There are plenty of “should”’s in the so-called Mommy Wars, as well as plenty of “can” and “can’t”. Women can have it all. Women can’t have it all, or they can but not at the same time. Women should demand equality. Women should accept reality and take a lesser position while their children are small. No wonder your head starts to spin as soon as you get to a certain age and contemplate the effect that having a family might have upon your career.
Before you run away and hide under your doona I should point out that I don’t have any of the answers, and I don’t claim to. Many of these arguments have merit and ultimately women will make choices based on their own career and family circumstances. That’s why I appreciate contributions to the debate which don’t contain “should”, “can” or “can’t”, but really say “Here’s how I dealt with it, maybe it might be helpful to you in the future.” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent (and controversial) article in The Atlantic fell into this category (despite the deceptive title). I would put Allison Pearson’s I don’t know how she does it in the same category.
It’s old news now, but the book was certainly controversial when it was published in 2002. In my view, that’s due to Pearson’s effort to portray honestly the struggles that women face. It may be fiction, but it’s fiction pretty clearly based on fact and as we all know, the truth can be shocking. Even those of us without children will recognise elements of Kate’s high-stress workplace, and the difficulty of carving out time for family. We might hear an uncomfortable echo in Kate’s efforts to explain to her husband how she really couldn’t refuse to take on extra work, and her frustration at his failure to keep things running smoothly at home.
Of course, there are elements of humour as well. The book opens with Kate “distressing” shop-bought mince pies so that they look suitably home-made. Pearson writes with a light touch and a good dollop of absurdity – which is even more funny because it’s generally only just beyond too-close-to-home. Take for example her thoughts on being late: “It is possible to get away with being late in the City. The key thing is to offer what my lawyer friend Debra calls a Man’s Excuse. Senior managers who would be frankly appalled by the story of a vomiting nocturnal baby or an AWOL nanny… are happy to accept anything to do with the internal combustion engine” (that is, the car broke down). The dinner party with the arty childless friends is also gold.
If you don’t like Kate’s tart voice or have no interest in the predicament of working mothers, you probably won’t enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you are (or might someday become) one of those working mothers, you’ll find a lot to like and a lot to laugh at. Most of all, I enjoyed that this was a book that dealt honestly with the difficulties involved in balancing work and family life without trying to provide answers. It’s definitely not a self-help book, although it’s perhaps not entirely fiction either – really, this is a book which broke out from the crowd and created its own genre. I hope one day it will be a valuable historical document of the struggles which women used to face (and face no more) but in the meantime, it’s worth reading for the guilty laughs if nothing else.