Empire of the Alpha Mom

Photo: Phillip Toledano

The birth of the alpha boy was a planned event—“Very much so,” said his mother, Isabel Kallman—and occurred when the timing was right, on a fine spring day, after an intense 29-hour labor.

His parents were both Ivy Leaguers and lifelong New Yorkers, people with “a lot of self-starter DNA,” as Craig Kallman said, “wired for an insane pace.” Craig by that time had become co-chairman of Atlantic Records, and Isabel had recently stepped down from her 100-hour-a-week senior-vice-president position at Salomon Smith Barney. Given who they were and the known, ancient history of parenthood, what happened then perhaps should not have surprised them. Isabel, who had always looked after herself (“I am very independent”), suddenly had complete responsibility for someone else—a baby who, according to Craig, was “nonstop motion, a complete tour de force, the Energizer Bunny 24/7, unbelievable!” A baby who, according to Isabel, became “the hardest job I ever tackled.”

This April day was, in fact, little Ryland’s 2nd birthday, and reflecting on that in the doorway of the Kallmans’ Upper East Side apartment, Isabel “was just realizing, two years ago, I pulled an all-nighter.” But no time to think more, because she had the party to prepare for and meetings to attend and right now a music class with Ryland. She picked up her son—a bundle of curls, big blue eyes, and on a finger, as he said, a “booger!” “Yes, booger,” mumbled Isabel, whisking him away, and soon they were in traffic together, where Ry-Ry wanted a cookie, wanted to take his shoes off, where little Ry-Ry started to cry because he could not touch the green traffic lights. Isabel puckered up to baby-talk with her son—“I know you want to touch the light, sweetheart. I’m so sorry you can’t touch it”—and then crisply explained her methodology. “I try to use something called ‘empathetic communication’ with him,” she said. “I try to intellectualize the process, because it’s easy to get mad.”

The Sunshine Kids’ Club, on East 83rd, is a bright little slot in the wall where Isabel rushed in with Ryland in her arms. She was soon among others of her kind, dancing about, tipping over to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot.” This sort of thing is fun for the children, allowed the club’s director of admissions, “and a little fun for the mothers.” She was a gray-haired woman named Carol Zuckerman, and outside the music room, she spoke of the changes in parenting since she had little ones. Many people in the city wait to have children until they have high-powered jobs, she said, “so when they finally do have a child and stay home, a lot of that same intensity is transferred home. Do you know what I mean? They put more energy into it than my generation. Like what’s the best stroller, the best nursery school, the best classes—all of it. It’s not like everyone doesn’t want the best for their child, but to me, it seems people these days have a more professional attitude toward raising their children. A lot of it is very intellectually thought-out and very scheduled, almost like they have a business plan for their children.”

“But I don’t want you to think this is a knock on them,” she went on, “because they’re under so much pressure from the media and other parents.”

Zuckerman was still speaking as mothers began streaming out, and she paused to remark on Isabel’s weight loss and to ask her secret. “It’s just called work and mommyhood,” Isabel answered shortly, as she rushed off to a meeting.

The meeting involved the business she was founding: an all-day, all-night, on-demand cable channel where “mothers seeking excellence,” according to press releases, would be able to find “the latest, best-of-breed information” on everything from preconception and child development to how women can “maintain their style, sophistication and sense-of-self upon entering mommyhood.” Isabel’s channel, Alpha Mom TV, was for “the new breed of ‘go to’ moms who are constantly looking to be ahead of the curve and ‘in the know’ on the newest innovations, hippest trends and research breakthroughs.”

Isabel, with a saucy wag of the head, would later describe the typical member of this breed as, “you know, the maven of mommyhood, the leader of the pack.”

“Definitely dominant,” she said.

Which didn’t sound too cuddly, but as Isabel’s business partner, Vicky Germaise, explained, that was the point. The logo of Alpha Mom TV is not pink and blue but red, white, and black, she said. If not to become strong, for what should a modern mother strive? “Soft and mushy mom?” Come on, said Vicky. “Betty Crocker’s over!”

Isabel Kallman at home with her son and nanny.Photo: Gail Albert Halaban

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.”

Ryland's birthday party.Photo: Gail Albert Halaban

The first day on the job, as expected, was agony—and then she met the boss. Her son was “very needy,” “very demanding,” she says. He was this tyrannical alien who not only wouldn’t let her read the paper or muse about herself but wouldn’t let her take a shower, wouldn’t let her get dressed. “I couldn’t even have a proper lunch!” Ryland just cried and cried, and Isabel, desperate to please him but not knowing how, cried, too. She felt an isolation, a loss of independence, a helplessness she hadn’t known since she was a child. “I didn’t have the maternal instinct at all,” she says, and Isabel was only glad her parents were there when she realized that her one true instinct was to run.

To all the best-selling scolds who say we expect too much of Mother, the new improved Mama says, if anything, the goalposts have been set too low.

She did not run away, of course—failure was not an option. Isabel set off instead to do the homework she had not done before. Craig marveled at how she dived “into motherhood in such a devoted way, not dissimilar to how she approached her job.” Reading the most current texts, consulting the hottest experts, she began learning how to be a mother to 21st-century children. No expert told her not to worry about it, just to do as she pleased. They talked instead about the right way of parenting: that you don’t, these days, just prop your child in a playpen with a bottle or put him out in the yard like a pet. You breast-feed him. You play with him. You wear him on your body so that he gets used to your voice, develops language skills more quickly, “becomes,” says Isabel, “a smarter baby.” But she could never pull that one off. The more Isabel’s child demanded of her, the more she went out to learn. And the more she learned, the more she was told to stay close—and the more people she hired who could do that for her.

This was motherhood’s magic bullet, the most valuable lesson Isabel learned in her studies: “It takes a village.” Isabel quickly hired one. Her son was just 2 weeks old when she retained a night nurse. When he was 5 months, “I started realizing I needed to get out more,” and she brought on a nanny. Then after about a year, when she started working, “I obviously needed more help,” so she hired a regular babysitter as well—also often employing her father and an Alpha Mom intern.

Isabel began to see that all things were possible again, that with her village, she could pursue the extraordinary goals she had both for herself and for her child. While the village watched him, she set out to master motherhood. And the more she learned, the more “empowered” she felt, until at last, other mothers were pitching parenting questions to her and saying, when she replied, “Oh, that’s a great answer!” Isabel, regaining control of her life, and being who she was, could not help but notice the weakness all around and wonder if there wasn’t more for her to do—whether she might not make a career out of being a mother.

Buh-bye, sweetheart!” she calls to Ryland. “Mommy has to go. Mommy has to go!” And away she goes, in heels and slinky dress.

Craig thought it marvelous that Isabel’s job and baby might dovetail “so miraculously together.” He suggested that she talk to his old senior vice-president of marketing, Vicky Germaise, who had burned out on music and needed something new to sell. Over lunch, Isabel told her all about her “crisis of confidence” and how it had led her to “this new population I never knew existed” of mothers. Now she saw fearful mothers everywhere. “This is universal!” said Isabel. The question was, how could they make some money here?

Vicky had only Yorkies to love, but being somewhat alpha herself, she immediately saw the potential. “A series of ‘Aha!’ moments” followed, said Isabel, and together, they were soon conceiving another baby. Due diligence revealed parenting books, parenting Websites, parenting magazines—but on television, said Vicky, “a tremendous void.” There was no parenting channel, they found, because parents are a segmented audience, with diverse interests. No one had figured out how to serve them with linear programming, until Vicky called up someone who knew something about video-on-demand and who explained that VOD allows a viewer to watch anything, anytime. Working mothers who sleep like Isabel could watch a mothering show of their choice even at 3 A.M. Vicky and Isabel knew they were onto something. When they hit upon the name, Vicky remembers, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This feels so right.’ ” And when they took name and idea to Madison Avenue, “without exception, they loved it!” says Vicky.

The sales job became just “a war of endurance,” Vicky says—a matter of time. Turning again to her “golden Rolodex,” she contacted an acquaintance at Comcast, the country’s largest cable carrier, and there, too, executives “flipped” for the idea. The women poured in their own money, refusing outside investors, Isabel says, because “we need to have control of our company—as much control as possible.” The channel is like the baby, she says. “You want it to succeed, and you do what you have to, to make it succeed.”

The deal with Comcast is just the first domino in what Vicky quite seriously describes as a plan to “conquer the world.” In May, Alpha Mom TV became accessible, at no extra charge, to some 8.5 million Comcast subscribers around the country (“a tremendous value for our digital cable customers,” says Matt Strauss, Comcast’s VP of on-demand content), including viewers in New Jersey and Connecticut. Though you can’t see Alpha Mom TV in Manhattan yet, the company is in negotiations with Time Warner Cable and is throwing local promotional events (a “mommy makeover” with Liz Lange on June 28 at the Loews Cineplex on 34th Street), expecting to offer service here by the end of the year. The brand that began with screaming Ryland will eventually sprawl, if they are right, from television to radio, to broadband and wireless, and on into toys, beauty products, books, and music (adult-friendly lullabies like remakes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Rock Lobster”). The end goal is for the Alpha Mom brand to become like Oprah, who is so “inspiring,” says Vicky, so “empowering,” and who is “the template for success in media today.” Vicky divulged that she and Isabel have even invented a term “to refer to our eventual world dominance”—AlphaMOMnimedia.

Which leaves to be explained what it is that Isabel unleashes upon the earth. Her vision of national motherhood is grim: these “women who live in the Snow Belt, and they have just one car, and the husband drives off with it in the morning.” Isabel has known isolation like that. She wants to do something to help. Her channel will be like a support group or a church—the church of the immaculate perfection. Goal-oriented parents can go there and find comfort that they’re not alone, that others are also struggling to grow the perfect child. They’ll be told what to do and what not to do and how to do it better—discover how to boost their newborn’s coordination and strength; learn massage that “can help babies eat and sleep better”; hear “research-based explanations of how children separate and attach”; and obtain guidance on “raising overachievers.”

And when inevitably they’re frustrated in their goals, they’ll find programs for that, too: some calm high priestess of motherhood, some Oprah-meets-Martha image of perfection, coming on to absolve them for failing to be perfect today and bolstering their resolve to be more perfect tomorrow. You can do it, the message goes. You can raise “best of breed” children without ever losing your “sense of self.”

Isabel seems truly to believe all of this will help. (How she views herself is perhaps evident in a show called Alpha Mommy Moguls—The Altruists, concerning several mothers who were “inspired to develop businesses which reach out to other moms.”) She herself found solace in data, and she can’t seem to imagine that her television channel won’t have the same effect. “Alpha Mom TV is not meant to bring more anxiety,” she says, but it is after all Isabel’s channel, reflecting Isabel’s goals. Simply by calling herself and her network Alpha Mom, she presents an ideal and promotes the notion that perfection can be achieved. Isabel ratchets up the tension; more mothers go nuts. The work of Alpha Mom TV, like that of the church, will be to allay the fear it creates.

Isabel herself is still caught up in that cycle. She still has days that she’s incredibly insecure and worries that she’s not doing it right—as when Ryland was rejected from the Harvard of 2-year-old programs, and Isabel wept. In such moments, she turns again to the experts, such as the psychoanalyst Michelle Ascher Dunn, whom Isabel has recruited to host several Alpha Mom programs. At a recent meeting with Dunn, Isabel arrives with a list of issues she wants addressed, including “exactly what it is that a child needs from a mother?” “What happens if you can’t find your inner mother voice?” And “what happens if the child doesn’t develop? Does that mean you’re a bad parent?” On this last question, Isabel waits for an answer. Dunn explains that babies are strong, elastic; that “human DNA is very hearty”; that it’s really hard to go wrong as a parent. Isabel takes this in, clicking her pen. She proposes a segment called “The Just-Right Mother,” but Dunn demurs on the title, explaining that a mother cannot be “just right” to anyone but her baby. “You’re looking for that authentic attachment,” Dunn says. “Oh, I love that!” says Isabel, leaning forward. “This is key, Michelle, all very key. And we need to put it out there. And I think you’re the right person to convey that message.”

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.

Isabel wants Ryland to be happy, and he can’t be happy unless he’s in control. Thus, when he wants a cookie, she gives it to him. Thus, when in the car he wants his shoes off three blocks from the destination, she takes them off. Thus, she’s over there in her office.

Craig worries that Ryland’s getting spoiled. Isabel cites research saying that spoiling is an obsolete notion, that “a close parent relationship fosters independence.”

On this, Craig really must stand firm.

“The world revolves around Ryland,” he says. “I was the master of the house. Then he was born, and I’m no longer king of the house.”

Isabel could not believe her ears: “Craig said that? I would have said he was never king of the house!”

The boy’s 2nd-birthday party was staged in a fashionable Upper East Side coffee shop called DT-UT. At the last minute, Isabel learned the place had been double-booked with another party, and so she hurried over, with the village close behind, to stake out the best spot. Frantically hanging decorations, Isabel was lucky her babysitter was there to catch her when the table she stood on turned over. Thumbtacks scattered everywhere. “Scour the area!” said Isabel.

The place soon filled with children like Ryland and mothers like Isabel—women who described themselves as “proactive,” “dynamic,” handling “the job.” The Alpha Mom scurried about ministering to them—putting on hats, handing out maracas.

Craig stood back, alternately attached to his cell phone and the video camera. Between takes, he said he admires the drive, the intelligence, the “challenge” of Isabel but that the balance of marriage, child, and big career was a real “high-wire act.” And there was one more thing he wanted to say about balance: Isabel had given him a talking-to, and he truly never was king of the house. Their household had been a democracy, he said, and was now an autocracy. “There’s no question Ryland runs the house.”

The party would be a success if Ryland had fun, both parents agreed. “The little prince,” as his father called him, arrived as on a throne in the arms of his grandmother, and was transferred to the arms of his babysitter, with the nanny looking on, saying, “He’s such a lovely boy.”

He was showered with age-appropriate toys that would further his development. The guitarist sang “The Hokey-Pokey,” and Isabel tried to shake a little. Later, she would say the whole thing was a bit “overstimulating for me,” and that at such times, she repeats to herself “the mantra ‘focus, focus, focus’ ” and tries to remember the message of Alpha Mom TV: “You can get through it. Everything’s going to be all right.”

She picked her son up for the cutting of the cake and leaned over so he could dip a hand in. As Ryland wiped frosting across her sleek black shirt, Isabel was smiling for the cameras.

Empire of the Alpha Mom