Women's Work

Women's Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home, by Megan K. Stack

I had no idea this book would be so absorbing, but after all, I'm always interested in reading about the issues around family, motherhood, and housekeeping!  This hit a lot of my buttons, and as with the Divakaruni book I wrote about a few weeks ago, I'm only sorry that for the most part, only women will read this and men won't be inclined to pick it up -- because although the title is about women, the actual subject matter is about families, work, and how we structure society.  Stack structures her book as a sort of memoir and sort of meditation on how we patch work and family together with money...or not.

Megan Stack used to be a correspondence reporter, traveling the world's more dangerous spots after news stories.  Her husband, Tom, was the same, and eventually they decided to settle down in Beijing, where Stack planned to have a baby and write the novel she's been planning.  Seems easy enough, but nobody had ever mentioned how much a baby changes your life, and birth and the subsequent year with a baby who didn't know what sleep was sent her into a vortex of depression and fear.  (She turned out to be sleep-deprived to past the edge of sanity, so things improved a lot once the baby learned to sleep.)  The nanny/housekeeper they hired kept the house going, cooked, and cared for baby Max, and with two women working all the time, Stack's husband wondered what they did all day that the book wasn't making much progress and his wife was clearly a basket case.

Stack's dependence on her hired help, Xiao Li, bothered her.  Xiao Li had a daughter of her own, who was being raised by grandparents in a village, and who got sick.  Xiao Li had to keep her feelings to herself, while Stack's feelings were all over the house; they spent all their time together, yet it was money that dictated the relationship.  The family was going to relocate to New Delhi, and Xiao Li would be gone from their lives, and Max would be bereft, and Mom was going to have another baby.

New Delhi started with a long stint in a hotel, as they searched for an apartment.  (There's a fascinating interim here, because the hotel is next to a large surrogacy clinic, from which wealthy westerners pay for an Indian woman to have a baby for them -- a topic well worth pondering.)  This time, the family hires two helpers, a cook/housekeeper, and a nanny.  Both are mothers who didn't get to raise their children in person, though their stories are very different.

As Stack takes care of her family and works on her long-postponed novel, she is constantly confronted with the difficulties of the whole enterprise.  As Mom, she's the one who runs things and the one whose time is considered disposable, even though she's usually desperate for writing time.  She herself is not willing to put her work before the children; that's not what she wants, but it seems like a major problem that everything (not just her, everything!) runs on the backs of poor women who leave their children in order to make money, often by caring for other children so their moms can work.

And then there's Stack's husband, who is clearly a good man working hard for his family; his work keeps them all afloat.  But he also becomes a bit of a stranger in this house full of women and babies, and he doesn't, perhaps can't, see all the realities underneath the system (of course, neither can Stack, as she often points out as well) -- even as he writes about other ugly realities for his work.  It's difficult to separate out the strands of their lives, and nobody is blameless, but she thinks about it a lot.  And she works hard to be honest, to point out how impossible she was to live with for a while there.

Stack's not exactly offering a lot of solutions here.  She wants to point things out, to ponder them, to make sure we all notice how this system works, to just say that this seems like an impossible knot of issues with no solution, except for people besides moms to do household and care work too.

It's a book that is viscerally gripping, if you are a mom.  I don't know what anybody else would think.  But it would be nice if some people who are not moms would read it too, and if we could all talk about this stuff.

It felt a little more direct to me, too, given the thing I have just done, which is to hire somebody to come and clean the house every couple of weeks.  She's not a poor woman who had to leave her children behind in a different city; her mostly-grown kids are all right here.  But it's the first time I've ever hired help.  I've never been a great housekeeper, but I've been improving (for one thing, I work part-time and only have one kid left at home, and haven't been able to go anywhere for the last six months), and I finally got to the point where I felt like maybe I could hire cleaning help and focus more on the non-cleaning stuff.  She is amazing, by the way.

So, obviously since I practically wrote a book for this post, I found a lot to think about in this book.  To finish off, here are some quotations:

My time had been used as capital.  It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position.  Well, fair enough.  That's the sort of thing we do in families.  I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two.  I paid and it's gone.  My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I'm not asking for a refund.  Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 

There is no quick fix, so you might as well punt.  I should think about it later, when my children are grown and I have more time and I won't risk collapsing my family by trying to force my husband to stay home so I can hold a job I don't even want.  When at last I have nothing to lose, it will be safe to think honestly.

I floundered and scrambled in my mind, contemplating the filthy glorious mysteries of luck, of being born with things, the meaning of money, murder by poverty. It was immoral to have and pointless to give. I could give away everything and it would be nothing. The money would dry like dew, and we would join the impoverished masses, my children sleeping in dirt and begging from cars, waiting miserably for the hour of a death that would deliver us. And yet if I did nothing I was complicit. My soft life was an obscenity.

I'd been shocked at the divergence of our fates after we became parents, but in truth, the gender discrepancy between us had started long before that.  I'd experienced secual harassment in countless cultural forms while Tom wandered unscathed.  He inevitably felt compelled to intervene manfully when he happened to be present, but otherwise he was largely oblivious....But now it all slid through my mind: The years of come-ons from sources and colleagues. The news organizations I'd roped off in my mind as no-gos because I'd sexually rejected some man who'd since become powerful, and didn't want to risk getting undercut and blackballed. The times I thought I was about to get raped. All the things that had been said to me, or said about other women in front of me, to be sure I didn't misunderstand my position as an amusing but ultimately inferior presence. We were welcome as long as we were young and beddable, and then we were supposed to do what self-respecting women did: disappear into a household somewhere. Tom had faced none of that. Tom had been free to move through his career; there had been so little for him to navigate. And I'd never explained it to him. I'd assumed he just knew, because I thought it was obvious. I'd been treated like an accessory. I'd been groped, and pawed and cornered. I'd let sly remarks slide off my back. It was all in the game, and I'd been eager to play.
But now he looked at me blankly, as if I were not part of it, and it occurred to me that he had no idea. Did he really think his wife had been clever enough to be a woman in the world without being a woman in the world?
There was so much to say I couldn't stand to start.

I'd been all around the world, and I've never yet found a place where women aren't hit and exploited and hated. Men needed us, but God, they hated us, too. Deeply, chronically hated us.

In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work!  Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth? It's a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it's a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work.
No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don't make a big deal out of everything. Don't make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy.
Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets women up for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population.
And yet honest discussion of housework is still treated as taboo.


  1. It is good this conversation is taking place without the blame culture. I recently read 'Invisible Women' by Caroline Criado Perez, which gives a slightly different perspective, on how in many areas design and organisation revolves around male needs. These areas can be as different as drug testing (normally only carried out on men, who react differently), to the size of piano keys (too far apart for most women's hands). It would make a good companion to the above book, which I shall look out for.

  2. This sounds interesting! Another one to add to the wishlist! I'm reading Feminine Mystique right now, and my brain is on alert for these topics. :)

  3. Oh gosh this sounds really fascinating. I am always interested in how different families divide up their labor, especially because it seems like in most households where there's a husband and a wife, the wife is doing more than 50% of the work. I even read an advice column question the other day -- oh my God I just about lost my mind -- where the husband felt like he was doing 50% of the work of getting pregnant because he was attending all the IVF appointments and administering shots. LORD I am feeling het up anew.

  4. Oh, yeah. I think most men (OK, nearly all men -- just about every man ever born) would be truly shocked to understand the level of resentment and fury that this issue causes for a huge number of women. I've certainly felt it too!


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