Debra Bruno is the author, with Bob Davis, of “Beijing From A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China.”
American expat families with small children quickly learn that child care outside the United States is often abundant and cheap. There’s easy access to full-time, often live-in babysitters, frequently supplemented by the work of another woman who is in charge of cooking and cleaning, even when one parent doesn’t work outside the home.
In her memoir, “Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home,” former foreign correspondent Megan K. Stack asks what that arrangement means for the mother; for the women who care for her children, make her family’s dinners and clean up their messes; and for the men who often don’t share in the responsibilities.
Stack, who had stints in Jerusalem, Cairo, Moscow and Beijing for the Los Angeles Times, is a natural storyteller with an eye for detail. In her previous book, “Every Man in This Village Is a Liar,” an account of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she demonstrated a gritty determination to navigate a harsh world and look at war plainly.
Now she takes that same clear-eyed approach to domestic life. This is a painfully honest investigation of what kind of compromises women make by hiring other women to do the grunt work. In China, she hired a woman she called by the nickname Xiao Li who handled child care and housework. In India, she hired two helpers (whose names were changed to protect their identities): Mary, a babysitter, and Pooja, a housekeeper; their caregiving roles often merged depending on what was needed.
Stack confronts a reality that many try not to think about: Who are the women who care for my children and clean my house? What do their long hours mean for their own children or their sense of themselves? Stack wonders if she’s exploiting them or helping them, and whether she can ever really get to know them.
In China, Stack quit her job when she found out she was pregnant and decided to write the novel she had been thinking about for years. The novel was her way to remain a vital, working woman even while raising a child (admittedly with help). Her husband, also a foreign correspondent, now supported the family. But Stack’s career as a novelist didn’t quite work out the way she planned.
After the baby came, she suffered what many new mothers face: a foggy brain, desperate love and a sense of isolation with the newborn. Even with the help of Xiao Li, the demands of motherhood were far harder than she imagined. She did a lot of breast-feeding and getting up in the middle of the night with the baby. She was getting very little done on the novel. “It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position,” Stack writes. “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.” Women’s work, she realizes, is relentless. “It is not a job, but a constant gaping demand for labor. It’s a ceaseless work that has gobbled up our energy and stamina, eroded our collective health, and starved our communal mind of oxygen for generations.”
While Stack grappled with her own travails, her husband, Tom, marched off to work each day with a busy schedule, blithely leaving the home front largely in the hands of his wife and her helpers. He seemed clueless about what was happening at home. He complained about the meals Xiao Li cooked. He threw out a toy that Xiao Li bought for their infant son because it might be tainted with lead. And, touching Stack’s elbow through a hole in her sleeve, he actually said: “Meg, seriously. . . . Will you please — please — buy some clothes?”
“Women’s Work,” then, is a double-edged indictment: of those, including Stack, who exploit domestic helpers in their desire to remain relevant in work but also of the men who abdicate responsibility. We may wonder why Tom didn’t notice that his wife was fighting a form of postpartum depression. But in his defense, Stack admits, “like most people on the outer edge of sanity, I wanted desperately to pass as normal.” Yet the signs were there. Her baby’s bad sleep habits made her obsessive about noises in the apartment, and she admits she drove guests out of her home for laughing or for opening the bathroom door before the toilet stopped flushing.
In an unflinching way, Stack pulls the curtain back on the truths of women’s lives, especially the domestic part: how women make it work. Stack also reveals the lives her helpers have beyond the hours they work for her. Feeling guilty, she tried to offer the women a small measure of extra help, but often her efforts backfired. When she installed an air-conditioning unit in Pooja’s servant’s room, the landlord informed her that the building’s wiring couldn’t support it and that it had to be removed. But they ignored him and kept it installed. She worried for one of her helpers when she got very sick. And she wondered how she missed it when one of the women had a self-induced abortion right in her home.
Stack traveled back to China and India to ask the women who had worked for her about their earlier lives and how they felt about caring for another woman’s children. In China, Xiao Li politely dodged her most pointed questions, although she admitted that she was forced to leave her daughter behind in the care of her parents. In India, the author realized how little she knew about Pooja’s harsh life, both before and after she worked for Stack. Mary’s life remained elusive. When Stack tried to get to know her, she heard varying stories about how Mary learned Hindi, how she wound up doing child care, how she got to Delhi and the makeup of her family. Ultimately, she decided that to dig further into their lives “was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.”
Eventually, she realized the obvious change that was necessary to free women from the status of “permanent underclass”: Men would have to be more involved in the work that had for too long been the exclusive burden of women.
By Megan K. Stack
336 pp. $27.95