Archive for Sunday, November 24, 2002

Author examines career woman

Men don’t fare well in ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’

November 24, 2002


Like most working mothers, Kate Reddy wouldn't read this book.

It's not that she doesn't want to read about herself or couldn't use the laughs. She isn't afraid of harsh words - her inner critic never punches out - or of name calling ("Mother Inferior" and "double agent," to name just two).

It's just that Reddy - one of the highest-paid, most successful fund managers in London - just couldn't afford the time.

"When I wasn't at work, I had to be a mother; when I wasn't being a mother, I owed it to work to be at work. Time off for myself felt like stealing. The fact that no man I knew ever felt that way didn't help."

With those words, Allison Pearson, author of "I Don't Know How She Does It," invites us into the overheated room that is the career woman/mother's life, a place that smells of compromise and half-lies and is wallpapered in guilt-edged to-do lists.

Sounds pathetic, doesn't it? Well, it is sometimes, but mostly it's loaded with laughter and loathing (for her boss, her in-laws, her nanny, her male colleagues and herself).

When the novel opens, Kate is careening around her dual career-motherhood track, recklessly cutting another corner as she fakes a homemade pie for her 5-year-old daughter's holiday concert, after arriving home about 1 a.m. from a trans-Atlantic business trip. Her architect husband, Richard, watches warily, urging her to slow down.

But it's this high-speed clash of cultures, expectations and genders that gives the book its reason and its rhythm, especially for the more tightly written first half.

"Stress. Success. They even rhyme," Kate muses on one of the many pages where she's bemoaning either her stress-induced eczema or her inability to sleep when she needs it the most.

"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."

But even when she does fall into bed, her to-do lists (which end many chapters) - make hair appointment, buy hamster, lunch with best friend, hire trainer, replace carpet, entertain, respond to invitations - plague her and she has nightmares about the Court of Motherhood, with its increasingly critical male judges.

Men don't fare well in this novel. As colleagues, they are at worst insensitive, slave-driving chauvinists and, at best just clueless about the world outside of high finance (one man's dying wife leaves him a 28-page memo on "How the Family Works"). As spouses, they are well-meaning, but not above mistakenly dressing 1-year-old Ben in the doll's clothes. Then there's Kate's alcoholic father and her acerbic cab driver, Winston, who provides tough-love therapy:

"You think I want to be you?" Winston snorts. "You don't even want to be you."

For a male, Winston gets a light treatment, as does Kate's husband Rich, who is understanding and patient (to a point), but often dismissed as yet another man who doesn't know what it's like to try to live to diametrically opposed and perfect lives: ambitious career woman and loving mother.

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