The Demands of Domestic Labor: A Conversation with Megan K. Stack
Megan K. Stack had reported on war in dozens of countries, but it was inside the confines of her own home, she says, that she was radicalized. She quotes Adrienne Rich in the author’s note of her raw and unshrinking new memoir Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home: “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”
Formerly a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a National Book Award finalist for Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War, Stack quit her prestigious position to give birth to her first son and focus on writing a novel. Today, she’ll admit a degree of naiveté when it came to the realities of parenthood. She anticipated enlightened hours at her desk; she was instead met with sleepless nights that dragged on in a lost, bitter haze. Like many upper-class expats living in Beijing, she found refuge in inexpensive labor. A young Chinese woman—referred to as Xiao Li throughout the book — entered her home and cared for her children, helped cook and clean, and, Stack says, rescued her from depression, from desperation. Despite their language barrier, the two women developed a strong intuitive connection. Stack isn’t frightened to call her feelings for Xiao Li what they were: deep, profound love.
But the thesis of Women’s Work is that this love, however genuine, is not without its nuance. As Stack, her husband, and her children traverse the blurry boundaries between work and home, employee and family, she examines the systems of poverty and privilege that enabled her to pull women away from their own children in order to care for hers. She loves the women she hires—Xiao Li, as well as two women in New Delhi named Mary and Pooja—and yet she also recognizes them for what they are: “women I’ve rented.”
“I promise you,” she writes. “Nothing is cheap by accident.”
I spoke with Stack about why Women’s Work required such a thorough self-examination, the public discourse around domestic labor, and the challenges of writing about the women who became her dear friends.
The Rumpus: So the book opens with you embarking on your last assignment as a foreign correspondent. You were four months pregnant, preparing to write a book, and you made the choice to quit this job that you so clearly loved. I wanted to hear about this job and what it meant for you to relinquish it. How did you become a journalist? And why did you want to be a foreign correspondent in particular?
Megan K. Stack: When I was in college I studied journalism, and I worked as an editor on the school paper. But I was young, and I thought that I was going to be a Spanish professor. That was kind of a thing that I was really passionate about in college—Spanish literature—and I thought I thought I was going to get a PhD and teach the Spanish language novel. But I loved working in journalism. And so when I was finishing school, I had a lot of things going on: My dad was quite ill, [he] was dying of cancer, and I just didn’t really have myself together to go to graduate school right away. So I thought I’ll just get a job. So I went and found a job at the El Paso Times, and I started covering the border.
After that, it was a cycle; whenever I would think, okay, now it’s time to get my visa to apply for graduate school and get serious about it, I would get a new job. And then finally the whole graduate school thing kind of receded over the horizon because a few years after graduating, I was in Afghanistan for the LA Times.
When I got the foreign correspondent job, I was working overseas covering these amazing events, and I was seeing countries I never thought that I would see, and I was living my dream. I felt so lucky. I started to move through my twenties and get into my thirties, looking ahead, because I think I always knew that I wanted to have kids.
When I did get married, and I really wanted to have a baby, I just thought, well, I wanted to write another book, and it was just too much; it was too much. And so that’s what I ended up deciding. And it was very much what I wanted. There was no expectation put on me about, this is your role as a woman. It was my idea. I thought it made perfect sense because I wanted to write a book, and then I’d be home and then my husband could be the one rushing off to cover all the crises. So that’s what we did.
Rumpus: When did you know that you wanted to write this book? When did it become a topic that you couldn’t sit on any longer?
Stack: Over the course of having two babies, I had been working on this long novel. And I realized that I had to do a pretty serious revision on it. In the meantime, all of these other issues had been going on in our house and in my mind. The stories that unfolded in our house during that time were so dramatic, and were so real, and were so unlike anything that I had necessarily read anywhere.
It was not easy for me to go into this book. Because, in many ways, I was afraid that it would kind of put me in this category where, okay, now she’s a mom, so she doesn’t have anything to say anymore about the border or the war. She’s just going to write about households. But then I thought that’s part of the problem. These are huge, important topics. They have to get unpacked. I feel like we have to keep writing about them—we have to keep somehow trying to plug away at these topics until the time when we’ve managed to get men and male readers and the male part of the public intellectual life truly engaged in these questions. Because right now they’re really not.
So who’s going to manage to pull them into this discussion? Because this is a discussion about the global economy; it’s a discussion about inequality; it’s raising the basic question of how can women participate in the economy and in the jobs market when, in fact, they still have this massive work expected of them at home, and which hasn’t really been shared out still?
Rumpus: So why are these activities so often done in silence? Why is there not as much public discourse about it as perhaps there should be?
Stack: I don’t want to speak in broad generalizations, but I think that there are many men who would be happy just for none of this to come up. I think that we’re at a strange moment in our culture, let’s say, because I think that most men at this point—and, you know, again, broad generalization because, of course, there are plenty of men who wouldn’t qualify even for this—but in the US there are many men who have the impression that they’re on the right side of history.
Maybe they voted for Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren, or maybe they’ve had female bosses at work, and maybe they were raised by a working mom. I think they sincerely think that they’re doing all they can. But I think that you have to say to men, like, let’s take off the table how you act in public, and what your ideas are, and what your ideals are, and how you would envision a perfect society. What are you actually like? What are your expectations and contributions in your own house? To what extent do you think women should be at home with the kids perhaps more naturally than men? Do you think that there is a biological imperative that maybe women are the natural maternal, child-rearing figures? Do you really? Are you the one who emails teachers? You actually look them in the face and ask these questions. And I think, really, once that discussion is an argument and that discussion is defensive, that discussion makes us look bad.
Nobody wants to be the person saying, how come I’m the one who has to wash the dishes? It’s so demeaning. Nobody wants to have that discussion. That argument is so unpleasant for everybody. But that’s what it is. Those are things that people really feel, but they don’t want to admit they’re feeling those things, and they don’t want to admit they’re doing those things. None of us want to talk about it.
We’re kind of floating in this unspoken ether, and at some point we have to break out of it. We have to be honest and say that we all sort of collectively have these ideas that women really can’t work the way that men can because they have to be with the children, or they have to be with the old people, or they have to be cleaning the house or whatever it is that the idea is. But then if that’s actually what we think, why are we all pretending that we can be in work? I don’t like that there’s such a deep contradiction in the way that we’re dealing with this issue. And I just feel like we have to break through that somehow, though it’s very difficult.
Rumpus: You explained in the book that there’s a reason why so many women throughout history haven’t become novelists or doctors or military commanders, and you write, “It’s not that women had been prevented from working. Rather, it’s that women have been doing all the work around the clock for centuries.” At the end of this book, you provide an answer to the problem, which is essentially what we’ve just been talking about—men have to be part of the conversation. They have to do the work. So can we turn the tides on centuries of conditioning and have men contribute the way that women do?
Stack: I don’t think it is unsolvable. I think that there’s plenty of room for improvement. There are so many women who are just, they’re brilliant, they have so much to offer, and many of them really can’t quite find their way to contribute because they get sort of tangled up in these things when they reach their childbearing years. I think if that is a woman’s choice, and that’s working for that family, and it’s really her choice, and that’s really what she wants, then that’s fine. That’s up to her. But I think so many women feel frustrated that they could do more, they want to do more, and there’s so much space to improve from where we are now.
There are sort of grand social programs that would take a lot of initiative, but there’s also small things we could do that I believe would really make significant difference. I mean, things like home economics classes; I think that they should bring them back. I think they should bring back shop. And I think they should make everybody take both of them. So women are getting grounding in mechanics and how to do basic home maintenance and car maintenance. And meanwhile, men are getting this idea of, how do you run a household budget? And how do you know what groceries you need to buy? And how do you plan a meal? And how do you balance the kids and the chores? I think that those are actually really valuable things to know how to do that many people in general don’t really know how to do anymore. And women kind of figure it out because it’s sort of, you know, it’s sort of coded into the expectation that somehow we’re magically going to figure it out. But I think anything that we can do to give men more knowledge, more education, and more of a sense that it’s their job, too.
And equalizing paternity leave. First of all, women in the US need much more time, but men should also get that time. I feel like we’re so structured right now; we’re just kind of feeding into [this system] while simultaneously telling women that you should be back at work in three months. And it’s not realistic; it’s not fair. It puts all this pressure on us to solve the failures of society and the failures of men and of ourselves, among ourselves. Anyway, there’s certainly significant room for improvement.
Rumpus: You write that these relationships that you had with these women in your house—they were inherently transactional relationships. They had to be because you were paying them; they provided a service. Yet you had so much love for them. In the part of the book where you discuss how you decided to write this book, you say that you wanted to tell their stories, and you wanted to do that right. And so looking back now, and the book is out in the world, do you feel that you’ve done their stories justice?
Stack: I feel like I did the best that I could because I felt pulled into different directions with these stories. These portraits in the book, they’re not really purely journalistic portraits. I felt unable to push past any lines that got drawn, which I struggled with when I was doing the reporting. Because, you know, as a reporter, you’re kind of trained in a different way. You’re trained to go and get as much as you can and sort of collect, to get as much detail as you can—because everything is just more material, which helps you create this fuller portrait. And so it all serves the greater mission of telling as true and as real and as authentic a story as you can.
But here, I felt that because of the power dynamic, I didn’t want it to be, like, I am your former boss. And now I’m also taking your story. I really wanted to know that they were open to the book and that they wanted to have their stories told in that way, which fortunately they did. But when we hit points where they were not wanting to be exposed, I saw things that I could do to move the story forward and to get more material. And I just didn’t do them. Because it was a very delicate thing journalistically to find that right place between honoring them and writing about them and really trying to get into the granular texture of their lives and the choices that they made and the things that were painful to them and their realities, which I wanted to convey as fully as possible.
Xiao Li was definitely the most private and had the strongest sense of how she wanted to be seen. And so I sort of wrote about the fact that that was her handling of the interviews. But I also stopped where she told me to stop. I didn’t barge in on her, her village, or her daughter’s boarding school, which I think when I was a reporter, if I was really trying to get all the detail, I might have pushed my advantage a bit more and just kind of tried to see if I could show up. I didn’t want to do anything like that. Those are really difficult, you know, artistic and journalistic and ethical questions. So I can only say I hope.
Rumpus: You also didn’t let the reader off the hook. You tell your audience that they’re complicit in this cycle of privilege, of housework, of buying and selling of labor. And so often that labor comes from marginalized groups. So after finishing your book, after reckoning with women’s work the way that you do here, what is your hope for your readers? If you could wish for a reaction, what would you hope that reaction to be?
Stack: In an ideal world, there are various political things that I would like to see. If this book can somehow help with those things, that would be very gratifying. I’m a big believer in regulating, more regulation and enforcement of labor rights and labor conditions for domestic workers, starting in the US, where we also don’t really have great regulation. And there’s an ongoing effort to improve the laws around domestic work, which are definitely lagging behind other employment sectors.
But I want people to understand that we are living in this interesting moment, which is a time of huge migration, unprecedented migration. I believe there are more people who are now migrants than there ever have been. So overcrowding cities, people are looking for work, there’s a globally vanishing middle class. [We have these] vast numbers of people who come into places that aren’t their homes, without the support networks they would have at home, and have to fend for themselves and find work, and they are so often exploited. I mean, that is the profile of the women in these books.
And it doesn’t appear to be something that affects us [in the US] or that we have anything to do with. But the truth is, we live in a globalized economy. And so many of our goods are coming from people whose biographies will be similar or worse than the women in this book. And so I also wanted people to read [this book] as a look at the globalized economy. And this interesting question of, as Westerners to one extent or another, we all rely upon cheap labor in the developing world. That’s just a reality. And it’s easier to do that when you’re living in the US and you don’t have to see the sort of chain of production behind that.
I think that this question of moving the ethics of cheap labor into your home and engaging in it in a direct way, where you’re coexisting with the employer and employee together, and those choices are made in a very direct way, those priorities are set and you have to see and live with the ramifications, I think it’s very interesting. And I think in some ways, it provides a moment for people to read and to think about the choices that they’re making in a more abstract way.
I do think that, depending how you want to read it, all of those issues somehow are involved with this book. I wanted to deal with everything. You know, you don’t write that many books in your life. You want to kind of get it all in.
Photograph of Megan K. Stack by Paul Miller.