I Don’t Know How She Does It: Representations of Gender and Work-Life Balance

When I first encountered the Rotten Tomatoes review of the film I Don’t Know How She Does It, I had just finished the book (Alison Pearson’s bestselling 2002 novel of the same name), and I assumed that “hopelessly outdated viewpoint on gender” referred to the main character’s decision to quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, but there is something wrong with a culture that compels women to feel as though they must stay home.)

Then I saw the film. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Kate Reddy does not quit her job – she demands more flexible work hours and so her boss gives her more flexible work hours. Thus it appears that the “outdated viewpoint on gender” is the idea that women have a more difficult time than men juggling the demands of both family and career. Bust out the post-feminist party hats, people – women’s struggles with work-life balance is totes passé.

I Don’t Know How She Does It is the story of two working parents, Kate and Richard, whose respective professions both suddenly require several months of intensive work on projects that involve a lot of time and travel. This is a problem for Kate, but not for Richard. Why? Because women foolishly try to “have it all.” Because women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts in both the domicile and the workplace.

Critics took a stinky poo on I Don’t Know How She Does It this weekend. Several reviewers felt that women’s struggle for work-life balance was not a “fresh” enough concept:

“…her remarks about the different perceptions of similar male and female behavior in the workplace are about as fresh as “Have a nice day” and “Where’s the beef?”

“…women have been juggling multiple roles for some time. What the film lacks in freshness it makes up for in warmth and star chemistry.”

The implication is that the issue of women’s struggles with work-life balance is played out. Women and men are like, so totally equal, obvs.

This is the same mentality espoused in an August 2011 issue of Time:

We’re living in a post-feminist utopia, so quit whining, bitches! The author of the “Chore Wars” article, Ruth Davis Konigsberg, writes:

According to data just released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, men and women in 2010 who were married, childless and working full time…had combined daily totals of paid and unpaid work…that were almost exactly the same. For those who had children under the age of 18, women employed full time did just 20 min. more of combined paid and unpaid work than men did, the smallest difference ever reported.

But the problem is far more complex than the number of hours logged working at the office and working at home. Toward the end of the article, Konigsberg notes that women often feel additional stress “from being household managers, keeping that precisely calibrated family schedule in their heads at all times or knowing what’s for dinner, what ingredients are required and their exact location in the refrigerator.” The stress of keeping the “precisely calibrated family schedule” is illustrated in I Don’t Know How She Does It by “The List,” which keeps Kate up all night.

Fret not, ladies, for Ruth Davis Konigsberg, has a solution:  Just go ahead and spend more time at the office!

No. Seriously. That’s her solution:

I came into this story wanting, more than anything else, to find a way to escape the feeling – I was going to say of oppression, but maybe it’s more exhaustion – that I have when I leave work each day and face all that needs to be done at home. I never realized that one solution was staring me in the face: Don’t go home so early!

We wouldn’t want to use a squicky word like “oppression” now would we? Acknowledging that there are actual systemic disparities in power between men and women, that’s like, totally sexist against men, right?

The biggest problem with the way I Don’t Know How She Does It and “The Chore Wars” present the work-life balance issue is their emphasis on choice. What about the vast majority of women who don’t have a choice? Women whose circumstances force them to work, or force them not to?

In The War On Moms, published in 2010, Sharon Lerner provides a spectacularly nuanced examination of the complexities of gender and work-life balance. She lists Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It among several books in “a literary genre that has long focused on a small, elite slice of American mothers as it’s laid out the battle over stay-at-home motherhood versus paid work.”

This is not to say the upper crust of female earners is not important…The women who fought their way into the bastions of male power, the corporate and professional worlds, were and still are fighting a pivotal battle. In even coming close to the glass ceiling and nearing professional parity, they have shown the rest of us what’s possible. And to whatever extent it’s happened, their exit from the highly paid workforce is an important reflection of the failure of high-level employers to accommodate their employees’ caretaking responsibilities.

Yet our fixation on high-profile mothers and their employers, both real and fictional, speaks more to the problems many women wish they had than to the ones they actually do have. And by paying disproportionate attention to these uncommon dilemmas, riveting though they may be, we are siphoning off critical energy that ought to be spent addressing our all-too-real predicaments.

What’s really bringing American women down? According to Lerner:

Most often, these are things we lack, such as guaranteed paid maternity leave; decent, affordable child care; health coverage; and good, flexible work options…In each case, there has been some awareness of the problem and some effort to fix it. But these solutions have been partial at best and, at worst, have dug American families further into a hole by giving them a false sense of “mission accomplished.”

Mission Accomplished. That’s exactly what Rotten Tomatoes suggests when it states that I Don’t Know How She Does It features “a hopelessly outdated viewpoint on gender.” But the mission is far from accomplished, and I will not “let it go.”

What are your thoughts about and/or experiences with work-life balance? Are you a working parent? Do you plan to be a working parent? How do you feel your gender affects and/or will affect your work-life balance? Have you seen or read I Don’t Know How She Does It?

5 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How She Does It: Representations of Gender and Work-Life Balance

  1. I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to my mom, a working mother who has supported me emotionally and intellectually as well as financially. She even reads my blog. Thank you, Mom! I love you!

      • I totally enjoyed being a stay at home Mom. I felt it was right for my family. But a new reality happened and I had to go to work. More often than not that is the reality of today. Any couple that chooses to have children and a family have to make choices how to have a “family.” It takes time and energy to nurture and encourage children and time and energy to keep a household. It takes teamwork. AND it is not easy.

  2. It is a little brow-raising to read that mommy and daddy do the same amount of work; though averaging opposite extremes would still give you something in the middle… Anyway, what struck me about that TIME cover is that mommy and daddy may be pulling the same weight, but did you notice how mommy looks? High heels, shaved legs, cute dress, coiffed hair, lovely makeup, and a trim figure… daddy looks nice too, but the most time-consuming element of his look was probably his massive arms. While the gap in parental efforts may be slim(er), I still observe that women are pressured to “have it all,” or really “do it all,” and look good doing it. This mom-wife-woman ideal does everything for everyone and still finds time to have the hair, the bod, the face, and the fashion savvy of her twenties. And THAT woman is the protagonist. SHE is the one we envy, and feel empathy for. The awesome do-it-all mom in sweat pants? well, we can’t put that on a movie poster! Oh, and kudos to the catty ladies who criticize other moms for spending time on their looks, assuming that must be their only priority. “Bitch, you don’t know me.”
    I’m starting to ramble, but good stuff. And love to me momma, who is finishing her masters degree- aww yeah.

  3. “I still observe that women are pressured to ‘have it all,’ or really ‘do it all,” and look good doing it.”

    Yes, I completely agree with you.

    “The awesome do-it-all-mom in sweat pants? well, we can’t put that on a movie poster!”

    THIS.

    And love to your momma!

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