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Maxed Out

American moms on the brink.



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These are the kinds of judgments that get passed around casually in our personal lives. Then there's the public arena. There was the furor over tiger moms with the publication in 2011 of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Should women push their children harder to be "successful" in school, music, and other pursuits? Next we were outraged over the May 2012 Time magazine cover, which showed a mom looking defiantly into the camera while breast-feeding her toddler next to the headline "Are You Mom Enough?" Are women breast-feeding too long or not long enough? This happened around the same time everyone had to weigh in on the pregnancy of the new Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer, and her decision to take only a couple of weeks of maternity leave. What's wrong with her, anyway? We had barely settled back in our seats when we had to rise again to join the kerfuffle over Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which quickly became one of the most widely read articles in the history of the magazine. But instead of having a dialogue about the structural issues that Slaughter said are holding us back, much of the reaction to her piece came back to personal choices. Should women change their definition of "having it all"? Should we learn to be content with what we have?

Why are we so obsessed with women's personal choices? Why are we so quick to judge mothers?

Maybe we judge because we feel conflicted about the choices we've made. We're afraid of screwing up what we're constantly reminded is the most important job we'll ever have — raising our children. We point the finger at others as a way of feeling better about ourselves. We wrestle with our feelings about how our own mothers raised us.

Whatever its cause, all this judgment is, of course, a distraction. The real conflict, which we all feel either directly or indirectly, is between all parents and the economic policies and social institutions that don't value the act of caregiving, that make it so damnably difficult to raise our children, stay economically viable, and keep ourselves and our relationships intact. Politicians of all stripes (mostly men) extol family values, but do we really value families when we don't offer parents paid time off after the birth of a baby? When affordable, quality child care is out of reach for so many families? When so few women have the support they need from employers to breast-feed, and half of us lack paid sick time?

As one author pointed out in a May 2012 New York Times opinion piece, "If 'the conflict' continues to be framed as one between women ... it will continue to distract us from what we should really be doing: working together — women and men together — to change the cultural, social and economic conditions within these crucial choices are made."

Do You Compare Your Insides to Other People's Outsides? 

Most of us do, even though we know better. We're social creatures. It's natural to make comparisons. But, we inevitably wind up comparing how we feel to how other people seem

This may in part explain why so many mothers feel so much guilt. We look around at the women we know from the office or the kids' school and see patient parents, happy marriages, and well-adjusted children. And we think, Why can't I be more like her? 

Recently, I asked several friends — all women I deeply admire — to send me a paragraph or two about the things you can't see about their lives from the outside. 

Here are a few examples of what real-life, enviable, put-together-on-the-outside women are really thinking. Think of them the next time you feel as though you're doing everything wrong: 

"Anneke" — Mom of one with coveted job in high-profile nonprofit

What people don't see about me (or maybe they do!) is how anxious and cranky my commute and job make me. Ever since I went back to work (and stopped breast-feeding), when I have a day of nonstop, back-to-back meetings, followed by the inevitable email backup, followed by the mad rush to the train to do day care pickup for my toddler, followed by her not wanting to get into the car seat and screaming and crying in the parking lot at the top of her lungs, I find myself hyperventilating in the car and I have to take an Ativan by the time we get home so that I can literally breathe. I'm cranky toward my husband when he gets home, annoyed with our dog. I manage to hold it together all day and be professional, upbeat, and on the ball (I even manage to work out at lunchtime a few days a week), but by the time evening comes around and I'm trying to cook, I'm a mess!

"Jenny"—Pioneering mom of two in the world of high-tech

What people don't see about me is that I've been on the edge of a panic attack for the past six to eight months—just started seeing a therapist. Worst time of the day is 5:35 pm, when I get home from picking up my twenty-one-month-old and three-and-a-half-year-old up from day care/preschool and we're all starving, grumpy, and don't know what's for dinner.

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