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“I don’t know how you do it” is not a compliment, and this is why

It’s condescending and we need to stop saying it – pronto, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

I am not usually much of a moaner. But there is one thing that really boils my lady’s piss. It’s when women say to other women, “I don’t know how you do it.” It contains every permutation of female toxic emotion, that phrase. Fake admiration, a touch of envy, a hint of hate, a dose of passive aggression and a touch of a dismissive sneer that veers into, “I don’t know why you bother.”

 Of course, it has turned into something of a catchphrase over the years, captured by novelist Allison Pearson with her multi-tasking, mince-pie-distressing heroine Kate Reddy in the novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the film. But it’s an expression that has existed since the dawn of time. Or at least since the dawn of the idea that women are supposed to “have it all” and yet if they actually look as if they’re doing something even vaguely interesting or challenging then there must be something weird about them.

This is something that is said to working mothers but also to any women who are fairly busy or who have multiple jobs or side hustles or even just a form of employment or responsibilities of any kind. We need to stop saying it. Partly because it’s really annoying. But mostly because I don’t hear anyone saying it to men because no-one marvels at how men do it, they just expect them to do it and are not remotely surprised when they do. (I have also never heard a man say it to a woman.)

As women we keep each other small when we say these things

As women we keep each other small when we say these things. I was shocked (and yet somehow also not remotely surprised) at the tone of an article recently about Kirsty Young, who is taking a break from presenting BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs because she has fibromyalgia. The article suggested, ridiculously, that her illness resulted from her being an over-achiever. (I am no doctor but this is vile nonsense.) It stopped short of saying, “I don’t know how she does it!” But the spirit of that phrase was implicit throughout. It said that her absence was “bad news for all hard-charging women” which made it sound as if there are women everywhere turning up to work on medieval steeds and riding them recklessly into the side of buildings. I wish this was happening as it would be entertaining. But it’s not a thing. No-one is charging hard. There are no hard-charging women. The bad news is that Kirsty Young is unwell. Not that interesting jobs bring on physical illness.

 Here’s how it is. When someone says “I don’t know how she does it” then they are saying more about themselves — and the limited things they (secretly? subconsciously?) think women are capable of — than they are saying about the person with the supposedly unimaginable taskload. Mostly what women are doing when it looks to someone else that they are doing something that is “impossible to fathom” is that they are living their life, earning a living and getting on with stuff. I know, crazy, right?


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