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How She Writes It: A Review of I Don’t Know How She Does It

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By Allison Pearson (Knopf, 2003; $13.95)

It's a cruel world. The many compete for limited resources controlled by the few, time marches on, and things don't work out as we had planned. In a cruel world, we laugh at the humiliations of others, which makes us feel, if briefly, safe and superior. "At least I'm not that foolish," we think, knowing that another time, we could be.

In I Don't Know How She Does It, Allison Pearson, formerly a columnist for the London Evening Standard (she's also the wife of New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane), masters the comedy of humiliation. Her heroine (if we can call her that), Kate Reddy, humiliates herself repeatedly as she tries to juggle her roles as wife, mother, and banker. And we're talking the humiliations that appear in one's nightmares: turning up for the big meeting with a sheer blouse over a sexy red bra, sending a provocative e-mail to an as-yet-unmet client rather than the friend for whom it was intended, that sort of thing.

Despite these work-related humiliations, however, for a while it looks as if her banker role is the only one she can maintain. Kate travels, leaving her two children, ages five and one, with a resentful but loving nanny. She flirts with clients, leaving her husband mystified and alone. She shirks sex with her husband, preferring the no-strings e-mail flirtation with a client that makes her feel sexy, funny, and, importantly, not a mom. In order to make herself feel more accomplished as a mother, she "distresses" mince pies to make them look home-baked for a school function; later she steams the labels off jam-jars and applies her own. While she's omni-competent at work, when she starts faking prowess as a super-mom, she simply appears shrill, controlling, and deluded.

Her story is a feminist nightmare. Having achieved success on men's terms, she continues to play their game competitively without even trying to change the system. She cynically explains her attitude to a trainee in an early scene:

Well, Momo, there are 60 fund managers here and only three of us are women. EMF does have an equal opportunities policy and as long as trainees like you keep coming through we're going to make that happen in practice. Secondly, I understand that the Japanese are working on a tank where you can grow babies outside the womb. They should have that perfected by the time you're ready to have children, Ms. Gumeratne, so we really will be able to have the first lunch-hour baby. Believe me, that would make everyone at Edwin Morgan Forster very happy.

The thing is, as Kate and her creator know, "growing" the baby is the least of it. It's her school-age daughter for whom she fakes the home-making skills; it's the tension between her perception of the "Muffia" -- "the powerful stay-at-home cabal of organized mums" -- and her self-perception as a successful businesswoman that motivates the novel. Not pregnancy and childbirth, then, but child rearing and family-creating are the real issues, the real tensions here.

The elision of that tension is fairly characteristic of the novel as a whole. There's a lot to like in Pearson's writing: it's funny, clever, and often hits awfully close to home, as in this scene:

There is a scream from Ben's room. A Hammer Horror scream. Third time tonight -- or is it fourth? Teething again... They're right to call it a broken night -- cracked and unmendable. You crawl back to bed and you lie there trying to do the jigsaw of sleep with half the pieces missing. Perhaps he'll go back by himself. Please let him go back. It's always around now, when the dark is silvery with the first inkling of light, that you start cutting desperate deals with God. "Oh, God, if you'll just let him go back to sleep, I'll..."
I'll what? I'll be a better mother, I'll never complain again, I'll savor every grain of sleep I get from now until my dying day.

The novel also has an undercurrent of feminist solidarity that's hard not to like. It's not overt -- in fact, Kate breaks lunch dates with her friends so often it's impossible to believe they keep on making them. Yet throughout the novel women come to Kate's aid in ways she barely recognizes. There's the woman who helps her with her pram cover in the rain, for example, whose sympathy is offered at precisely the right moment. There's Momo, Kate's assistant/trainee, whose incredulity at the absurdities working mothers are forced to swallow provides a nice reader-surrogate. And there are Kate's mother and sister, surprising allies even when Kate thinks she's lost them. This is the part of the book I like, the part that reminds me of the communities I belong to and rely on.

What's not to like is more complicated. It's the blithe acceptance of competition: competition in the workplace, among mothers, even between parents. Kate can't let her husband Rich be a good enough father because that would make her feel less like a good enough mother. She can't make friends with members of "the Muffia" because then she couldn't despise them, and she needs to despise them in order not to despise herself. This last competition is particularly pernicious in that it undercuts those moments of community I just mentioned. Not that women can't have both experiences, cooperation and competition, in one lifetime. But Kate is far more alert to the competition than the cooperation; the balance seems somehow off, and the cooperation simply slides in to save the day, leaving the assertion of fundamental competition unchallenged.

That said, I think Pearson is relatively alert to these issues, and she handles them in two ways. First, she tries to make Kate more sympathetic by giving her an alcoholic father and a philosophizing cab driver. These efforts feel forced to me, though, not quite earned. Kate may muse on how all the successful women she knows are in some way compensating for failed relationships with their fathers, but the pop-psychologizing doesn't really make her any more sympathetic; in fact, I found myself oddly sympathizing with her gregarious and somewhat pathetic father. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Kate is taught her lesson. I won't give away all the details here, but suffice it to say that at some level the "Muffia" wins -- or at least Kate changes her allegiance. This too, however, feels a little forced to me. While we all know Type A women who've given up their demanding careers and turned their attentions to the local PTA instead, Kate's inner life has been so completely intertwined with her career that it's hard to believe she can make the same switch; and indeed, she doesn't, quite.

I received this novel as a gift, as I think many mothers have lately, and I've even given a copy of it myself to a friend about to have her third child, a friend who's still firmly committed to her career. I don't think my friend who gave it to me was saying I can't have it all, nor was I saying that to my friend when I gave it to her. I think we're grateful that someone is trying to capture something like our experience in a novel. And even if it fails, it's got plenty along the way to capture our attention -- and plenty of humiliation to be grateful we've escaped.

Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.

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