The work-family dilemma.

AuthorConniff, Ruth

I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

by Allison Pearson Knopf, 2002. 338 pages. $23.

Can Working Families Ever Win? A New Democracy Forum on Helping Parents Succeed at Work and Caregiving

by Jody Heymann et al. Beacon Press, 2002. 128 pages. $16.

Getting By on the Minimum: The Lives of Working-Class Women

by Jennifer Johnson Taylor & Francis Books, Inc., 2002. 229 pages. $85.

Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World

by William J. Doherty and Barbara Z. Carlson Owl Books, 2002. 175 pages. $14.

In a funny novel that promises to be the next Bridget Jones's Diary (the film is already in the works at Miramax), Allison Pearson does a send-up of the life of a harried working mother. Like all good satire, it mines real pain for laughs. The book begins when the title character, Kate Reddy, jet lagged and just back from an overseas trip for work, frantically tries to make it look like she's baked the store-bought pies she is sending to a school event for her daughter, smashing them with a rolling pin so they have a homemade, crumbly look. Through the course of the story, Reddy slowly loses it, as she faces the increasingly impossible and ridiculous demands of doing well at work, for her children, and by her own perfectionist standards. Her main outlet is e-mail conversation with warm and funny female friends. Reddy shares her scars with them, from sleep deprivation to office sexual harassment. She tells of conducting a meeting for her macho male colleagues after removing a spit-up stained jacket only to reveal a transparent blouse and sexy bra she had put on, unseeing, at 4 A.M. after finally resettling the baby.

Pearson was on Oprah the other day, doing a much straighter version of her take on working motherhood. Society simply hasn't adjusted to the fact that there are mothers at work, she said. She issued a plea for flex time and other family-friendly workplace policies.

Our heroine, Kate Reddy, knows how plaintive that plea sounds. Reddy is put in charge of the window-dressing "diversity" panel in her own frat-house investment banking firm. While the firm wins awards for its family-friendly policies, Reddy kills herself with overwork to compensate for her perceived "lack of commitment." She takes the grotesque misogyny of her bosses in stride. Instead of quitting, she employs the book Toddler Taming to get remarkable results with her infantile boss. Still, as she works herself sick and makes millions for her firm, accolades and bonuses go to her male colleagues. Meanwhile, her heart is breaking for the time she's missing with her children.

I don't know whether this comic manifesto for upper-middle-class strivers will be seen as pro- or antifeminist. Reddy has enormous guilt and regret about the sacrifices she's made for her career, even as she disdains the smug "Mother Superior" types she imagines judging her for not staying home. In one of the saddest scenes, she force-weans her baby and drives to the airport for a business trip, her breasts weeping milk.

Pearson interviewed many real women before she wrote her novel. She deals honestly and wittily with the terrible ambivalence they feel and the price they pay for being mothers in a ruthlessly market-driven society.

Still, she is treading in a minefield. Her book may be used to try to restart the tired catfight between working and stay-at-home moms. No doubt she'll be accused of bellyaching about the problems of privileged white women...

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