The Mummy Diaries

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Sleep is the new sex. That's what it's come down to for the heroine of Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It (Knopf; 338 pages). A hedge-fund manager and frazzled mother of two, Kate Reddy aches for sleep, fantasizes about it and contrives how to get more, largely by avoiding sex with her husband.

Nearly every female lucky enough to have both a child and a byline — and I plead guilty — has strip-mined Pearson's theme: how to squeeze babies, marriage and a high-powered job into a day that cannot be stretched beyond 24 hours. But Pearson's Kate, a brisk, sardonic, loving world beater, has made it all fresh again.

Mind & Body Happiness
Jan. 17, 2004

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The book's title, when uttered by a member of the Muffia — the nonworking mums — is not a compliment. They send thank-you notes for play dates, needle Kate about when she will go part time and snap up the best party clowns, leaving Kate with one who specializes in twisting balloons into phallic designs. Kate sees both sides of the mother divide: "The non-working mother looks at the working mother with envy and fear because she thinks that the working mum has got away with it, and the working mum looks back with fear and envy because she knows that she has not."

Pearson, a star columnist at the London Evening Standard, makes Kate one of those superwomen who think they would like a wife. But when Kate's husband Rich, a low-energy architect, picks up the household slack, she loses interest in him. She is hard-wired to want a hunter-gatherer and nearly has an affair with one, an alpha millionaire client. But she cheats on her boss instead, stealing "Illicit Mummy Time," which requires "the same lies to get away for the tryst, the same burst of fulfillment and, of course, the guilt."

Kate adores Jill, a stay-at-home mom dying of cancer, who poignantly captures family life in instructions she leaves for her husband (the water temp for socks, Christmas gifts for the next two years, advice to kiss the boys even when they grow tall). Unlike Jill, though, Kate is a bit player in her own household, which is run by a nanny wielding absolute power. Kate doesn't know her daughter's best friend or how much her son weighs. She's a victim of reverse intimacy; her associates soak up so much time that she stays in touch with her real friends through increasingly heartfelt messages in which she cancels plans yet again. Like many professionals who leap a social class, she wonders — when her child demands pasta instead of canned SpaghettiOs — if "I've traveled this far...only for my kids to grow up as jaded and spoiled as the people I was patronized by at college."

Kate has been called Bridget Jones five years later. But Kate is a grownup, sharp and observant yet wise and sentimental, something Bridget can never be. Feminists may hate the fact that Kate quits her job after deciding that you can't have it all. But, by the way, it's not male or female but merely childish to think otherwise. Pearson says she has sackfuls of mail from women who reject what they have seen in the boardroom. "Who wants to sit at ludicrous meetings in some testosterone jungle," Pearson asks, "and think of our children as problems to be handled?" She didn't make Kate a journalist like herself because, she says, "it's not ball breaking enough. I wanted a place where Human Resources has a policy for dealing with mothers similar to their one for dealing with cocaine users, except they believe there's a cure for the drug addicts."

Pearson chats away for an hour on the phone, after subduing two children overly excited by a rare visit to New York City. There's not a dull moment in her conversation, just as there's not a dead page in her book. Pearson is married to New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, whom she squarely places in the hunter-gatherer category. He pitches in, she says, but "until they program men to notice you're out of toilet paper, a happy domestic life will always be up to women."

During the months when she was writing, Lane "loaded the washing machine, cooked dinner, read Owl Babies 300 times and even found time to write the odd film review." Pearson concludes her acknowledgments by saying, "I don't know how he does it."