Thursday, November 10, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

I loved Allison Pearson’s book I Don’t Know How She Does It. I discovered it when I was pregnant for the first time, and was wondering how on earth I was going to balance a demanding job with the realities of parenthood. Over the years and the two children that followed, I re-read it countless times, reaching for the book when I felt overwhelmed and in danger of dropping every last one of my Working Mum juggling balls, and dipping into it when I needed comfort that someone else knew what I was going through. The book spoke to me; it was as though Allison Pearson had read my innermost thoughts and used them to create Kate Reddy.

The recent movie of the same name, starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate Reddy, claims to have been based on Pearson’s book. To be honest, so many details have been changed, so many characters eliminated or merged together, so much left out, that it is really only the essential spirit of Kate Reddy that remains from the book.

I walked in determined to hate the movie; ready to pick it, brutally, to pieces. And yet, in spite of myself, I enjoyed it – a lot.

I won’t turn this into a spoiler. I will say this much - the movie ends differently from the book, and your first reaction might be to walk away in an indignant huff.

On reflection, though, I do think the movie was ultimately true to Pearson’s Kate Reddy and her battle cries:

  1. Being a working mother is like holding the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle in your head. The number of pieces and even the picture you’re trying to create change constantly, and often beyond your control. Some people (read: spouse) watch you trying to do it but don't help you nearly as much as you wish they would (and tend to get all sulky and difficult when you suggest they help more). Other people do help you with bits of it. Sometimes you or they fumble, and a whole section of the puzzle falls apart. Sometimes, unasked, they jump in and finish your bits of the puzzle, and while you know you should feel grateful, instead you feel a horrible pang of "That was my job; I could have handled that (couldn’t I?)" or, worse, "I wanted to do that myself, even though I also had 50 other things to do."

  1. Being a working mother (whether your work is in an office or at home with your baby) is Hard.Work. It is even harder if you have the kind of office job that requires you to work long, unpredictable hours and keep one eye on your Blackberry at all times of the day and night. It is frustrating beyond belief not having control over your own schedule, and not knowing from day to day whether your work will call you away at a moment’s notice, forcing you to endlessly re-neg on even the most tentative evening/weekend/holiday plans with spouse and children, and meaning that you can never confidently promise your children that you will be there for them at any given time. That kind of job means avoiding ever saying, reassuringly, that Mummy will be home by bedtime, or Mummy will make a snowman with you tomorrow; it is more than likely you will end up disappointing your poor kids, who will find it harder and harder to forgive you. Your spouse, meanwhile, is probably already so beaten down with accumulated disappointment that he doesn’t know what to say any more, and has resigned himself to the fact that this is the way things are.

  1. If you work in a high-powered, highly competitive environment, there is always someone else at the office ready to jump in and do your job at a moment’s notice – to take your credit, steal your thunder, and make you, ultimately, redundant (literally and metaphorically). If you are determined to stay in the game, you basically have to take the crap that the job deals out, otherwise you will be sidelined. The very rare exception is if you are a person who has already worked her arse off and has achieved results so stellar that she has proved herself indispensable, or at least worth keeping happy enough that she will not jump ship to a competitor. Even such people, though, cannot rest on their laurels. They may have earned the right to demand that others cut them a teeny bit of slack. They may be finally able to orchestrate the work-related crap somewhat, so that it ruins the rest of life a little less. However, they still have to keep achieving stellar results, and in order to do that it’s still necessary to work long and hard and make frequent sacrifices on the home front. Some jobs are just like that and there is no way around it.  

  1. If you are going to do a job like Kate Reddy’s, you had better love what you do with a passion so great that it consumes you. Otherwise, you will not have the heart to stick with it, or you will stick with it but end up so bitter and jaded that you would have been better off quitting.

There were parts of the movie that got me right in the heart.

The scene where Kate has just come back from a business trip, and has to leave almost immediately for another one. She says a heartfelt goodbye to her children, leaves the house, and starts walking down the road, tiredly dragging her carry-on luggage behind her. Her shoulders start to shake and she bursts into incontrollable sobs, distraught and at that moment not caring who sees her.

The scene where Kate is at dinner with her boss Jack, and something reminds her of a game her family always plays. Without thinking, she starts telling Jack about it, artlessly and with her whole face lit up. Suddenly she stops and catches herself in the act, and shuts herself down, with an anguished look on her face that says, “I can’t let him see how much I miss my family.”

The scene where Kate and her boss are working late (again), and Kate excuses herself to use the restroom. We see her on her cellphone in the lobby, singing a bedtime song softly and sweetly into the phone; oblivious to all around her; lovingly, completely connected to her little ones (“I love you, a bushel and a peck...”) It broke me up completely. As the movie went on I kept remembering that scene and breaking up all over again. I remember sneaking out to make that phone call so many times myself... Knowing I wouldn’t make it home by bedtime, phoning my replacement as a mother our nanny just so I could hear my older girl’s little voice on the phone, singing softly into the phone, missing her and her baby sister so desperately that my heart hurt, wanting just to be there all snuggled up with my sweet little people. At times like that, I vividly remember thinking, What on earth am I doing here? Sometimes a meeting would run so late that I would miss that Bedtime Window. I would get back to my office to find a voicemail message from my tiny big girl, saying goodnight to her absent Mummy. I have several of those messages saved. I can’t bring myself to listen to them.

This movie brought back a lot of difficult memories and made me recall many moments of personal anguish. At the same time, it also made me feel happy and relieved, as it confirmed something I’ve been suspecting for a while now - that although there were things I loved about my job and that nowadays I miss, there is much, much more about that world and that life that I absolutely don’t miss. It is a world that some people - even some working mothers - thrive on. I now know for sure that I am not one of those women (at least, not right now).

I want to have the time and space to treat my husband as my best friend, not just my partner in panicked daily logistics and the person I end up bullying for help with my jigsaw. I want to have time to be alone with my own thoughts sometimes. But most of all, I want and need time with my children that is not just snatched moments and fleeting bedtime kisses. Although they drive me crazy sometimes, I really, really love them. A bushel and a peck. 


  1. Spending time with your children is the greatest gift that you can give them. They are lucky. Our corporate world has got caught up in a culture of ridiculously long hours which doesn't suit family life at all. Why do any of us let it happen? Long hours do not equal productivity. And yet so many intelligent people fail to truly believe that. Diversity benefits management, boards, Government and yet so few women reach the upper level positions. Our working culture is in many ways unhealthy, and contributes in a negative way to family life and possibly through lack of diversity fails to allow the optimal corporate structure.

  2. Sara, I can't agree more. In the end, I think many people are just too willing to sell off every last hour of their leisure time to the highest bidder, without really thinking of the personal and social effects this may have in the short term and the long term. It leads to so many negative things - broken marriages, bad health, unhappiness and depression are just a few that come to mind. This situation also makes it very difficult for those who would like a bit more balance, because why would anyone choose a lawyer or a fund manager who goes home to her family at 5pm, when instead you could have someone who works all night to help you stay ahead of the competition and maximize your profits? Nothing will change until society as a whole decides that change is necessary and worthwhile.