10/16/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

Why American Moms Are 'Maxed Out' and 'On the Brink'

When Sheryl Sandberg told us to "lean in," I was confused. I thought I had tried it, but I still "fell over."

When Judith Warner updated us about the "opt-out" generation that now wants back in, I was confused once again. What was it that I'm doing? Am I opting out right now? Did I want to opt-out? For how long?

Then I got tired and put down the books and articles. I didn't recognize my story, my concerns in these media discussions. My experience -- and every woman's that I know -- seemed impossible to reduce to sound bites and catch phrases.

Motherhood is raw. In many ways, it is primal, all-consuming, and -- above all -- an emotional experience. Before I had a child, I thought I knew the emotions of happiness and sadness, anxiety and even anger. For me, motherhood intensifies every feeling that I had before. When I'm stressed, I'm so much more stressed. When I'm overwhelmed, I'm so much more overwhelmed. When I feel joy being with my son, I feel that joy more intensely than I ever did before.

Nothing that I read about motherhood, balance, and identity reflected this emotional experience of trying to meet the demands of parenthood, work, marriage, and everyday life.

Then I read Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.

It's about one woman's story, the author, Katrina Alcorn, an accomplished design consultant, living in Oakland, California. When Katrina was 37, she -- using that dreaded media phrase -- "had it all." She had three young kids, a successful career that she loved, a wonderful husband, and then she had a nervous breakdown. She realized that she couldn't do it all, even with the supportive husband and sympathetic employers.

She writes, "One day I went home sick from work and never went back. I never even cleaned off my desk. I fell into a profound despair, plagued by panic attacks, insomnia, shame and dread. After almost six years of 'successfully' balancing a job and family, I had completely maxed out."

Now this is where I thought the book would start to annoy me. I hate cautionary tales of fragile women not being able to hack it in the work world, only to retreat back to the home. I know every woman's personal story is different, but too often these stories seem to be implying that women are better off not even trying to juggle work and family. And they seem to be about blaming the woman, rather than confronting the deep structural gaps -- in maternity leave, in sick leave, in workplace culture -- that make parents' lives -- women and men -- so difficult. Women's experiences are reduced only to "personal" choices, stripped of any cultural or institutional factors that significantly impact their lives. The discussion then becomes about why this individual woman can't cope with her life, seeming to blame her, rather than asking bigger questions about our society, our government policies, and our workplaces.

But this book is different. Completely different. She weaves research and social critique into her personal story. And her personal story is riveting, painful to read, and almost unbearably relatable. I read the book in two nights, staying up way too late for a mom of a toddler, because I literally couldn't pull myself away from the pages. Her story is full of memorable details: those innumerable everyday moments of life (from small annoyances to outrageous injustices). (One that stands out in my mind is the email from a colleague after she had been storing breast milk in the office refrigerator -- after pumping in the public bathroom or conference room. The subject line is his email is "bodily fluids," and then the message states, "I'm against them being stored in the company refrigerator.")

Ultimately, this book is about change: how we as women and as parents need to confront this incompatibility between work and home life. And confront this challenge together. Change needs to happen at every level, from the home to workplace culture to government policies.

Here's the message that I took away from the book: you are not alone. If you feel "maxed out" and "on the brink" of losing something -- losing your mind, losing your job, losing your mental and physical health -- stop personalizing it and take action. And not only are you not alone and not crazy, but there are understandable reasons for that stress.

Here are a few of the suggestions that Alcorn makes:

1. Practice saying "no": Stop worrying about letting others down and learn to say "yes" to yourself.

2. Be an ally to other women: Stop judging other women and cut all women some slack, remembering that cultural and institutional forces make finding balance difficult for all women.

3. Sign up for MomsRising: She's donating 10 percent of the proceeds from the book to this organization that advocates for the needs of mothers. They lobby for parental leave, flexible work schedules, affordable childcare, and other policies that improve working families' lives.

I'd encourage all women -- working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, child-free women -- to read this book to understand why so many women are trying to "have it all" and beating themselves up for failing at it. Her vision for a healthier and happier way to work and live is important for all members of our society to understand.

Do you feel "maxed out"? How do you cope? What would make your life happier and healthier?

Previously posted on School of Smock.