Kids, Husband, Work and Sanity

Ask any mom what book is hot right now and she’ll most likely make reference to one of the funniest, most well received I-can-relate books to come along for moms in a long, long time.

Most, like myself, felt an instant bond — an immediate connection — to the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother.” This hilarious, best-selling debut novel is written by Allison Pearson, columnist with the London Evening Standard. It focuses on the often funny, often sad working mother-angst experienced by heroine Reddy, who is the mother of two preschoolers and the star of an aggressive London brokerage firm. She can juggle nine different currencies in five different time zones and get herself and two children washed and dressed and out of the house in half an hour.

In a delightful diary/to-do list format, the author provides laugh-out-loud accounts of Reddy’s journey to reconcile her two passions — work and motherhood. The end result is that Pearson has truly created one of the best portrayals of modern motherhood out there, soon to be a Miramax motion picture.

I talked with Pearson recently about the “birth” of Reddy, how the book has changed her life and how it’s changed attitudes among many working, stressed-for-success mothers.

The author shared that after she gave birth to her second child, a son now 4, Pearson befriended another working mom in an exercise class who told some hilarious and “jaw-dropping” tales about working in the male-dominated world of mutual bonds and investments.

How much of Pearson is in Reddy?

“Well, I have no high-flying career in finance,” she said recently by phone from her London home. “Before the book, I thought the Dow Jones was some nice guy who lived in New Jersey and played golf.”

But Pearson picked the brains of her investment-savvy friend, tossed in some of her own baby-food-on-the-work-clothes stress stories and her indefatigable dry British humor.

Pearson admits the most autobiographical portion is her relationship with her own children, including both intense working-mom’s guilt and incredibly powerful love.

In one of the book’s most heart-wrenching passages, Kate and daughter Emily are in the car and young Emily waxes poetic about wishing all the weeks and the weekends were switched so that all the Mummies could see the children more than just the weekend.

“I remember all the feelings I had of not wanting to hear this. It was confusion mingled with shame and guilt,” I think it’s something that mothers everywhere can entirely relate to,” she said.

The amusing Reddy’s persona fell into the author’s lap after being invited to take part in a conference on work/life balance at the London Business School. “All of these professional women were sharing stories and this American lawyer stood up and related that she had intercepted an e-mail from a senior partner that read, “Why does childbirth have to take so long?” Pearson said with a laugh. “Well the whole room just exploded, I mean, we’re talking laughter with tears and everything. It was off the scale outrageous.”

The witty author said that’s when she realized that her heroine would be funny, too. “I heard a laugh in my own head and that’s when I first heard Kate Reddy,” she said, adding that the book had to be humorous. “If I’d written a book called, ‘Ladies, Your Life Stinks,’ I would have sold about four copies. People love to laugh at things with which they identify.”

Pearson, now a weekly columnist in the London Evening Standard and a member of BBC2’s Newsnight Review Panel, first began writing about Reddy in columns appearing in the Daily Standard.

She is quick to point out that only motherhood could have motivated her to pen the novel, a book that Publisher’s Weekly calls “a hilarious and sometimes poignant update on contemporary women in the workplace.”

“I have always been a compulsively hard worker, always been an achiever. I felt that the children would come and just fit and you’d just carry on as before like a 24-hour lunatic,” she said. “Then the kids come and then it’s ‘Oh, I see, you’re the center of the universe now.’”

Pearson writing the book and caring for two young children presented its own Kate Reddy moments. “By the end Evie — she’s 6 — was standing next to the computer saying, ‘Have you finished your book yet, Mum? Please have you finished your book?’ The irony of a stressed-out working mother writing a novel about a stressed-out working mother was hard to bear at times.”

Since the publication of the hardback version in late 2002, the book has sold more than a million copies in 27 countries. The paperback version debuts this month.

She and hubby, the New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, and their two children are in the midst of a move to a new house outside of London. Her children are starting new schools this month and then she starts on her paperback tour. “Sometimes I say, ‘I’m not going!’ But I’ll be gone for a month and then be home. What can you do?” she said.

Author Allison Pearson readily admits she’s unwittingly fallen in the role of work/life expert. “It’s quite strange to become a spokeswoman for the whole balancing work/life issue. You don’t write the book because you know the answers, I think, but because you know the questions.”

She’s not sure employers “get it” yet, but says those that do are strengthening their businesses more than they realize. “Employers lose a tremendous amount of female talent every year. The more forward-thinking businesses are the ones taking a look at hours, offering flexibility and are attracting and retaining top-notch female employees. They are the ones who’ve made the business case for it.”