The 2002 novel that broke the rules for working mothers

'Back then women were still trying to be superwomen – but Kate Reddy was the antidote' - Craig Blankenhorn
'Back then women were still trying to be superwomen – but Kate Reddy was the antidote' - Craig Blankenhorn

It has been 20 years since Allison Pearson’s bestselling novel ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ was published.

Dubbed “a Bible for the working mum” by Oprah Winfrey, the book charted the daily juggles of working mother Kate Reddy, striking a chord with exhausted women across the world. Here, three women reveal the effect the book had on them.

‘It gave me permission to fail’

Susanna Reid, journalist and Good Morning Britain presenter

Twenty years ago, as Allison Pearson was birthing her groundbreaking novel, I was grappling with becoming a new mother.

I’d read ‘What to Expect When You Are Expecting’ from cover to cover. I revered Gina Ford’s ‘Contented Little Baby Book’ like a bible. I ordered every ingredient in Annabel Karmel’s ‘Baby and Toddler Meal Planner’.

But there was one book, released the same year that my eldest child was born 20 years ago, that kept me afloat when I returned to work. Like many working mothers, I had a major struggle with the home-office juggle. I was lucky to be making the move into presenting, to cover Mishal Hussein on BBC Breakfast when she went off to have her own children. Presenting shifts were more predictable and even though the hours began early, I was used to getting up at the crack of dawn – the alarm call felt like just another baby feeding time.

But suddenly I became in danger of losing out on time with my children when they were tiny. I didn’t know how to do it, and neither did the novel’s heroine Kate Reddy.

The book was packed with the most useful parenting advice – particularly the reminder that getting it wrong happens more often than getting it right.

Working mums aren’t always there for the school plays, the carol concerts and the sports days. We’ve all had the text message in the middle of an important work meeting telling us to “Come home now” followed by an impromptu trip to A+E.

Back then women were still trying to be superwomen – but Kate Reddy was the antidote. She was failing to be perfect, and it gave me permission to fail. I bought copies of the book for all my friends. It became the parenting handbook of our generation. If mums hadn’t previously bashed shop-bought pies to impersonate home-baked ones before reading the opening chapter, they were certainly inspired to do so afterwards.

This morning I had my best face on, perfect make-up, hair done and squeezed into my TV dress. I was broadcasting to three million viewers, while texting my youngest son ‘Happy Birthday’, and adding the last part of his gift to my ‘Must Remembers’. Hours later I am writing this at the kitchen table in my onesie, panicking about finding time to decorate the kitchen before picking him up from school and throwing together a blended-family party.

But I shouldn’t worry about it too much, because my kids know I can’t do it all. And for that I thank Kate and Allison.

'By 2002, mothers were beginning to push back against a work culture that decreed all maternal expression be banned.' - Craig Blankenhorn
'By 2002, mothers were beginning to push back against a work culture that decreed all maternal expression be banned.' - Craig Blankenhorn

‘Kate Reddy helped… she really did’

Eleanor Mills, journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of Noon.org.uk, a platform for women in midlife

I had my first daughter in 2002. By that time we were allowed six months maternity leave, not 14 weeks, but it was still career suicide to blame one’s late arrival in the office on being a mother. I remember a colleague pointing at a picture of said child on my desk after I returned from maternity leave and saying: “Is that a good idea?” She meant reminding the chaps that I had other responsibilities. The photo stayed. I was determined to be an out and proud mum.

As a younger woman I’d worked with a boss who read her children bedtime stories from her office high up in Canary Wharf. They would wave goodnight to ‘mummy’. I vowed then never to be that woman, never to be that kind of mother. I wanted to have a career but also to see my children.

By 2002, in the wake of Kate Reddy’s tragi/comic tales, the dirty secret was out. Mothers were beginning to push back against a work culture that decreed all maternal expression be banned.

There was no flexible working back then. I was one of the first in my office to be thrown such a bone. I was prepared to stack shelves in a supermarket rather than go on. But that moment of desperation was actually an epiphany.

There were so few women in my part of the business that when I quit my boss said in horror: “But you can’t resign!” He offered me a day working from home. It made all the difference. It meant I could take my new bairn to mother and baby music, be at the nursery gate, get to know the other parents. It saved me from the fate of one mum in ‘I Don’t Know How She Does it’ who, when asked if her child liked broccoli, had no idea because she was never there at mealtimes.

Of course other aspects died harder. I would get up at 6am to bake blueberry muffins for the school fair. It was as if I was desperate to prove that I could do it all. There was a defensiveness to those days, trying to pretend it was all under control. The result, of course, was exhaustion. When I see photographs of when my second child was young I can’t remember those times at all. It’s like the tiredness just wiped those days from my memory.

I hope it’s not so tough for women now. I think more men share in the double shift. Mine did, but trying to deal with a long-hours culture and be a mum was still an almost impossible circle to square. I’m glad it’s over. My daughter is nearly 20, just like Allison’s book. Kate Reddy helped. She really did. In changing the culture, giving us a shared script to explain what was happening - and protest.

‘It marked a turning point for my own career’

Molly Kingsley, writer, campaigner and founder of UsForThem

They say the universe gives you what you need, and so it was with my first encounter with ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’. It was London, 2018, a day memorable only in that it marked my own personal parenting nadir.

At the time I was running a tech business I’d founded with a university friend. My two kids, one and four at the time, were both off nursery with a stomach bug and as was customary in those days, I rather than my husband – who had a Big Important Job as a city lawyer – had taken the day off work to look after them.

We were moving house in just a few days time, and I’d spent a rainy morning wheeling a buggy around Hampstead Heath, while fielding calls from an estate agent, a lawyer and a stream of disgruntled work colleagues (“seriously, your kids are off nursery again?!”).

I arrived home tired, wet and exceptionally stressed.

On the sideboard lay a copy of ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’. I hadn’t read it before: when it came out in 2002 I’d been in my early twenties and at the start of what I’d assumed would be a smooth and illustrious career in law. I was blissfully unaware of such matters as the gender pay gap and the parenting juggle.

It wasn’t until a decade later, and by then struggling to start my own family, that I’d eventually accepted the inevitable: that working 90-plus hour weeks wasn’t conducive to conceiving, let alone raising children, and had left the law to start my own business.

I had now been running my new business for five years, though by then with a young family, and I was finding the juggling act ever harder.

One evening, demoralised and downbeat, I opened the book for the first time and was hooked.

Suddenly I saw that this feeling I had lived with for half a decade – perpetual shame and guilt and the panic and exhaustion of doing too many jobs, all terribly – was something experienced by others. As lines and phrases struck (“we are working so very hard and we are doomed to fail”) it got me thinking: about the imbalance between me and my husband, about how he’d been able to go about his career uninterrupted, and about whether this was really best for either me or, crucially, the kids.

We moved out of London a week later and, inspired by the book, I instigated “regime change”. Almost from that day onwards I insisted that the hubby and I shared everything – the cooking, the school runs, the sick days – 50-50, No Matter What.  Four years on and I can’t overstate the impact that change has had; the equal split, as well as being fairer career-wise, has been transformative for our kids: instead of one grumpy resentful Mum, they have two involved, happy parents.

The book also marked a turning point for my own career. In reading Allison’s book a kernel was sown that a country that puts children and families at its centre would fare so much better – a mantra which led directly to the formation of UsForThem and everything that came next.

The 20th anniversary edition of I Don’t Know How She Does It was published on 22 September (Vintage, £9.99). Buy a signed edition for £8.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844-871 1514. 

Allison Pearson will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of I Don't Know How She Does It with Telegraph readers at a special afternoon tea this Friday 30th September. See extra.telegraph.co.uk/events