‘Careers are great, but babies are the best’: Two decades after she wrote bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It, ALLISON PEARSON reveals what she would call her book now… I Don’t Know Why I Bothered!
I was at a dinner the other night when a glamorous stranger came up and hugged me. ‘Allison, you don’t know me, but my baby just turned 20 and I wanted to thank you. I wouldn’t have him if it wasn’t for your book.’
Lois had read I Don’t Know How She Does It, my novel about a woman trying to juggle a career with a young family, and decided to get pregnant. Although my heroine Kate Reddy is worn to a frazzle with a horrible boss and 37 tasks on her To Do List, she maintains that life without her daughter Emily and son Ben would be ‘like a world without music or lightning’.
Lois’s son, and several other children I seem to have accidentally inspired, are celebrating their 20th birthdays this year along with my novel which went on to be an international bestseller, translated into 32 different languages. Oprah Winfrey called it ‘a Bible for the working mother’.
Back then I remember looking at my friends in their 30s and early 40s and thinking we’d been sold a pup. They called us the Having It All generation. We were mostly the daughters of stay-home mothers who’d left school at 16 and done a job (secretary, nurse, teacher) before starting a family in their 20s, giving up work, wholly dependent on their husband for housekeeping money.
Those of us born in the 1960s and 1970s were supposed to be the lucky ones. Not for us the humiliation of relying on a breadwinner; we would make our own money.
Allison Pearson with her children Evie, 7, and Thomas, 3
That was the theory anyway. In practice, it didn’t feel all that great as we got to do our fathers’ jobs while retaining our mothers’ responsibilities. The result was a brutal double-shift that was driving the women I knew round the bend. ‘It’s why we feel like we’re going mad,’ I said.
My former editor proved the point over a working lunch one day when she delved into her handbag to get out her credit card to pay the bill and, instead of a purse, produced a vial of golden fluid.
‘Oh, God,’ she blushed, ‘It’s Henry’s urine sample, I forgot to drop it off at the GP.’
How many male executives were in danger of producing a child’s urine sample from their briefcase? None, obviously. (Wee-wee and doctors’ appointments were a mother’s job.)
How many male bosses had to dash out of the office to pick up a hamster for a child’s birthday and then leave the small creature in a cage under their desk when their biggest client came in for a meeting? ‘It started going round on this squeaky wheel,’ Karen, a solicitor, recalled in horror.
We felt intense pressure to be the homely, nurturing mum our own mothers had been. But, always short of time, guilt was our constant companion.
The first chapter of I Don’t Know How She Does It begins with a scene where Kate is ‘distressing’ supermarket mince pies at midnight to make them look home-made at the school carol concert. (I’m afraid we lacked the confidence to rock up with a box of Tesco’s finest and earn disapproving looks from the non-working mums whose judgment we feared).
Two decades ago, there was no work-life balance. Women who dared to request fewer days in the office, working from home or a job-share so they could be around more for the kids, ended up on the Mummy Track, a one-way route to nowhere.
The fathers in the office, who weren’t the people with a permanently spinning Rolodex in their head – did Sam need new school shoes or when was Sophie’s ballet class – poached the clients/promotions/pay rises of the women who were.
For many women of my generation, sexism was still the air they breathed in the 2000s.
‘Frankly, you would be better off in my firm coming out as a cocaine addict than a mother,’ a banker called Helen told me. ‘At least they have a programme for recovering drug addicts. Motherhood is a lifelong and incurable condition.’
If you wanted to get on, you just sucked it up. Maternity leave was better than it had been – in the Fifties and Sixties many employers required women to leave on learning of their pregnancy and returning to their job was not an option. But many of us still took barely four months off work.
I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011) Starring Sarah Jessica Parker (left), Emma Rayne Lyle (back center), Greg Kinnear (right)
One steely high achiever who had a miscarriage on an escalator on the way to a client presentation, washed and dried herself with paper towels in the Ladies and carried on.
Leaving a small baby when your boobs were still full of milk could be painful in every sense. One publisher I knew was having lunch with the famously chauvinist American author Norman Mailer when she felt her blouse getting soaked; she fled to the restaurant’s broom cupboard where she pumped milk in the dark.
These were our ‘war stories’. The crazy, hilarious, often heartbreaking things that happened when we were supposed to be ‘having it all’, but were actually doing it all.
When my book was published, I got thousands of letters and emails from readers.
‘But that’s my life you’re talking about,’ they marvelled. The way we lived our office lives as double-agents, hiding our domestic role, never displaying photographs of our kids as male colleagues did because that would make us look like we were ‘lacking in commitment’.
No wonder so many women of my generation left it too late to have children. A lot decided they simply couldn’t make it work. No, let’s be honest, work made it impossible to make it work. Maternity discrimination still causes thousands of women to lose their jobs.
And today there are still toxic work environments where thirty-something women feel scared to take time out of their careers. Science and research labs, both male-dominated fields, are full of dinosaurs.
One study in 2007 showed that 40 per cent of female graduates born in 1970 were still childless by the age of 35, a staggering increase of 20 per cent in just over a decade. A third of female university graduates will never have children at all.
There were some women for whom that was a positive choice; but for too many it was about postponing getting pregnant as long as possible, to reach a higher rung on the career ladder and not p*** off the boss, and then discovering that your body – the obstetricians charmingly called us ‘elderly primigravida’ – would not co-operate.
Think about the agony and sorrow behind those childless statistics. Two of my dear friends ended up leaving it too late and not having kids, a lifelong regret. When you’re younger, and enjoying all the fruits of your hard work, and giddily tumbling in and out of love affairs, it can be easy to think there’s plenty of time to get pregnant and Mr Righter – the superior model of Mr Right – will be along in a minute. Well, sorry, there isn’t, and he probably won’t.
Girls on the Pill, who have spent the whole of their adult lives trying not to fall pregnant, can be extremely deluded about the difficulties of conceiving after a certain age. There is always freezing your eggs, or IVF, they think. They feel reassured by famous women in their late 40s, even 50s, blessed with twins; what they don’t see is the eye-watering bill for endless rounds of IVF. They also don’t realise that, by the time they hit their 40s, it probably won’t work.
IVF is gruelling – both physically and emotionally – with a low success rate. According to the NHS, the chances of having an IVF baby are 11 per cent for women aged 40 to 42 and just 5 per cent for women between 43 and 44.
Don’t be conned into thinking you can wait for your reluctant partner to say he’s ready to be a father. This is the fallacy which we might call: Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Bastard.
With women postponing motherhood, only-child families, once rare, have doubled (from 11 per cent to 22 per cent). Astonishingly, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) predicts that one-child families will make up 50 per cent of all families in the UK within the next seven years. Is that parents actively choosing to deprive their child of a sibling?
More likely, I think, it’s down to prohibitive childcare costs and to more women postponing their first pregnancy until their late 30s.
My mum had me aged 24; I didn’t have my daughter until I was 36. Was this really a great leap forward for womankind or was it evidence that females had been allowed to succeed in a man’s world, but the price to be paid was pausing your biological clock until the alarm wouldn’t stop ringing?
Looking back over two decades, I think the cost was too high. Both to individual women and to our society which has seen a huge deficit open up in caring. My mother was one of millions of grandparents who spent a chunk of her retirement taking care of my daughter and son, now both in their 20s. She was brilliant at it, but I will be well over 70 if my daughter has her first baby at the same age that I had her.
I want to be an active loving grandmother (what sweeter pleasure in life than to kiss your own baby’s baby?), but the choice the Having It All generation made to postpone childbirth may make that difficult.
At least, we thought, our girls will see us as fabulous role models. Well, yes and no. One friend whose daughter watched her mother run ragged with a full-on job said one day: ‘Mum, why didn’t you marry a rich man?’ Ouch! Perhaps, if I was writing the book today it would have to be called, I Don’t Know Why I Bothered?
Blimey, are our daughters really reverting to a more calculating, Jane Austen view of marriage? I don’t detect much enthusiasm among my daughter’s peer group for the kind of headbanging hard work and lack of balance many of their mothers endured.
Resentment between generations of working women is not much discussed but is very real. My generation may give a major eye-roll when younger women who get a year’s paid maternity leave say how difficult it is. Yeah, right!
‘The staff come to me, announcing this huge amount of time they’ll be off with their baby,’ says Penny, a senior advertising exec who basically ‘had my kids in my lunch-hour and got straight back to work’. ‘And I think: ‘Oh, great! Good for you! What am I supposed to do with our clients?’ ‘
In the end it took a pandemic to prove that working from home was not only possible, but good for families and firms. Young job applicants today are more likely to quiz a firm about flexible working and family friendly policies than promotion prospects: we would never have dared do that.
Back then, many of the still predominantly male bosses were clueless as to how demanding things could be for a mother who went out to work. I still treasure a letter I got from Stephen, a senior partner in an accountancy firm. ‘Until I read your book, I honestly had no idea what my female staff were coping with,’ he said, ‘I appreciate them so much more now.’
Nowadays, male executives play a much more hands-on role as dads and their wives are likely to have a career. Many more bosses are women, too. That has made a huge difference in transforming workplace attitudes.
Most crucially, the rights of working mothers have improved dramatically. In 1996, when I had my first baby, paid maternity leave to which all employed women were entitled was 18 weeks. Most women I knew didn’t dare take even that much; the ambitious were back at their desk the day after a C-section. It was madness; bad for baby and mother.
In 2023, women can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave. If they return to work after six months, they have the right to return to exactly the same job they had before, which prevents them being dumped on the Mummy Track. It’s a big step towards a kinder, more civilised society. How I wish that time and job security had been available for my knackered generation of working mums.
My daughter, now aged 27, and her generation of young women are no longer in thrall to the cruel myth of Having It All. I’m glad they won’t feel they have to hide being mothers in the office as crazy Kate Reddy once did.
Let’s face it, women will always be their own harshest critics, but I reckon it’s more acceptable today not to be a domestic goddess and a full-time workplace superstar. Cheating is now legitimate. One of my proudest achievements came when Marks & Spencer produced a range of pre-distressed mince pies that looked just like home-made!
I hope that my novel played some small part in improving the lives of our daughters and grand-daughters, and their daughters yet to be born. Just remember, girls. Careers are great, but babies are the best.
The 20th anniversary edition of I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson (with a new introduction by the author) is out now (£9.99, Vintage Publishing).
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