Opinion

The ugly secret of working moms

Here's why it's impossible to be the perfect mom and the ideal employee at the same time

I have an ugly secret: For 18 years, I've felt like a fraud both at home and at work.

From the moment I became pregnant with my first child, who graduates high school this month, I've had the unshakable sensation that I'm faking big chunks of my life, playing the part of a competent and confident mother and professional — but in fact always shortchanging someone their due. Arriving late to work after delivering a forgotten lunchbox to school, darting out of a too-long meeting to arrive at the school awards ceremony 30 seconds after they call my kid's name, emailing with the college counselor when I'm supposed to be watching that IT training, or grinning robotically through my son's trumpet-lesson story at the dinner table when my mind is on that proposal I need to finish by morning.

I offloaded some of this guilt during a recent conversation with Katrina Alcorn, a working mother of three and the author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. My confession didn't surprise her.

"We're expected to do our jobs as if we don't have children — and then raise our children as if we don't have jobs," she said. "If you think about the model of the ideal mother, it's the person who sacrifices everything for her child. The ideal worker is someone who can drop everything and go on a business trip at a moment's notice, and who can stay late — not leave at 5 o'clock to pick up kids. So if you're trying to be both, then you are faking it."

She oughta know.

Alcorn was living the Bay Area dream a few years back. She had a reliable spouse, healthy kids, and a great job in a successful tech company. But as her family and career simultaneously grew, she began having trouble managing all of the demands: juggling daycare and demanding clients, sick kids and business trips. Somewhere between being walked in on while pumping breast milk at work and receiving a company-wide email from a male employee who was grossed out by her "bodily fluids" being in the office fridge, well, Alcorn lost it.

She began to have panic attacks, and was plagued by increasing anxiety and depression over her inability to cope with the super-awesome family-plus-career bounty that we're supposed to be so grateful for. After suffering a nervous breakdown while driving to Target to buy diapers, she quit her job and had to spend a year decompressing and living on savings — just to remember what contentment feels like.

When she recovered, she wrote a book with the goal of telling overwhelmed working moms three things: You're not alone. It's not your fault. And it doesn't have to be this way.

"We've made great strides to where women can achieve great things in the workplace," she says, "but we make it so impossible to be working and raising kids. As a society, we place no value in the act of caregiving."

And after too many years of blaming herself for not being organized enough, focused enough, determined enough to make the best of her "dream life," Alcorn has turned her attention to what the workplace can do to better support working parents. She offers tips in her book and on her blog, WorkingMomsBreak.com. And of course, she weathers the criticism that comes from suggesting (gasp!) that moms could use a little help.

"As soon as anyone talks about motherhood being difficult or society having an obligation to mothers, the trolls come out en masse," she says, "and it makes me realize how much we need to talk about this."

"I actually had a lot of advantages," Alcorn says. "The point is that if I couldn't make it work, imagine what it's like for single parents, or people living paycheck to paycheck!" (Even Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted that she didn't realize how hard it was for single parents to "lean in," or even to sit down for that matter.)

"We can't say that society's answer to this dilemma is for people not to have kids; that's not a sustainable solution," Alcorn says, "and it's silly to say that having kids is only a luxury for the rich, who can afford not to work or can hire another adult to live in their house and cook and clean and pick up their kids."

What she can't abide is anyone who screams "entitlement!" at modern women who dare to dream of a career, a family — and a little frickin' sanity. "Our economics have evolved to the point where we have to have two working parents," she says. "And the phrase 'having it all' isn't asking to eat bon-bons proffered by servants. It was meant to describe people who have children and work to support their children.

"Where's the selfishness in that?"

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