I Don't Know How She Does It: The Danger of Self-Directed Parenting

Here’s a snapshot from my life. I stand smiling, toddler on hip, with the sun streaming through my kitchen windows. I adeptly flip pancakes one-handed, and glide over to my impeccably dressed husband as he swoops in for a good morning kiss. Husband tells me he’s off to work, and suddenly, the scene turns into a tailspin. How can he possibly be leaving now, before I’ve had a shower? My six-year-old still needs a packed lunch, and she is sadly unable to construct a basic peanut butter sandwich or place a banana in a brown bag. Just as suddenly, all is well. The nanny has arrived! She’s late, but it’s more important for me to be liked than respected, so I say nothing, hit the showers, don my designer duds, and go to work.

That’s not actually my life. That’s the life of Kate Reddy, protagonist of I Don’t Know How She Does It. Now here’s a scene from my life. The Kid woke up early (i.e., before the crack of dawn), so my husband and I are splitting the morning into shifts—plenty of time before Sesame Street airs. It’s his turn to sleep, though it’s unlikely that he’ll reach the REM stage. I need to shower, because I know how many days this week I’ve run, and, well, the showers are falling by the wayside. So I plop the toddler on the bathmat, armed with her formerly-frozen waffle and her dolly. The shower begins OK, with mostly hot water, but then out of nowhere I’m being handed Mickey Mouse paint samples from Home Depot. Then dolly wants to join me, even though I’ll never get that marker stain off her head. By the end of the shower, I’m standing there in lukewarm water holding a toddler and dolly and feeling like the morning is a success. Time for the wet kid to wake up daddy while I put on something I scored at Target. Let’s just say I’m no Kate Reddy.

Kate Reddy, LOVES her work and her family. I really mean L-O-V-E: all caps necessary. I know that because Reddy, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, keeps telling me. Aside from her word, there’s really no evidence. I am also set up to believe, as a viewer of this mercifully-only-90-minute long atrocity, that she is really (no, REALLY) good at her job and at mothering. I don’t buy those claims either.

Consider the setup of the story, where Kate Reddy is a working mother (redundant? Yes.) with a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. The ever-radiant Christina Hendricks plays Kate’s best friend, a single mother named Allison. Greg Kinnear takes on the role of Kate’s longsuffering husband Richard, who, I might add, also happens to work and do a whole lot of parenting. Based on the asides by Hendricks about the double-standards for men and women in the workplace, and the wilted one-liners like “Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman,” the film feels like it’s trying too hard to be a workplace comedy with a feminist edge. Reviewers galore, with more movie-lore knowledge than me, point out again and again that Hollywood has been there and done that. This film is a derivative of a derivative.

A further problem for me centers on the comparison I’m supposed to be drawing from Kate’s best friend and her husband. Hendricks simply glows on screen, but in spite of also having a child (and no partner, unlike Kate) and a high-stakes career, she never seems ruffled. And that’s not because she’s perfect; it’s because she’s not trying to be. Granted, I don’t remember a single scene of Hendricks with her child, but the bake sale scene speaks volumes; Alison hands over unset gelatin and Kate provides a store-bought pie she’s distressed to make it look homemade. Alison walks away with a coy smile while Kate quips some thoroughly unmemorable line about being up all night baking. These women are positioned as parallels, but Alison just makes me believe that Kate is a mess not because she’s a mother, but because she is incompetent. Kate desperately needs that affirmation from the bake sale queens, and the entire storyline reads like the uncomfortably pitiful 1984 Sally Fields. But I don’t like Kate.

Then there’s poor Richard. I’d like to hear his point of view, but Kate mostly talks over him. Or shouts in a kind of whiny, pathetic way while he waits patiently for a turn. Kate goes on (and on, like those 90 minutes) about how she’s the only one who considers their kids, but it’s Richard who leaves work to get the kids after Kate forgets them. It’s Richard who holds together the broken promises when Kate jets just after Thanksgiving dinner. It’s Richard who manages to find a last-minute babysitter. And, yup, you guessed it, it’s Richard who fixes the carpeting issue that lead to the toddler’s fall. Remarkably, Richard has a job outside the home too, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Kate. Where Alison possesses all the zest that we’re expected to associate with fast-track careers, Richard brings all the virtues that we associate with loving parenthood. This film, despite its promises, seems unable to conceive of a character who does both. Kate keeps telling us that she manages work and home as an expert “juggler,” but her bumbling wardrobe malfunctions, “insufficiently groomed” hair, and profuse apologies only paint the picture of a fool.

To be fair, I went into this movie fully expecting to dislike it. I read the book (same title, written by Allison Pearson) and loathed that too. It is an amoral, vapid, materialistic collage of greed, lust, and selfishness. The plot of the film is more innocent, and Kate is more of a philanthropist than a shark, but the alterations just make her pathetic instead of despicable. Still, I went to this movie—and not just for the popcorn. I knew the critical consensus and yet still saw a lot of women on “mommy” message boards intrigued by the film’s concept; some are undoubtedly holdover fans from Sex and the City, others working mothers looking for some recognition that it actually is hard to balance work and family. I’m not sure the latter sort of viewer will find much of a champion in Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate.

I straddle the worlds of work and home too; it’s hard, but it’s not special. Parents do it all the time, many with insufficient childcare, unrewarding jobs, and a persistent inability to make ends meet. Many people make do with a whole lot less than Kate Reddy or the “momsters” depicted in I Don’t Know How She Does It. The SAHMS I see at the local library don’t spend their days lounging at the gym and looking down their noses at mothers who work outside the home. Most of the mothers I know paste together some pastiche of part-time work and childcare, without the aid of housekeepers, nannies, or the salaries that Kate and her husband rake in. Yet where Kate is full of complaints mixed with the reassurance that she just loves everything in her life and needs all of it to feel complete, the parents I know express their love through the simple pleasure of living life together.

Kate, in all her juggling feats, never manages that. As her husband Richard says in a rare (because we heard it) and remarkable line: “Even when you’re here, you’re not here.” Maybe Kate should add “Be present” to one of her infamous lists where nothing gets done. Richard’s line reminds me of the famous Biblical sisters Mary and Martha. Playing host to Jesus, Mary basks in the glow of her Savior, lavishing him with attention and soaking up his presence. Martha works, and I can imagine her making a list just like Kate does throughout the film, but Jesus ultimately tells Martha that Mary makes the better choice. It’s hard (no, impossible) to be present all the time, but the problem with striving for it all means that most of it is junk. I can try to give Kate the benefit of the doubt, to assume that her motives are pure and she sincerely loves her family and her work and wants the best for all involved. Yet the truest line in the film comes from a character we’re set up to see as Kate’s antagonist; her mother-in-law counsels her that it doesn’t actually have to be so complicated. Kate is dismissive, resistant to truth from this unfriendly source. Where Martha learns to turn her gaze to Christ, Kate’s only ever looking out for number one: “Me without that job isn’t me. But also me without you and Ben and Emily is…nothing.” I think this is supposed to be the heartwarming reconciliation between Kate and Richard, but it just perpetuates the same cycle of Kate and more Kate and more Kate. The film and its main character ultimately suffer the same flaw—too much Kate.

So in honor of Kate Reddy, the working mother who represents no one but herself, I offer the following list: simplify, count your blessings, keep your sense of humor, bask in the present.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • http://www.traceyster.com Tracey

    As disturbing as this movie sounds…it unfortunately may be a depiction of what society is “selling” as motherhood. Happy to know you, like me, realize that it is a myth and far from what the gift of motherhood is for woman and child. And for the record – I believe motherhood is our opportunity to live as Christ…selfless. Blessings to you!


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