The dainty slippers pictured on the cover of “Women’s Work” may have been a marketing ploy on the part of the publisher, but the image is so precious, so trite and so likely to backfire that it deserves extra points for sheer perversity. Anyone who picks up Megan K. Stack’s new book anticipating a gentle meditation on domestic life will be swiftly disabused within the first 20 pages, when Stack describes in (legitimately) excruciating detail her experience of going into labor with her first child. “I distinctly felt my hip bones dragging themselves apart,” she writes. “My skeleton was being dismantled.”
Stack, formerly a war correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, left her plum journalism job in 2011, full of expectation for the child she was about to have and the second book she planned to write. “I imagined long, silent afternoons in spotless rooms, typing clean lines of prose while the baby napped beatifically in a sunbeam,” she recalls.
Needless to say, life as a new parent wasn’t so obliging — even if she and her husband, Tom, a journalist himself, could easily afford to outsource most of the domestic work in Beijing, where they lived. They hired a woman to watch their son and clean the house and cook the meals; a few years later, when Stack was pregnant with their second child and the family moved to Delhi for Tom’s job, they employed two women at once to do the same things.
Memoirs about motherhood are exceedingly common, but “Women’s Work” dares to explore the labor arrangements that often make such books possible. It brought to mind “My Hollywood,” Mona Simpson’s excellent novel about the knotty bond between a composer and the Filipina caregiver she hires. As Stack herself admits — in an author’s note that’s as ruthlessly and relentlessly self-aware as the rest of her book — she had little in common with the women she employed. “They were poor women, brown women, migrant women,” she writes. “And at first I pushed them to the edge of thought. They were important to me, primarily, because they made me free.”
In Beijing she hired Xiao Li, or “Little Li,” who had left her own daughter behind in the care of grandparents because she couldn’t afford child care. Later, in Delhi, Stack hired Mary and Pooja, women from the mountainous region between Bhutan and Nepal who had also left their children in the care of relatives. Soon Stack became privy to their private lives, including pregnancies, abortions, binge drinking and domestic abuse. Whatever boundaries she may have tried to erect between herself and the women in her employ began to dissolve as she learned what it meant to have a home that was also, as she puts it, “a job site.”
There’s something jarring in this blunt phrasing — perhaps because the bubble of moneyed parenthood tends to be written about in tones of such woolly sentimentality or strenuous zaniness that the reminder of a brute economic fact can feel like an intrusion. Stack writes sharp, pointed sentences that flash with dark insight. “Why was it that, whatever you desired, you could find a poor woman to sell it?” she asks, putting babysitting on a continuum with pornography. While living in India, she visited China and met Xiao Li’s daughter — “the girl whose rightful allotment of nurturing care I had rented.”
Stack clearly doesn’t look saintly in her own account, though she’s so attuned to her own ambivalence and complicity that she doesn’t look quite villainous either; she seems overwhelmed by new motherhood, trying to maintain a sense of human decency while also acknowledging the fundamental indecency that allows her to afford a retinue.
When Stack allowed Xiao Li to return home to tend to her sick daughter, she congratulated herself “for being superior to those other, nefarious bosses” before interrogating Xiao Li in a way that made clear that Stack wasn’t so superior after all. In Delhi, Stack would sometimes try to step back and listen to the conversations she was having with Tom as if she were eavesdropping “on a couple discussing their servants,” she writes. “It was a disgusting sensation.”
Tom, though — Tom looks bad. He isn’t cruel to Stack. He wants her to write. He wants her to have help so that she can write — hired help, that is, because as much as he’s a “picky eater” and a “neat freak” (her words), he’s too busy with his job to lift up a mop or a saucepan. In Stack’s memoir — and it’s entirely possible that Real Tom has much more to commend him than Memoir Tom — he carries himself like a comfortable neoliberal patriarch, apparently unbothered by the economic forces that have allowed his family to wield so much power over their employees’ lives.
“So fire her,” he told Stack at one point, when she explained that she wasn’t getting much writing done while Xiao Li was away, tending to her daughter. “We are not a welfare state.”
The harsh lines in Stack’s portrait of Tom soften a bit when the family is in Delhi: He magnanimously insists on clean water delivery to Pooja in the servants’ quarters; he graciously offers Pooja an air conditioner. But his noblesse oblige only seems to kick in when he’s flush with good feelings toward an employee — which simply serves to underscore that such modest gestures are his to bestow or withhold.
Stack includes an epigraph from Adrienne Rich: “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” “Women’s Work” is so full of keen insights and shrewd observations that by the time Stack arrived at her What Needs to Be Done moment, a mere six pages from the end, she had already won me over so fully that I was only mildly exasperated when she landed on this: “The answer is the men.”
It is? Men, she says, have to do more of the housework and child care. Sure, yes, of course. But from the sound of it, running a bourgeois household to her family’s exacting specifications will necessarily consume more work than two people are able to give (especially if one of those people is Memoir Tom). Her wan conclusion to an otherwise fearless book feels like a bit of a put-on and a bit of a cop-out. And you don’t have to take it from me — you can take it from her. “When at last I have nothing to lose,” Stack writes, “it will be safe to think honestly.”
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