'Women's Work' Delves Into Gender Roles At Home And Relationships With Domestic Help

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 15, 2019 10:56 am

Megan Stack, a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, gave up a life of covering war and natural disasters when she had her first child in Beijing.

She quickly hired a nanny and soon realized how dependent she was on this woman — something she writes about in her book Women's Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home.

Stack spoke with NPR about the book — and the difficult decision to write about her own family.

"I would not have done it if I could have found another way to tell the story," she said. "I had been through so many just sort of shocking experiences. ... I knew that I could never get that from someone else's house because you can never get that level of access and that kind of intimacy."

In the interview, Stack reflects on hiring women to work in her home, coming to terms with the fact that they were leaving their own children to watch hers, and the role of men in domestic life.

On hiring someone to help with her first child in China

I think I sort of went into these relationships of hiring women to help me watch the kids — to help us, I should say, because I also have a husband ... who's part of this equation. ... But, realistically, I say myself because his job was travel-intensive. And when I remember that, especially that first year, he was often gone and he was working and he was just sort of coming and going. And I was very much in the house. And so I had this feeling that I had hired this woman who was coming to help me. You know that is, that is not a good way to think of it because it is part of the problem. ...

People kept saying to me "You're so lucky that you're having your baby in China because help is affordable here." I heard that phrase over and over again and it just had kind of gotten into my mind that this is the natural way that I'll be able to work on my book — and I'll have the baby and there'll be somebody coming. And Tom [my husband] will be at his job and I'll be home, you know, writing and not worrying about chores and it will be great. ...What it was actually going to feel like in reality and all of the things that would come along with that decision — I didn't anticipate them. I had never really thought about it. It was just not on my radar.

On considering domestic help to be family

I have consciously tried to avoid thinking of these women in those terms because I actually think there are a lot of problems attached to that framing. I feel competent with that now because now I've read people's doctoral theses where they did all this field work — and the sort of realities of domestic labor and how these jobs are carried out. The problem is, so now I'm conscious that when you say somebody is your family member, a lot of familiarity goes along with that — and a lot of labor protections tend to kind of go out the window.

Because you sort of say, well, she's here and you know we love her and she loves us and she loves the kids. She doesn't mind working the extra day off. She doesn't mind coming in even though maybe her family has something else to do — and you sort of impose. I think it often starts from a very good place and an honest place — and I understand that place because I have definitely felt that I loved the women who worked in my house, like I literally loved them. ... But the problem is when you put that on somebody who is actually your employee and who doesn't have the same power in the relationship, you are taking away more of their power, I think.

On the difference between how she and her husband viewed their first domestic hire

So [my husband is] trying to work all the time and [this combined with everything else] is a lot of pressure. I think when he was in that mode he was seeing [our first nanny], the woman who was working in our home, in a very transactional way. It was sort of like she's here so that you can get your work done. I can get my work done and everything has to function smoothly and to the extent that she can do that, that's great. And if she can't then, you know, maybe we should just replace her.

Whereas, I was in the house with this woman and I was very, very — I became very close to her and I felt very dependent upon her and she, in many ways, got tangled up. I write about this in the book. She was very involved in kind of my own sort of postpartum period and the sort of sense of, you know, how I could function as a mother. And the truth is, there was a time when she worked for me and I had the baby that I thought "I'm only a good mother because [my nanny] is here." And I really thought "[when] she's gone, this is all going to fall apart."

So I had this great love and gratitude. ... That sort of first year after my first child was born was very difficult for me and I really associated her with being able to function — and, sort of, emotional health. And she was tremendously helpful to me in many ways, so I saw her as much more: You know, she's not just a cog that is put into the machine and then if she's not working out, we'll just get another cog. I thought "she is personally very crucial." So we did have a divide. ...

Years went by, we both evolved in our thinking. We talked about these things a lot in our marriage — this was something that was an ongoing conversation. And I think that by the time ... the second woman in the book worked for us, I feel like we were sort of reversed where, I think, I became more transactional with her in a way. And Tom, my husband, was much more ... he had really this huge soft spot for her and was much more defensive of her. And, so, I think we went through different things at different times with different personalities — and just where we were in our own understanding of what we were doing.

On being so reliant on care-taking help — and fearing losing it

I think, for one thing, it was kind of the particularity of being in China and being so far from my family and, you know, I did have this feeling that I was sort of on my own and that maybe my husband would just get on a plane that week and not be around. So ... I was quite dependent on this woman who I trusted with my baby and it wasn't easy for me especially coming out of all the years of journalism and sort of studying all the horrible things. ... I had the feeling [that] I trust her and I don't know who else I would ever trust — because now I've sort of established in my mind that this woman is loving and wonderful with my son, but I can't just get someone else. So that was one thing. ...

And I was so desperate for work time which, in retrospect, seems a little crazy to me. But it felt very real at the time, the sense that I had to really fight every day to get these sort of hours of work time out of each day. And if I lost them, that felt like a real loss to me. It felt like I'm losing ground. I'm losing something not only the time and the progress in the manuscript but something existential — like I'm losing my place in the world. I'm losing my foothold on the work that will take me back out of this house. And that I'm just going to be in this house now as a mom — and I was really freaked out about all those issues.

On realization that the woman caring for her child was a mother, too, and had left her child to be a nanny

At first, I was just oblivious because I was so overwhelmed by my own state. Then I began to internalize it. I have memories of being shown photographs of her daughter. And the more I was understanding my reality as a mother ... I'm looking at other mothers, including [my nanny], and thinking "How are you handling this?" Like how it would make me crazy if I had to leave my kid when he was a year and a half and go work in someone else's house.

So I think it was a slow process of first not really being aware of it, then becoming more aware of it and not wanting to think about it because it felt so dangerous to my status quo. ...

On discussing men's place in the conversation of domestic duties

I'm asking with this book where the men are in this conversation ... the question of child care and the household and the maintenance of the household. ... Tied to this is also the care of elderly people or the sick. Why all of those issues are just still very much kind of shoved onto the women — and we're sort of left to resolve them among ourselves. I think if there's no answer from men or from society at large, then we're just going to continue to kind of pass this work among ourselves as best we can.

It's always a woman ... it's something that the men are not really getting involved with and yet, and yet there is somehow this social expectation or maybe it's even a social pretension that women are going to be able to participate fully in the labor force at the same rate as men. And that's obviously, it's flawed. It's not going to work. We are going to continue to be hampered and held back by the things that we have to do in our houses until we manage to sort of involve men. And I think that is a huge challenge that we are facing — and I am not sure how we go forward into it. But I'm hoping to at least hear more conversation about it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Megan Stack is a former foreign correspondent for the LA Times. She gave up a life of covering war and natural disasters when she had her first child in Beijing. She hired a nanny and realized how dependent she had become, something she writes about in her book, called, "Women's Work." In a talk with Rachel Martin, Stack said it was a hard decision to write about her own home and family.

MEGAN STACK: I would not have done it if I could have found another way to tell the story that I felt that I wanted to tell. It is, really, at times, unflattering - a very honest view into this very difficult issues of parenting, and marriage, and paid domestic labor and, you know, all of the tangled issues around those things.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: If you talk to someone who has full-time child care at home - in this country, abroad - they will often suggest that these women are like family. And you talk about that in the book. But is that how you thought of them?

STACK: I have consciously tried to avoid thinking of these women in those terms because I think there are a lot of problems attached to that framing. When you say somebody is your family member, a lot of familiarity goes along with that, and a lot of labor protections tend to kind of go out the window because you sort of say, well, she's here and, you know, we love her, and she loves us and she loves the kids - she doesn't mind, you know, working the extra day off. She doesn't mind coming in even though maybe, you know, her family has something else to do. And you sort of impose.

I think it often starts from a very good place and an honest place. And I understand that place because I have definitely felt that I loved the women who worked in my house. Like, I literally loved them. I know that it starts in that feeling, which is a very natural and good feeling. But the problem is when you put that on somebody who is actually your employee and who doesn't have the same power in the relationship, you are taking away more of their power, I think.

MARTIN: You tell these anecdotes in the book about how reliant you did become on them. You mention, you know, your first caretaker in China, that if she had left, things would have just fallen apart. Even when one of them had a health emergency, or if there was some other urgent situation, you felt this panic, almost, that they were going to go away for maybe a day, but maybe it was going to be weeks.

Can you talk about that fear? Because I mean, it's a human who has a problem, and they need to go deal with it. But it was so debilitating for you to think about them being gone.

STACK: It was. Well, I think that that comes from a few things. I think for one thing, it was kind of the particularity of being in China and being so far from my family. And I was quite dependent on this woman who I trusted with my baby. And it wasn't easy for me. And the other thing was that I'm kind of a maniac. I mean, I'm a workaholic. I was - you know, within a few weeks of having the baby, I was already just berating myself because I wasn't back to work at the book the way that I thought I would be, and now I have to write this book, but I didn't realize I was never going to sleep.

So my brain is dysfunctional, and how am I going to write a book in this state? And, you know, and every time Xiao Li was not there, I had the feeling, well, I'm going to lose another hour of writing time. And I was so desperate for work time. Which, in retrospect, seems a little crazy to me. So...

MARTIN: But it's really honest. You know?

STACK: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's a thing that a lot of women go through, feel, grapple with and don't talk about.

STACK: Yeah. I think that's true. I mean, I really was unprepared for a lot of the things that happened that first year, both just even the simple biological facts of sort of pregnancy and delivery of the baby, and then the things that happen to your mind and your emotional state. That was all shocking. And then, you know, introducing this whole other element of another woman who's also a mother - you know, this was the thing that I began to focus on more and more.

And I wrote about this in the book, going from thinking about this other person, this other woman, this other mother, as somebody who is somehow there for you in a - as you - in sort of a functional way. You know, she's there so I can work, and she's there so I have somebody to help me watch the baby.

MARTIN: She's left her children to care for yours.

STACK: She's left her children. This is the realization. And it's, of course, something you know, but it's coming to understand as a mother yourself, and it's coming to sort of to grapple with the ethics of this situation, which are not straightforward. Even after having read this book, I feel like there are - I cannot condemn the model of paid domestic labor, but I can at the same time. I feel like, yes, you know, given the world that we have, you know, this was a good job for her. It was a way that she was able to make some money to take care of her daughter.

But the fact that she had left her daughter behind in order to have the money to support that daughter is, you know, it's a very common story. It's a very modern, contemporary, global story. It's happening all over the world. And, you know, the thing is, when you have that woman in your house, taking care of your children, it starts to seem very crazy. You know, like, who's taking care of her children?

MARTIN: How often did you let yourself think about that? Or did you block it out? I mean, how did you manage those thoughts?

STACK: I think it was a slow process of first, you know, not really being aware of it then becoming more aware of it and not wanting to think about it because it felt so dangerous to my status quo.

MARTIN: Right.

STACK: It was sort of like, OK, I don't want to think about it. And then thinking, no, you know, this is not in my nature. I'm a journalist, and I have always been someone who tries to go to the difficult places and the places that are uncomfortable. So I'm going there more and more. And I'm asking more questions. And then eventually, those feelings sort of led to me deciding to write this book, which is kind of a departure for me. There was a long time when I was sort of working on a different book, and I would meet friends for coffee and I would - we would talk about the things that are in this book, this "Women's Work." And I would say, if I had any time, I would write this book 'cause this is really...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

STACK: ...Interesting. (Laughter). But I don't have time for this book 'cause I'm engaged in real - you know, it was sort of like, I'm engaged in the serious stuff, not the mommy, and the baby and the household. So finally, I decided, well, I am going to write that book. You know, and then it kind of turned into that. And that helped me a lot because it put me more at peace with confronting that.

Those - like, all of the aspects of the decisions that we had made and the trying, to the extent that I could, and trying to be respectful, but trying to bring the stories of the women and their families and their children and their own sort of landscapes as working mothers, and trying to put those into the same place as my own landscape as a working mother and to understand how they were intersecting.

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INSKEEP: Writer Megan Stack, her latest book is called, "Women's Work: A Reckoning With Work And Home." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.