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Miranda Richards: the real Kate Reddy

Miranda Richards adored both her high-flying job and her family. The dilemmas she faced inspired the brilliant novel – now a Hollywood film – I Don’t Know How She Does It.

It’s not often that a Hollywood A lister gets a part because she looks like an unknown Norfolk mother of four, so Miranda Richards is understandably chuffed by her vicarious fame. With long, thin legs and a sharp but smiley face, Sarah Jessica Parker, 46, star of the new film, I Don’t Know How She Does It, does indeed look rather like Miranda Richards.

“Her hair is longer and wilder, but I thought Sarah Jessica was a great choice as the heroine, Kate Reddy, because she’s a working mother, too” says Richards, 47. “I couldn’t believe it when I went on a set visit to New York and was introduced to her. ‘I’m just thrilled to meet you,’ she said, and I was so taken aback. And I met Pierce Brosnan [who plays extramarital love interest Jack Abelhammer].”

Her excitement at ordinary politeness from a star makes her sound like a complete backwoodswoman, but Richards is neither naive or untravelled. She may have swapped the City for the country, but there’s no hint of hayseed about the groomed figure in a little black dress, double-string necklace and high heels.

Nor is her house chaotic and covered in dog hairs. I ask her how to describe the assemblage of high-ceilinged rooms around a central staircase, expecting to be told “Georgian” or “early Victorian”. “Several people have called it ‘the most beautiful house in Norfolk,’” she replies, not boasting so much as stating a fact. Surrounded by 40 acres of parkland, hers is a life anyone might envy. Married to Nick, an investment surveyor of commercial property, many women might not have wrestled long with the dilemma of whether to keep working ridiculous hours or see more of her family. Richards knows that she was “incredibly lucky” to have a choice, but nevertheless agonised over the decision.

The film, based on Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson’s 2002 best-selling novel of the same name, revolves around that decision and the dilemmas Richards faced a decade or so ago. Watching a preview, she says she found herself in floods of tears. “At one point [Kate] sings ‘I love you a bushel and a peck’ down the phone to her toddler. It reminded me of how young my children were and my need to break out of business meetings just to talk to them.” Back then, Richards was working 12-hour days for Henderson Global Investment as a fund manager, leaping on planes several times a week. She had Polly (now 16), Milly (now 14) and had just given birth to Theodora, known as Bee, 12. She loved her daughters viscerally, but she also loved her job.

To tone up post-natally she joined forces with another mother in Islington, London, where they were living, to hire a Pilates teacher. That mother was Allison Pearson who at the time was hunting for a female character on whom to focus a series of columns for The Telegraph about a working mother. Kate Reddy was to be Bridget Jones for the woman who had found her man, cut back on the fags and chardonnay and started breeding. This woman’s struggles were not about self indulgence but how to look alert (or even clean) in meetings after being woken repeatedly by a teething child. Her little white lies were not about which man she was or wasn’t seeing but invented “male” excuses for absences from an office where car problems were greeted with sympathy, while mention of a sick child was likely to mean banishment to the dreaded ”mummy-track’’ where a career was downgraded to just a job.

The emotional core of the columns — which later evolved into the novel — was the divided heart of the woman who wanted to be in two places at the same time: in the office, earning money and praise, and at home being mummy. Pearson based Reddy on Richards, who fed her lively and often jaw-droppingly sexist details of the City culture which gave life to this modern everywoman. “Can we rely on you to attend board meetings with so many children?” one colleague asked. “If you go on maternity leave, we can’t guarantee your job back,” said another. It was the early days of email and Pearson received regular missives from the battleground. “She came into my office sometimes so she could describe where I worked, and everyone was wondering what she was doing,” Richards remembers.

As a working mother suffering from the same divided loyalties at the time, I found the book hit the spot — as did many other women, some of whom, apparently, gave up their jobs after reading it.

The only parts that didn’t ring true to me were the first page and the ending when Kate Reddy decides being a working mother doesn’t work.

The book opens with Reddy laboriously distressing shop-bought mince pies so she can pretend to the Mother Superiors (stay-at-home mums) that she’d done her bit for her daughter’s school Christmas party. Did Richards really do that? “No. I would have made them from scratch at 1am, pushing myself even further — and then burning them.” That’s more likely.

Richards likes to do things properly, which is why she found her overfull life so hard. She was never as aggressive as having-it-all superwoman Nicola Horlick, she says, nor as successful — though she won’t divulge how much she was earning. Like many women, she was only able to work because she had a live-in nanny and a husband who worked shorter hours and didn’t travel as much. Unlike Kate Reddy, the notion of an affair never occurred to her. “When was there time,” she laughs? But missing the children’s bedtime was a daily sadness. It was the attack on the Twin Towers 10 years ago that made her re-examine her priorities. “I went to say goodnight to Milly and found her clutching a snow globe of New York. She knew I’d been there and was worried that I mightn’t be coming home.”

Shortly before the book came out, Richards had already scaled back to working three days a week, one of them from Norfolk. She gave up work altogether – as Kate Reddy does – when she was expecting her fourth child, Honor, now 8. “The book tipped the balance for me. The children were in the bath when I told them. They were delighted, leaping about so there was water all over the floor.

“I felt I had missed out on the babyhoods of the older girls so my plan, when Honor was born, was to take a picture of her every day during her first year.” It didn’t work out like that. Capable, organised, ambitious women don’t just stay at home to bake and take photos — or not for long (as Reddy also discovers). At the time, an astute contemporary of Richards’s at St Andrew’s University — where she had read economics and politics, Arabic, logic and metaphysics — predicted that she would never be one of what Pearson calls the Domestic Disappeared. Sure enough, when the Richardses bought their current house, she was soon installing chickens, dogs, donkeys, a vegetable garden and a tennis court. Within months of Honor’s birth, she was writing a pantomime for Bee’s nursery school and helping local charities.

What does she do now? Well, she explains, she’s a trustee of the Varrier-Jones Foundation which helps the Papworth Trust support disabled people, and is on the investment committee for her mother’s old Cambridge college; until recently she was chairman of the governors of a local school; she also advises Norwich diocese on its investments and is secretary to the parish council. “Two days a week I go up to London to help a friend who manages a global equities fund. Is that all I do, Bee?” she calls out to the child who is drawing behind the sofa.

“You look after us and the animals,” replies a disembodied voice.

Being an at home mother has its downsides, but she has learnt to cope with men who can’t think of anything to say to her at dinner parties: “I ask them about themselves.” She has become used to asking her husband for money and living more thriftily, having au pairs rather than nannies (although three girls are at boarding school now and the youngest at prep). “The hardest part is no longer getting adult approbation. I can’t expect Nick to say how nice dinner is every night and I miss having someone in the office notice a haircut.”

Her advice to her daughters is to set themselves up with a craft or a profession to which they can return to after a career break. Mothers are still viewed with suspicion in the City, she finds. “I want to be a non-executive director of an investment trust because I feel I have a lot to offer. Many of them talk of investing in companies with good social policies, but recently I was told by a head hunter that nothing I had done since I left the City was relevant to my CV.”

Unlike books, real stories about divided loyalties rarely have uncomplicated endings. But if a film were to be made in 10 years’ time about Richards’s life now, I doubt it would make her cry.

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