My Group Therapy Session With Sarah Jessica Parker

After I said my piece, there was a silence — possibly a panicked, "who let her in" silence — and then everyone spoke at once. Sarah Jessica Parker finally threw up her hands and said nervously, "I'm really not shirking it." Then she asked the PR person to step in. That's when everyone started telling me to just have babies.

I was at a panel after a screening of I Don't Know How She Does It, hosted by Moms In The City, and the audience was a weird amalgam of traditional journalists and mombloggers. It was the latter group that dominated. As Slate's Jessica Grose pointed out, "SJP—who it must be said, has the highest EQ of any celebrity I've ever seen in person—correctly intuited that the crowd really wanted to talk to her, rather than listen to her answer the moderators' boiler plate questions." Yes, and she was unfailingly classy, smart, and sweet while doing it. She delicately acknowledged her unusual privilege when the moderators wanted to give her credit for being the ultimate working mom. She smiled and listened to mothers introduce themselves by the number of kids they had and entreat moms not to judge each other so hard.

When I got the mic, I started out by speaking personally — the gathering had taken on a real group-therapy vibe, so I went with it. "I don't yet have kids but I would like to have kids. I'm one of five and my mother worked," I said, and I didn't remember harboring any resentments against my mom like the daughter in the movie. But.

"I have to be honest and say that when I was watching the movie and reading the book I felt terrified and intimidated," I went on. "And there is this moment where [Parker's character] Kate is talking to Olivia Munn's character, telling her she can do it, even though I don't know why she needs to do it right then. So I'm curious how do you balance being really honest about the fact that it's really challenging, with scaring younger women?" [Spoiler ahead.]

"And second of all, how did you decide to have Olivia Munn's character keep the baby instead of having an abortion?"



***

There are many virtuous, overtly feminist things about I Don't Know How She Does It. Like its protagonist, the movie tries very hard. People say things — directly to the camera! — about the double standard for working women and men. But as in any such discussion about women's lives, there's always a negotiation between being honest about balancing high-pressure work with a family, and deterring others from trying to manage that very balance. In the case of IDKSHDI, this is partly because the style is intentionally, well, stressful. As David Edelstein wrote, Allison Pearson's novel's "whirligig rhythms make you feel as if you're multitasking just reading the book."

The movie is just as frenetic as the book, but in its Americanization — or SJP-ization — it's less fun. Gone is most of the ballsy, acerbic humour. The book's "attempt to be size 10" list-making heroine now has SJP's tiny waist; fine, that's Hollywood. But the trash-talking, fuck-it-all ambivalence is also gone, replaced by a sort of highly-organized woman-child who desperately wants to please everyone and gazes starry-eyed into her husband's face roughly a half-dozen times. Almost all wit about the ironies of modern female existence is replaced with... slapstick physical comedy and gimmicks.

In the midst of this, the character played by Olivia Munn — a junior analyst who represents the perfectionist, hard-charging, career-first mentality of a younger woman — has an unplanned pregnancy, and when she tells SJP's character Kate that she's going to have an abortion (the word itself, of course, isn't used), Kate talks her out of it. She says, winningly, that she knows her life looks messy and unappealing, but actually having children is the best thing ever. That's wildly inappropriate, but I also believe the character would do that, and that if Kate were a real person, the real-life Kate would do the same thing, too. Most people's life advice conveniently doubles as self-justification. The bizarre thing is that in the movie, it works.

Munn's character doesn't have to have a baby to advance the plot, as in say, Knocked Up, and as Allison Pearson herself would eventually point out during the aforementioned panel, the character in the book who gets pregnant is not the Type A junior person, but rather a colleague in her late thirties who is several months pregnant when she backs out of the abortion (after, naturally, Kate tells her that the fetus might cry). The choice to keep a baby as made by that particular character makes much more sense. But in the movie, we're given a younger woman with more than a few fertile years ahead of her, who has professed zero interest in anything but her job and has no partner in sight (or even mentioned), suddenly finding redemption through childbirth.



***

Back to the not-shirking. "I came to the movie with a script completed and handed to me, so I wasn't part of the development process," Parker said. Then she turned to the PR person in the audience. "I hope you can also explain why this isn't going going to terrify younger audiences, because I would really like them to come," she said.

That's not quite what the PR woman did.

"I'm a mother of a newborn," she said, adding that her job at the Weinstein company was extremely demanding. Nevertheless, she said, "I share with anyone who will listen to me that I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life, and I credit that largely to a full and rich home life that I chose. I chose to be married, I chose to marry a little later, I chose to have a baby, I chose to move to New York to get married, give up a huge career in Los Angeles, to no career and then stumbled into Harvey [Weinstein]'s office."

She added, "My God, I'm so grateful I took every leap along the way to get me where I am right now. And it's worth everything! Everything! It's so wonderful to have options and balance." She told me to bring flip flops in my bag and finished, "I would advise you to jump."

Not really what I was asking, something of a stonewall, but not insincere either, I'd say.

Pearson took a stab. "I don't think the message of the book and the film is, 'You can't manage it.' But it tries to be honest," she said. (Later, she called writing the book an "act of solidarity.") Then she went off the rails a bit.

"I've become an anti-birth control person, because I go around the country, both America and at home, to talk to groups of young women. I just write in the books, 'Babies are the best! Go home and get pregnant now.'" The audience laughed. Pearson added, "There's no good time. Because babies come and make their own agenda, and they're just the best thing in the world. And we wouldn't want to put anybody off, would we?"

Parker took another tack. "You're smart to be scared," she said, but added that she had many happy childless friends and knew other women saying they related to the movie because it reflected "the desire to live a rich and complicated life." The word "choice" came up again.

Later, a slightly older woman stood up and said she was child-free by choice and, even as she praised the movie, remarked how the one intentionally childless woman in the movie only finds fulfillment through parenthood, and how that didn't leave her much room for identification. Another woman in her early thirties took the mic and said she agreed with me about being scared, and as a newlywed wondered about the impact on her marriage. She and two other younger women came up to me afterwards to..."commiserate" is a strong word. Maybe identify.

In the end, no one had really answered my question why, if having a choice was so awesome, the young woman in the movie couldn't have made another one. You know, the one she convincingly would have wanted to make.