washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

A Working Mom's Comedy

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, October 2, 2002; Page A17

If you could buy stock in a book, I would stake all my savings on the success of Allison Pearson's new novel, "I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother." Here, at last, is the definitive social comedy of working motherhood. The interesting question is why it took a British writer to bring it to American bookstores.

We meet Kate, time-starved mother of two, standing in her kitchen late at night artfully "distressing" the store-bought pies she plans to pass off as her own at the next day's school bake sale. A hedge-fund manager who masters the markets on four continents, she abases herself before her children's nanny (secretly nicknamed Pol Pot) and dreads "the intricate sequence of snubs and punishments" her 5-year-old daughter metes out in retaliation for any business trip. She adores her job, yearns for home and sometimes thinks of her recent life as "five years of walking around in a lead suit of sleeplessness."

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Kate ponders the mysteries of the two-income marriage, such as the touching optimism embodied in her husband's gift of erotic underwear "for a wife who, since the birth of her first child, has come to the nuptial bed in a Gap XXXL T-shirt with a dachshund motif." And why is it, she wonders, that no matter who brings in what salary, it is always the mother who holds in her head the full delicate ecosystem of the family's life? "They could give you good jobs and maternity leave, but until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper the project was doomed." When a friend of Kate's dies, she leaves behind for her husband a 20-page memo titled "Your Family: How it Works!"

This sublimely feline novel at last plugs a puzzling hole in our fiction: Where, I have often wondered, is the new literature of the women you see stealing away from their clients between dinner and dessert to croon lullabies over their cell phones in the ladies' room? Women have never had a larger voice in the writing and buying of hardcover fiction than they do today, yet the nexus of work and childrearing remains a nearly blank page. Of recent popular hits, only "The Nanny Diaries" goes anywhere near this territory. And that was a book that had it both ways in the Mommy Wars, delicately making its Bad Mother character a wealthy New Yorker who neither works nor cares for her child.

So why did it take a Brit to invent Kate Reddy? Simply put, it's hard to imagine the American writer who could have cast aside her defensiveness long enough to make this subject so funny -- or so sad. On this side of the Atlantic we still observe the social fiction that women work only and always because they have to; if we pretend to have no choice, then we can pretend not to feel guilty. But beneath all that denial we feel far too culpable to write passages as unblinking as this one: "For once," Kate relates, "I drop Emily off at school myself. . . . Em is thrilled to have me there with the other mummies; she parades me before her friends like a show horse, patting my rump and pointing out my good features. 'My mummy's lovely and tall, isn't she?' "

There is another reason why this mordant book had to be imported. American women -- can-do daughters of their country's optimism -- still secretly nourish a poignant hope that there is An Answer to the dilemma of work and family. On a personal level, and as a matter of social policy, we often seem to be waiting for the No-Fault Fairy to come and explain at last how our deepest conflict can be managed away. (Perhaps if we called it "blending" rather than "juggling"? What if we told ourselves that day care improves the infant immune system?) This endless quest entails an earnestness too deep for satire.

All great fiction is about something eternal; to write a good book about the conflict is to acknowledge that it is here to stay. And even in its saddest passages, "I Don't Know How She Does It" declines to decide whether its heroine's frantic life is more apt to break her back or her heart. The novel does have one real flaw, but of course you have already guessed what it is. The author couldn't quite find a satisfying ending.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company