Please Save Your "I Don't Know How She Does It" for Someone Else

Please Save Your "I Don't Know How She Does It" for Someone Else

There’s a new movie with Sarah Jessica Parker coming out, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “I Don’t Know How She Does It.”  It’s based on a book that I read several years ago, and I hated it, partly because people have often made that comment about and to me over the years.

I started working about two weeks after I graduated from college almost 22 years ago, and except for my four maternity leaves I have been working fulltime (in the city, 35 miles from home) at the same job ever since.

I made the decision early on that I was not going to be deprived of the opportunity to be involved in my kids’ activities because I was working.  Since I had my first child nearly 19 years ago, I have been a Girl Scout leader for all three of my girls (one year all three at the same time), I’ve been PTA president at our grade school, and have volunteered on countless committees.  Oh, and my husband worked weekends and for many of those years took classes in the evening.

I’m sure to the average person I probably seemed like I was superhuman to be juggling all my activities with my kids and work, so why did I always find it so annoying when someone would say, “I don’t know how you do it!”  I’m sure it was meant as a compliment.  The truth is I didn’t do it all…that well; everything has a cost.  Like every working mother, I suffered from a pretty good dose of mommy guilt about being away from my kids every day.

Did it seem like I was balancing everything?  Maybe, but while I was at an evening meeting to plan the next Explore More Day at the kids’ school, I wasn’t reading to my kids before bed.  And when I was taking the day off to actually run Explore More Day, I was missing a meeting at work that would have given me the opportunity to participate on a cool new project.  Even today, with my youngest child in eighth grade, I took the 2:40 train home, leaving early yet again, to make sure I wasn’t late for my second daughter’s Senior Night at cross country.  And I’ll do the same thing Thursday to watch my eighth grader play volleyball.

When the kids were young, I was deeply envious of the moms who didn’t work, the ones who got to drive their kids to preschool every day and grocery shop on a Tuesday morning or walk with a friend after the kids got on the bus.  I remember taking my kids to the pool one weekend.  Another mom recognized my daughter from preschool and made the comment, “Oh, sweetie, is this your mother?” as if my daughter was a sad orphan.  Rightly or wrongly, I felt like people probably felt like I didn’t know my kids as well as they did because I was at work every day.

“I don’t know how you do it.”  Maybe I used to bristle when I heard that because not working wasn’t really an option for me.  I like my job a lot, but it’s certainly not my life’s passion.  And from a logistical standpoint, “doing it” is just a matter of being organized, it hardly requires any superhuman capabilities.

Or maybe I’ve gained the maturity and awareness to realize what I subconsciously knew all along: there are much bigger, more deserving situations of that kind of awe than one like mine.  For almost two weeks now, I’ve been following the story of a fellow blogger (Mary Tyler Mom- love it!) and the 31 months—2 ½ years—she spent with her daughter battling cancer, ultimately unsuccessfully.  And this woman did not wither up never to be heard from again.  I know it makes her uncomfortable when people pour on the admiration, but truly if someone deserves to hear “I don’t know how she does it,” it’s someone like that.

The next time you think of saying “I don’t know how you do it” to someone else, just consider that they may not have a choice, and it’s possible they’d switch places with you if they could—whether it’s to have a healthy kid rather than a sick one or to stay home rather than work.

If I sound grumpy and bitter, I’m really not.  I love my life and I love hanging out with my kids.  They’re in school all day at this point anyway, and their activities are worth a few vacation days or missed meetings.  But I still think I’ll skip the movie.

Filed under: Parenting


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  • I'm struggling to really grasp exactly what your issue with the movie is (besides the fact that it stars Sarah Jessica Parker). From the previews I've seen, the gist of the plot seems to be that she's trying to do everything and struggling, despite looking at ease. (Ever heard the duck analogy? Calm above but paddling like hell underneath?)

    Is the issue that people think you handle a tough situation well? They're not asking "why" you do it. They're not questioning your choices or priorities. They are complimenting your ability to be there for your family, as both "mom" and provider, as well as participate in something that challenges you as professional. I don't see how this is so upsetting. Would the luxury of choice of being a "one or the other" be ideal? Of course. But there are very few who fall into that category. And I can't help but imagine the grass is greener on the other side for both the stay at home mom and the working professional. Be proud of the fact that you've been able to do what you had to do to find balance in your life. And skip the SJP movie because, well, it's an SJP movie

  • In reply to Henjealy:

    Thanks, you have a good perspective (on the content of the blog and the movie!). I think my frustration has long been that I didn't have a choice, but you're probably right about the "grass is always greener". I actually had written that now that the kids are older I'm kind of happy that I have a strong career but thought that sounded snarky to people who chose to stay home and are now struggling a bit to find their niche. Thanks for reading.

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    Your article was kind of a slap in the face. Someone is probably asking a genuine question and I who have asked to several working moms and even some SAHMs, ask it genuinely as "What is your secret?" I asked how a mom keeps her house so clean when she has 3 kids - she told me she has a maid. I had no idea at the time SAHMs had maids - I know, naive, but no one I knew growing up had one. Women don't let on to those secrets and we should be helping each other. One of the keys to mothering is being creative and being a WAHM, I have to be really creative on how I manage my time. The other day, I folded laundry while my son wrote a story. I don't have a choice either and I never assume someone does, but I've had nervous breakdowns, moments of nipping the bottle and happy pills, and to see someone else suffers the same as I do, validates I guess some of my ways of coping...or not.

  • In reply to Where to Begin:

    I certainly didn't mean to minimize the work involved in running a house, but when someone makes that comment to me, it stings because I've not really have the choice NOT to "do it".

    I've had 19 years to perfect my system for staying organized and not losing my mind. You've given me a good idea- I'll share what works for me in a future post. Thanks for reading.

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    Interestingly enough, I saw your article title, "I don't know how she does it" while I was reading Mary Tyler Mom blog. I read MTM blog because I, too, had a 2 yr old that got diagnosed with pediatric cancer. That statement "I don't know how you do it" was said to me many times, by my own brother, even. While my circumstances were different, I still concur with your "annoyance" factor for this statement. I never said anything to my brother when he said it to me, but my thought was "What.....shall I curl up in a corner?" Point being, you do what you have to do to get by, whether it is caring for a sick child or wanting to preserve just a little piece of yourself by having a career. I totally get it.

  • In reply to Peggy O’Neil:

    I hope you're not offended if I tell you I have great admiration for the strength people in such difficult situations seem to muster. My heart goes out to you. Thanks for reading.

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