by Megan K. Stack
Anchor Books, 2020; 352 pp.; $15.59 (Paperback)Buy Book
I grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to the United States in my mid-twenties. Armed with a graduate degree in mathematics, I was passionate about pursuing my career as a software engineer. However, when I became a mother of two in a small town in Connecticut, my options for achieving work-life balance narrowed substantially and unexpectedly.
I chose the “mommy track” because it made the most sense for my situation and personality. However, I often daydream about what my career might have been like if I had had better options. So, when I came across Women’s Work: A Personal Reckoning with Labor, Motherhood, and Privilege, Megan Stack’s book about these issues, I eagerly reached for it.
Megan Stack is a foreign correspondent and has reported on war, terrorism, and political Islam from twenty-two countries. She and her husband Tom, also a foreign correspondent, were living in Beijing when their first baby was born and in New Delhi, when their second child arrived. Women’s Work is Stack’s personal chronicle of the emotional upheavals she faced after the births of her sons. An equally important theme is the complicated relationship between career women and their children’s nannies. Stack addresses both issues with empathy and integrity. She does not take an easy way out and challenges herself throughout.
In the immediate aftermath of the birth of her first baby, Stack feels extreme anxiety and battles severe depression. Her idea of herself as a self-sufficient and ambitious career woman is completely shattered. The first shock occurs when her mother arrives from the US for a two-week stay. Accustomed to managing her life without any help, Stack is taken aback by her feeling of relief at her mother’s mere presence.
The moment my mother stepped into the flat, the knots in my gut slackened. Had she ever riled my nerves, had we really fought, sometimes bitterly? I had even, in my pregnant naiveté, considered telling her to stay home. To give us space. To bond. As a family. This has been lunacy, I could see that now. She was a goddess and a saint. She had birthed three babies.
Many thought-provoking ideas exist in this brief reflection. One, it takes a village—a support system—not only to raise a child but also to create a home and fully grow into motherhood. Two, many new mothers become aware—often for the first time—of the hard work that went into their own formation; they suddenly outgrow their complicated feelings about their mothers. Finally, new motherhood creates a sense of vulnerability, a shockingly unfamiliar feeling.
The second shock is more of a rude awakening. When Stack’s husband returns to his job after a two-week paternity leave, she realizes the trajectory of her career, although substantially similar to his up to this point, will henceforth be vastly different, more than she had imagined. “I begrudged him, in some confused way, the airports and adventures that I had relinquished. Maybe I sensed that our fates were about to diverge radically; maybe I was trying, clumsily, to make him share my inconvenience and immobilization.”
Even while she admits that the family’s “domestic existence was balanced on his job,” the author also recognizes that theirs was now “a domestic vignette straight out of the 1950s.” As the “feminist daughter of a feminist mother,” this is a hard truth for Stack to swallow. And it leads to a deeper understanding of the arcs of women’s lives.
The obvious hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or painted at the same rate as men. . . someone after all must wash and feed and train the kids and get the food and. . . care for the elderly. . . . Domestic toil had ground us, one after the next, to dust. We had not been educated because then, naturally, we might gawk at the work.
The third emotional upheaval is Stack’s inability to cope with her own diminished productivity. When quitting her job during her pregnancy, she had assuaged her unrest about “dropping out” by assuring herself she would work on her second book right after the birth of her baby. She found it quite impossible to do this, and despite sleepless nights, breastfeeding challenges, and massive hormonal changes, she was simply unwilling to cut herself some slack. If anything, the expectation of unfettered career success created its own burden. “. . . the days were sliding past. Time’s a-wasting, my mother always said. I had to get a grip and get back to work. My manuscript malingered deep in my computer files. The baby turned in his crib. I wasn’t sure whether it was morning or afternoon.”
Stack managed to find a solution to this dilemma. Eschewing “unnecessary and self-imposed martyrdom,” she decided to hire a helper, Xiao Li, to cook and clean. This launches the second and meatier section of Women’s Work as Stack is increasingly drawn to trying to understand Xiao Li’s life circumstances. As an inquisitive and unfulfilled reporter and as an empathetic new mother, she recognizes the hidden-in-plain-sight story contained in Xiao Li’s demure presence. She also realizes that her work, which is very important to her, is possible only through the sacrifice of this young woman.
One of the most touching scene takes place when Xiao Li begs to be allowed to care for the newborn. This is all the more astounding since the reader already knows that Xiao Li has a three-year-old daughter who is being raised by the child’s grandparents in the family’s ancestral village.
How is this possible? It is almost easier to imagine the worker feeling envy and resentment than it is to understand her primal need to love. Even though the need to work turns her motherhood into an out-of-reach privilege, Xiao Li is unable to turn off the love in her heart and the longing in her body to cuddle a baby. And so she goes above and beyond her assigned duties not out of a desire to impress or kowtow, but out of a need to express the most selfless love. That this exchange of love is with a baby not her own is completely beside the point. This short incident is sensitively observed and is at once humbling and uplifting.
As Stack gets more and more emotionally involved in Xiao Li’s life, she starts thinking about writing this memoir. A thoughtful rebel, she accepts her ability to afford help with commendable unease. She comes to see nannies not as mere factotums, but as humans who are caught in difficult life circumstances—living away from family and their own children, earning just enough to make ends meet, and dreaming of a marginally better life.
Even as her empathy for Xiao Li grows, Stack feels “weird” about sharing certain baby photos with far-flung friends and family. She worries that photos including Xiao Li will come in the way of a sense of “commonality” with those people. And so,
As I began to exclude her from the photographic record, I realized that most of the families I knew seemed to do the same. . . . They all said things like “Xi Ayi is like a member of our family.” That sounded cozy and loving, as if the ayis [aunts] were not laborers, but blood relatives or volunteers. But pictures don’t lie. If you want to see the ambivalence that pervades domestic labor, check the photographic record.
Stack finds that the photos her expat friends share on social media are carefully composed to exclude the nannies, even though in reality they are ever-present. It is almost as if the expats know full well the inequality inherent to their domestic arrangements and, unlike Stack, find it easier to sweep that inconvenient truth under the rug. Indeed, she is surprised to find that they are extremely reluctant to engage with the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise from contemplating these highly unequal, almost neo-colonial, relationships. I commend Stack for not succumbing to the impulse to sweep the reality of expats’ relationships with their nannies under the rug.
Because of a change in her husband’s job, the family moves to New Delhi two years after the birth of their first son. Thanks to her husband’s income, which makes hiring local helpers affordable, Stack continues to work on her book and does not try to resume her old job. Her descriptions of her life in New Delhi are stark and troubling. She portrays social divisions based on caste and religion, the grinding poverty, and the intransigent bureaucracy in a balanced manner.
My first glimpses of India had been ill-lit vignettes in taxi windows: market stalls tarped for the night; wild dogs staggering in gutters; bodies dead asleep on pavement. . . . I was greeted by faceless towers and vacant lots. With its listless men and drifts of rubbish, this part of Delhi resembled a hundred other vaguely post-apocalyptic towns I’d never hoped to call home.
It is no surprise that all these aspects cast shadows on Stack’s life. The bright spot is the ease of communicating with the two helpers—Mary and Pooja—whom Stack hires. Apart from their familiarity with English, both women have more expressive personalities. They laugh, cry, sing, and dance. Interestingly, also unlike Xiao Li, Mary and Pooja retain some agency in their relationship with Stack. For example, contrary to her requests, they insist on addressing her as Madame. Also, only after she friends them on Facebook does Stack realize there are aspects to their lives they have carefully hidden from her. Stack has done a great job of contrasting the circumstances in India and China and documenting how political systems affect culture and character.
After the move to India, Stack continues her exploration of the lives of the people she hires to help her run her household. She dwells at length on how taking something for herself and her children inevitably means taking something precious from her employees and their children.
My children were the lucky ones. They made no trade; it was all benefit. They soaked up the love and attention of extra caretakers. They were exposed to languages and cultures and tastes and sounds . . . . The children of Mary and Pooja and Xiao Li had to trade like grown-ups, and their trade was the most brutal of all: they got money but they grew up without mothers.
I am a grandmother now, and issues about childcare and work-life balance are no longer front-and-center in my life. Over the quarter century since I was a young mother struggling to have a career while being present for my children, many positive changes have occurred (more engaged fathers and remote work options, to name a few). However, long working hours, job precarity, and lack of affordable child-care continue to challenge parents of young children.
The book does not end on a happy note. Citing global statistics, Stack shines light on the enormity of the problem. There are as many as one hundred million domestic workers in the world, 80 percent of whom are women and 17 percent of whom are migrants from Asia, Africa, or poor villages in middle income countries. “But of course these stories are not only about women—they also scream the reality of men who manage to duck not only the labor itself, but the surrounding guilt and recrimination.”
Noting that Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, managed to sidestep the realm of housework, Stack asserts: “Men ought to be asked. Everyone ought to be asked. Who’s cooking the food, who’s minding the kids, who’s scrubbing the toilets?”
Here I must disagree with Stack. Just like the forty-hour work week, prohibition of child labor, and other labor protections, the answers to the questions that Stack raises in the book demand a structural or whole-system response. Maybe the answer lies in ideas such as a 30-hour work week, shared jobs, and universal healthcare (which will make a shorter work week more palatable to employers). What do we as a developed society and as an advanced economy owe parents, workers, and caregivers? What do we owe our children? Women’s Work asks us—men as well as women, economists, policy wonks, and advocates—to find answers to these and similar questions.