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Katrina Alcorn, mom of 3 and author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, believes that many American working moms are hanging on by a thread. Women have experienced huge work gains in the last few decades, but institutions have failed to keep up, leaving moms with more to do than they can possibly ever make time for. As she writes on her blog, “Working and raising kids pretty much sucks in America.” In this excerpt, she talks about the breakdown that led her to quit her job and start advocating for change.
I was driving down an empty frontage road, alone, in our dusty Subaru Outback, near the I-80 freeway in Berkeley, California. It was Saturday. I had just dropped off our junk electronics at the ecorecycling place. The irony was not lost on me that my next stop was Target, to buy a jumbo box of very non-eco diapers. After that, the grocery store, to stock up on party supplies.
My husband, Brian, was home with our one-year-old, Jake, our six-year-old, Ruby, and our eight-year-old, Martha (my stepdaughter). We often divided up the weekends this way, with one parent hunting and gathering and the other being, well, the parent. Our family was part of a relatively new tribe in America, one that sociologists call “dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class families.” In layperson’s terms, we had kids and we both worked. Like so many members of this massive and growing tribe (which now numbers a little under half of all American households with children), our weekdays were devoted to work and basic kid care, while our weekends revolved around the time-honored ritual known as Getting Shit Done.
But on this particular weekend, we were planning to break out of that routine. We were going to host a big brunch on Sunday to celebrate my and Brian’s birthdays, which were only four days apart. Brian had just completed a particularly grueling design project, one that had required him to work so many nights and weekends that his rare appearance at the dinner table caused the kids to gasp and leap out of their chairs, as if a real-life SpongeBob SquarePants had just strolled into the kitchen.
Now that Brian’s project was over, we wanted to celebrate the return to normal life. There was only one problem. I didn’t actually feel normal. I didn’t want to see anyone, not even our friends. Years ago, I had been a person with lots of friends. The phone rang regularly with invitations to parties and dinners and plays. But little by little, work and family obligations had squeezed out just about any social event that didn’t exist primarily for our children. At some point I had silently come to the conclusion it was too much effort to have friends.
I passed one gray warehouse after another on my way to Target. The black leather steering wheel grew sticky under my sweaty grip. I rolled down the window to let in some air, and sounds of freeway traffic rushed into the car, like the roar of a waterfall.
Suddenly, I knew the whole thing was wrong. The party was wrong. My attitude was wrong. Everything was wrong. The last few months had been a carnival ride of constant motion that left me dizzy and sick to my stomach. I wanted off. I wanted someone to pull the brake. I wanted to make it stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop. I didn’t even know what stopping meant.
That’s when I got the feeling that something horrible was about to happen. It was a feeling I knew all too well, a ghost pressing down on my chest. I pulled off the road onto the shoulder, kicking up pebbles and dust. Adrenaline shot through my body like an electric jolt. The thing I’d been dreading was happening now. At least this time the kids weren’t in the car.
My heart pounded in my chest. My head hurt. My hands shook. I heard a familiar sound in my head, the electric drone of cicadas.
This will be over soon, I thought. This feeling will pass and you’ll still be here.
I took several slow, deep breaths.
The sun pounded through the windshield. A truck rumbled down the frontage road, piled high with stacks of cardboard held together with twine. I watched a crow the size of a large cat alight on a telephone wire. The drone in my ears slowly died to a faint hum. I fumbled for my phone inside my purse. There was only one person I wanted to talk to in that moment. Brian picked up on the second ring.
“Honey,” I said. “Something’s wrong with me.” The voice that said these words didn’t sound like mine. It was a woman I barely knew.
“Where are you?”
I could hear the concern in his voice. I could also hear his tiredness. I closed my eyes and saw him, unshaven, leaning heavily on his elbows at the kitchen table, the phone pressed tightly to his ear, while our son Jake toddled after his sisters, whose squeals I could hear in the background.
“I’m in the car. I just had a panic attack. I’m sitting on the side of the road.”
“Oh, sweetheart . . .”
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said, my voice cracking. And even though Brian could take that statement a million different ways, he immediately knew what I meant.
“It’s time to quit,” he said. “It’s over.”
For a brief moment, I felt relief wash over me like a cool rain.
“It’s over,” he said again. “Just come home.”
Excerpted from Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.