Every so often I wish I could send the psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott a fruit basket for having invented the concept of “the good-enough mother.” Though Winnicott’s mid-20th-century coinage of the term long preceded the current era of aspirational parenting (and though some of his ideas about gender roles now read as painfully dated), his generous vision of what constitutes adequate mothering comes as welcome salve on high-stress days (that is to say, the ones that end in a “y”).
Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), the heroine of Douglas McGrath’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (The Weinstein Co.), needs to read herself some Winnicott. A successful investment analyst at a Boston firm, she’s also mother to two young children and wife to an equally ambitious architect (Greg Kinnear) who’s well-intentioned but fuzzy on the details of how his family operates. Type-A Kate insists on singlehandedly hostessing elaborate birthday parties, participating in school bake sales (with store-bought pies that she distresses to make them look homemade), and otherwise excelling at the rituals of upper-middle-class parenthood. Meanwhile, at work, Kate is on the brink of landing a career-making account that requires her to work closely with a dashing British banker (Pierce Brosnan) and to travel on a moment’s notice.
In a Sex and the City-like device, various characters address the camera to give voice to their ongoing ignorance of how, in fact, she does it. There’s Kate’s single-mother pal Allison (an underused but radiant Christina Hendricks), her robotically efficient executive assistant (a scene-stealing Olivia Munn), and an undermining stay-at-home mom at her children’s school (the ever-delightful Busy Philipps). All of these women no doubt have their own struggles and triumphs, but we never learn what they are. Like Carrie Bradshaw, Parker’s dithering Sex and the City protagonist, Kate has a way of taking up all the air in the room and getting applauded for it. Seriously, has it occurred to this woman that she’s losing credibility at work not because she’s a mother but because she’s a chronic over-apologizer with a persecution complex?
The screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna ( The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) adapted Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel of the same name, which was set in London, with a wryer, brasher tone and a more flawed protagonist. The Kate of the book carried on a titillating e-mail flirtation with her colleague, nearly ending her marriage in the process; the stakes in the glossier movie version are comfortably low. The parenting lapses Kate wrings her hands over—as when the nanny takes her son in for his first haircut without her—may evoke mutters of “Cry me a river, lady,” from recession-era audiences. In both content and tone, I Don’t Know How She Does It feels like a relic from the Sex and the City boom times. If there were even a passing nod to economic reality—for example, an acknowledgement that not all stay-at-home mothers are pampered trophy wives who live at the gym—this self-satisfied domestic comedy might not leave behind such a tinny taste.
In an unintentionally disturbing subplot, Kate’s assistant Momo, a single, career-focused woman in her mid-20s who’s sworn never to have children, accidentally finds herself pregnant. After Momo mumbles her intention to “take care of it,” Kate clasps her by the shoulders and, eyes glassy with maternal zeal, essentially bullies her into having the baby. Not that I expect a character in a mainstream Hollywood movie to seriously consider, let alone go through with, an abortion—that would probably require a Supreme Court injunction at this point—but the movie’s unquestioning embrace of Kate’s pro-life proselytization felt somehow creepy. Couldn’t they at least have a conversation? (In the book, a much older character, Kate’s best friend Candy, finally decides to continue with an unplanned pregnancy after the two friends engage in a frankly ambivalent discussion: “I’m getting rid of it.” “Fine.” “What?” “Nothing.”) I Don’t Know How She Does It purports to be about the difficult choices of modern motherhood, but it’s too prim and cautious a movie to dip a pedicured toe into the murky waters of real choice.
Read Jessica Grose’s dispatch from an early screening of the movie that was attended by Sarah Jessica Parker.