Almost a decade has elapsed since the publication of Allison Pearson’s best-selling book about a harried working mother struggling to balance family life with a career. Back then, I Don’t Know How She Does It seemed to speak directly to the “having it all” generation of women – the first, really, for whom motherhood and going out to work were not considered mutually exclusive.
Kate Reddy, the book’s central protagonist, appears to be doing a fine job of jetting back and forth across the Atlantic for her high-flying job in finance, while delivering beautifully distressed “home-made” cakes to her children’s school’s bake sale, and staying awake just long enough to read them Owl Babies before collapsing, exhausted, into bed. It is thanks to “the list”, filled with the hilariously disparate threads of her life (“angel wings, personal shopper how much? Stop eating NOW, pelvic floor squeeeeze, wean Ben off dummy before Xmas with in-laws, stuffing, hamster??”), that she manages to keep her head above water. But of course, she isn’t really. What the book is in fact saying, despite its supposed modernity, is that women cannot “have it all”; not if they want to do any of it well, at least.
Ten years on, and with ever more mothers in the workplace (in the US and UK, well over half of mothers now work), such a conceit seems outdated; something that the film version of the book, currently showing in UAE cinemas and starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate, has addressed by making some major plot changes. It’s not a terribly good film, and it lacks the humour and sadness of the book. But at its centre lies the same question: is it possible to do it all? We took some working mothers to see the movie, and asked them to tell us how their experiences compare with Kate’s. What are the challenges involved in being a “supermum”, and how, most importantly, do they do it?
Jennifer Waugh: A doctor working in child and adolescent public health, she lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and 1-year-old son, William
I loved the part in the movie where, when asked what Kate did, her husband called her the “juggler”. I often do feel like a juggler, but then I have always enjoyed juggling (even before being a mum). I guess it also helps that I don’t need much sleep.
In terms of the challenges involved in being a working mother, I think each person is different. One of the most helpful things that a friend said to me was that just as each child is different, so is each mother. For some, being a full-time mum makes them happy, while others find it frustrating. I think that I am the latter and am a much better mum because I enjoy my work and then can come home and enjoy family time.
I think that one of the key secrets to success is having an amazing husband. Kate did and so do I.
Katrina Anderson: A marketing director with Twofour54 who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and 1-year-old daughter, Olivia
I thought Kate’s depiction of a working mum was controlled and loving but it was missing the guilt: the guilt you feel for not fulfilling the stereotypical role of a mother, and the overcompensation we offer both at work and home. For me, the main challenges are trying to keep in touch with your child and understand her little quirks: what she likes and doesn’t like and where she is development-wise. Also trying to keep on top of your job – you don’t want people thinking your commitment or your skill level has changed since having a child, so you work harder so there is no chink in your armour.
Then there is trying to maintain a strong relationship. Connecting is so important, and to ensure your child has a stable, loving household, the partnership needs to remain strong. Finally, you have to try to find some time for you.
One quote from the movie really hit home for me: “I have two lives and I don’t have time to enjoy either of them.” I have turned it over in my head since seeing the movie and am determined to make changes. However, I am extremely lucky that I have a strong support system in place with my husband and Olivia’s nanny. My husband even spent months teaching my daughter the word “mum” so it was her first word. If Liv learns something new throughout the day. it is captured on film so I can experience it first-hand, but I have been there for all big milestones, thank goodness. .
It is possible to have it all, but you need to alter your perspective on your role, and remind yourself how you are being a good role model to your child, how you are contributing to a financially stable future for your family. Also, don’t try to be superwoman and do everything yourself. No one offers you a medal for that. So be strong and smart, ask for help and do it yourself where it counts. It is a heavy load to carry but many hands make light work.
Ros Alston: The community manager for Aldar Properties lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two sons, 3-year-old Rex and 1-year-old Rafe
For me, the film did not focus enough on how difficult the balancing act can be, and it didn’t go into much depth about the relationship issues that can arise when both parents work. It got the gist of it, with Kate being sad because she’s missed things (her son’s first haircut), and the rushing here and there, and the unkempt hair. I can definitely relate to that. I never have “done” hair.
There are four aspects to the working mother: the working woman, your own woman, the mother and the wife. It’s difficult to balance all of that and keep everyone happy. When Rex was little and I’d been back at work for two months, I found the balance easy. But it’s different now. I’ve got two children at different schools, one who’s having problems settling in, and I feel like I’m being pulled in so many different directions.
Like Kate, I’ve got a fantastic nanny but I can’t rely on her for everything. She doesn’t drive and I wouldn’t send the boys out with her alone. Rex was invited on a playdate the other day but I had to say, “Sorry, Rex can’t come because I work full time.” I feel that it’s unfair to him, that he can’t socialise with children outside school because I’m at work.
I think it is possible to have it all, but at what cost? Something’s got to give and you do find yourself cutting corners. At times, my relationship with my husband has suffered because of the stresses of work. It has made me want to reassess my priorities because our marriage is the most important thing.
I would describe myself as a “mother who works”, rather than a “working mum”. First and foremost I am a mother. Everything else comes second.
I, Katie Boucher, am no Kate Reddy – let me make that clear. My job does not require me to fly out of the house at 7.30am, heels clacking, to an office that demands the majority of my waking hours, including weekends. I decided, after my son was born, that returning to my desk when he was just shy of three months old was not what I wanted. Luckily for me – and I really do know how lucky I am – I was able to continue writing from home and to get the best of both worlds. I love looking after my son, but I also love it when somebody else plays stacking cups with him (I have help), and I can mentally clack out of the house myself for a few hours. Reading about Kate’s predicament in the book – and to a much lesser extent, watching it in the film – I just felt sad. Sad that her children clearly needed her and that her job meant she wasn’t able to be there for them. And sad that neither part of her life was, as a result, making her happy. The solution seemed so obvious but sadly, real life, for many women in Kate’s position, is not so black and white.
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