You know the life of a working mom is tough. It’s the never-ending to-do list, the chuckle under your breath when someone asks how you spend your free time, and the struggle to keep your sanity. This past year while I juggled a demanding full-time job, a family and writing my memoir, The Pornographer’s Daughter, at times, I felt I wasn’t doing anything well and my path for a successful career and happy home life was unclear.
I’m told to “lean in”, and I want to, even though I am exhausted, to honor the strides of women a generation before me who fought for their place in the boardroom. The idea of letting go of one thing on my plate left me feeling guilty and ashamed that I was giving up. But I knew that teetering on the edge of burn-out didn’t serve anyone well either.
So I’m stuck between leaning in and being maxed out.
Here’s the dilemma— if women lean in to do it all (family, work, etc.) then how do we not become maxed out? And when we do feel maxed-out, is taking a step back to take care for ourselves and family, failing women everywhere by not doing our part to fill the leadership gap? And if we opt out of the workforce altogether, can we survive the backlash of putting family first? Jumping back in the workplace after taking time at home is a daunting task.
There isn’t a rosy picture of the mental health of women these days. Moms are more fatigued than dads and women are drinking more than ever. Single moms have it especially hard and are maxed out trying to make ends meet with little support at home.
The book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, by Katrina Alcorn frames the dilemma of the working mom well. I discovered this book when an article I read about Alcorn featured in the Washington Post just jumped off the page for me. Reading her book was a relief to be reminded that I wasn't alone in feeling exhausted in my work and life quests.
Maxed Out is an honest and compelling memoir about Alcorn’s real-life struggles as a middle-class, working mom. Workplace facts are sprinkled throughout which makes a strong case for how far behind the U.S. is in creating effective workplaces policies for making it possible for women (and men) to excel at work and devote time for family.
Alcorn also bravely talks about her nervous breakdown, which is not an easy feat, but she tells her story beautifully. Having worked in the mental health advocacy world for years, depression is not something you can just “get over” or “suck up,” it’s a serious health issue.
The kumbayah of Maxed Out is great, but…
Can you reach the C-suite without sacrifice? Probably not, and I think it’s a sacrifice worth taking. If you want to do great things, part of that deal is deciding what you will give up in the process. As Sandberg's Lean In highlights, men still hold 80% of leadership positions and this trend needs to be reversed. To make leaning in possible though, we’ll have to fight for better workplace policies. Corporate and organization leaders need to take a hard look here, for if they don’t, they could be alienating great talent (men and women). For tips for advocating for better policies refer to Maxed Out.
There are also unresolved barriers for working women that makes succeeding at work difficult. Women earn less than men, do most of the housework, still lack good child care options, and are still discriminated against because of their gender. Low income women are in much more of a precarious situation.
The debate continues as to how women accomplish work. We have no concrete answers except that women need to do what's best for themselves, so let’s not judge each other’s choices. And if you choose to be like Marissa Meyer, Yahoo’s CEO, and go back to work two weeks after giving birth or opt out of the workforce all together to raise a family, either choice should be okay.