I Don’t Know How She Does It: A Book Review


So I just read I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother, and I want you to read it too.  It has some beautiful sentences—some that startled me into laughter, others that made me sigh oh my, yes—Allison Pearson is a writer.  But the main reason I loved this book is that it tells the truth about modern motherhood.  The whole, fragmented, pissed off, full of love and anguish truth.

Of course, the book tells the truth in the form of a fictional narrative, but two of Ms. Pearson’s literary devices are so real that I bet they’re sitting on the kitchen counter or in the head of every mother reading this right now:  the court of motherhood and the list of things to remember.

The Court of Motherhood

In the book, the Court of Motherhood takes place in Kate’s dreams.  Kate is British, living on the outskirts of London and working as a fund manager for a large financial firm in the city.  In her dreams, Kate stands before the judge in the Court of Motherhood—an old white man—and must answer to his charges.  She doesn’t know her children well enough, she didn’t do this or that for them, she doesn’t make homemade meals—what kind of mother is she? 

Kate tries to defend herself, but no matter what she says, she is condemned as a bad mother.

Because this book focuses on working moms, most of the accusations are about Kate being too busy to be a proper mother.  But I believe the court of motherhood is such a societal constant that it is in the head of every mother, working or at home.  The list of what it takes to be a good mother is so long, so detailed, so convoluted, that good mother has become synonymous with “super mommy”—an impossible standard for anyone to meet.

Yes, every mother knows about the Court of Motherhood, for every mother must answer to it.  And until moms learn, as Kate does, to politely tell the court to stick it where the sun don’t shine, we will never be good enough in our own estimation.

Must Remember

Ah, the list. I know it well.  The list runs in your head at night.  The list is on the refrigerator.  The list is on lots of little pieces of paper scattered throughout your home.  The list is in your pocketbook.  It is on the back of your hand, in your calendar, programmed into your phone.  The list, a constantly revolving piece of abstract machinery, is the only known proof of perpetual motion.  The list will outlive us all.

Every chapter in this book ends with the list:  Must Remember.  There is nothing to be done about the list, Kate knows that.  It isn’t going anywhere.  There are details for your job, for the care of your home, for the care of your children’s bodies, the care of your own body.  There are details to ensure the smooth running of your car, birthday parties, Christmas, your everlasting soul, and school activities.

But here’s the thing:  Kate doesn’t believe she can share the list.  And the list must be shared.

Kate’s husband, Richard, must learn to have the list running like a slick ribbon through his life too.  Or, failing that, he must learn to read Kate’s list, and to share it.  The list must be torn in two, to be carried like those necklaces that, when put together, form a heart.  If moms don’t share the list with dads, mothers will forever be harried, resentful, fragmented.  Kate’s husband knows that—and he also knows that he is not always the best at remembering the list.  But he’s next to her, willing to try.  She just has to let him.

Other Truths

While the court of motherhood and the list are the two most prevalent truths in this book, there are many others:

  • Where there’s money and power, there’s sexism and chauvinism.  Sexist, chauvinistic men need to be shown the door, swiftly.
  • Sometimes, women judge each other.  Not all of us, not all of the time—many of us are supportive of one another’s choices.  But it happens.  And it doesn’t help anyone.
  • There is value in being home with small children—value that does not come from housework and wiping snot from small noses.
  • There is value in working, even when you have small children—value that does not come from money and power.
  • There are no easy answers, and each mother must make her own way.

For each of these hard-won, hard-to-speak truths, I commend this book and its author.  Ms. Pearson allows Kate to be a real person—she is likeable, but she is far from perfect.  Kate, like all of us, must both admit her own part in things and relax.  Contradictory goals, perhaps, but she’s got what it takes.

A Note About the Movie

If you have seen the movie version of this book, a watered-down, Americanized piece of clutzy sentimentality starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear—you didn’t get the full story.  The movie is so concerned with making sure that working mothers are portrayed in a positive light—They really do love their children!  They’re working so hard!—that every truth of the book is polished away.  The Kate Reddy of this movie stumbles apologetically through her life; the original Kate wears Armani like armor.

While I applaud the idea that we should honor working moms, I also applaud the idea that we should honor stay at home moms—the book does both; the movie does neither.  In trying to ensure that working moms aren’t offended, the movie ensures only that the real work that must be done—honest examination of self and society—is swept under the rug.  And sweeping the real problem under the rug will land us all exactly where we are:  in the middle of the court of motherhood, trying not to forget a damn thing on that list.

6 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How She Does It: A Book Review

  1. Heather says:

    “The list must be torn in two, to be carried like those necklaces that, when put together, form a heart.”

    This is beautiful, Liz, and I fully agree.


  2. Stephanie says:

    Great posts as always. I was wondering about that movie, but I didn’t know it was based on a book. Either way, trailers for the movie spoke to me, “Look at her! She’s like Kelly Ripa in those Electrolux commercials, only more hip and without the washer and dryer!”—which is really the OPPOSITE message of the book, by the way it sounds. Even in the ads for the movie, they tried too hard.


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks Stephanie! I’m often frustrated by movie versions of books–I feel they leave out the central message too often, which is doubly frustrating if most people experience the movie and not the book!


  3. Astra says:

    I too am frustrated by movie versions of books – probably why I read a lot and go to the movies not a lot.
    Amazing post. I can’t wait to read this book and have it saved at my local library!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks, Astra–I’ll be interested to hear what you think after you read it! I read some reviews that took issue with the details of Kate’s life, and I could see their point (Kate’s job is extremely demanding and she does not have a supportive network of friends–two factors that aren’t true for every working mom), but for me the positive stuff outweighed the book’s flaws. Happy reading!


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