Excerpted from I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. Copyright © 2002 by Allison Pearson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Allison Pearson, an award-winning journalist and author, is a staff writer for the London Daily Telegraph. Her first novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, became an international bestseller and was translated into thirty-two languages. It is now a major motion picture, adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna and starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Her most recent novel, I Think I Love You, is set to become a stage musical. Allison has given inspirational speeches around the world on women’s issues and she can be contacted via her website www.allisonpearson.co.uk. She is a patron of Camfed, a charity that supports the education of more than a million African girls (www.camfed.org). Pearson lives in Cambridge with her husband and their two children.
Q: This is your first novel. What made you decide to write it?
A: I read a Stress Survey in Good Housekeeping magazine two years ago. It said that all that most working women wanted for Mother’s Day was a bit of time to themselves. It also said they were too tired to have sex with their husbands and felt they were failing both at work and as a parent. I thought about my life and the lives of my friends with young children and I realized we were all being driven crazy by the pressure we were under juggling work and family. I thought it was a great subject - borderline farce, but full of incredibly poignant moments as you find yourself torn between responsibility to your children and the office. I wrote an article about working mothers in my opinion column in the London Evening Standard and I got literally hundreds of letters from women, all saying: That’s My Life! It felt as though I’d opened a small door onto a parallel world and on the other side was this huge amount of unacknowledged feeling.
Then, I attended a discussion on work-life balance at the London Business School and the professional women in the room started to share their stories. One lawyer stood up and said she had intercepted a memo from a senior partner in her firm which said: “Why does childbirth have to take so long?” The room erupted and I heard this dark, bitter laugh in my own head. It was Kate Reddy laughing. She didn’t have a name back then, but I knew she had a terrific sense of humour. Soon after, I began a weekly column in the London Daily Telegraph describing Kate’s adventures at work and at home. I’d like to say that I created her, but very soon she took over and wrote me, rather than me writing her!
Q: A new book about fertility and working mothers has startled American women making the cover of Time magazine this spring. (It is called, CREATING A LIFE: Professional Women and the Quest for Children by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.) Is it surprising to you that women might "miss" the chance to have children because they are so preoccupied with career-success?
A: It doesn’t surprise me at all. The mothers I interviewed when I was researching my book all said that in order to be successful in their careers, they needed to hide the fact that they had kids – one woman actually said her firm would be more forgiving if you were caught in possession of crack cocaine than children! Most of the women went to great lengths to hide the fact they had kids – never displaying photographs, never mentioning any childcare problems, always making a Man’s Excuse if they were late – ie, trouble with the car or the traffic rather than a sick baby.
Because the corporate culture is hostile to mothers who are deemed to Lack Commitment, there is no good time for a young ambitious person to have a baby so she postpones it and postpones it, always thinking it might get easier later on and it never does, and then it’s too late, which I think is a tragedy. One of the themes of I Don’t Know How She Does It is the miraculous love that babies bring with them, how they change your heart. The idea that women have missed out on that miracle because they felt that their employers wouldn’t tolerate it makes me feel incredibly sad.
Q: What do you recommend to working mothers who for financial or personal reasons want it all – to move up the corporate ladder AND have hands on care of their children?
A: I think that many mothers who work need to work – either for personal fulfillment or just to pay all those bills! But I don’t think that you can move up the corporate ladder and have hands-on care of the children – how can you? With the long hours demanded, you will be lucky if you make it home for bath – and bedtime. Most of the women I spoke to favoured some kind of flexible working where they could be home more and then work, often late into the night. I only wish that more businesses felt they could let women do that – it would be productive for all concerned. And humane too!
Q: It seems that you think that women are better at juggling or multi-tasking than men. Why do you think that is?
A: As Kate says, “Life is a road for a man, for women it’s a map.” I think we’re wired differently. If you give your husband more then three things to remember, in general, the smoke will start coming out of his ears! I guess it must be something to do with Early Woman being a gatherer – needing to go out and pick berries while keeping an ear out for the children and planning what they’re going to have for that Cave Party a week from Tuesday. Men hunted, women gathered: I think that’s why they can cut everything out except the task in hand and we find that hard.
Q: Is it possible to have two high-powered working parents in one family?
A: Well, we have two in our house, so it’s certainly possible, although definitely not easy! There are times when you are both insanely busy and the household is pushed to snapping point. It’s usually over something small, like why didn’t someone else notice we were out of kitchen towel or loo paper? What you need is really good childcare. As many of us now live far from our families, we can’t call on that great network of grandmas and aunts that would feel so much better than handing over your baby to a comparative stranger. I believe there comes a point when one person – it’s usually the woman – has to scale back her commitments. Not being able to make a home because there’s no time can feel frustrating and painful. You want to do it as well as your own Mum did!
Q: After all these years of a "women's movement," and the implementation of laws regarding sexual harassment, do you think workplaces are still sexist environments?
A: Obviously, things are much better than they were, but Kate Reddy’s world – the financial sector – has been slower to change than most. During my research, the women who were helping me on some of the guys emails that come out of these places – they were so specific they’d make a gynecologist want to go and lie down.
What I really think is that women were allowed into the workplace, but the workplace never stopped being male. The long-hours culture is male (women want to get home), the dick-swinging meetings culture is male (for men meetings are arenas of display, women want to make a quick decision and get on with their work), the politicking and oiling up to senior colleagues is male (most women don’t have the stomach for it). One banker I spoke too said, “If the office was full of estrogen instead of testosterone, you’d see a huge and beneficial change.”
Q: Kate Reddy feels fiercely competitive with the stay-at-home moms who she fears judge her for not being a good enough mother. You've observed a very real tension of modern day life – this competition/anxiety that makes working moms and stay-at-home moms view each other warily. Which group judges the other more harshly do you think?
A: I think it’s very complicated. As a working mother, I often look at stay-home Mums with a mixture of envy and anxiety – are they judging me for not being with my kids full-time? Then again, I have friends who have given up work and they look with envy and anxiety at people like me who get to leave the house and wear clean clothes and even, sometimes, sleep on their own in a hotel bed for a full 12 uninterrupted hours! In the book, Kate calls the stay-at-home women the Mothers Superior and classes herself a Mother Inferior, which is how I personally feel a lot of the time. I don’t think working mothers judge the stay-home mothers – they know they’ve made the big sacrifice to be with their kids – but I think some judging may go on the other way round.
Q: The enthusiasm for your novel has been immediate and passionate – certainly here at Knopf. Tell us about sale of the novel around the world and the sale of the movie rights.
A: I always thought that Kate would get a following in the States – the situation for working mothers seems to be very similar to the one in Britain. But I was amazed to have the rights to the book purchased in 13 countries, including Japan and Israel. Maybe the theme of stress is pretty universal right now?
The movie rights were sold last summer. I was building sandcastles with the kids on a beach when my mobile phone rang and it was my film agent, Norman North, ringing to say that Miramax had made an offer we couldn’t refuse. It was incredibly exciting, but then Thomas – he’s my youngest and was then nearly two, came over and celebrated Mummy’s major movie deal by depositing an ice-cream in my lap. I thought it was such a Kate moment!
Q: How did you find time to write this novel? Did it take a long time to write?
A: Being a mother of two small children and trying to write a novel is hell – like having a secret third child in the house that you have to go and play with when the other two have gone to bed. It took me a year; the first half when I was doing my other jobs, and then four months flat out at the end. I found the time by working till 1 a.m., then getting up at 5 a.m. and putting in a couple of hours till Evie and Tom woke up. Then, I’d get them ready for the day and return to the computer. By the end Evie – she’s six – was standing next to the computer saying, “Have you finished your book yet, Mum? Please have you finished your book?” The irony of a stressed-out working mother writing a novel about a stressed-out working mother was hard to bear at times. I think I lost about six months of their lives to create Kate Reddy.
My only hope is that the novel stirs up some discussion so that life will be very different for Evie and her female friends when they get to working age. The novel is dedicated to her – it’s my way of saying, “This is how your mother’s generation had to live and never think I didn’t love you.”
Q: Everyone at Knopf (with special emphasis on the moms here) is comparing notes on "Kate Reddy moments." As the creator of the concept, could you give us some of your "personal best?"
A: There are so many, but one disaster stands out. As a journalist, I had to go and interview Tom Hanks at the Dorchester. It was not long after my daughter was born, and when I held out my hand to shake the movie stars I realized I had this kind of epaulette of banana sick on my black jacket. When you have a baby or little kids, it’s a constant battle to keep your work clothes clean, so I identify totally with all of Kate’s embarrassments in this area. Luckily, Tom Hanks was so nice and had kids of his own, that he said, “Oh, don’t worry, this happens all the time.” Which was incredibly sweet, but clearly untrue: not too many people go to meet him covered in regurgitated breakfast!
Some of the moments are not that funny. I went to Los Angeles for almost a week on a job and ended up sitting in a hotel while I was messed around by some very arrogant PR people. Every night, I called my husband and he told me that six-month-old Thomas was “a little under the weather.” When I finally got home, I walked into the kitchen and I realized immediately that the baby had been ill. I picked him up and he gave me such a wonderful smile– he was so happy to see me – but he had lost so much weight. It turned out, he had tonsillitis and Anthony hadn’t wanted to worry me. I was so incredibly upset. I stood there and wept and all the time the baby was laughing and smiling, just delighted to have his Mummy back. I hated the fact that I’d wasted my time with those worthless vain Hollywood people when my baby boy was ill. That was the worst moment.
From the Hardcover edition.
Allison Pearson on Kate Reddy and I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT
Kate Reddy was born on Mother’s Day. The idea for a novel about a woman struggling to juggle work and home came to me in March two years ago, after reading a survey in Good Housekeeping. The survey said that half of all working mothers were worried that their relationship with their husband was suffering because of a terrible ‘time famine.’ Two-thirds were too exhausted to have sex. Three-quarters felt they never had time to do things properly (but, of course, that didn’t stop them from trying). And what did these poor demented creatures want for Mother’s Day – flowers, chocolates? No. A little bit of time to themselves.
Did the survey ring a bell? You could say that again – a cathedral full of bells. Only recently, it had struck me that my friends – all in their thirties and trying to combine jobs with bringing up children – were going mad. Clare, a TV executive, had rung up late one night to ask if I had some licorice. She was making a Postman Pat cake for her three-year-old’s birthday and she needed licorice to make Pat’s specs.
Couldn’t she just buy a cake from a supermarket? No. That would mean she was a Mommy Who Didn’t Make An Effort, and she already felt bad enough about seeing so little of her son.
Another friend confessed that, on the rare occasions she and her husband made love, she dreaded having an orgasm because it knocked her out for the next day at the office. Even as I was laughing, I was remembering my own first day back at work, four months after my daughter was born in 1996. Sent to interview Tom Hanks, no less, at the Dorchester, I had squeezed my milky, still-distended body into the cleanest clothes I could find. On the outside, at least, I thought I looked like a competent professional, but when I held out my hand to the advancing movie star, I happened to look down and see my shoulder – the black Armani jacket was decorated with an epaulette of baby sick.
Arrrggghhh. The life of the working mother was an ongoing farce: a daily drama in which women pretended to have everything under control. But it also had elements of tragedy because, behind it all, was the love we felt for our children and the terror we had of failing them.
In my column in the London Evening Standard on the 5th of April, I said that I believed women were being pushed to the breaking point as they tried to do two jobs. The day job, and the 24-hour one where they carried the puzzle of family life in their heads: birthdays, holidays, medical appointments, buy toilet roll, new shoes for the kids, and on and on. The article drew an astonishing response. Readers wrote by the hundreds; famous women and women with hard, ordinary lives. All of them said the same thing: That’s My Life!
I felt I had opened a secret door onto a parallel universe. The role of the working mother was so commonplace as to go unremarked, but clearly millions knew about its comedy and its despair and were grateful to hear someone else own up. Over the years, publishers had asked me if I wanted to write a book, but I had enough respect for hardcovers to think you should only write if you have something you passionately want to communicate. Now I had my subject; all that remained was to create a heroine who would embody all the lunacy and the aspiration, the remarkable gutsy resilience of the 21st-century woman. Her name was Kate Reddy.
Kate has a ball-breaking job in the City and two small children she loves but seldom sees. Kate counts seconds like other women count calories. In Kate’s life, everything Goes Perfectly as long as Everything Goes Perfectly. There is no margin for error. Children will not fall ill, jackets will not become spattered with banana porridge as you leave the house for a client meeting, toilet paper will be restocked by unseen hands, holidays will offer instant refreshment, and there is no such thing as exhaustion or panic or fear. As if.
The main breadwinner, Kate pays a large mortgage on a subsiding house in London. With her husband Richard in a stalled architecture practice, a cleaner with dodgy knees, and a nanny who, after tax, insurance, and the highest per-hour babysitting rate in Western Europe takes home not much less than her employer, Kate is a well-paid slave. She has parents-in-law who disapprove of her and, at the school gate, there are the non-working mums – the Mothers Superior – who smile smugly and say, I don’t know how you do it.
Sarah Sands, deputy editor at The Daily Telegraph, suggested that I could write parts of my planned novel as a column. On 4 December 2000, the first episode from Kate Reddy’s life appeared under the title “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” By Christmas, my agent Pat Kavanagh had persuaded Alison Samuel at the publishing house Chatto & Windus and Caroline Michel at Vintage to take an amazing leap of faith. On the basis of five thousand words, these brave women bought a novel which still didn’t have a beginning, a middle, or an end. A few weeks later, Knopf picked up the book for the US. Kate Reddy’s life is my life, said my editor over there. In the next months, foreign rights were sold in 12 countries. A Finnish publisher rang Nicki Kennedy, my indefatigable translation agent. “I am sitting at home with two sick children,” she shrieked, “I need to buy this book NOW.”
And then, last summer, I was building castles at the beach with my children when the mobile rang. It was Norman North of Peters Fraser Dunlop, calling to say that Miramax had made an offer for the novel that we couldn’t refuse. My son promptly celebrated his mother’s movie deal by depositing an ice cream in her lap: a very Kate Reddy moment.
Behind all this worldwide interest, one question was being asked: Is Kate Reddy the new Bridget Jones? Let me put it this way, if you asked Bridget to live just one week of Kate’s life, the poor wimp would be admitted to intensive care. Bridget made women laugh. I want Kate to move women so fiercely, and to remind them so strongly of their own lives, that they won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Bridget Jones was a marvelous comic creation. But it was not necessary to invent Kate Reddy. She was a tune playing loud and clear in the air and all I had to do was write down the notes.
--Allison Pearson (2003)
1. At 1:37 a.m. on an average night, Kate Reddy has just returned from a business trip to Sweden and is banging store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin so that they’ll look homemade for her daughter’s school Christmas party. She then goes out to the trash bins to hide the pie boxes so that Paula, her nanny, won’t tell the other nannies that Kate cheated on the pies. She cleans up the kitchen and then takes a long time brushing her teeth so that her husband will fall asleep before she comes to bed (if they don’t have sex, she can skip a shower in the morning and possibly have time for Christmas shopping on the way to work). How does this sequence, along with the “Must Remember” list that follows it, work to set the comic pacing for the novel [pp. 3–10]? How successful is the opening chapter in getting the reader to sympathize with Kate and her daily challenges?
2. When Kate arrives late for work, she needs to come up with what her friend Debra calls “a Man’s Excuse” [p. 15]—something that does not have to do with sick children or an absent nanny, preferably something involving car repairs or traffic. Is Pearson accurate in describing a business world that has little patience for the out-of-office responsibilities of working mothers?
3. Kate has two good friends, Debra and Candy, with whom she exchanges comical e-mail messages. What do these messages convey about the ways women console, support, and entertain one another? What do they convey about the subculture of office life?
4. “There is an uneasy standoff between the two kinds of mother which sometimes makes it hard for us to talk to each other. I suspect that the nonworking mother looks at the working mother with envy and fear because she thinks that the working mum has got away with it, and the working mum looks back with fear and envy because she knows that she has not. In order to keep going in either role, you have to convince yourself that the alternative is bad” [p. 96]. How do Kate’s vexed interactions with local “Mother Superiors” reflect the truth of this statement?
5. Pearson has said of her book, “It’s a tragedy at the pace of comedy.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree?
6. Musing on her relationship with her unreliable father, Kate thinks, “Daughters striving to be the son their father never had, daughters excelling at school to win the attention of a man who was always looking the other way, daughters like poor mad Antigone pursuing the elusive ghost of paternal love. So why do all us Daddy’s Girls go and work in places so hostile to women? Because the only real comfort we get is from male approval” [p. 153]. Is this an adequate explanation for Kate’s ambition? How did her family’s instability and poverty shape her psyche?
7. How is the romantic distraction posed by Jack Abelhammer important in further illuminating Kate’s position? Is the outcome a forgone conclusion, or did she just make the right choice for herself?
8. “If you give Chris Bunce five million years he may realize that it’s possible to work alongside women without needing to take their clothes off” [p. 298]. Is Pearson right in suggesting that many workplaces tolerate the sexism of some male workers? How satisfying is Kate and Momo’s revenge upon Bunce?
9. Why has Pearson chosen to include the character of Jill Cooper-Clark, who dies of cancer at age forty-seven? Why is Jill’s memo to her husband (“Your Family: How It Works!”) so poignant? What has Jill’s friendship meant to Kate? How does it shift the novel’s comic events to a more serious context?
10. In an essay in a British newspaper, Pearson remarked, “Children may behave like liberals—they believe they should be allowed to do what they want—but what they really like, what makes them feel safe, is essentially conservative. . . . My ideals told me that men and women could both go out to work and be truly equal. My children told me something more complicated, something I really didn’t want to hear. Their need for me was like the need for water or light: it had a devastating simplicity to it. It didn’t fit any of the theories about what women were supposed to do with their lives, theories written in books often by women who never had children.” How does this statement resonate with the experiences detailed in the novel? Is this a novel that is too close to reality for comfort because Pearson tells us things we know but don’t want to acknowledge?
11. Which is a greater strain on Kate and Richard’s marriage—the children, Kate’s job, and her frequent travel, or her romantic interest in her American client? What does Pearson mean when she writes, “Any woman with a baby has already committed a kind of adultery” [p. 169]? How does the novel underscore the ways in which the arrival of children irrevocably changes the relationship between husband and wife?
12. A recent newspaper article noted that of Fortune magazine’s fifty most powerful women, one-third have husbands who stay at home with the children. Would Kate’s problems be solved if her husband left his failing architecture firm to become a stay-at-home father? Does the novel suggest that Kate needs to let him reassume the primary economic role if their marriage is to survive? Does Pearson suggest that people are still offended by the idea of a woman who makes more money than her husband? Why?
13. Some of the novel’s funniest moments have to do with clothing, as when, in her haste, Kate has overlooked some detail of her dress. She gives a major presentation wearing a red bra under a sheer white blouse; she pulls on black tights in the train on the way to Jill’s funeral without realizing that they have Playboy bunnies up the backs of the legs. How does Pearson use these moments to show how important details of dress are in the working world, and how wrong things can go when women don’t have butlers or wives to look after their clothing?
14. With their aggressive moral superiority, the women Kate calls “Mother Superiors” seem to believe they have made the right choice in staying home with their children. When Kate is tried at the imaginary “Court of Motherhood” (Chapters 6, 18, 40), why is she always on the defensive? Is this internalized “court of motherhood” something that plagues all mothers, not only those who work outside the home?
15. As Kate herself says, “Giving up work is like becoming a missing person. One of the domestic Disappeared. The post offices of Britain should be full of Wanted posters for women who lost themselves in their children and were never seen again”
[p. 170]. Is Kate’s decision to leave her job a disappointment or a relief?
16. The book ends with the question “What else?” at the end of another “Must Remember” list. Is Kate’s life qualitatively better since she left her job and moved away from London? With the final page, does Pearson imply that Kate’s life is essentially un-changed, or that it is about to take off in an exciting direction in which she will dictate the terms of her working life?