Your face reddens. It's that clown you've been desperately trying to hire for your kid's birthday. What do you tell your bosses?
"Oh, that'll be Percy Pineapple, the entertainment stock," you ad-lib. "Fruitscape.com - just coming to the market."
If only the rest of us could be as quick-witted as Kate Reddy, the protagonist of Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother," a wickedly funny look at the infinite trade-offs and compromises women make simply to combine two elemental tasks: work and motherhood.
Pearson's book has clearly hit a chord with the millions of working mothers who are simply trying to make it through the day. She has seen her first novel fly off the shelves. It was a winner in England and has gone as high as No. 8 on The New York Times list of bestsellers. Miramax Films immediately snatched up the movie rights.
"I think if I'd written a straight book called, 'Ladies, Your Lives Stink,' no one would have bought it," Pearson laughs. "With this book, I hope the reader just doesn't know whether to laugh or cry."
Actually, readers should do plenty of both - but especially any reader who has ever sneaked out of the office to buy a Teletubbies birthday cake, crawled out of bed at 3 a.m. to catch up on e-mails, or called from a far-off business trip to find out a child lost a first tooth or spoke a first complete sentence.
But as any working mom knows, there's just no time to read books; one of the key ironies of "I Don't Know How She Does It," Pearson acknowledges, is that much of its target audience is forced to read the book sometime between midnight and dawn.
For most, though, it's been worth it. Reviews have been largely ecstatic, with Britain's Guardian newspaper calling the book "quite possibly the best portrayal of modern motherhood ... in years." The Independent called Pearson "a Jane Austen among working mothers."
But an essay in The Washington Post, while acknowledging that Kate Reddy (named after singer Helen Reddy, who proclaimed in the 1970s, "I am woman, hear me roar") is on her way to becoming a cultural icon, took a more negative tack.
The article called Kate selfish, spoiled and self-involved, and decried her ultimate decision to quit her job and move to the country as pat and unrealistic: "This is mommy porn: a seductive fantasy where ultimately there is no guilt, no fault, no regret." Most working mothers, it pointed out, don't make six figures or have the option of quitting.
Pearson, sipping iced tea during a recent interview in Manhattan, agreed that the ending might be too easy. In reality, "The story of Kate might have just gone round and round, like 'The Wheels on the Bus,"' she said, referring to the children's song.
A mother of two small children just like Kate, Pearson, 42, says she never intended to write a novel. She came across a Good Housekeeping survey while researching her regular column for the London Evening Standard. It showed that working mothers who wanted some time to themselves felt that their lives were worse than their mothers'.
"I thought, 'My goodness, is this where equality has gotten us?"' Pearson mused.
She wrote the column, which included a "Must Remember" list - a signature of the novel, a la Bridget Jones - in which Kate reminds herself of things to be done. A sample: "Ask Richard to collect dry cleaning. Nanny's Christmas bribe/present. Office party what to wear? Black velvet too small. Stop eating NOW."
Pearson says she got hundreds of letters from women saying: "That's my life!" Soon after, she attended a panel discussion and heard a woman quote her male boss saying, "Why does childbirth have to take so long?" The room erupted, and Pearson says she could hear Kate Reddy laughing, too. The novel was born.
Pearson, who is married to the equally witty New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, is pretty good with a quip. Some examples from her book:
But there's a lot more to Kate than a good one-liner. She may manage the heck out of a hedge fund and still look great in high heels, but she also eloquently expresses the pain of the daily compromises she must make.
Kate has conflicted feelings toward her nanny - at once supremely grateful for her presence, but also deeply jealous of her. And many readers will wince when Kate can't figure out how to fasten the rain cover on her own child's stroller: "Only contact I've ever had with the wretched thing was handing over Visa card 13 months ago." She wonders if she can call the vacationing nanny for help.
Pearson also evokes the stunning love a parent feels for a child. Sitting in a hospital clinic with her injured baby, Kate is grilled by a snooty doctor about details of her son's injury. She doesn't know because she wasn't there. It's hard not to shed a tear as Kate's frightened thoughts swirl in her brain: "His favorite book is 'Owl Babies' and his favorite song is 'The Wheels on the Bus' and he is my dearest sweetest only son and if anything happens to him I will kill you and then I will burn down your hospital and then I will kill myself."
Kate's life is a roller-coaster: quick trips across the Atlantic for work; school functions where she shows up with store-bought mince pies that she's mangled to make them look homemade; a sexy client who almost steals her heart.
It all comes to a head when her loyal, patient husband snaps.
Some may be angered by the note of surrender in the book's ending. But Pearson says it is not her intention to judge or to blame - or to make women choose.
Her book, she says, is a plea for more social flexibility, a plea to make it easier for women to have both a satisfying career and a satisfying home life. She has dedicated it to her own daughter, Evie, with the hope that one day things will be different.
"Women shouldn't have to sneak around to work," Pearson says. "Nor should they have to sneak around to be mothers."
By Jocelyn Noveck
By Jocelyn Noveck