I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother
by Allison Pearson
(Knopf, $23, PG) ISBN 0-375-41405-3
This book made me laugh out loud so many times I lost count. It also made me cry, and seethe with resentment It made me think too. Put all of those reactions together and you’ve got a 5-heart book that I suspect will create quite a buzz in both reading circles and talk radio shows alike.

“I don’t know how you do it, Kate!” is a barbed compliment when it’s delivered just a little too sweetly by a perfect homemaker mother to a working mom. Kate Reddy has just attempted to disguise the store-bought mince pies she brought to her daughter Emily’s school play as something she slaved over for hours. Of course, it’s not a total lie - she was up at 1:37 a.m. the night before, beating the pies with a rolling pin to give them that pleasing homemade appearance. As Kate notes, things really haven’t gotten easier for women since her mother’s generation. “Women used to have time to make mince pies and had to fake orgasms. Now we can manage the orgasms, but have to fake the mince pies. And they call this progress.”

Kate’s life is a continuous juggling act of her two children, her charming husband Richard, her friends and her exciting but stressful job as a London investment banker. Everything is fine as long as there are no unanticipated crises and Kate doesn’t expect to have time to sleep, relax or have a conversation with her husband. There’s guilt, of course, that her children are more comfortable with the nanny than with their own mother, but she’s working hard to give them the financial security she never had as a child. The specter of growing up with a father who was an alcoholic drifter is hard to banish.

But all of the balls Kate juggles so carefully start to hit the ground. Work pressures are escalating. Emily’s objections to Kate’s long hours are becoming more emphatic. Richard keeps trying to have a serious talk. And an American client who writes funny, flirty e-mails suddenly looks very appealing. Kate starts to wonder if she really can have it all, when she has no time left to enjoy all she already has.

I don’t know how she does it, but debut author Allison Pearson manages to nail every kernel of truth about the life of a working mother, especially that feeling of being a “double agent” who is never fully successful in either area of her life. She has a keen eye for the differences between generations and between genders. Modern men, like Richard, are eager to be involved in the parenting process, but according to Kate, they just aren’t capable of managing all of the details of the household. “Do I believe in the equality between the sexes?” Kate isn’t sure. “They could give you good jobs and maternity leave, but until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper the project was doomed. Women carry the puzzle of family life in their heads, they just do.”

On the work side, she also notes the double standards that prevent women from reaching the top. Men who keep pictures of their kids on their desks are seen as wholesome and healthy; women who do the same are accused of not being fully committed to the job. In the high-pressure career she has chosen, Kate constantly battles to be taken seriously. When she ends up mentoring a young woman who has just graduated from business school, Kate is forced to take a second look at the inequities she takes for granted.

As a working mom who is clearly on the Mommy Track, I can relate to Kate’s dilemma. I liked her sense of humor, her professional competence and her tenderness towards her children. She’s no saint, though. If I were a stay-at-home mom, I might have been offended by her attitude towards the super-moms she calls the “Muffia.” However, she does empathize with her co-worker’s wife who gave up a career for her children, so she obviously has respect for the choices SAHM’s have made; some of her disdain is clearly the flip side of her guilt. Also I give men a little more credit than Kate does (my husband has been known to add toilet paper to the shopping list on occasion). And finally, there were times when I wanted to shake her and say “Oi, Kate, you have a full-time nanny and a housecleaner, what are you bitching about?”

But more than anything else, I wanted this woman who so clearly elucidates the problem to find the answer. And, after too many dramatic events occur in quick succession, Kate does make a major change in her life. Is it the final solution or are there even more changes ahead? Pearson ends the book on an uncertain but hopeful note. Kate appears to be moving in the right direction for herself and her family, but the wistful conclusion suggests that the struggle continues.

Should Kate have been “punished” more for the times she neglected her family? Or should the author have provided an easier way for Kate to have her cake and eat it too? This book could engender hours of debate, thanks to Allison Pearson’s skill at putting these issues on the table so clearly, comprehensively and hilariously. Full of “oh-my-god-this-is-so-true” moments, I Don’t Know How She Does It is the best book I’ve read in 2002.

--Susan Scribner

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