I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES ITWILL doubtless be held up by the sanctimonious right as proof positive of the folly of feminist demands for workplace equality, and of the women's movement's complicity in the destruction of the family. The book will be held up by feminists as an example of gender equality not going nearly far enough, as witnessed by continuing sexism in the workplace, or the government's inability to provide child care and more flexible working conditions, or the unwillingness of men to share equally in the division of labor at home. They will be right, but Pearson doesn't stop there. She poses the oft-asked, seldom-answered question of whether having it all, in an age when there's too much of everything -- too much information, too many toys and gizmos, too much work, too much advice, too much status anxiety, too much choice -- is the bargain it's cracked up to be. For anyone, but especially for women.
It seems clear that the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s beat a path of greatly increased opportunity for many middle-class women -- to marry or not, to bear children or not, to devote their lives to careers or not. But we also know that many women in top corporate jobs -- the kind that require them to show up for work at 7 a.m. and stay till 10 p.m. -- are childless, some happily, others because there's no way they could sustain the pressure without help from house-husbands, who even now run rather thin on the ground. We know that many women who deferred childbearing into their 40s are facing years of grueling, expensive and often unsuccessful fertility treatments, unless they choose to adopt. That many others, like Bridget, remain single when they would rather be attached. That working mothers with high-powered careers, like Kate Reddy, are unraveling as they try to have and do it all. That the majority of poor women have benefited from these gains hardly at all.
I will go to my grave a feminist, but right now I worry that feminism has thinned itself down to a middle-class, careerist individualism that ignores the limits to choice and wider issues of social justice, and fails to see that the good life, as Kate Reddy is trying and failing to live it, doesn't necessarily add up to a decent, or even a happy, life. It is not anti-feminist, nor do we have to ally ourselves with finger-wagging conservatives, to acknowledge that children need their mothers and/or fathers to be around, or that partners, married or not, need unhassled time together to flourish.
I KNOW A HIGH-POWERED ENTERTAINment lawyer who quit her job when the stress of working for a firm whose male partners wouldn't give an inch to the fact that she was also caring for two young daughters became too much -- she's happier now, and practices estate law on her own time. My mother, who worked all her life -- because she had to and because she loved it -- nonetheless now tells me you can't do it all. I'm the single parent of a 4-year-old who has enriched my life beyond measure. (Pearson is wonderful on the inchoate, animal love of parents for their children, and vice versa.) I know, as my mother knew, that I'd make a lousy, resentful mother if I didn't also work at a job I loved. I also know that my career will not go as far as it would if I were childless, and beyond the occasional twinge of regret I'm okay with that. When, following crises in just about every area of her strung-out world, Kate Reddy's house of cards finally caves in, she's jolted into a reassessment of her life. Then she takes action in ways that some women will call a cop-out, while others will stand up and cheer. I have no doubt that Pearson's book, which has an initial print run of 100,000 copies, will sell like hotcakes (she already has a movie deal with -- who else? -- Miramax) among the vast army of working mothers who are about ready to implode. Her sharp, funny, candid and finally generous novel suggests they'd be better off exploding, but it also ruefully acknowledges that with all the equalizing legislation in the world, it may be that we can't be, do or have everything.
Meanwhile, it is gratifying to learn from Pearson's acknowledgments that Anthony Lane does laundry.