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'On the brink': Many working moms falling apart, author says 

Managing a department at a web design firm and raising two kids with her husband, Katrina Alcorn thought she had the working mom routine figured out -- until she had another child.

“My son was born and it all went to hell,” Alcorn, 41, recalled about the baby’s arrival in 2009.

While women are being encouraged to "lean in" at work, Katrina Alcorn says they also should be able to lean back when they need to.

“On the surface, I was doing everything that I was supposed to be doing and it looked like everything was fine. But inside, I was just falling apart. I was having a lot of anxiety and insomnia and there was all this stress. There was too much on my plate. I lost my appetite, I was getting depressed.”

On the way to Target to buy diapers one day, she had a breakdown, Alcorn said. She ended up quitting her job and trying to make sense of what happened. The result is her new book, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.”

Alcorn, who lives in Oakland, Calif., recently talked with TODAY Moms about her experience. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. What is making moms “maxed out”?

We’ve been going through this huge change over the last few decades of women entering the workforce, but none of our institutions, including the workplace, have kept up with that change.

Most jobs are still made for people who have an adult at home who can take care of the kids and do the grocery shopping and fill out the school forms and attend the parent-teacher conferences in the middle of the day. That’s not how we’re living anymore.

So I think that women are basically on the brink of this dysfunction in society where we are expecting them to be able to do things that we don’t have time to do anymore. And we end up pushing ourselves, trying to make it work and end up making ourselves sick.

Q. What about maxed out dads?

I think it’s different for men because the cultural expectations are still different for women than men.

That doesn’t mean that it’s better for men but I think that there are some things that are simpler.

Men do not, in general, deal with the same kind of guilt that women have. Studies also show that women are still doing a lot more of the housework even when both parents work. So we’re still not experiencing it in the same way.


Q. You say working and raising kids “sucks in America.” Why?

It’s because we have some of the worst policies around supporting working families of any country in the developed world.

We are one of (a few) countries in the world that do not provide paid parental leave for new parents. We are one of the few developed countries that don’t guarantee paid sick time.

But there’s also a work culture problem. We work some of the longest hours of any workers in any developed country in the world. For people like me who are professionals, there’s sort of this unspoken rule: You don’t take time off, you never unplug and you’re always available nights and weekends. It’s overwhelming for a lot of us.

Q. What should employers do?

One of the simplest, but hardest things employers can do is give their employees more autonomy. Empower their employees, whether they have kids or not, to do their work the way that they best do their work.

Q. You are critical of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In.” Why?

There’s a lot of value in that book. My main issue with the book is that unlike Sheryl Sandberg, I believe we need to give women permission to lean back when they need to.

I’m the poster child for leaning in so hard that you fall over. I was managing a team of 17 designers, I was traveling around the country speaking at conferences, I came back to work sooner than I wanted to after maternity leave, but I did because I wanted to hang on to my job.

Q. What is your advice to moms who are feeling that burnout?

If you’re feeling on your edge, you need to figure out how to take care of yourself by any means necessary. I heard a story recently about a mom who took a vacation from her family for a month. She felt she had to completely remove herself and stay with friends for a month and recoup.

Find a way to advocate for yourself at work. Ask for what you need, whether that’s having a day a week that you work from home or negotiating a more flexible schedule. You have to advocate for yourself because no one is going to do it for you.

Q. How are you doing today?

I’m self-employed now, so I’m a fantastic boss. I’m the best boss I’ve ever had.

Attention, moms: 1 in 10 working mothers takes two weeks or less for maternity leave. We're putting together a future story about returning to work very quickly and would like to hear from you. If you'd like to discuss your experience, send an email to reporter JoNel Aleccia. Thanks.