I Don't Know How She Does It

Women's Books on Motherhood
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 24 2002 3:18 PM

I Don't Know How She Does It

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Hey, Maria and Jodi:

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Would this novel work if it were set in the States? Setting aside for a moment the fact that I last worked in an office sometime during the other Bush administration, I concur with Maria, and not simply because we have sexual harassment laws in place, but also because American men tend to be aware that they need to be cautious about their behavior. Not that they don't behave that way, too, but because of the laws they're more likely to be discreet. I did read the piece in Salon about Kate behaving more in the manner of a journalist than a hedge fund manager, but that wasn't a problem for me. I thought Pearson did a fantastic job of making Kate's world believable, and that's all she has to do. It's not nonfiction; and anyway, since when do we require the professional folk who inhabit the high-rises of our pop cultural world to behave as they do in real life?

Besides, we here on the West Coast are prohibited by state health regulations from bringing homemade food to school. You cannot believe the number of boxes of Ding Dongs I've delivered to my girls' school. Kate, move to Portland!

But look, look, look—and this is your excellent point, Maria!—look how we're dissecting this book! We're engaged in serious, intelligent analysis of a book that takes as its subject the challenges of being a contemporary mother. It's thrilling. I know from my own experience in publishing Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, which was reviewed respectfully but without enthusiasm, that issues surrounding motherhood are treated as genre writing. Once, a reviewer wondered aloud who the audience for the book was. (You'll notice I still don't even pretend to hope a guy would read my book; indeed, I'd be interested to hear from any men who've tackled I Don't Know How She Does It). Perhaps no American woman has yet written the great American motherhood novel; still, I tend to think a homegrown book about motherhood will be taken seriously by pundits only when it's written by someone named Jonathan or Michael. A notion, Maria, that feeds back into your point that there are a number of celebrated female British writers (may we add Jeanette Winterson to that list?) who are taken every bit as seriously as their male counterparts, which, generally speaking, is not the case in this country.

Can we talk about the ending now? It's a tribute to the strength of the first part of the book that the end feels like such a betrayal. I bought the character of Kate. I enjoyed her company. I thought she was smart and sassy. I loved the part where she remarked that Richard was only genuinely concerned about his kids's degree of cleanliness when his parents were coming over. There's the hilarious moment where he dresses the children to go out and has baby Ben in a tiny apricot-colored onesie that belongs to one of Emily's dolls. Kate is irate. He answers that if she's so critical, she can do it herself. And that's just the point: She shouldn't have to criticize; he should be able to do this simple thing right without her nagging him.

This is the crux of the problem, the one I and countless other women who expect their partners to help out have had—a problem that seems baked into our DNA and marinated in either testosterone or estrogen. Of this dilemma my own beloved says, "A woman can ask a man to do something, or she can tell him how to do it, but she can't do both." How is this impasse resolved? I thought Pearson would tell us, but she didn't seem to even try to address the terrific questions she set up. And the problem with making Kate the child of an alcoholic, with her issues of control and perfectionism, is that quitting her job won't solve these problems.

A further insult to those of us—men included—who are the family breadwinners is that Kate complains she can't quit because she supports the family and then … when it gets beyond bad … she quits! She quits, even though Richard doesn't get a better job. So, where's all the money coming from? Ah, they sold their Hackney Heap and moved to Derbyshire, which is perhaps a suburb of the Shire, home of the Hobbits, where there is no such thing as a mortgage, vacations to Disneyland Paris, or even new shoes for growing children who need them, oh, about every 72 hours. OK, I thought, OK. They're living off the equity (not the smartest move for a woman who is allegedly a financial genius) … and then she takes over a dollhouse factory? There's a moneymaker! Oh, and what's Richard doing to contribute? Working at some nameless "arts center" (I love how once she quit, it was no trouble for him to quit—he was just an architect in London; a job apparently no more meaningful than flipping burgers).

In any case, ladies, thank you for the lively discussion, and thank you, Maria, for the suggestion of other books to read. Best of luck with the baby and here's some advice—it's part of the privilege of surviving motherhood, you get to press your wisdom on unsuspecting moms-to-be—don't listen to anyone else. You can do this.

Yours,
Karen

Karen Karbo is the author of Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me and a contributor to The Bitch in the House. Maria Russo is a senior editor at the New York Observer.

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