What happens when married American journalists living in Beijing add a child to their family? Unlike in their home country, they find household help — nannies, cleaners, and the like — very affordable. So Megan K. Stack and her husband, Tom, hire Xiao Li to help with the baby, the dishes, the cooking. Tom will continue his work as before; Megan will stay home and, with Xiao Li’s help, take care of their son and write her book. Only the first part of that plan worked out.
In her stunning and layered examination of gender, money, and power, “Women’s Work,” Stack describes the way having children complicates even the best-laid plans — or, perhaps, how birthing and raising children renders many plans unworkable, especially for women. A child is at once “the most complicated blessing life can bestow” and the tipping point from egalitarian marriage to something less equal, perhaps inescapably so. Motherhood, she writes, forced her to confront the “obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men.” It isn’t that women have been prevented from working, Stack realizes; the problem is that housework — “the work we pretend doesn’t exist” — has crowded out the time to do almost anything else.
Every day, while Stack’s husband went off to work (in a profession she herself had loved for “the travel, the restlessness, the writing”), she found herself at home with a newborn and a stranger. Her husband, she writes, “had slipped easily back into his own life while I had been bombed back to some prehistoric version of myself.” Worse, she adds, “Tom had become an alien in the household,” more a visitor than a resident in a life refocused on baby, kitchen, and playground. At their son’s first birthday party, Tom takes all the pictures, appearing in none of them, and Stack finds herself uncomfortable sharing the shots of mama, baby, and nanny. “I didn’t want to advertise the fact that we hired other people to do our housework,” she writes, “that we didn’t clean up our own messes, that we lived in neocolonial comfort with a locally hired domestic underling.”
Although many of Stack’s observations will be familiar to American mothers, there is an undeniable global aspect to the book. Stack is attentive to the economic realities of the places she raises her children — first in China, then in India — and the benefits she enjoys as a relatively wealthy, white, American woman. “Help is affordable,” her peers tell her, reassuringly. “It was a euphemistic phrase,’’ she writes. “It meant, ‘Human beings are cheap here.’ Foreigners said it all the time.” In a book this attuned to questions of fairness, freedom, and equality, Stack’s observations would ring false if she didn’t interrogate her own role in the system. Thankfully, she does.
After the fog of new motherhood clears, once her two sons are growing more independent, she undertakes a journalistic project, interviewing two of the family’s former nannies about their lives outside of her own home. Both are migrants from rural villages, intelligent women who never had a chance at higher education, mothers who had to leave their children behind to help raise Stack’s. Their experiences shine a light on the challenges faced by poor women around the world. And while Stack feels solidarity with them as a fellow woman, and affection for them as caregivers to her children, she knows too that they weather circumstances far beyond her comprehension. When Pooja, the family’s housekeeper in India, is beaten by her partner, it’s as if “[t]he fragile membrane that had separated the harrowing existence of the vulnerable women we employed from our quiet domestic life had finally burst,” Stack writes.
Alongside their vastly different cultural and economic circumstances, however, the women share something. They are all members of a household — the place where children live, where family life happens, and where women’s work takes place. Before having children, Stack writes, “I hadn’t realized yet that households are life itself; households contain and enable the entire human landscape.” After, everything shifts. “Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything,” she writes. “They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do.” Stack’s lost writing time, Xiao Li’s inability to be with her own daughter, Pooja’s lost chance to attend college — all losses are not equal, but all are due to this essential inequality. “The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population,” she writes. “And yet honest discussion of housework is still treated as a taboo.” Let us hope that this powerful, unflinching book will begin to dismantle it.
By Megan K. Stack
Doubleday, 333 pp., $27.95
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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at email@example.com.