Working mom movie-fest: Ditching the husbands and kids for a chick flick

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 19, 2011

I don’t know how we did it.

When my editor suggested I get a bunch of working moms together to see the movie version of “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” it seemed laugh-out-loud impossible.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

I cast a wide net, figuring that, given all the sports practices, crash deadlines and general familial mayhem, there would be no way to get more than one mom to chuck it all on a Friday night to see a chick flick.

Here are some of the e-mailed responses I got back:

From the statistician, mother of two little girls: “It just happens to be a particularly crazy weekend (school picnic! First soccer practice! Swim class! Work gathering!), and [husband] out of town.”

From the international lawyer, mom to a boy and girl: “I have to man the PTA table..I have BTS (that’s Back To School) night tonight — and conveniently [husband] is out of town. . . .I will be rushing a little on Friday as we are doing [nanny’s daughter’s] birthday celebration at around 5 p.m.”

From the university psychology professor, mother of two girls: “Oh this is just what I need, but since when are my needs a priority? Anyway, [daughter] has soccer practice and a pep rally Friday evening (heaven help me), but let me see if I can get my husband or somebody else to take her.”

From the business analyst, also a mother of two: “Unfortunately, I have been away for work. . . . and I’m afraid the kids and hubby will kill me if I abandon them again. Any chance you are going to the late show? Maybe I can steal away.”

This is what life is like for working moms.

You can be like most of the movie reviewers, especially the male ones, and say you’ve heard enough of the working woman woes. It’s an old story/cry me a river/you’re lucky you’re not unemployed or a single mom, right?

But guess what? We as a society haven’t solved this yet. Whether you are a banker managing your own investment fund or a waitress working the swing shift, earning a living and raising a family is still an exercise in insanity.

So I was stunned when nine of us gathered in the theater lobby Friday night. We all looked as excited as 13-year-old girls about to meet Justin Bieber. It was kinda scary.

My movie moms included a banker, an editor, a hotel general manager, a public policy advocate, an energy lawyer and — I swear — a rocket scientist.

It wasn’t the indulgent need to party that made these women move heaven, Earth and soccer practice to get there. “It’s an important issue, and we need to agitate,” was what one of them said — and just about all of us felt.

The best-selling book, written a decade ago by Allison Pearson, had meant a lot to us.

When I read it in 2005, I had just returned to work after having my first child. I should have been happy that it was all coming together: great job, cute baby, a return to pre-pregnancy weight. But I was crying in The Post company car, tethered to the car’s charger by a breast pump, staking out a crime scene where I’d probably be for hours.

I felt like a freak. The attempt by fictional protagonist Kate Reddy to bash a store-bought pie with a rolling pin to make it look homemade for the school bake sale reminded me I wasn’t alone.

In the movie, Reddy is played by an occasionally frumpy Sarah Jessica Parker. She’s a banker whose career is peaking just as her daughter enters kindergarten, her toddler son is struggling to speak and her architect husband is jobless. She distresses that pie, makes crazy insomniac lists of household chores and takes relentless, brutal assignments that involve last-minute travel and crushing workloads, refusing to say no at the office.

In the end, she keeps her high-powered job after refusing another unreasonable assignment and informs the other moms that, yes, her pie is store-bought.

And, no, it’s not that simple.

One of my movie moms worked like crazy as an energy lawyer before she turned in her suits and heels for permanent mommy clothes. She’d tried to keep working in her field after she had her second son five years ago, she told us.

“I did all that. I did the compromise, and the part-time, the sharing. It. Just. Didn’t. Work,” she said.

We talked about the idea in the movie that our multi-tasking mania is largely self-inflicted.

“It's all about when we made the deal,” the international lawyer said. “When was it that we established that we’d do everything?”

The hotel general manager, mother of boy and girl, wondered: “Was is the courtship? When we cooked the dinner and planned the nights out?”

The type-A women who dominates at the workplace also dominates at home. We can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Nearly all of us had been the primary breadwinners at some point. But even when the other spouse wasn’t going off to work every day, we were the ones fixing the carpet, coordinating the school activities, getting the car oil changed and so on.

Why?

This question called for a second round of drinks after the movie.

We know we don’t have to be our mothers. We’ve shown the world that we can be awesome lawyers, managers and rocket scientists. But we simply cannot abide NOT showing that we can also be awesome mothers.

The policy advocate had plenty to say on this conundrum. She pointed out that when a kid goes to foster care, it takes about seven or eight people to replace all the things that child’s mother was supposed to do. And yet, somehow, “there’s this notion that one woman alone can do it all,” she said.

Seeing our daily battles and triumphs and sadnesses on the screen was reassuring. Debating how to change things was inspiring.

Eventually, however, we all had to dash home to relieve the babysitter or get some sleep before the crack-of-dawn baseball game or work on a report.

We vowed to get together again. “Maybe we can meet every month!” one mom suggested.

Cynical chuckling ensued. “Okay, how about every six months?” someone offered.

That’s a start.

To talk more about working mom woes, e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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