WHO SHE IS: Katrina Alcorn, author of “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink,” writer of workingmomsbreak.com blog, and consultant
SUCCESS STORY: Channeled a traumatic experience with work stress into a smart, touching book about the intimate struggles of being a successful working mom
WORK SCHEDULE: While kids are in school; some nights and weekends
KIDS: Stepdaughter (almost 13), daughter (10), son (6)
SANITY VICE: Chocolate and strategic applications of bad pop music
I was born in the 70s, so I’m part of the first generation of women who was raised with the expectation that we would have a career and kids. My parents divorced when I was seven, and I watched my mom run herself ragged trying to make ends meet as a single mom. I was determined to have a different kind of life than she did.
My mom’s story in a nutshell: Married her high school boyfriend (my dad), had me when she was 19, spent most of my childhood working low-wage jobs and taking night classes to slowly earn a college degree. So while I was raised to think I, too, would be a working mom, I was very deliberate about how I did it. I went to college and then graduate school, and established myself in a career before having my first kid at the ripe old age of 30. Also, I married a man who does dishes and laundry. Very important!
But despite all these advantages, after my last child was born (at the time, my stepdaughter was six, my daughter was four, and I had a new baby boy), I still found myself run ragged, to the point where I made myself truly sick from stress and had to stop working for a while. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced—recovering from burnout—so of course, I wrote a book about it!
5 Questions for Katrina
1. Tell us about Maxed Out and the message you hope to communicate with this book.
Writing Maxed Out was cathartic. It helped me make sense of why I found “having it all” so terribly elusive, and it’s helped me connect with thousands of women around the world with similar stories.
If we could all understand that our individual struggles to work and raise our families are also a universal struggle, I believe we could transform workplace culture for the better. That’s what I’m trying to do with this book.
2. What’s the silver lining in your message?
I think there are two messages; the silver lining depends on where you are in your working mom journey.
Message #1. Self help (things like relaxation techniques, the power of positive thinking, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.) can be effective for stressed out parents who are trying to manage work/life conflict, up to a point. These things helped me get through the first six years of a demanding job and raising young kids.
Message #2. If you feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re still having a hard time holding it together, it can be an incredible relief to realize that you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. You’re not crazy. The American workplace is crazy. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have a lot of examples in the book of companies and countries that are helping parents—and especially women—work and still have a life.
3. What’s the media missing about working moms, in your opinion?
Good question. I think we have a whole generation of women—the women now raising families and trying to work—who are feeling maxed out by the demands on their time and energy. This is more than source material for sitcoms. For many of us, it’s a real health crisis.
Studies show women today are far more likely than men to suffer from anxiety and depression. We’re less happy than our mothers were, and for the first time in decades, we’re less happy than men. There’s a whole “lean in” discussion that started with the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s book in March, but for many of us, “pushing back” is more relevant, as we look for ways to keep ourselves healthy and sane. My hope is that my book will give women like me permission to push back.
4. What’s your favorite working mom time management tip?
Learn to say “no.” Seriously. Write “Say no to someone” on your to-do list, and make it a daily practice. Say no to your boss, your husband, even your kids—anyone who is taking up too much of your time and emotional energy. I’m under no illusion that this will solve all our problems, but I think it’s an important skill to master if you’re feeling maxed out.
5. Are there any books (other than yours!), gadgets, or go-to websites that have helped you manage being a working mom?
In the first half of my book, I describe what a revelation it was to discover cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In a nutshell, CBT is a whole series of techniques for training your mind to be calm and positive, and when it works, it feels like magic! It helped me big time when I was trying to manage my guilt about leaving a baby in full-time daycare.
One simple thing I still do is listen to guided meditations. My favorite right now is the Andrew Johnson iPhone app called “Positivity.”
But honestly, the thing that helped me the most was quitting my job, and working for myself. I tell people I’m the best boss I ever had—I have unlimited vacation days and I never give myself the stink eye when I have to leave early to pick up my kids. I know this isn’t the solution for everyone, but for now it’s working for me.
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