Making things work

Here on a whirlwind 42-hour trip so typical of her harried heroine, writer Allison Pearson dishes on motherhood, careers and David Cassidy.

allison pearson 882 98 (photo credit: )
allison pearson 882 98
(photo credit: )
On the surface everything seemed fine. It was well known around the office that although the young, high-powered executive was quickly promoted through the ranks, she had definitely earned every high-heeled step. She was not one to show emotion - or even display any personal artifacts, including pictures of her two young children. So it was quietly shocking to her colleagues when a series of friends' sudden deaths caused her to lose her famous control. Loud sobs escaped her aquariumesque office, which were later explained away with a curt apology, and met by equally brief, yet vaguely understanding looks. In reality, however, there hadn't been a sudden death. Rather, this tightrope walker in power suits and stilettos had experienced an unfortunate "personal moment," this time set off by a report from home that her youngest, now three, had taken a tumble and was being rushed to the emergency room by his nanny. But not to worry, that was just a slight wobble; after straightening her suit and applying another coat of mascara, everything is definitely back under control. She merely has to remember the name of this fictitious soul who was immaculately conceived and swiftly crucified for her sin of being a successful working mother. Sound like fiction? Not so, says Allison Pearson, best-selling author of I Don't Know How She Does It. In between bites of a quick tuna sandwich at Jerusalem's King David Hotel during her whirlwind 42-hour trip to Israel last week, Pearson relates how her 2002 novel has led her to become the working woman's confidante. As such, Pearson has become a champion for flexible work environments and putting the mother's needs in the forefront of all agendas. Starring harried heroine Kate Reddy, I Don't Know How She Does It has become required reading for working mothers since its publication in 2002. Its success and fame, largely spread by word of mouth, came as little surprise to its author. "I had a very strong sense - I didn't know it would sell millions and millions of copies - but I had a very strong sense while I was writing it that if I wrote it well enough, it could make a really passionate connection with people. Every time I'd mentioned the subject in my writing, it was like opening a furnace door. It would be a kind of roar of reaction. People saying, 'That's my life, that's me.' Or, 'Thank God that's not my life...'" The novel developed from a series of weekly columns in the Daily Telegraph. Pearson is also a weekly columnist in the London Evening Standard and a freelance feature writer. Her own professional life combined with two small children and husband (New Yorker writer Anthony Lane), means Pearson has a first-person perspective on the fine balance involved in the fine art of Making Things Work. "I guess women have a great habit of covering up their insecurities or not wanting to, particularly if you're working in a male-dominated environment, of not wanting to let on that you're finding things quite tricky. There is a kind of loneliness in the predicament. "I tried to write about things in the book that were difficult for me. A couple of very painful things were from my own life. If you could bring yourself to write truthfully about things that were very, very difficult, then you would find that you're not alone." The volume of readers' responses to the novel is such that Pearson and an American journalist friend are compiling a sequel of sorts, which will be published next year to coincide with the movie version. In the meantime, Pearson is writing another novel and touring the world giving lectures, such as the one she delivered here at a Superpharm-sponsored mega-event to an audience of top businesswomen for International Women's Day. "The craziest one I did was for Yahoo, which asked me to go to California to do a speech to a gathering of women, and I flew, got off the plane, made the speech and got on the next plane. So I was in California for less than 24 hours," she says by way of apology for her superficial look at the country. "I'm trying not to take on too much at all," she sighs. "I've really learned the lessons of my own book." HER CHILDREN are now 11 and seven, yet Pearson vividly recalls the travails of the young mother. "I have hilarious memories of thinking that it was a real achievement if by 3:30 in the afternoon I was dressed, the baby was dressed and we managed to get to the post office to post a letter. That was the goal of the day. And then the baby would be sick and you have to go back and start again. And the world receded so drastically. Everything shrank, so drastically." When she eventually returned to the workforce, she was struck by the new double shift she was expected to take on. "I realized that we [women] carry this puzzle of family life in our heads: the shoe sizes, he needs a new this, she hasn't seen her friend, or call your mother - that whole whirligig. And that one was effectively, when you worked, doing two jobs. That we were allowed to do our father's jobs, but that we kept our mother's responsibilities. "And this is one reason why it can be profoundly stressful. And I have become a great campaigner for flexible working for women because I think it's the only way that you can retain some sanity. It's very hard to do a flat out working week. If you're with a male colleague and you have the same responsibilities, the female will always have this back-story going on in their heads." Many women, like Kate Reddy, find themselves in what Pearson calls "a bad place." "I conceived this duality [in the novel] - the world of home, which is about the kids, which is chaotic and soft, and the world of work, which is hard surfaces. She [Reddy] was swinging between the two. And the fundamental comedy, and the sadness, I suppose, is that one life had no validity in the other. "There was a headline on one of the reviews in the States called, 'Missing in action,' which I thought was absolutely brilliant because I see her as missing - in action. Just a flurry of coping; that she's in survival mode." While reading the novel last week in preparation for this interview, I found myself very annoyed by Reddy. At least at the beginning of the novel. "She isn't meant to be likable, she is meant to be who she is in that situation... She is trapped, and animals in a trap don't particularly behave nobly or well. The idea is to see her as lost and clever and angry and tired and gradually reconnecting with the person she could be, who her husband believes is there. "I think it's truthful. In collecting the readers' questionnaire we've found that the actual line is that a lot of the women who are actually living these lives are on the verge of a breakdown. And their husbands get scraps - that was the phrase used." That is, of course, if the career woman has managed to find and keep a husband. Pearson relates that many British women, like here, are turning to single parenthood as a last-ditch attempt at motherhood. "How bizarre: We're in a situation that the thing that was meant to liberate us to lead the fullest possible life is actually cutting us off from one of the most joyous and fundamental things. The female was made to have babies. The world of work, which I think was designed by men for men, has not accommodated the female reproductive cycle. "And in England we have an extraordinary situation in which one in four female graduates will never have children. A quarter of female graduates. And that figure is going up!" Britain is slowly adding legislation promoting women in the workforce (a woman can now take a year's maternity leave and her job is held for her; fathers are encouraged to take leave as well), but there is still an incredible lag between the optimal and the real, says Pearson. What is encouraging is that politicians and businesspeople across the globe are now starting to pay attention. "I think that it's one of the most important topics in the world. The personal is political. And it's very funny because, in England, when I was first starting to write about this topic in my newspaper column, about women's stress and trying to make their lives work and be good mothers and work hard, it was kind of [thought of as] women whining and typical female moaning. And now suddenly all the political parties are on to it; it's become an issue. And suddenly these guys want me to write speeches on the topic because they suddenly realize it speaks to their [constituency]. "The happiness of women and mothers obviously has a huge impact on the happiness of their children. And therefore the next generation. "Britain in many ways is a very unhappy country because with all the households overstretched and people very tired there is a very high divorce rate and so on. We should look at making the conditions for parenting in general much much better... Imagine the productivity of mothers as a global force!" PEARSON'S NEW novel will be departure from the mommy beat. A romantic comedy set in the author's native South Wales in 1974, its heroine is a teenager with a massive crush on David Cassidy. The daughter of cultured Eastern European parents, she has developed what Pearson calls a "talmudic scholarship" of the pop idol. One research excursion involved visiting with the teen star. As a youth, Pearson was quite taken with Cassidy and after reading in a teen magazine that his favorite color was brown, she spent two years of her life wearing nothing but brown. "And I look terrible in brown; I look sallow, I look yellow in brown. And at this interview I said to him, 'Can I just clear up that brown is actually your favorite color,' and he looked at me and said, 'Who would have brown as his favorite color?'" As with her first novel, Pearson's subtext is a social commentary. "If I were to have any bigger aims for it, other than that people would find it delightful and funny and touching, it would be an exploration of the myths sold by magazines to young girls about what they are supposed to be." (As an aside, Pearson adds that she bid on eBay for lots of the magazines of that period and she has an office where she has all the posters and all the magazines stuck up. She laughs, "And as Anthony put it, it looks like the lair of a serial killer. It's going to be one of those things where I'm taken away and arrested and they say, 'She seemed a quite nice person.'") The conflicting lives of working mothers, self-esteem and the influence of popular culture on our youth are rather heavy topics for Pearson's oft-ascribed genre of chicklit (the nickname for light reading traditionally done by women). "I always bridle somewhat at [the term] chicklit because I put tremendous effort in every sentence of I Don't Know How She Does It, and I hope that people who understand what writing is know that just because you've written something that seems fast-paced and witty, it has actually taken a tremendous amount of effort in construction." She sighs, takes a sip of her well-deserved filter coffee as the Israeli gentleman publisher accompanying her lets us know that they must leave soon for the airport. "I don't care what people call it. People can call it chicklit, but to me, you know I'm an Edith Wharton fan; I'm a Jane Austen fan. I think that kind of epic-romantic female style of writing, if anyone thinks it's easy, let them try. "I mean you make people laugh aloud on a page and then turn it over and make them cry." I assure her that Jane Austen would definitely be called a chicklit author by today's standards. "Oh she was writing in the second half of the 18th century and she didn't write about slavery," mocks Pearson. "Very bad!" She laughs, "But she seems to have done okay. She's held up." Looking serious again for split second before rising to be swept away in the awaiting chariot, she says, "I would have no greater ambition if in 60-70 years time, if there's still a bookstore somewhere on Earth, some girl would pick it up and see it as a vivid snapshot of our time. Of a woman who tried to have it all." Pearson's top 10 "I'm going to leave you with some tips for work-life balance," writes novelist Allison Pearson from back home in England. "Americans always say can we have your top tips, and I say we don't do life guidance for heaven's sake, we're British. We have a nice bath and a cup of tea and we get on with it. Still, here, ever so slightly tongue in cheek, are my tips." 1. Behind every successful man is a woman. Behind every successful woman is herself - look after her, she needs your support! 2. If you think you're too tired to have sex, you're probably right, you are far too tired, but make time for it anyway. Love is the lubricant of a happy home, and a sexless relationship is soon running on empty. Your husband will be a lot more willing to empty the dishwasher if he feels loved and appreciated! 3. A day without a hug is a day wasted. 4. Listen to your body while it's still whispering. When it starts yelling, it may be too late. 5. DELEGATE! I know that you're a woman and you can do everything around the house better than a man. I know that when you send him to the supermarket, he gets the wrong kind of yogurt. But if we don't let them try, how are they going to learn? And no, it's not a disaster if he dresses the kids so they look like Eminem. 6. Apply for flexible working hours if you feel you need them. Support other women in their quest for a saner work-life balance. The more of us who apply for a four-day week or a job share and make it a big success, the more companies will wake up to the fact that flexibility is not a favor, but a great business proposition. 7. Remember that a happy woman means a happy family. Making time to exercise or see your friends is not an indulgence you can't afford. It's crucial for the well-being of you and your loved ones. 8. Make time to read as often as you can - a novel is the best holiday I know. 9. Imagine if a disaster happened. Imagine your child got sick or one of your parents. What would be your priorities then? Love, shelter, food and more love. Getting back to basics when we're drowning in too much stuff can help us to see what is truly important. 10. If you want breakfast in bed - sleep in the kitchen.