Sunday, August 14, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson

As you can tell by looking at this year's reading list, I've had a bit of an identity crisis. As usual, I tried to solve it by reading a bunch of non-fiction. And, consistent with the solutions to my mini-crises of the past, a fiction title made everything right again.

I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson, is a novel about Kate, an executive with a financial firm. She is married with two kids, and her work provides the primary source of income for her family. Kate's nanny cares for the children while she works and travels all over the world and while her husband tries - half-heartedly - to give his own career some momentum. Pearson's insights into the world of women trying to do it all are incredibly well-written, not to mention eerily accurate. One of my favorite examples follows:

"I reckon this must be how it was for centuries: women doing the doing and exchanging conspiratorial glances and indulgent sighs about the men. But I never joined the Muffia; I don't know the code, the passwords, the special handshakes. I expect a man - my man - to do women's work, because if he doesn't I can't do a man's work. And up here in Yorkshire, the pride I feel in managing, the fact that I can and do make our lives stay on track, if only just, curdles into unease. Suddenly I realize that a family needs a lot of care, a lubricant to keep it running smoothly, whereas my little family is just about bumping along and the brakes are starting to squeal."

I laughed more while reading this book than I did when I read The Corrections, and that's saying something. Here is a sample of that humor with which every mother can identify:

"Leaning over the empty tub, I clear out the Pingu toys and the wrecked galleon, unstick the alphabet letters which, ever since the vowels got flushed down the loo, have formed angry Croat injunctions around the rim (scrtzchk!). I peel off the crusty half-dry Barbie flannel that has started to smell of something I vaguely remember as tadpole; and then, starting at one corner, I lift up the nonslip mat, whose suction cups cling for a second before yielding with an indignant burp."

And then this:

"When I wasn't at work, I had to be a mother; when I wasn't being a mother, I owed it to work to be at work. Time off for myself felt like stealing. The fact that no man I knew ever felt that way didn't help. This was just another area in which we were unequal: mothers got the lioness's share of the guilt."

And simply because I have a terrible time with returning library materials, here's another quote:

"...and please return Snow White video to the library. The fine now exceeds production costs on the original Walt Disney movie."

Ultimately, it was the way she captured the inner conflict of "to work or not to work" that made me adore this novel. The movie will be released sometime this fall, but I guarantee that the movie will not come close to capturing the dynamic of the working mother like the book does. The sentence construction that Pearson uses to describe women who want it all caused me to pause and ponder repeatedly. She starts off with this description of the "two kinds of mother":

"There is an uneasy standoff between the two kinds of mother which sometimes makes it hard for us to talk to each other. I suspect that the nonworking mother looks at the working mother with envy and fear because she thinks that the working mum has got away with it, and the working mum looks back with fear and envy because she knows that she has not. In order to keep going in either role, you have to convince yourself that the alternative is bad. The working mother says, Because I am more fulfilled as a person I can be a better mother to my children. And sometimes she may even believe it. The mother who stays home knows that she is giving her kids an advantage, which is something to cling to when your toddler has emptied his beaker of juice over your last clean T-shirt."

I found the following little quip hilarious, once I was finished feeling offended:

"Taking her eyes off the Career Path for a few months, she had found herself on what they call the Mummy Track. (The Mummy Track has the appearance of a through road; you can travel for many hundreds of miles along it before you notice you're going nowhere.)"

As the book progresses, Kate struggles more with how to do everything she is expected to do. She starts to make observations like this one:

"You needed a license to drive a car, but with a baby you were expected to pick it up as you went along. Becoming a parent was like trying to build a boat while you were at sea."

At the end of the book, Kate's life has spun so out of control that she makes a lists of reasons to give up work and keep working. Reason 5 on the list to give up working was especially poignant: "5. Because becoming a man is the waste of a woman."

So where does that leave us? With easy answers in this world where the opportunities for women seem endless? Hardly. I'll tell you where the pausing and pondering from this book left me. My parents gave me the gift of a college education which allowed me to have a full-time, working woman career for seven years. I loved the feel of my black leather brief case and I can't remember tiring of wearing suits and high heels. I adored giving presentations and sitting across from clients so that I could explain how their wastewater treatment plant could run more efficiently or how I could design a developer's parking lot so that it wouldn't flood anymore. Twelve years later, I found myself sitting across from a different client. This time, I was teaching my "client" how to read. And let me tell you, teaching my children to read has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and it pales in comparison to the fleeting satisfaction of those presentations I made in conference rooms. Why then, do I drool over my husband's career? Does my desire to work outside the home mean I should leave the work inside my home to someone else? I know lots of women who think the answer to that question is yes. And I know other women who think that my place in eternity would be compromised if I left the rearing of my children to someone else.

What I realized after finishing I Don't Know How She Does It is that the answer comes down to stewardship. I need to ask myself this two-part question: "What have I been given and how can I best take care of what I've been given?" I came pretty close to not having any children at all. Had that happened, I think putting my all into a career would have been a fine choice. But that didn't happen. I ended up with four kids and a husband who's career keeps him traveling constantly. There are no guarantees in life; for a plethora of reasons, it's possible that I may have to work full time during a different season in my life. The point is this: I have to take care of the people and circumstances I've been given at each stage in my life. I know many women who don't have a choice in this matter. With their circumstances, the way that they can best care for what they've been given is to work outside the home.

Much has been written about this topic. I'm drawn to every article and book I see that addresses it. The answers are not black and white in our culture. But they may become a bit easier for women as individuals, not as an entire gender, when we look at what we've been given and determine just how well we are "stewarding".