Dream On

Katha Pollitt

  • I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson
    Vintage, 256 pp, £6.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 09 942838 5
  • A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk
    Fourth Estate, 224 pp, £6.99, July 2002, ISBN 1 84115 487 3
  • The Truth about Babies: From A-Z by Ian Sansom
    Granta, 352 pp, £6.99, June 2003, ISBN 1 86207 575 1
  • What Are Children For? by Laurie Taylor and Matthew Taylor
    Short Books, 141 pp, £6.99, January 2003, ISBN 1 904095 25 9
  • The Commercialisation of Intimate Life by Arlie Russell Hochschild
    California, 313 pp, £32.95, May 2003, ISBN 0 520 21487 0

Rightly (conservative version) or wrongly (liberal version), the workplace is structured to suit men, preferably men with stay-at-home wives. The qualities rewarded there – self-reliance, ambition, single-minded devotion to work – make women unfit for marriage and vice versa. By the time they are ready to settle down, their male contemporaries are married or looking for younger, softer women; if it’s not too late for a husband, it’s likely to be too late for a baby; if they manage to produce one, they’ll confront the fundamental incompatibility – practical, psychological, emotional – of motherhood and career. With some variations, this narrative of forced choices and biological deadlines, in which feminism is either irrelevant or itself the problem, forms the theme of many recent highly publicised advice books. Sometimes the young unmarried woman is told she is having too much fun and will pay later; sometimes she is told she is miserable, and no wonder – while men postpone commitment, her eggs are already scrambling. The young mother may be advised to give up work till her children are older or she may be urged to fight for government policies and workplace changes that would enable her more easily to combine both roles. But basically the books all give the same depressing advice: compromise, settle, tone yourself down, and do it sooner rather than later.

To the puzzlement of pundits and despite masses of publicity, these books tend to languish on the shelves. The commercial flop of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Baby Hunger (published in the US as Creating a Life) was noted on the front page of the New York Times. But why the surprise? Only women buy this kind of book about women, and women know perfectly well that it’s hard to find love, that offices are unfriendly to mothers, that 40 is not the ideal age to try to get pregnant. They also know that early marriage and childbearing won’t work either. The whole structure of modern middle-class professional life is against it: long years of education and training that cannot easily be started as a 35-year-old woman with a family, the need for two incomes to maintain status, the increasingly voluntary nature of marriage and childbearing itself. The best context in which to write about these conflicts is not the political tract or sociological potboiler but mass-market fiction, where feminist and retro impulses can be resolved, or blurred, through a judicious combination of truth-telling (it’s a man’s world, and the man is a swine) and fantasy.

Although both books began life as newspaper columns, it would be unfair to call Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It a working-mother version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Pearson is a more literary writer than Helen Fielding (and almost as funny). On the other hand, both novels, while seemingly on the side of their plucky post-feminist heroines, revel in their pratfalls and humiliations. And both send conservative, ultimately dispiriting messages about women’s lives. Fielding’s point, after all, is that however much they gallivant about and mock the Smug Marrieds, single women secretly want nothing so much as a sober, stable, prosperous husband. Bridget marries the very man her parents would have chosen for her – a human rights lawyer who, in real life, would probably never marry someone as dissolute and ignorant as Bridget (that’s the fantasy element). Pearson’s message is that combining a high-powered career and motherhood is impossible, even for women as energetic and hyperorganised – to say nothing of attractive, smart and rich – as her heroine, the financial analyst Kate Reddy.

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