Monday, December 9, 2013

Everyone Has Limits, Not Everyone Has Choices

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on FacebookG+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.

And don’t forget to read what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. Links to their posts are below.

I wanted to like Maxed Out. The premise spoke to something I believe wholeheartedly about the U.S. workplace: that it is institutionally biased against dual-income earner families with kids. From the excessive hours to the lack of maternity and paternity leave to the unfriendly childcare and sick leave policies, American families truly have the odds stacked against them.

I wanted to relate to the book because, although I do not feel maxed out myself, I know my sister is running at full capacity. She is the bread-winning, commuting, suburban mother of two, smart and talented, but often at the end of her rope, pulled in every direction. And she is not alone.

I also wanted to like it because, by all superficial measures, Ms. Alcorn and I are similar: a few years apart, upper middle class children of middle class parents, highly educated, parenting in an urban environment, striving to rise above "mediocrity," as she puts it.

But I didn't like it. There, I said it. In fact, were it not for my commitment to The Brilliant Book Club, I would have put the book down after a chapter or two.

I have always been a little ambivalent in my ambition. I would like to be conventionally successful; yet I crave the stability that working in a high-powered job usually precludes.

I have dipped my toe into a variety of hardcore worlds -- international development in Africa and South America; investment banking at Bear Stearns, that testosterone-fueled paean to the 1980s; senior management at a hospital that strove for perfection and happened to be a 90-minute commute (and often more) from my home, a job which I began a week after my honeymoon.

Each time, I pulled back within two years, and not for lack of trying or castigating myself for failing to hold back the flood of complacency and mediocrity I was sure would drown me (but strangely never has). I stopped because I knew I could not keep going -- sanely -- at such a pace. I am acutely aware of the privilege with which I made those decisions: I had a choice, which is not always true for everyone.

Alcorn, on the other hand, pushed herself to the breaking point nearly every day for six years. Six. Years.

"I didn't know I had limits," Alcorn writes in Maxed Out. I couldn't help but find such a statement un-self-aware at best, immature and even arrogant at worst.

Her larger point, which she made while defending herself against the hordes on the New York Times' Motherlode blog, is exactly right:
If I couldn’t manage a career and motherhood with my many advantages (loving husband, healthy children, good income, somewhat flexible work schedule), then how were other women doing it, women with fewer advantages?
But the execution was all wrong. The book was a memoir of personal choices that led to her ultimate, inevitable breakdown. It wasn't just any old "career" she was trying to manage; it was a high-powered, all-consuming career.

And those personal choices weren't run-of-the-mill, either. In the Motherlode post, she expresses frustration that people picked apart her choices rather than focus on the important policy implications of her experiences. But the narrative around her choices (including taking her three-month-old to a work conference and accepting a book deal while seven months pregnant and working full-time) took up 95 percent of the book. What else were we to focus on?

Alcorn would like us to generalize her experience to all working mothers. But I am hard-pressed to escape the conclusion that, unlike most working mothers, she didn't have to continue as she did for six brutal years. As a highly educated, upper middle class woman, she had choices, regardless of whether she could see them or not.

The way we in the U.S. treat working parents leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps Maxed Out would have been more powerful had it not been so idiosyncratic, so revolving around specific details of one privileged life gone awry. There are a lot of women who are truly maxed out, women who have far fewer choices than Alcorn had. It is too bad the book's limitations will prevent it from promoting better working conditions for us all.


Please be sure to read this week's posts by my Brilliant Book Club co-founders: