author – activist – faculty – mom
May 1st, or May Day is traditionally a celebration of labor. For anyone who hasn’t yet gotten the memo, parenting–especially motherhood–is labor. When giving birth, no one says “I spent 36 hours in hobby” or “three days of excruciating contractions as I was in my rewarding God-given role as woman.” We say “I went into labor,” because reproducing and then raising people is beautiful, meaningful, amazing, life transforming work. It is also exploited work under unreasonable conditions. Enough to break a woman down. And this is exactly what Katrina Alcorn chronicles in her spectacular book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.
I will be sharing the spotlight with Alcorn at the Bay Area Book Festival. We’ll both be on a panel about motherhood and writing that editor Brooke Warner helped organize. Michelle Tea (How to Grow Up) will moderate, and Alcorn and I will be in the company of Carolina De Robertis (The Gods of Tango), and Kate Schatz (Rad American Women A-Z).
I had heard of the book Maxed Out, and it was on my mental list of books to read, but I didn’t have time! However, when I saw we’d be presenting together, I pushed it to the top of the list. In audio format. Because my working artist mom life is much more compatible with audio. So Katrina Alcorn walked me through her complete breakdown as I chopped vegetables, filled and emptied the dishwasher, vacuumed, walked to my daughter’s school to drop her lunch. She cited grim statistics about how working mothers in the US have the absolute worst conditions in the developed world. I found it so comforting and reassuring as I rushed in–late as usual–to teach my morning class.
I have known for decades that sexism and the devaluing of parenting labor is at the root of my biggest struggles since becoming a mom. But it was so profound to hear someone validate it, to quote the statistics, and to share her personal journey to total collapse and back. Her level of compassion for herself, her partner, her kids, her peers, and other moms is profound. She testifies to the serious difficulty of her situation, while also acknowledging the depth of her privilege. Whereas books like the celebrated Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In give the message: I can do it! You can too! Except they don’t catalogue the various unearned advantages that allowed Sandberg to succeed. In contrast, Alcorn’s maxed out gives the inverse message: “I, with all my privileges, still crashed and burned. It’s a miracle you’re doing as well as you are.”
As a mom of African heritage, I feel similarly so much of the time. My ancestors parented under circumstances of utter emotional devastation and brutal violence. For contemporary motherhood, I’m aware of the harsh circumstances of motherhood for various women in the US and even more women in the Global South today. My life is a cakewalk in comparison to theirs, but sometimes the weight of my own challenges gets me down. I appreciated the chance to see all of us on a spectrum of struggle as moms and workers throughout history and throughout the world.
I also love that Alcorn concludes with a set of recommendations that includes both self-care tips and very specific policy advocacy, including urging us to join or donate to Moms Rising and Emily’s List.
When parenting books just have the statistics, I feel outraged but not connected. When memoirs only chronicle the nervous breakdown, I feel empathy but lack context. Alcorn’s deeply insightful, beautifully written book should be on the reading list for every mom who works outside the home. I recommend ebook or audio format, to read or listen in the tiny cracks between things, in our insomniac moments, or while commuting, to help us see that we’re not crazy, it’s not our fault, and we’re not alone.
Bay Area Book Festival Panel
Exquisite Insanity: Moms Who Write
The Marsh Berkeley Arts Center
2120 Allston Way