"I Don't Know How She Does It, The Life Of Kate Reddy, Working Mother," by Allison Pearson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002; 343 pages. $23). Any woman who's tried to balance a career with motherhood may see a glimpse of herself in this first novel by British journalist Allison Pearson. This book is featured as the April Pick for the Work & Family book Club.
Kate Ruddy is a high-powered fund manager who often hops onto a plane for the States twice in a week while trying to spend quality time with her two youngsters in between trips. With the help of a nanny and a husband with a professional job of his own, she oversees homelife and office demands, juggling children's birthday planning with keeping major clients happy. Like many working women, she finds it impossible to be perfect in her career at the same time she is perfect as a mother.
At the office, she's learned to downplay her motherhood role to get ahead. The men are lauded for displaying cute photos of their kids. The women know that such pictures show they are not serious enough about their job and they really ought to be home, anyway. And when she gets to the office building, she has a checklist to help with the transition back to work life: She makes sure her shoes match, there's no spit-up on her designer suit and her skirt is not "tucked into her knickers."
Reddy also knows that, if your are late, whatever you do, don't give a typical mother's excuse about a sick kid, give "a Man's Excuse. Senior managers who would be frankly appalled by the story of a vomiting nocturnal baby or an AWOL nanny (mysteriously, child care, though paid for by both parents, is always deemed to be the female's responsibility) are happy to accept anything to do with the internal combustion engine. 'The car broke down/was broken into.' "
On the homefront, Reddy tries to measure up to the non-working moms who bake delicious treats for school instead of smashing store-bought snacks to make them look homemade. She hates being one of the Women Who Cut Corners and the Mummy Who's Never There. At night she dreams she is held accountable for all her parenting sins in the Court of Motherhood.
And she fights conflicting feelings of wanting to keep her nanny satisified so her kids have a happy, secure bond to her and wanting to boot the nanny out so she doesn't get too close to the kids. "Men think about child care with their wallets, women feel it in their wombs. Every twist in the relationship with the person minding your young is a tug on the umbilical. Phones may have become cordless, but mothers never will."
Reddy copes with technology. She carries her mobile phone everywhere to get calls about a needy child when she's at work and about a needy client when she's at home. She lives for her e-mail, to commiserate with a few close friends about life as working women, and to flirt with a good-looking and kind client who has her questioning her choices in life. The relationship is never physical, but she comes to rely on the emotional bantering to get through her day.
When her husband leaves her, she's so busy that he has the nanny read his good-bye letter over the phone while she's away on business. He knows nothing about her client friend, but too much about her all-consuming career. The couple enters a period of distant co-parenting.
Finally, Reddy stops short and makes a decision that at one time she would have found unbearable.
Working women who read this book may find they share a sisterhood with Reddy and her friends. There will be plenty of "been-there-done-that" moments and scenes for chuckling. But there is also a more serious underlying thread that will tug at the hearts of mothers who've tried to do it all.
Pearson, the author, is a weekly columnist for the London "Evening Standard" and a member of the BBC's "Newsnight Review" panel. She was named Critic Of The Year and Interviewer Of The Year in the British Press Awards. She lives in London with her husband, New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, and their two children.