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Empire of the Alpha Mom

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Isabel deeply respects Dunn’s “theory” that mothers need not be perfect—“and the fact that she can point to research.” But when Isabel gets up and swings home, the goal of perfection is hard to shake.

Her home is a bright, utilitarian place with organic milk in the kitchen promising not to poison, antibacterial soap in the bathroom killing a broad range of germs, and an air-purifier in Ryland’s room. It’s a controlled environment—“I hate that word, control,” she says. But control is what it means to be an Alpha Mom. You’re the leader of the pack, and the pack, says Isabel, is your family.

“You know what I love? I have absolute control over my day. I carve out the time I want with my son and the time I want with my husband. Everything I do is on my own terms.”

She can usually be found in her office, with her Alpha Mom “war boards” and her books that are all of one kind (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families). Isabel guesses she works more than 100 hours a week now, but the beauty of it is, “Ryland can walk into my office whenever he wants.”

Where is that boy? He is everywhere but her office—scooting around on his tricycle, tumbling over furniture, writing on the floor with his chalk. He is disorder, and Isabel is grateful to have the village following behind. Every woman needs a village, she says. An Alpha Mom TV segment on how to build your own is in the works.

Isabel’s title at work is her function at home: “Chief operating mom.” In her office, she researches policy, issues directives, rules with a finger on a distant pulse. “Thorough but relaxed,” she calls her style.

Thus, Ryland’s day is “gently structured”—“I like to use that phrase”—around feeding, nap, and bedtimes that are all “based on research. This is very important to his overall development.” And Isabel always knows whether he’s developing on schedule. “I know every meal he takes, every nap he takes, every diaper he has, every one of his bowel movements. But having said that, I don’t obsess about it. I don’t write it down.”

Child-rearing is “an endless amount of work, but I wouldn’t call it a burden,” she says. Isabel enjoys laughing with Ryland, putting him to sleep at night, getting him out of the crib in the morning, “and he goes, ‘Yippee!’—how great is that?” Much of the rest she leaves to the village. It’s still hard to find time for a manicure (“I feel I’m losing a little bit of my style”), but overall, Isabel claims to be very happy with “the way I have everything set up.” Then Craig comes home.

Isabel feels “so lucky to have someone so astute business-wise on my personal board of directors,” but also seems to believe her husband doesn’t know beans about parenting. Craig speaks of Ryland’s birth as a time when he felt a love he’d never felt before, “so pure and instinctual.” He describes parenting since then as a matter of “instinct of what’s right and common sense.” Isabel, for her part, says instincts are not to be ignored, but she prefers “making an informed decision, rather than one in a vacuum.”

“We’re different, very different,” says Craig. He’s the relaxed one who needs his four hours of sleep; Isabel claims to put him to bed and return to work. She’s the one who cried about the preschool rejection; he’s the one who reminded her, “He’s only 2.” He’s the one who comes home to play with Ryland as he listens to music; she’s the one who says, “It’s constant noise with Craig, and I’m constantly searching for quiet.” Isabel tells him not to be so rough, so loud. She cites research showing that children should be spoken to in calm voices. “I get yelled at by Mommy,” says Craig, and since Mommy has done “such extensive research,” he generally defers. “Maybe I haven’t dared to criticize her,” he realizes.

Isabel claims she’s trying “not to be too wound up,” and struggling to accept “there’s only so much you can control.” But this is what raising Ryland has come down to—a battle for control. Isabel has learned two “brilliant” tactics for maneuvers with her son: “empathetic communication” for when he’s upset, and “limit-setting” for when she is. Parenting is a balance between his needs and hers, and there’s a “fine line,” she admits, “between being empathetic to his needs and setting limits.” The line is the fault in her foolproof system. Isabel navigates it correctly 80—“no, make that 90”—percent of the time, but doing so, she must rely on instinct.


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