Illustration by Tavis Coburn
SAY WHAT YOU LIKE ABOUT BRIDGET Jones, the hapless singleton of supposedly swinging '90s London hit a nerve in unattached women trying to square their feminism with the desire to find a soul mate, while meeting the demands of a society that exhorts them to launch careers, consume like hell while maintaining the base weight of stick insects, and, preferably before they turn 30, snag viable reproductive partners from a male demographic with no particular reason to commit. Whether you saw Bridget as a pathetic fuckup and sellout, or a victim of the multiple, impossibly conflicting pressures on women today, it was hard not to feel terror at how close Helen Fielding's novel got to the bone of single life at the turn of the century. For those of us who saw the book -- the movie was merely fun -- more as an insider's challenge to feminism than a betrayal of it, one of its more depressing, and possibly unconscious, insights was the way in which women who choose different life paths have turned on each other rather than on the institutions that have let them down. Bridget was steadfastly loyal to her single girlfriends, but she dripped vitriol for wives and mothers whom we meet as "Smug Marrieds" one-upping each other over the size and quality of their toddlers' turds, or patronizing Bridget for languishing in singles hell even as their husbands sneaked off to cheat on them.
One pales to think what Bridget would have to say about Kate Reddy, the wife, mother and heavy-duty career woman at the center of a new comic novel by Allison Pearson, a British newspaper and television pundit who also happens to be married to The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane. I mention the latter only because Pearson delivers her one-liners with the same amused ease that her husband does his, leading one to wonder whether the atmosphere around the Pearson-Lane house (which they share with two young children) is a barrel of laughs, or fogged with the exhausted silence of two people who gave their all at the office. Pearson's novel also owes a debt or two to Bridget Jones's Diary. Like Fielding's novel, the unhelpfully titled I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother began life as a recurring newspaper column (in The Daily Telegraph, a stubbornly Tory organ that nonetheless cultivates cheekily independent minds). Like that book too, it's written in diary form punctuated by endless e-mail messages, with only the most passing regard for literary craft and a laugh-out-loud feel for antic situation comedy resting uneasily on a bed of sadness and desperation.
Where poor Bridget was having trouble getting even a piece of the pie, Kate, an attractive blond in her mid-30s with great legs and the competitive drive of a barracuda, is so busy having it all that she can no longer remember what "it" is. A hedge-fund manager for a swank investing firm in the city of London (a stunningly chauvinistic environment -- one male colleague's idea of a jolly joke is to lace the expressed milk she stores in the office fridge with vodka), she rushes off abroad at a moment's notice to baby-sit testy clients, while struggling to keep the home fires burning in the trendily down-at-heel London borough of Hackney for her husband, Richard, an ethical architect, and two small children.
Overload doesn't begin to describe Kate's daily life. She neglects the endlessly forbearing Richard, who's the very model of an evolved mate (he comes equipped with a dry wit too reminiscent of Lane's to be modeled on anyone else -- he dubs his daughter's booted doll "Klaus Barbie"), right down to his valiant pretense that he doesn't mind making a fraction of what she earns. She alternately snaps at and overindulges the children she adores with a deep, dark love, buying them off with expensive toys to make up for the fact that she's never home, and weeping into the laundry basket when she misses their bedtime. She grovels to her nanny for fear she might leave. She cancels repeatedly on lunch with her similarly beleaguered women friends. She whacks store-bought mince pies over the head with a rolling pin to make them look sufficiently homemade to compete with the offerings of stay-at-home mothers ("Mothers Superior") for her daughter's school Christmas party. She can't remember anything without writing it down; she can't do anything properly; she has totally forgotten how to have fun; and she has recurring dreams of being hauled into court to answer to crimes against her nearest and dearest.
All this hysterical multitasking is turning Kate into a royal bitch fueled by ill temper, guilt and an obsessive inability, born of unrelenting fatigue, to stop spinning her wheels. She keeps adding responsibilities and, by way of escape, flirts her way toward an affair with a dashing client in New York. If you have ever found yourself yelling at your partner or your kids for no other reason than that you are overextended to the breaking point, or promised to sink your teeth into the jugular of the next person to make a demand on your time and energy, or dreamed endlessly of not being able to complete simple tasks (a regular of mine), then you will feel for Kate Reddy. You may also want to shake her while shrieking, "Why are you working for these hypercapitalist creeps? Why won't you attend to this fabulous man and these lovely children who are ravenous for your attention? Why are you slagging off on women who have either chosen or been forced to stay home with their kids, which -- four decades of feminism has taught us -- is hard work that goes unrecognized, never mind unpaid? What do you think life is like for women who have to do all you do, only without the high-end money and support?"
I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT WILL 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.
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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.