"I Don't Know How She Does It"
(Reviewed by Nandini Pandya JAN 09, 2003)"I don't know how she did it" - was the thought uppermost in my mind as I came to the end of this truly remarkable book. Each page of the book is dense with meaning and feeling. Once I got into the book (in its first ten or so pages), everything else became a distraction and getting back to it became my short-term goal. There isn't a single wasted word and no inconsequential details clog its flow - unlike some other equally critically acclaimed novels.
At its core the novel is about the minutiae of a working mother's harried life and the gradual unraveling of her resolve to keep on working. Along the way, we meet her nanny (with whom she has a competitive, yet a helplessly dependent relationship), her children (who come across as essentially innocent, and infinitely, painfully needy of her presence), her husband (who valiantly holds the fort during her frequent absences), her best friends (whom she never has the time to meet in person but with whom she carries on a very amusing, continual email dialog), her assistant (a granddaughter of Empire - more English than the English) and some of her obnoxious co-workers.
The most poignant parts are like the email excerpt below:
You know that I always say I want to be with my children. Well, I really want to be with my children. Some nights if I get home too late for Emily's bedtime, I go to the laundry basket and Smell Their Clothes. I miss them so much. Never told anyone that before. And then when I am with them, like I am now, their need is just so needy. It's like a whole love affair crammed into one long weekend - passion, kisses, bitter tears, I love you, don't leave me, get me a drink, you like him more than me, take me to bed, you've got lovely hair, cuddle me, I hate you.
Drained & freaked out & need to go back to work soonest for a rest. What kind of mother is afraid of her own children?
Maybe, the mother is afraid not of her children, but of their need for her and her need for them. Because, as it turns out, Kate ends up not sending this message: "There's only so much you can confess, even to your dearest friend. Even to yourself."
The most insightful parts are when she brings out the essential ironies of the lives of today's working women. "I need my husband to be more like a woman, so that I can go out and work like a man." And, "How do you say you have to leave early because the baby is sick without saying a) baby and b) leave?" "When a man excuses himself from a meeting to attend his son's game, he is patted on the back and when a woman needs to leave early she is not 'committed enough'?"
Kate's relationship with her divorced parents and her younger sister is portrayed with authenticity. As we learn more about the stress and strife of her parents' marriage and the hopelessness of her sister's blue-collar life, we come to understand the drive and determination that she brings to her job - indeed why she needs to keep on working and earning the big bucks that she obviously does.
Finally, I cannot help but mention Kate's relationship with her friend Julie. Without giving too much away, I just want to say that it would take a person with a cold heart to read the parts about Julie without at least a tear or two rolling down the cheeks.
1. Reading this book has been quite an eye-opener. I admit I have said just that ("I don't know how she does it") about women in my acquaintance who work long hours. Now I know that there is an inner drive at play, that they march to the tune of a different drummer. Each one of us is on a path of discovery and the path is not one that is marked and mapped out, nor is it the same for each individual. Rather, it is a thin rope on which we balance as we juggle all our different roles and responsibilities.
2. Many women grow up believing that they can "have it all" - that they can balance work and family life at no cost to their family or work or themselves. Kate's assistant Momo starts as a wide-eyed innocent - "I have decided I just won't have any kids" she says at the beginning of the book. But by the end she comes to realize that "having it all" may actually mean having too much.
3. One question remains: is this balancing act only about women? Do men feel the same stresses, the same conflicting demands of work and family? I think the answer to this question is "yes." If men were socialized to express their feelings and their doubts, and if they were not so strongly socialized to be the "providers," we might hear more about their side of this ongoing drama.
On the other hand, these issues concern men also because they are the husbands of these women, and more important, the fathers of daughters who will one day face the same narrow choices.
4. Legislation can take us only so far in that it can guarantee tolerance, not acceptance. Consider that maternity leave is treated like a temporary disability and the employee is compensated for six weeks by disability insurance. No allowance is made for the needs of the newborn or the lactating mother - forget about allowances for sicknesses and snow days or before- and after-school care. Consider that not all women have the luxury of a nanny, or of a supportive husband as the protagonist of this novel does. Too many women need to work (despite feeling the same tugs) in order to support themselves and their children.
In summary, modern parables like this novel should be made required reading from high school on up. If we are ever to truly reform the lives of women as well as men, it will have to be a revolution from within, fueled by books like this one.
- Amazon readers rating: from 315 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from I Don't Know How She Does It at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- I Don't Know How She Does It : The Life of Kate Reddy Working Mother (October 2002)
- I Think I Love You (February 2010)
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- Publisher's interview with Alison Pearson
- Group Reading Guide for I Don't Know How She Does It
- Guardian Unlimited review of I Don't Know How She Does It
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for I Don't Know How She Does
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About the Author:Allison Pearson, named Critic of the Year and Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards, is a weekly columnist in the London Evening Standard and a member of the BBC's Newsnight Review panel. She lives in London with her husband, the New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, and their two children.