I Don't Know How She Does It
Frankly, I'm not sure how Allison Pearson, a British journalist with two kids, managed to write this novel --- it's clear from her account that time is the scarcest commodity in a working mother's life and that the word multitasking doesn't even begin to cover the controlled chaos she oversees.
In any case, I'm glad she did write it, even though my working-mother days are over (and were never exactly desperate, given three stepchildren well past toddlerhood and a husband accustomed to being in charge). The story of Kate Reddy, financial whiz in The City (the British equivalent of Wall Street) and mother of two, is terrifically quick, amusing and (to use a dreadfully outdated term) right-on. Discussing gender equality with her reluctant male coworkers, she feels "like a vegan at an abbatoir." Visiting her Yorkshire in-laws, she realizes that whereas at work they think she's "deviant for having a life outside the office," people here think she's "a freak for having a job instead of a life."
Kate's breezy ironic tone and madcap escapades make her a Bridget Jones for working mothers, but I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT aspires to be more than high-level Chick Lit. Although it may not be exactly literary, it is emphatically literate and breathlessly clever (especially the emails between Kate and her female friends, and Kate and the American client who becomes a sort of virtual lover). Further, it is almost sociological in its depiction of a late twentieth-century female so keen to be the perfect mom as well as the perfect career woman that she fakes homemade pies and jams with store-bought. Kate is a self-described double agent ("[We] lie for a living") dashing back and forth --- mentally as well as physically --- between her job and her kids, with a lunge at her husband now and then, guilty and angry most of the time. Every chapter ends with a MUST REMEMBER list --- Kate's crazed/hilarious/poignant messages to herself as she attempts over and over (in vain) to get a handle on the competing sectors of her life.
Now this material isn't exactly new. I'm not talking about Kate as a close relation of Bridget Jones; I'm talking about her as a descendant of the feminism of the '60s and '70s, with its rage over the double standard (nailed beautifully by Pearson in a scene in which a male colleague of Kate's leaves early for a child's swimming event and is practically deified); its identification of the double burden of housework/child care on top of one's professional duties; its insistence (as in Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE) that women need and deserve jobs outside the home; its riveting novels (MEMOIRS OF AN EX-PROM QUEEN; FEAR OF FLYING) that made every woman who read them feel, at last, that her predicament was recognized and her anger validated.
True, I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT is stylistically distinct from these feminist forebears, with many of the typical features of recent popular fiction (brand names, email screwups, househusbands, nannies), and Kate has a more brilliant career than most women could aspire to 30 years ago. But the issues are basically the same. This is depressing news, and in fact there is a wistfulness to Kate Reddy's story despite the comedy --- a deep-down sadness that suggests the working-mother dilemma is not really capable of solution. Someone always loses.
Pearson is wonderfully skillful at recreating the tension when parents socialize with childless couples (Kate has one of this species for Sunday lunch, and everything that can go wrong of course does), or when mothers with careers encounter mothers who make a career of motherhood (a group she identifies as "the Muffia --- the powerful stay-at-home cabal of organized mums").
She also manages a particularly difficult trick: telling the truth about men without launching into petulant tirades against them. She has Good Guys in the book (Kate's husband, a friend from work, her American client), though there are many more crassly chauvinist ones. But Kate's basic take on gender relations is bitterly realistic. Growing up working-class in the North of England, with a feckless dad and self-sacrificing mum, she realizes that "although the men … took all the leading roles, it was the women who were running the show." "… It was a matriarchy pretending to be a patriarchy to keep the lads happy. I always thought that was because where I came from people didn't get much of an education. Now I think that's what the whole world's like, only some places hide it better than others."
Despite such grim moments --- and because of them, too --- this book was always a sharp pleasure to read. I made it last as long as I could, but eventually I finished, and Kate Reddy's candid, yearning voice vanished from my daily commute. I am bereft. Hurry up and write another one, Allison Pearson!
Meanwhile, if you are now or ever have been a working mother, you need I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT --- to make you feel less guilty and alone, and to make you laugh (and cry) in rueful self-recognition.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011
I Don't Know How She Does It
- Publication Date: August 26, 2003
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Anchor
- ISBN-10: 0375713751
- ISBN-13: 9780375713750