In 2011, Sarah Jessica Parker starred in a movie called “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” which was based on Allison Pearson’s debut novel. The protagonist, Kate Reddy, plays the role of a super-mom. She does it all. She’s a financial analyst who has just developed a proposal that could save money for senior citizens; its acceptance means a lot of traveling, away from home, her husband, and her two small children.
On the business front, it means spending a lot of time with a powerful businessman, underhanded competition from her male co-workers, intellectual stimulation, and professional achievement that could lead to her being taken seriously by her boss and peers — all men. Kate Reddy is the modern woman: she’s a mom, a loving wife, a hungry and determined analyst, ambitious and intelligent. And let’s not forget that she’s also pretty, thin, and sweet. These are the main ingredients for female perfection.
Throughout the movie, we see Kate running around like a chicken without a head, excuse the chiche. Except she does have a head — a brilliant one. In the first scene, she’s rushing home at night, past the kids’ bedtime, realizing that she hasn’t baked a cake for a cake sale at their school. She knows that she will face ridicule from the stay-at-home moms who always look perfect and who look down at her for working, and therefore, cheating her kids from an emotional connection to their mother. She buys the cake, tosses flour all over it, and takes it in the next morning as if she had made it herself.
She rushes from city to city, from work to school, from school to work. Her older daughter is disenchanted with her for not being there like all the other mothers are, and her son, still a toddler, is too young to understand what’s going on. Her husband wants more intimacy, and he gets frustrated with her because she’s all over the place; when she’s with the family, her head is at work, developing the proposal and trying to win a buyer. It is understood that he’s a nice guy, a family man, who also feels the brunt of her refusal to let any part of her objectives with mothering and with work fall to pieces.
The part of the movie that I liked most — and could relate to — was towards the end, when she rejects the love offer of her business partner because she loves her husband, and rushes to catch her daughter at school. Kate had promised her daughter that they would build a snowman, and after letting her down during the family vacation, she couldn’t let her down again. We see Kate rushing through the city, always at full speed, in high heels, on icy snow, desperately trying to catch up to the people she loves the most — her family — and whom she knows bear the brunt of her ambitions.
When she catches up to them at the schoolyard, she tells her husband that she can do this — she can do it all: be a mother and a business woman. She cannot do it any other way. If she doesn’t have her work, she cannot be a good mother. Her work makes her a good mother. Feeding her hungers allows her to feed those she loves.
I liked this concession because it describes me. I have to work. For me, it’s not a choice. I know the kind of mom I am when I am not working, and it’s nothing to brag about. I like having an office, teaching, writing, talking about books, and I love getting a paycheck. My job is not like hers. Academia has opened its doors to women, but the financial world of Kate Reddy is still very male dominated. You have to be hungry, ambitious, and on top of your game in this business. Missing work to care for sick children is not looked kindly upon.
Kate Reddy is impressive, but not very realistic. The real Kate Reddy would not look so beautiful, rushing about the city, in sleet and snow, in high heels; she would not have such a relenting husband, and she would probably have a full-time-nanny on hand to pick up the pieces she lets fall behind. The real Kate Reddy would not be constantly smiling; the relentless vibrancy that exudes from Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, as it does in all her Sex and the City exploits, would not have lasted a week let alone the two hours this movie took to get to its ending. Even frustrated Kate Reddy is smiling, problem-solving, and cleverly getting everything right. I’m not saying that it cannot be done. There are a lot of women who work full-time and parent full-time, but the weight of their life is etched in the contours of their face. There is fatigue, frustration, and probably a few tears of dissatisfaction. And the Kate Reddy’s of the real world cannot do all of this alone.
The part that irritated me more was the ending. There is a birthday party that she alone has set up for her son. It’s in their house, and as she’s blowing up balloons for the kids, a friend of the family asks her husband what it is again that she does. How do you not know what Kate Reddy does for a living? This is a sore point for me. The first question a man is asked is what his profession is. It is always assumed that a woman is a mother, a wife, a homemaker. Nothing more.
Kate Reddy is a financial analyst. A successful one. She just earned a promotion. But her husband doesn’t say any of this as he stares at her, the camera capturing her effervescent smile in slow motion. “She is a juggler,” he beams with pride.
Really? A juggler? That’s the best he can do? His pride in her is not that she is a brilliant business woman, who is better than the men in her field and has earned great respect from the firm’s owner; it’s not in the fact that she has created a proposal that will change the way we look at senior citizen’s social security savings; it’s not in the fact that she has moved heaven and earth to be at two places at once — her work and her family; it’s not in the fact that she refuses to allow work to take precedence over her children or vice versa; it’s not even in the fact that she is a good, attentive, and loving mom.
His pride is in the fact that she juggles all aspects of her life, and she does it with a smile, pleadingly, apologetically. Without complaining. Without whining. She plays all the roles — masculine and feminine — worker and mother – and she does it without a whimper or a request for help. She even apologizes for her excessive desires. She’s every man’s woman: she wants to do it all — fine. Just don’t whine about it. And don’t ask for help. Accommodate all our needs, look vibrant while you’re drowning in exhaustion, and we will all just get along fine. Great message.
This is why when I finished watching the movie, I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. It was difficult to articulate what exactly I was feeling at first, but this is it in its entirety: these are her choices, society tells her, and if she wants to do it all, then she has to do it with a smile — a juggler’s smile.