An Interview with Allison Pearson
your first novel. What made you decide to write it?
I read a Stress Survey in Good Housekeeping magazine two years ago. It
said that all that most working women wanted for Mother's Day was a bit of
time to themselves. It also said they were too tired to have sex with their
husbands and felt they were failing both at work and as a parent. I thought
about my life and the lives of my friends with young children and I realized we
were all being driven crazy by the pressure we were under juggling work and
family. I thought it was a great subject - borderline farce, but full of
incredibly poignant moments as you find yourself torn between responsibility to
your children and the office. I wrote an article about working mothers in my
opinion column in the London Evening Standard and I got literally hundreds of
letters from women, all saying: That's My Life! It felt as though I'd opened
a small door onto a parallel world and on the other side was this huge amount of
Then, I attended a discussion on work-life balance at the London Business School
and the professional women in the room started to share their stories. One
lawyer stood up and said she had intercepted a memo from a senior partner in her
firm which said: "Why does childbirth have to take so long?" The room
erupted and I heard this dark, bitter laugh in my own head. It was Kate Reddy
laughing. She didn't have a name back then, but I knew she had a terrific
sense of humour. Soon after, I began a weekly column in the London Daily
Telegraph describing Kate's adventures at work and at home. I'd like to say
that I created her, but very soon she took over and wrote me, rather than me
A new book about fertility and working mothers has startled American women
making the cover of Time magazine this spring. (It is called, Creating A
Professional Women and the Quest for Children by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.) Is it
surprising to you that women might "miss" the chance to have children
because they are so preoccupied with career-success?
It doesn't surprise me at all. The mothers I interviewed when I was
researching my book all said that in order to be successful in their careers,
they needed to hide the fact that they had kids one woman actually said her
firm would be more forgiving if you were caught in possession of crack cocaine
than children! Most of the women went to great lengths to hide the fact they had
kids never displaying photographs, never mentioning any childcare problems,
always making a Man's Excuse if they were late ie, trouble with the car or
the traffic rather than a sick baby.
Because the corporate culture is hostile to mothers who are deemed to Lack
Commitment, there is no good time for a young ambitious person to have a baby so
she postpones it and postpones it, always thinking it might get easier later on
and it never does, and then it's too late, which I think is a tragedy. One of
the themes of I Don't Know How She Does It is the miraculous love that babies
bring with them, how they change your heart. The idea that women have missed out
on that miracle because they felt that their employers wouldn't tolerate it
makes me feel incredibly sad.
What do you recommend to working mothers who for financial or personal
reasons want it all to move up the corporate ladder AND have hands on care
of their children?
A: I think that many mothers who work need to work either for personal
fulfillment or just to pay all those bills! But I don't think that you can
move up the corporate ladder and have hands-on care of the children how can
you? With the long hours demanded, you will be lucky if you make it home for
bath and bedtime. Most of the women I spoke to favoured some kind of
flexible working where they could be home more and then work, often late into
the night. I only wish that more businesses felt they could let women do that
it would be productive for all concerned. And humane too!
It seems that you think that women are better at juggling or multi-tasking
than men. Why do you think that is?
As Kate says, "Life is a road for a man, for women it's a map." I
think we're wired differently. If you give your husband more then three things
to remember, in general, the smoke will start coming out of his ears! I guess it
must be something to do with Early Woman being a gatherer needing to go out
and pick berries while keeping an ear out for the children and planning what
they're going to have for that Cave Party a week from Tuesday. Men hunted,
women gathered: I think that's why they can cut everything out except the task
in hand and we find that hard.
Is it possible to have two high-powered working parents in one family?
Well, we have two in our house, so it's certainly possible, although
definitely not easy! There are times when you are both insanely busy and the
household is pushed to snapping point. It's usually over something small, like
why didn't someone else notice we were out of kitchen towel or loo paper? What
you need is really good childcare. As many of us now live far from our families,
we can't call on that great network of grandmas and aunts that would feel so
much better than handing over your baby to a comparative stranger. I believe
there comes a point when one person it's usually the woman has to
scale back her commitments. Not being able to make a home because there's no
time can feel frustrating and painful. You want to do it as well as your own Mum
After all these years of a "women's movement," and the
implementation of laws regarding sexual harassment, do you think workplaces are
still sexist environments?
Obviously, things are much better than they were, but Kate Reddy's
world the financial sector has been slower to change than most. During
my research, the women who were helping me on some of the guys emails that come
out of these places they were so specific they'd make a gynecologist want
to go and lie down.
What I really think is that women were allowed into the workplace, but the
workplace never stopped being male. The long-hours culture is male (women want
to get home), the dick-swinging meetings culture is male (for men meetings are
arenas of display, women want to make a quick decision and get on with their
work), the politicking and oiling up to senior colleagues is male (most women
don't have the stomach for it). One banker I spoke too said, "If the office
was full of estrogen instead of testosterone, you'd see a huge and beneficial
Kate Reddy feels fiercely competitive with the stay-at-home moms who she
fears judge her for not being a good enough mother. You've observed a very real
tension of modern day life this competition/anxiety that makes working moms
and stay-at-home moms view each other warily. Which group judges the other more
harshly do you think?
I think it's very complicated. As a working mother, I often look at
stay-home Mums with a mixture of envy and anxiety are they judging me for
not being with my kids full-time? Then again, I have friends who have given up
work and they look with envy and anxiety at people like me who get to leave the
house and wear clean clothes and even, sometimes, sleep on their own in a hotel
bed for a full 12 uninterrupted hours! In the book, Kate calls the stay-at-home
women the Mothers Superior and classes herself a Mother Inferior, which is how I
personally feel a lot of the time. I don't think working mothers judge the
stay-home mothers they know they've made the big sacrifice to be with
their kids but I think some judging may go on the other way round.
The enthusiasm for your novel has been immediate and passionate
certainly here at Knopf. Tell us about sales of the novel around the world and
the sale of the movie rights.
I always thought that Kate would get a following in the States the
situation for working mothers seems to be very similar to the one in Britain.
But I was amazed to have the rights to the book purchased in 13 countries,
including Japan and Israel. Maybe the theme of stress is pretty universal right
The movie rights were sold last summer. I was building sandcastles with the kids
on a beach when my mobile phone rang and it was my film agent, Norman North,
ringing to say that Miramax had made an offer we couldn't refuse. It was
incredibly exciting, but then Thomas he's my youngest and was then nearly
two, came over and celebrated Mummy's major movie deal by depositing an
ice-cream in my lap. I thought it was such a Kate moment!
How did you find time to write this novel? Did it take a long time to
Being a mother of two small children and trying to write a novel is hell
like having a secret third child in the house that you have to go and play
with when the other two have gone to bed. It took me a year; the first half when
I was doing my other jobs, and then four months flat out at the end. I found the
time by working till 1 a.m., then getting up at 5 a.m. and putting in a couple
of hours till Evie and Tom woke up. Then, I'd get them ready for the day and
return to the computer. By the end Evie she's six 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. I think I
lost about six months of their lives to create Kate Reddy.
My only hope is that the novel stirs up some discussion so that life will be
very different for Evie and her female friends when they get to working age. The
novel is dedicated to her it's my way of saying, "This is how your
mother's generation had to live and never think I didn't love you."
Everyone at Knopf (with special emphasis on the moms here) is comparing
notes on "Kate Reddy moments." As the creator of the concept, could
you give us some of your "personal best?"
There are so many, but one disaster stands out. As a journalist, I had to
go and interview Tom Hanks at the Dorchester. It was not long after my daughter
was born, and when I held out my hand to shake the movie stars I realized I had
this kind of epaulette of banana sick on my black jacket. When you have a baby
or little kids, it's a constant battle to keep your work clothes clean, so I
identify totally with all of Kate's embarrassments in this area. Luckily, Tom
Hanks was so nice and had kids of his own, that he said, "Oh, don't worry,
this happens all the time." Which was incredibly sweet, but clearly untrue:
not too many people go to meet him covered in regurgitated breakfast!
Some of the moments are not that funny. I went to Los Angeles for almost a week
on a job and ended up sitting in a hotel while I was messed around by some very
arrogant PR people. Every night, I called my husband and he told me that
six-month-old Thomas was "a little under the weather." When I finally got
home, I walked into the kitchen and I realized immediately that the baby had
been ill. I picked him up and he gave me such a wonderful smile he was so
happy to see me but he had lost so much weight. It turned out, he had
tonsillitis and Anthony hadn't wanted to worry me. I was so incredibly upset.
I stood there and wept and all the time the baby was laughing and smiling, just
delighted to have his Mummy back. I hated the fact that I'd wasted my time
with those worthless vain Hollywood people when my baby boy was ill. That was
the worst moment.