A few months ago, I received a note from a longtime friend, Joan Blades (co-founder of MomsRising) introducing us to Katrina Alcorn. Joan thought we might support each others’ work, and it turns out that yes, supporting each others’ work was indeed a no brainer. I learned about the book Katrina was writing – Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink – and it definitely sounded intriguing. After all, I’m an American Mom and before ROWE, I definitely would have described myself as being on the brink of many things…insanity being one of them.
When I received my advance copy of the book, I was itching to get into it…but being the mom of four that I am, I don’t really have a lot of peace and quiet (or heck, even just quiet!) to read. I saved the book for a road trip we took from Minneapolis to Kansas City two weeks ago and I can safely say I devoured every word and finished the book before we reached our destination (okay, there were a few “Mom, are we there yet?” interruptions).
Maxed Out is the story of Katrina’s trip to the brink – of trying to be a mother and an ideal employee within a culture of work
that is completely broken. A culture that rewards time, physical presence, and selling your soul. She almost didn’t make it back. Her story is both harrowing and inspiring, and it reminded me so much of my own experiences of trying to be a mother and an employee in our American work culture before we created ROWE. It was impossible. And not because I was weak, or lacked ability or resilience – but because I was trying to make it all work inside a culture that was never going to reward what really mattered.
Maxed Out is a book that will make you look around and think “Who else is experiencing this? Who else is on the brink that I don’t know about?” More importantly, it’s a book that will force action…because if action doesn’t occur to change this broken work culture we have around us, there will be women (and men) who will reach the brink and not be lucky enough to make it back.
My business partner Jody Thompson and I had the pleasure of posing some questions to Katrina about her new book, some pieces that really had us cheering (her take on the whole “Lean In” hot topic), and her life today:
Cali & Jody: In your own words, tell us what Maxed Out is about.
Katrina: Maxed Out is the memoir of my complete and utter failure to balance a demanding full-time job and motherhood. Throughout my story, I weave in the stories of my friends’ mishaps to balance work and family, as well as some pretty shocking research about the dysfunction between our work and home lives.
So it’s a very personal story, but I think of it more as a social or cultural critique. My hope is that the book will raise awareness about how society needs to “lean in” (to borrow an over-used phrase) to the reality of today’s families.
Cali & Jody: It’s a deeply personal story that takes a lot of guts to share. Tell us about your decision to open this door and let the world into your experiences like this.
Katrina: Thank you. Yes, the truth is, when I first started writing the book, I worried A LOT about what people would think about me when they read it. As you said, I’m exposing some really personal stuff—about my panic attacks, the tension in my marriage when my husband and I were both working too much, my wild experience with medication, etc. But I felt it was important to write it, because all too often, we skate along the surface of this “work/life balance” issue. I wanted to expose the real guts of it—what it really looks like when you’re trying to do something that is supposed to be the new normal (two parents with full-time jobs), but turns out to be just about impossible for many of us.
Luckily, it took four years to finish the book and get a publisher, so I’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea of sharing this story. And so far, my former coworkers and clients have been incredibly encouraging when they hear about the book; many of them have confessed that they, too, have had similar experiences. Whether they have kids or not, so many people are grappling with job burnout, but everyone is afraid to talk about it openly. I think when people hear about the book, they feel relieved to know they’re not the only one.
Cali & Jody: At one point in the book, you talk about hoping to extend your four-day workweek indefinitely at the company you were working for. That hope was squashed, however, when co-workers became jealous and started spewing what we call Sludge – judging your choices about how you spent your time. How prevalent do you think Sludge is in today’s work environments?
Katrina: First of all, I love that you have a name for it: Sludge. That’s the perfect word, because after you have a Sludge encounter, it makes you want to take a shower.
It’s funny because in my case, I really liked and respected most of the people I worked with, and for the most part, I think they liked and respected me. And yet, I felt this judgment on a pretty regular basis, but I didn’t know what to call it.
As for how prevalent it is in other companies? I’ve worked as a consultant to literally dozens of companies, from Fortune 500s to startups and non-profits, and each work culture is different, but in many places, Sludge is so thick people are drowning in it.
Cali & Jody: We love how you give another point of view on Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” advice. One of our favorite parts of Maxed Out is where you state:
"If there’s one thing we need to do to make room for more women in leadership, it’s not telling them to “keep their foot on the gas pedal.” For many of us, that’s the surest way to drive ourselves over the cliff. And it perpetuates the widely held belief that women are the source of their own problems, that if we’re not getting ahead in our careers, it’s our own damn fault. We’re just not trying hard enough! Likewise, if we’re overwhelmed with the competing demands on our time, that’s our fault, too; we’re simply not managing our time well!"
Completely agree. What should women be thinking about instead?
Katrina: Women need permission to push back, which some would argue is the opposite of “leaning in.” If you define “lean in” as work harder, and generally give more of your time and energy to work, then my argument is no, we need to think about how to give our time and energy to being whole people. This does not have to be incompatible with a high-powered career, but it may mean shaking things up, breaking the rules, doing it your own way. It means challenging the idea that you can never unplug, never take extended time off, never work less. This is, by the way, what appeals to me so much about ROWE. It’s this idea that you don’t check your humanity at the door when you come to work. You’re encouraged to fit work into your life, rather than the other way around.
Cali & Jody: In a perfect world, what will readers of Maxed Out be thinking and/or doing after they finish the book?
Katrina: My hope is that Maxed Out will help us all change the conversation about women and work. We are obsessed with women’s personal choices—opt out, lean in, etc.—and I want us to talk more about the structural issues that are holding us back. I wrote the book for women, but the truth is, I’m hoping that men and employers and policymakers will ultimately be influenced by the ideas in this book.
At the end of the book, I list 10 things every reader can do; they’re all easy things, and each one is meant to take a baby step toward change, whether it be change at the policy level, change in workplace culture, change in the way men and women communicate at home, or change in our own hearts about how we value our own time and emotional energy.
Cali & Jody: And finally, I’m sure readers will want to know how you’re doing personally and professionally these days…can you give us a snippet?
Katrina: I feel very lucky that I’ve had the option to work for myself. After I left “Dogstar,” (the job I talk about in the book), and after I spent a year basically recovering from burnout, I started working as an independent consultant. I found I can be incredibly productive in less time because I have autonomy now.
It’s not that it’s always easy—I often work nights and weekends when I’m on a deadline, but I can also take time off in the middle of the “work day” to ride my bike in the Berkeley hills, or pick up my kids early from summer camp, or get groceries while the store is empty. Everything gets done, but it’s much less stressful than when I had that job and the commute. My kids are doing really well, all three of them. Our home is a more peaceful place. And of course, with the book coming out, I feel like I’m growing creatively in a way I never could have in my “fast track” career.
Katrina Alcorn is a writer and an experience design consultant. She holds a master's degree in journalism and documentary filmmaking from UC Berkeley, and is a regular blogger at WorkingMomsBreak.com and for The Huffington Post. Buy her new book Maxed Out: American Mom's on the Brink right here.