If you haven’t heard of I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother, then you probably don’t have kids. I do, or else I wouldn’t be reviewing this bestselling novel from British newspaper columnist Allison Pearson. It’s a great big literary truffle, served on a shiny silver platter to upscale working moms who long to see their stress-ridden lives transformed into glib chick lit. I laughed so hard I cried, it touched me here, here, and here—or at least that’s the idea.
There’s another way to read I Don’t Know How She Does It, as a confused fairy tale for a new generation of postfeminist moms. Postfeminist in the sense that they have reaped feminism’s impressive but limited benefits: more mobility in the workplace, but unreliable and exorbitant child-care options. More responsibility at the job, but also no slack in domestic obligations. After she’s spent the wee hours “distressing” a packet of supermarket-bought mince pies in order to make them look homemade for her daughter’s school Christmas party, would-be supermom Kate Reddy says, “Women used to have time to make mince pies and had to fake orgasms. Now we can manage the orgasms, but we have to fake the mince pies. And they call this progress.” Well, yes, sort of.
It’s progress that, even as childbearing becomes the province of the New York Times‘ Sunday Styles (Sarah Jessica Parker and Jane Pratt as the new “glamour moms”), the literature of motherhood continues to broaden. I Don’t Know now sits on the bookshelf alongside the emotionally intricate short stories of Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life, Rachel Cusk’s darkly beautiful postpartum memoir, A Life’s Work, and the outraged polemic of Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, all published within the last year and a half. Pearson’s novel is the glossiest of the bunch, overflowing with funny lists, chummy e-mails, and a self-deprecating tone that perfectly replicates that of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Most working moms will giggle in recognition at Kate Reddy’s time-starved observations: “When I was younger I wanted to go to bed with other people; now that I have two children my fiercest desire is to go to bed with myself for a whole twelve hours.” That’s because this novel started as a newspaper column, where Pearson collected women’s real stories and skillfully stitched them into fiction. If she had written this as nonfiction, it might have come off as resentful and whiny rather than Miramax-ready.
Pearson touches some very raw nerves, but generally cloaks them in flip one-liners and stagy set pieces, like the running gag where Kate stands accused in the “Court of Motherhood.” The central dilemma of I Don’t Know comes down to “quality time”—whether it’s possible for a woman to fulfill both her own and her children’s needs. In Kate’s case the answer seems to be no. A high-powered investment banker, she’s constantly jetting off to distant shores; most of her interactions with baby Ben and five-year-old Emily involve warding off their all-engulfing neediness. “Babies never extend any credit. . . . You can answer that cry a hundred times, and on the hundred and first they’ll still have you court-martialed for desertion.” For a woman with so little spare time, Kate wastes a lot of pages worrying about what other people think of her. She pretends that she bakes to impress stay-at-home moms; tells her mother-in-law that Emily likes broccoli, even though she doesn’t eat at home often enough to know; and fibs to clients to cover her ass.
Although charming enough on the surface, Kate becomes increasingly unsympathetic as she wallows in self-pity, whining, “Is it possible to die of ingratitude?” After all, she’s hardly your overworked, underpaid Average Mom: She’s a very wealthy businesswoman who thinks nothing of grabbing a designer dress or three to cheer herself up, who has a full-time nanny and a husband seemingly willing to take up her slack in the domestic realm. Kate’s voice takes on an unpleasantly superior tone: “People say the trouble with professional women of my generation is that we don’t know how to behave with servants. Wrong,” Kate bleats. “The trouble with professional women of my generation is that we are the servants—forelock-tuggingly grateful to any domestic help, for which we pay through the nose, while struggling to hold down the master’s job ourselves.”
Pearson depicts this relationship between mom and nanny as akin to emotional warfare (which it usually is). Kate vehemently resents the nanny for invading her turf, and even Kate’s laid-back husband suggests that Paula is “lazy, moody, and shrinks his socks if he asks her to do anything outside her job description.” As Kate concludes, “Paula is not ideal. But what is ideal? Mummy staying at home and laying down her life for small feet to walk over. Would you do that? Could I do that?”
Another recent bestseller, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries, makes a fascinating companion piece. Its heroine, Nanny, is a middle-class girl putting herself through college with baby-sitting money. On play dates, Nanny meets with less fortunate childcarers, women who left their families in the third world to make money as footservants to Upper East Side toddlers. Nanny is just passing through this world, which makes the novel scabrously funny instead of punishingly depressing. (Would Hollywood be throwing millions at the authors if Nanny was, say, a middle-aged Dominican immigrant?) Even so, her relationship with her employers is chilling. Nanny describes the “Holy Covenant of the Mother/Nanny relationship”: the pretense that “this is a pleasure—not a job.” Both sides are convinced they’re being exploited. Like Kate, Nanny’s employers think she’s lazy and unreasonable; meanwhile, they send her on personal errands and expect her to miss her college graduation so she can accompany them to Nantucket.
The Nanny Diaries is all about laughing at rich people’s foibles. I Don’t Know How She Does It, on the other hand, relies on readers’ laughing at their own foibles as embodied by Kate Reddy. Several reviewers have held up Pearson’s syrupy ending as proof that women “can’t have it all.” The real world of working moms is too messy and open-ended for that kind of oversimplification. Besides, this either/or mentality focuses on the wrong questions, putting all the burden to figure it out on women—one that nearly crushes Kate, despite her financial advantages. The success of Pearson’s book—as uneven as it is—brings women’s whispered conversation to the general public, upping the stakes in this new era of mommy lit.