though I had just swallowed the pink little pill from the movie The Matrix. Katrina's story and thoughtful research effectively lifted the veil for me on what is our fabricated reality -- a reality in which a woman's inability to meet the demands of a career and family are presented as her fault - attributed to her own inadequacies. Reading the book plunges you into the "real world," and, once the shock wears off, you feel compelled to do anything and everything you can to raise awareness of (and try to fix) a broken work culture and the economic policies and social institutions that make being a working mom in this country so darn difficult.
When taken as a memoir, this book is fantastic and compulsively readable. I found it strangely addictive and moving, even though it contains none of the sordid family details that often promote the sales of memoirs. The mother of two young children with a part-time job, I was able to identify in part with Alcorn's struggles; however I can't claim to understand the full extent of the stress she endured. Her engaging writing style thrust me into a world that I found both familiar and foreign, one that made me nod in agreement and shudder.
The book's best virtue is Alcorn herself. She's wise without being pedantic, honest without being awkward and caring without being sentimental. And, she's one of those rare people who can detail her successes and strengths and still remain both likable and accessible. (A rare person, indeed!)
What I found unsatisfying about the book is everything else about it that doesn't fall into the "memoir" category--that is, Alcorn's occasional prescriptions for how to improve the standard of living for working mothers. She concludes each chapter with a mini-essay that steps outside of her own personal experience and tries to somehow address, relying on statistics and other data, the plight of working mothers in America (e.g., the dearth of sick days available to them, the lack of affordable, quality daycare, the problem of husbands who can't or won't share domestic responsibilities, even though their wives earn at least as much as they do, the opposition breastfeeding mothers often face when trying to pump milk at work, etc.) Her argument is that, were these problems reversed, both the personal happiness and career prospects of working mothers would improve, leading to positive changes for society as a whole.
This is all well and good, and I mostly agreed with her suggestions. However, this reader kept stumbling over a rather large elephant in the room: the fact that, by her own admission, Alcorn had extra support in all of these areas, probably more than most American working mothers enjoy, and still had to eventually leave her enviable full-time job for the sake of her children, her marriage and her mental and physical health. For example, her husband, a free-lance web designer, was able and willing to be way more helpful around the house and with the kids, I suspect, than the average American husband; her boss, a fellow working mom, was surprisingly flexible, allowing Alcorn extra sick days, paid leave when needed, and a four-day work-week; her daycare was great and her office extremely amenable to making accommodations for nursing employees. (An entire conference room was deemed 'the nursing room' and a fellow worker was shunned when he questioned whether it was appropriate to store breast milk in the fridge next to the staff lunches.)
Even though I'm sure many of her suggestions are doable and would improve the quality of life for many women, I'm still left with the sneaking suspicion that working mothers have essentially three choices: to limit time at home in order to fulfill the demands of a career, to limit time at work in order to fulfill the demands at home, or to fulfill all of the demands--both at work at and home--and, like Alcorn, go completely insane.
And, I had to chuckle at the fact that she concludes the book with a to-do list--ten things women can do to promote the working mother's cause--when the whole point of the book is that working mothers have way too much on their plates! (I'm somewhat joking here; her suggestions are well-intentioned and probably not that hard to do.)
So, in closing, I recommend this book to people who 1) want to know what it's like to raise young children while working full-time and 2) want to commiserate with an intelligent and thoughtful woman who understands well the unique pressures working moms face. I'm not sure I recommend it for those who desire suggestions for how to alleviate their burdens as working mothers.