Published on January 6th, 2014 | by Katrina Alcorn



Katrina Alcorn’s Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink is the compulsively readable memoir by a Bay Area tech worker and mother driven to the brink of insanity – for reals! – by the impossibility of life/work balance. Alcorn’s story takes her in and out of the work force, on and off meds, to birthday parties and doctor’s offices and TED talks. In between her own compelling story are sidebars investigating tricky questions (Does day care hurt kids?), exploring real solutions (part time employment options, 30-hour work weeks, a GI-type bill for mothers, increased sick time) and calling bullshit on ‘Mommy Wars’ and Sheryl Sandberg. I’m psyched to be able to offer an excerpt of Maxed Out here on Mutha, but you should really go out and buy the whole book! From an independent bookseller, while I’m bossing you around.  – Michelle Tea


© Reenie Raschke

When Ruby turned one, I got a chance to road-test the new serene me. We threw a big party at our house and invited our oldest, prekid friends, as well as new friends we’d met in our birth class and in postpartum yoga.

Although it was January, the sky was clear, and warm sunshine poured in through the French doors in the kitchen. I baked a chocolate cake, showing Martha how to stir the flour and hold the beater to mix the frosting, while Ruby, perched in the back carrier, watched over my shoulder. Brian fired up the barbecue on the deck and grilled platefuls of sausage, burgers, ribs, and vegetables. By noon, the kitchen was packed with people.

The last time I’d seen my new mom friends was before I’d started the job at Dogstar, when most of the babies were so small they could barely hold up their heads. It was a shock to see how much they’d changed in just a few months. Now they were alert, giggling, eating solid food, confidently scooting around on chubby knees.

The moms looked different, too. The last time we’d met, we peered at each other through puffy eyes, covered our zaftig, postpartum physiques with baggy shirts and sweatpants, and wore glazed, Mona Lisa half smiles, stoned on oxytocin and sleep deprivation from around-the-clock breast-feeding. Now, everyone looked younger, thinner, and, like our babies, more alert. A few of the moms had stopped breast-feeding (including me) and all but two had returned to work. When we first had our babies, the dominant topic of conversation was their schedules (When does he sleep? How often does she eat?). Now everyone wanted to talk about their own schedules.


 “How much are you guys working now?” Jessica asked a few of us gathered around the chip bowl. Jessica looked like a petite version of Wonder Woman, with thick eyelashes and long dark hair.

“I’m back four days a week,” said Dawn, a short, pale woman in baggy overalls. Dawn was a researcher for a large foundation in San Francisco where she probably wore crisp skirts and fitted sweaters, but whenever I saw her she looked as if she’d just come from pulling weeds in the garden. “I’d rather work three days, but my boss didn’t go for it. Marcus is staying home with Ava while he works on his dissertation, so it’s okay. I never worry about her.”

“Does Marcus like being the stay-at-home dad?” I felt a small stab of jealousy but hoped it didn’t show.

“Oh, he loves his Daddy Time,” Dawn said, as she dropped a handful of tortilla chips on her plate. “The only problem is his dissertation is going slower, now that Ava’s getting mobile. How ’bout you guys?”

“I’m back full-time,” Jessica sighed, and ran a hand through her thick hair. “I hate it.” Jessica had been one of those women who blossomed in pregnancy. But now I realized that she looked a bit, well, wilted. A little too thin, with more lines on her face than I remembered. I liked Jessica, and I felt a twinge of sadness for her.

“You work from home, right?” I asked.

“One day a week. The rest of the week I’m in the office. I work my ass off, skip lunch, and then the other attorneys give me dirty looks when I have to leave at five to get Henry. I go back to work after he’s asleep . . .”

“That sucks,” Dawn said. Then she excused herself to feed her daughter. I said a silent prayer of thanks that I worked for a family-friendly company.

“How’s your nanny working out?” I asked Jessica.

“Esmeralda’s great. Henry loves her. But she’s with him so much . . . Sometimes, when he reaches for her in the morning, I get kind of jealous . . .”

Jessica paused, but before she could complete her thought, one of the yoga moms, Re-Ann, planted herself next to us.

Re-Ann was a few inches taller than me—about five nine—with light brown hair tied in two cute, girlish braids. She had wrapped herself in one of those complicated cloth sacks so that her ten-month-old son could sleep curled up against her back. There were a lot of women like Re-Ann in Berkeley—Earth Mother types who tended lush vegetable gardens in their backyards and devoted themselves to the latest attachment-parenting trends: natural birth, cosleeping, toilet training at age one, and breast-feeding until age three. I admired their convictions and felt uneasy around them at the same time. Even before we had our babies, I sensed I would never live up to Re-Ann’s standards.

“How’s the new job?” she asked me brightly.

“Great! I love it!” I said. My voice sounded unusually high.

“It’s four days a week, right?” Re-Ann took a bite from a drumstick.

“No. It’s five.”

Her drumstick froze in the air. “Five days? Where does she go when you’re at work?” She set her chicken back on her plate and wiped her mouth with a balled-up paper napkin. I turned to Jessica for backup—but she had wandered off to change Henry’s diaper.

katrins-alcorn-and-fam636I felt my jaw tighten. “She goes to that great family day care I told you guys about. Remember?”

“I thought that was only part-time! It’s every day now? Brian can’t stay with her?” She stuck her neck out so I could see the taut cords under the skin. She gave me a searching look. “Oh, it must be so hard on you.”

“We’re fine,” I said flatly.

There was an awkward pause.

I imagined what I looked like to Re-Ann, with my newly waxed eyebrows and my big corporate job and my overgrown, produce-free backyard. I had weaned Ruby at ten months, and under her fancy party dress she wore plastic diapers. I had abandoned the cloth diapers three months before because I would rather destroy the planet than lug them back and forth from day care. I was selfish and impatient and my values were all out of order.

“What about you guys?” I said with my Nice Voice. “You’re working now, aren’t you?” Re-Ann was a nurse before she had her baby, and her husband did construction work.

“Javier and I work opposite shifts,” she said. This was another trend I was aware of—it was called “tag team parenting.” Some parents did this to avoid the “dangers” of day care, while others were just trying to avoid the outrageous cost.

“Isn’t that hard? When do you see each other?”

“We see each other for a half day on Saturday. It’s not easy, but it’s all right. It’s what’s best for Manu right now.” She stole a peek over her shoulder at her baby and bounced a little on the balls of her feet, which were clad in thick leather sandals. “I guess we’re just lucky we don’t need day care. That must be really hard—you know, on all of you.” She shook her head in sympathy.

“Katrina, is it time to eat Ruby’s cake?” I heard Martha’s tiny voice by my hip.

“Great idea, sweetie. Do you want to help me put the candles in?”

Her eyes opened wide. “Yeah!”

I excused myself from Re-Ann and fumed silently as I pulled the cake off the top of the fridge and set it on the kitchen island. I didn’t need her pity! I’d read that couples who worked opposite schedules were six times more likely to divorce than those who did not. So who was the better mother—the one who put her kid in day care or the one who put her marriage at risk?

 You don’t have to engage in these emotions, I remembered. Put that thought in a bubble and let it float away.

I held Martha on my hip and leaned over the cake so she could plant the big number 1 candle in the center.

“Now we sing!” Martha said, clapping her hands.

Everyone formed a loose circle around us and I lit the candle. Brian held Ruby up to her cake while we sang “Happy Birthday.” Ruby smiled her toothy smile and looked at all the adoring faces, mildly perplexed.

“Like this, honey,” I said. I blew softly. The flame flickered.

“Make a wish, Ruby!” Martha said.

Ruby looked at me and tilted her chin up, as if she were waiting for me to do it again.

I smiled a tight smile at Brian and he gave me a questioning look. I shook my head almost imperceptibly.

“Like this, Ruby!” Martha said. “Ready, Katrina? One, two, three . . .” We blew together and the flame went out. Ruby looked around startled at all the people clapping, then she clapped, too. Brian set her in her high chair while I cut Ruby a sliver of cake and then offered her a forkful.

It was her first-ever taste of sugar. She took it into her mouth, then paused, squinting, unprepared for the avalanche of sweetness. For a moment I thought she would spit it out, but then she gulped it down, the way a seagull might swallow the soft flesh of a mussel.

Within five minutes, Ruby looked as if a cake bomb had detonated on her tray. Chocolate frosting hung from one eyebrow and both ears, and she had a thick dark smear on her mouth and cheeks. Goopy crumbs clung to her forehead and caulked the creases of her neck.

“Are you all done, sweetheart?” I asked.

She reached up for me with frosting-covered hands.

 Day care’s not hurting her, I thought as I pulled her out of her high chair. I don’t care what anyone says. She’s doing just fine.

I put the thought “I’m a bad mother” into a sticky little bubble in my mind. Then I blew it out the kitchen doors, across the deck, and over the back fence.

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.

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About the Author

Katrina Alcorn a writer and user experience designer. Her writing has appeared many places including The New York Times (Motherlode),, and The Huffington Post. Maxed Out is her first book. She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and three children. Find her at her blog, Facebook, her professional site, or Twitter (@kalcorn).

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