By Stephanie Cook Broadhurst/The Mother List
For working moms, life is a juggling act. But too often, mothers are trying to “do it all,” caring for families and pursuing careers, then blaming themselves if they crash.
“How are you supposed to lean in when you are already maxed out?” says Katrina Alcorn, author of “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.” “The expectations that society puts on women are maxing us out. For most of us, our families need our income, and working is not a choice. So we need to frame this whole conversation as: How can society lean into women working?”
Alcorn, a mother of three with a happy marriage and thriving career, hit a breaking point after her son was born in 2009. She was driving to Target to buy diapers when she called her husband and said: “I can’t do this anymore.” She had been managing a department at a web design firm and working 40 hours.
“It all went to hell. I burned out. I really got sick from stress and had to stop working,” she says.
In her book, she wondered how a woman like herself, with a supportive boss who let her leave at 4pm, could struggle to manage the demands of career and family. As she talked with other moms, she realized she was hardly alone. Many moms were stressed out trying to make it all work.
“I wasn’t working insanely long hours. But even 40 hours was too much when I wasn’t sleeping much at night. At a certain point, we do need to work less,” she says.
There’s been much debate lately about whether women should “lean in” or “lean back” during the mothering years. On one hand, these women may be holding back their careers, says Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg encourages them to sit at the table, take risks and pursue career goals passionately – while trying to set boundaries.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting after she became a new mom herself – a move that many working mothers criticized.
And, of course, many moms get the support they need to thrive in their careers – both in the workplace and at home (often from spouses). But these mothers are quick to point out that their success has come with sacrifices, and that it “takes a village.” They tend to rely heavily on outside help.
Others are sounding the alarm that enough is enough. New books, including Alcorn’s and Debora Spar’s “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” tout the benefits of balance.
Armed with reams of research, Spar writes in “Wonder Women” about how the feminist movement has spawned a range of new choices for women, making work-family decisions more complex than ever. There are “vast and towering” expectations for women, she says, that have led to an endless quest for perfection.
“We’re doing this to ourselves,” writes Spar, who is president of Barnard College. She urges women to set realistic boundaries and abandon the myth of “having it all.”
In Alcorn’s case, she was getting promotions and raises. At one point after her son was born, she had a heart-to-heart with her boss.
“I was telling her that I can’t do this!” she says. “But she talked me out of quitting. We also needed the income. A few days later I went home and never went back. I can see in retrospect that I needed to set better boundaries.”
One of her biggest struggles was guilt. “I felt terrible. I had 17 people reporting to me. I felt I had let everyone down,” she recalls. “I went the self-help route, and it helped me put my guilt in a box. But that’s only half the story. The other half is that if you have the best attitude in the world, but if you have too many demands on your time, you are going to go crazy.”
Families have completely changed since the ’60s, but the workplace has not caught up, she says. “There is still this expectation that we can drop everything for the parent-teacher conference in the middle of the day.” Not to mention sick days. “My husband and I were missing 10 days of work per quarter because our kids were sick.”
Solutions include women managing expectations at work and employers not discriminating against mothers, she says. Employers should allow moms to lean back when they need to – and not penalize them for it, she says.
Often mothers who work part-time say their work is less valued. Studies show they are paid less per hour than full-time employees. But ironically, productivity is highest during the first 6 hours of each day. “Companies with flexibility benefit by increasing productivity, increasing morale and lowering company turnover.”
Ideally, more companies would allow moms to telecommute, share jobs, and work part-time during their mothering years, she says, and then offer “return-ships” to those who take time off so they can phase back to work.
“Companies are shooting themselves in the foot by not making it work for working moms. Companies with more women in leadership, make higher profits and perform better on the Stock Exchange. There is a company benefit to all of this – a total win-win.”
For more information, visit: Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink
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