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Maxed Out

American moms on the brink.



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I'm sick of being the main breadwinner and fantasize about moving to a little town where we can live on a farm and I can be with my kids all day and raise chickens.

"Alexa" — Glamorous mom freelancing in the music industry; her house looks like a movie set

Each day that goes by where I am not fully employed in my industry, I feel as if my career slips further and further out of reach. When I am ready to jump back in full-time, who is going to want to hire a forty-two-year-old mom, when there are twentysomethings chomping at the bit to do my job for longer hours and less pay?

 My mind swirls with this thought and others:

"I need to volunteer more at his school."

"I need to start running again in the mornings."

"How come my son can't memorize his Tae Kwon Do student creed?"

"Maybe we shouldn't have done private school so we could save money for college."

"Fuck, I have no 401(k)."

"I have to remember to water my zucchini garden when I get home; how do I get the tree rats to stop eating them?"

"I need to make more friends outside my marriage."

"Do the other moms think I am weird because I am gay?"

"Do the other moms think I'm hot?"

All of this could take place in my head in the same five minutes. I smile on the outside because to describe what's going on inside would make me seem off my rocker. I cry in my car on the way to pick up my son and then turn on the air-conditioning full blast to cool down my face and unpuff my eyes. It doesn't really work, but I say I have bad allergies.

"Gillian" — Creative stay-at-home mom whose talent could give Martha Stewart a run for her money

I never know what to say when people ask me, "Are you a stay-at-home mom?" To me, that implies that one parent works (and is able to support the entire family) and one parent agreed to not work and happily does all the home stuff . . . which I guess is me, but I don't remember "agreeing" to this arrangement at any time. I have a small business I am trying to start and I teach a couple of classes a week, on top of all the housework, all the pickups/drop-offs, all the shopping, all the bill paying, all the everything.

Most of the time I am crushed with the weight of the financial debt. I feel helpless and angry that I can't make more money myself to pay it down. I feel stupid and childish that I am 33 and have no savings, no investments, no 401(k), nothing. I have ideas, goals, dreams that seem so unrealistic in my day-to-day life that it feels as if they will never happen.

"Samantha" — Nurse with clear priorities around work and home and the perfect part-time schedule 

What people don't know about me is that being a mother isn't satisfying the way I expected it to be. I tried so hard to become a mama, and sometimes I think that I lost sight of why I wanted to have a child, what my motivations and expectations were. My daughter is amazing — healthy, happy, energetic. It's just that spending time with her is often not as gratifying as I once believed it would be.

Sometimes I feel guilty about not wanting to have another child — as if people think I'm cheating my daughter, or I'm not truly part of the two-kids' "Mommy Club." I'm content with the kind of work that I do, but the daily grind of parenting and working outside of the home often overwhelms and bores me at the same time. Career advancement is on hold since I only work part-time. I thought I would be fine with this, but I feel torn between spending enough time with my daughter and putting enough energy into work. 

A GI Bill for Moms

Both anecdotal and empirical evidence show that women's opportunities in the workplace have a way of mysteriously evaporating after they have children. The news media began to refer to this phenomenon as the "Mommy Track" in 1989, after a career consultant named Felice Schwartz set off a furor with an article in the Harvard Business Review. In the article, she claimed that women managers cost corporations more than men do, because they require things like flexible schedules to accommodate their pesky family responsibilities. 

Schwartz suggested that companies divide their female employees into two groups, based on their level of career commitment. Group 1: "Career-primary" women who'd be willing to work long hours, travel extensively, and, when needed, relocate without letting any personal obligations get in the way. Group 2: "Career-and-family" women who'd happily accept lower pay and a dead-end job if it meant they could take a sick day when little Johnny had a fever.

In other words, Schwartz's proposed solution was to take the implicit Mommy Track, in which mothers are informally and unfairly passed over for raises, choice assignments, and promotions, and make it explicit corporate policy.

There are more problems with this strategy than I care to list, but here are a few:

1. It's exploitative — taking advantage of women when they most need their income to support a family.

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