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Maxed Out

American moms on the brink.

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Editor's Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Oakland author Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

Much ink has been spilled instructing women how to have it all — thriving careers, happy children, and satisfying marriages. You will find no shortage of magazines and self-help books bursting with snappy, upbeat directives like "Lose the guilt!" "Lean forward!" and "Don't let yourself go!" Taken together, their message is this: Work smart, keep a positive attitude, and everything will be just fine. 

Years ago, when I was first coping with the competing demands of a new baby and a new job, I reached for those books with both hands. With their help, I learned how to "Stay ahead of my schedule!" "Make dinner in ten minutes or less!" and "Succeed at staying fit!" 

I was so pleased with myself back then. No one was more organized, more efficient. When other working moms complained about how hard their lives were, I listened sympathetically, but secretly I thought: She's just not trying hard enough.

But after my second child was born, the limits of time management became clear. No four-week Power Program or Efficiency Work Flow or other Jedi mind trick could resolve the ridiculous demands on my time. 

One day, I went home sick from work and then never went back. I never even cleaned off my desk. I fell into a profound despair, plagued by panic attacks, insomnia, shame, and dread. After almost six years of "successfully" balancing a job and family, I had completely burned out. A yearlong journey through medication, meditation, and therapy began. As I learned over the months to heal my body and my mind, I sought the answer to one question: What the hell happened?

My collapse didn't make any sense. I was a smart, capable, healthy person. I had a loving husband, a supportive boss, healthy kids, great daycare, a good income. If I couldn't manage a career and a family, then how were other working moms doing it, women who didn't have those advantages?

When I first attempted to write [Maxed Out], a few months after I stopped working, I did so in a kind of feverish delirium, writing every moment I was not with my children. That first draft was what I thought of as a typical memoir — it was an intensely personal story about my life as a working mom, my attempt to "have it all," and my miserable failure.

It was my story, but it didn't tell the whole story. I knew I was not alone in my "failure." All around me, I saw women staggering through their days, trying to make the best of their own difficult circumstances. At work or at the park they made self-deprecating jokes about exhaustion, but once you scratched the surface, it stopped being funny. They suffered from panic attacks and depression, heart palpitations and hives, migraines and mysterious coughs that wouldn't go away. Many had tried antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or both. Most fantasized about quitting their jobs. Some actually did, trading their chronic time deficit for regular ol' debt.

 It seemed gauche — selfish, really — to complain. After all, we were all living the lives we'd chosen. We had what we thought we wanted — beautiful children, and a level of financial independence that our mothers never knew. None of us could make sense of the wretched state we found ourselves in. Most days, it felt like our lives were being held together by Band-Aids and Elmer's glue. What were we doing wrong? 

I started researching the topic of women and work in earnest, and in 2010 I launched a blog called Working Moms Break to share my thoughts about what I was learning. It was my own personal consciousness-raising period. Over the next couple of years, I heard from thousands of women and men around the world. Their stories helped me make sense of my own. Then I rewrote the book. 

It is time we realized just how maxed out this generation of women has become. It does not have to be this way. And frankly, we deserve better. My deepest hope is that if we can see this problem for what it really is, perhaps together we can do something about it.

It's Time to Call a Truce to the Mommy Wars 

Every mother I know has felt judged, at one time or another, about her choice to work or not work, most often by other women. Stay-at-home moms are overcoddling and wasting their education. Full-time "career" moms are coldhearted, reptilian women who care more about money and status than their own children. 

Oh, but the judgment doesn't stop there. Mothers who stop at one kid are depriving their child of siblings. The ones who have more than two kids are accelerating global warming. Mothers who don't breast-feed long enough are going to give their children asthma. Mothers who breast-feed too long are weird. Helicopter moms are overscheduling their children, turning them into type A, anorexic basket cases, while the rest of us are depriving our children of important enrichment activities. Health-nut mothers judge others for putting Fritos and unnaturally flavored juice in the lunch box. Meanwhile, everyone pities the children of health-nut mothers, who have to eat that gritty whole-grain bread and the brown-spotted bananas. 

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