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Empire of the Alpha Mom


Isabel Kallman at home with her son and nanny.  

The latest model of mother is not different from Betty but better, stronger, faster. If she seems frightening, perhaps it’s because she’s so unlike our own mothers and operates so counter to both instinct and emerging wisdom. To all the best-selling scolds who say that Mother should slow down, that we expect too much of her, the new, improved Mama says, if anything, the goalposts have been set too low. With the right planning, resources, and work ethic, you can, too, be a perfect and fulfilled woman, raising a perfect and happy child.

“I am an alpha mom, yes,” says Isabel.

At her desk, she’s a wisp of dark hair and big, darting eyes, kicking herself for sleeping four and a half hours the night before, “so I didn’t have as much business productivity as I wanted.” Sipping Vitaminwater for energy, Isabel explains that she’s always been “a determined, hard-charging kind of person,” always striving toward something.

How she became the ultimate alpha mom is a classic up-from-the-bootstraps, can-do tale, and it begins, as inspirational stories do, with a confession: “Motherhood did not come naturally to me,” Isabel says. “Maybe for some it’s innate, but for me, it wasn’t, and I learned it by pounding the pavement in New York.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, Isabel never aspired to stay home with children. Her father was an industrial mechanic, and her mother an office manager, part of the first generation of women expected to work outside the home. Isabel, with more opportunities than her mother, dreamed only of working better. She wanted to be “a professional,” she says. She didn’t care what kind. The important thing was to gain control, join the ruling class. “As long as I feel I can do things on my own terms, I’ll be happy,” she says.

In pursuit of that “brass ring,” Isabel put her head down and went to work. Her one diversion was dancing, and she was even a hard-charging ballerina. The first time Craig saw her, he was producing a music video, and Isabel, he recalls, was the only dancer trying, during breaks, to study. Her drive, her energy, deeply aroused him, but Isabel at first was more interested in her books. She was making herself into somebody, and after Columbia, who Isabel became on Wall Street was a “fantastic, phenomenal marketing person . . . very hungry, very ambitious,” remembers her boss at Salomon, Joe Frisone. A client, David Dineen, recalls Isabel as “relentless.” Isabel herself says she was “very, very type A, very aggressive” on Wall Street—a mentor type, she says, a leader of the pack.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though, because after ten years on Wall Street, Isabel felt something missing from her life: passion. She had begun talking to Craig (her husband by this time; she liked his drive, too) about finding a new product, when the discussion somehow got knotted up with having a baby. It was soon decided that Isabel would take some time off, consider her career options, do the baby while she was at it. And the baby, she thought, was eminently doable, “something we really dedicated time in our schedules for.”

The great expectations Isabel had for herself, she quickly extended to her child. Craig explained that the kid was like everything else in their lives: “We want to make sure we do whatever we do very well. And our feeling on the first one was, we wanted to get our act together.” Craig connected Isabel’s belly to headphones and began educating their fetus with everything from Mozart to Van Morrison. Isabel, meanwhile, put away her low-carb diet, gorged on pasta, gloried in guiltless weight gain. Motherhood seemed easy then, and Isabel imagined the future as a time when she would walk down the street holding hands with her family and also read ten Wall Street Journal articles every day, to keep her brain from turning to “mush.”

As her due date approached, though, she began to feel the creature pressing against her vital organs and became aware that she was losing control. Having been exposed to all sorts of new pregnancy information—endless advice on diet, music, birthing techniques—Isabel sensed with alarm everything that was out there about actually raising a child. All that she had ever become was the result of study, and now she realized she had not studied to become a mother. Knowing this, she quickly lost faith in whatever instincts she may have had. “Everyone said, ‘Follow your instincts, follow your instincts, your instincts will take over.’ And it just didn’t make any sense to me,” she says. It was like she had been offered a position for which she was wholly unqualified: “I felt completely unprepared.”

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