A Bottomless Pit of Maternal Guilt

I Don't Know How She Does It

A Bottomless Pit of Maternal Guilt

I Don't Know How She Does It

A Bottomless Pit of Maternal Guilt
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 22 2002 11:47 AM

I Don't Know How She Does It

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Dear Karen,

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So, I opened Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It ready for a good time. I knew this British novel about "The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother" was being billed as "Bridget Jones grows up." I looked forward to zingy one-liners all over the place, with a core of womanly wisdom and a sprinkling of apt social commentary. Excellent, I thought. Can't wait to meet Kate.

Here's what I liked about her. She has a way with neologisms, like "the muffia," her name for those ferociously attentive stay-at-home moms who flaunt their home-baked goods at school events, making working moms like Kate resort to "distressing" their store-bought mince pies to make them look homemade. And those lists Kate makes of things she "Must Remember" are often a hoot. ("Talk with Paula outlining firm new approach to children's haircuts, timekeeping, etc. Talk with Rod Task outlining firm new approach to role with clients, i.e., I am not their emergency geisha! … Personal shopper how much? Pelvic floor squeeeze. Make icing for Christmas cake: too late, buy roll-on stuff. … Nappies, bottles, Toy Story video, smear test!!! Highlights. Hamster?")

Other than that, Kate and the chronicle of her daily time-management problems that constitute the novel just ended up bugging me. I know that the predicaments of working mothers, and the time problem especially, are real, and humor seems like a great way to approach them. So why did Pearson turn this material, full of timeless psychological conflicts and a deep-rooted cultural quandary, into an exaggerated plea for our sympathy—sympathy for the type of woman who's among the most God damn lucky ever to have walked the earth? Why, exactly, are we being asked to feel sorry for a well-off hedge-fund manager with a husband, a clever 6-year-old, and an adorable 1-year-old? Her architect husband is attentive to her and the kids—but whoa, he's a little spacey and not much for straightening up the house. Her nanny seems bonded with the kids, but, you know, she requires extra time off and extra money. And most shocking and distressing of all—the men she works with at a fancy, hard-charging London financial firm are really sexist. They say mean things. Also, when she has her Calgon-take-me-away bath at the end of a long day (did you notice that a lot of the details of the novel are strangely derivative of tired pop-culture images of the working mom?), she does so in a decrepit bathroom—we're supposed to believe she doesn't have enough money to fix it up.

There's something manipulative about the whole package. If Pearson's not looking for sympathy, she's looking for applause: Kate, we're constantly reminded as if it's some sort of unusual achievement, really loves her kids. She's also really good at her very difficult job, even in the face of constant nuisances and outright hostility from her caricatured co-workers (what's going on with that borderline-offensive bitter-spinster human resources director, Celia Harmsworth?). Kate, who can't spare a minute most days, starts having an e-mail affair with an American client who is like a bizarre gender reversal of the kind of fantasy character you find in novels by men—gorgeous and completely smitten with our heroine, as well as unattached and willing to have a time-consuming but ultimately unconsummated long-distance affair with a married person with two children. By this time, I just gave up trying to enjoy the book altogether. It was hopelessly out of control, and not in a fun way. If it's supposed to be satire, even at its funniest it's not satirizing anything. If it's meant as some sort of comment on the state of our society, where's the news, or the new perspective?

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Maybe the crucial point is that Kate does all of this to herself, twists herself into a knot out of a bottomless pit of maternal guilt. Pearson makes a few gestures toward explaining Kate's childhood as the source of her anguish—she has a needy, scheming alcoholic father, and there was never enough money. But the book keeps turning our attention away from the psychological dimensions of Kate's problem toward some kind of half-baked social commentary.

All Pearson's insights into women's conundrums come off to me as the equivalent of sound bites—catchy, sometimes smart, but ultimately forgettable. I wasn't surprised to see that she's a columnist for the Daily Telegraph—her prose is full of those wiseacre Maureen Dowdian rhetorical reversals that work, most of the time at least, in a 1,000-word column but are thin gruel for a novel. ("People say the trouble with professional women of my generation is that we don't know how to behave with servants. Wrong. The problem with professional women of my generation is that we are the servants—forelock-tuggingly grateful for any domestic help, for which we pay through the nose, while struggling to hold on to the master's job ourselves.") The ending, too, doesn't offer anything original or thought-provoking, but it seems to celebrate its own ingenuity. Basically, Pearson's solution for women like Kate is—hold on to your horses—don't work a 70-hour-a week job as a hedge-fund manager, find some other, more parenthood-friendly kind of work. Also: Remember that women are so much nicer than men to work with (well, except those jealous old spinsters). It all seemed so familiar, and then I remembered: It's a retread of Baby Boom, that Diane Keaton '80s movie in which the corporate shark inherits a baby, is transformed into a more caring person, and retires to Vermont to start a baby food company. Kate's version of the Baby Boom maternal-capitalism solution is to take over a dollhouse factory. This unbearably cute ending doesn't answer any of the questions the novel is asking.

I should stop here and ask you for a reality check, Karen—since you've not only written a novel about this very topic, you're a mother, and I'm not (or not quite yet). Because the thing is, I read this book while pregnant—my baby is due in late January—and even though on some days I'm terrified about falling into a Kate-like crazed existence, I have my own ideas about how I'll manage. Am I just deluded?

My partner and I have become really annoyed by the many, many people who say things like, "Oh ho, you don't know what you're in for!" Or, any time a baby cries nearby, "Are you ready for that? Heh heh heh." This book, to me, is the equivalent of those people. I don't know, the human race has managed to reproduce itself for a pretty long time now. Why, all of a sudden, are we supposed to see it as some enormous achievement to raise your offspring? Have things really gotten that bad, or are we all just turning into spoiled narcissists who think life is supposed to be one long glory ride? Or have I just plunged myself into a willfull, pregnancy-hormonal stew over this book?

All the best,
Maria