Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fanfare for the Career Mom: Afterthoughts on I Don’t Know How She Does It

Regardless of the fromage-splattered red flags that appeared in the trailers, I couldn’t help but check out Sarah Jessica Parker’s (SJP) new film I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011). Alas, I have a soft spot for anything that involves a scattered, exasperated, working mother. This decision did not go unpunished. Upon telling friends and colleagues about my plans, they gave me that look. You know the look. It’s the one people give you when you say you’re going to a funeral. (I guess it hadn’t received the kindest of reviews.) Of course this caused some mild anxiety leading up to the feature presentation. Yet, perhaps because my expectations were so low, or maybe due to that soft spot I mentioned, I actually enjoyed myself. 
I Don’t Know How She Does It is the film adaptation to the 2002 Allison Pearson novel of the same name. In the film, SJP’s character, Kate Reddy, is a successful manager for a Boston investment firm. She has an adorable, supportive husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) who works as a downsized architect. The happy couple also has two children: a six-year-old girl who lays on the guilt pretty thick every time her mother takes a business trip, and an otherwise forgiving two-year-old boy. 
If that wasn’t enough to juggle with a demanding job and a family, Kate gets offered a promotion at work. A wonderful opportunity for her career, but it involves a lot of traveling between New York and Boston. It also involves a lot of time spent with her gorgeous new boss Jack Abelhammer (played by Pierce Brosnan). Predictable, yes. You can probably imagine the obstacles and stress that ensue.
I do agree that the film will not go down in history for its originality. The cinematography was nothing special. There were jokes, but nothing incredibly witty. It was littered with far too much Sex and the City debris. (How many more features about self-absorbed neurotics is SJP going to narrate?) Nor does it possess those intricate human dilemmas: while the relationships are strained, nobody has an affair, in fact, it hardly even occurs to anyone. I know. No affairs. No originality. And SJP narrates. I’m not selling it to you am I? 

Yet what I enjoyed was the film’s subtle and mild examination of many of the issues, obstacles, and rewards that accompany parenting in the twenty-first century. The foremost was the emphasis on Kate Reddy’s sleep deprivation due to her compulsive 4am list making. She would jolt awake in the middle of the night and lie in bed for hours obsessing over what she needed to do. I call these episodes night terrors. They began in my undergraduate career, escalated through grad school, and now with a dependent child and actual responsibilities, they’re out of control. (Finding a psychiatrist is on my list.)

There were also the subtle reminders of the double standards. At one point in the film it was mentioned that “when a man leaves work to tend to a child, he’s seen as a hero, when a woman does, she is disorganized and irresponsible.” The film in no way attacks fathers, nor should they be attacked, but it did acknowledge that touchy reality, where the expectations of fathers are still much more relaxed than they are of mothers.

I believe it all sparks from a generational misunderstanding. Mothers are criticized for doing anything aside parenting, while fathers tend to be celebrated just for taking part in the parenting. There were moments in the movie that reminded me of my own experiences with the same issue. A couple years ago, at a friend’s wedding, my daughter’s father was holding and playing with our (then) six-month-old so that I could get something to eat. Despite the fact that I hadn’t had more than an hour’s sleep at any time since she had been born (and I was physically and mentally falling to pieces due to my efforts), it was rare that I received a compliment. Five minutes of holding on to her dad, however, was followed by a gaggle of golden girls who proceeded to gush all over him. “You are the best father in the world!” they shrieked. Bitches. (Of course, I would have said something, but due to brain damage caused by sleep deprivation, I could only sit there and continue to drool into my cup.) 

Sarah Jessica Parker
The guilt factor was another issue highlighted throughout the film. Personally I find the guilt and anxiety that accompanies parenthood to be far more overwhelming than the juggling act. You have a lot to do? You get ‘er done. The separation anxiety while you’re getting it done is what kills you. I could relate to Ms. Reddy as she said a painful goodbye to her children on her way to New York and then wept on the side walk after realizing she missed her son’s first hair cut. All I could think about were the odd trips I’ve taken and the evenings I’ve spent away from my own daughter. Those are the times when I am jolted awake in the middle of the night (usually to get up and pace and may or may not weep on a bathroom floor). Or at the end of an after-work networking event where I find myself desperately trying to get home before bedtime. (Have you seen a 100-pound woman plow through a crowd like a running back?)

In I Don’t Know How She Does It, the focus is on the light-hearted, self-effacing attitude maintained by SJP throughout. She somehow makes it through her battles regardless of the fact that she, like all of us, has so little control over her life. What she can control, however, she eventually does. By demanding personal time, she puts her family first but she doesn’t compromise her career either. In the end, as Reddy’s minimalist boss Abelhammer so eloquently put it, she “makes complicated look appealing.” 

 Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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