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Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home BY Megan K. Stack. Doubleday. Hardcover, 352 pages. $27.

The cover of Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home

In her new book, Women’s Work, celebrated war correspondent Megan K. Stack remembers scoffing when she first read Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate-feminist manifesto Lean In. “Who were these women who didn’t speak at meetings or take their seats at the table?” Stack wondered. She had thought she knew how to navigate life as a woman; she’d earned a place of respect in a high-stakes field. She was used to a certain amount of quotidian sexism, but it was “basically manageable,” she writes, “not ideal, certainly, even enraging, but navigable.” Or at least it seemed that way—“right up until the baby came.”

After the baby arrives, “basically manageable” goes out the window. In the early days of parenthood, trying to make sense of her new circumstances, Stack types these notes to herself:

You become unable to take seriously any feminist who hasn’t had children in a heterosexual relationship. You have learned that’s where the bloodiest, hardest most intractable battle lies, and that it lies there mostly hidden because millions of families balance on the silence.

Women’s Work is the story of Stack’s efforts to reconcile her previous understanding of the world as a journalist with her new understanding as a mother. Writing is the work she wants to do, her “real” work, but “women’s work” is the labor that now makes up her life: childcare, housekeeping, and managing the women hired to help. The last of these tasks is the one she finds most troubling. Yet she also knows that, without it, everything else falls apart. It’s an uneasy combination and the book’s central tension: Stack wants to better comprehend her situation, but she’s also afraid of what she might find.

The book, too, is an uneasy combination. The first quarter or so of Women’s Work is largely a memoir of early motherhood, with all its pain and anxiety, in the tell-it-like-it-is tradition of Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. The final quarter finds Stack in journalist mode, bringing her professional skills to bear on her own story. In between, she describes her experiences alongside the three women who make her family life possible: Xiao Li, Pooja, and Mary.

Stack’s husband, Tom, is also a foreign correspondent. Work brings them together—they met on the job at the Baghdad airport—and structures their shared life. When she becomes pregnant with their first child, they’re living in Beijing, where Stack covers China for the Los Angeles Times. She’s just been nominated for a National Book Award for her 2010 volume of dispatches from the Middle East, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War, and now she wants to write a novel. She decides to quit her day job and work from home with their child.

Accustomed to being on equal footing with her husband, Stack had always assumed that when they had a baby, “to the extent that our lives would be exploded, the disruption would be evenly shared.” But Tom returns to work two weeks after the birth. Stuck at home with postpartum hormones and no sleep, Stack struggles to explain where her days go. Time vanishes into the fog of chore. What’s preventing her from doing her work isn’t a boys-club boss or internalized misogyny: It’s all the other work, Stack writes, “the work we pretend doesn’t exist.”

That invisible labor has long been a feminist concern, with solutions ranging from the chore-chart practicality of Alix Kates Shulman’s second-wave “A Marriage Agreement” to the Wages for Housework movement conceived by Italian Marxists in the 1970s. It’s the phenomenon that sociologists Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung called “the second shift” in their 1989 book of the same name and a theme that runs through a modern microgenre of magazine stories inaugurated by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic feature “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Stack does not discuss or acknowledge this history, and the omission manages to work both for and against her. This is not breaking news, you want to tell her. Do the homework. But, at the same time, Stack’s sense of discovery is fresh, her anger is still hot, and these qualities give her story its force. Instead of applying existing frameworks of feminist analysis, she mostly keeps the reader pressed right up against the glass, observing her day-to-day experience. This makes it hard to look away but also hard not to feel claustrophobic. Women’s Work brings the reader into uncomfortable intimacy with Stack’s family, right alongside the women she hires.

Help is affordable,” other expatriates are quick to assure Stack and Tom. “It was a euphemistic phrase,” she writes. “It meant ‘Human beings are cheap here.’” The woman they hire in Beijing, Xiao Li, cooks, cleans, and helps with the baby; she works ten-hour weekdays, plus Saturdays with overtime pay. (She also has a two-hour commute.) They pay her “less than five hundred dollars a month.” Stack is ecstatically grateful to Xiao Li but also feels guilty. “Like Apple computers or Goodyear tires, I reaped the benefit of cheap Chinese labor,” she writes. “But unlike those companies, I lived in my own factory, and spent more time with the cheap laborers than I spent with my spouse.”

That proximity also means that the family’s employees become a presence in Stack’s marriage, a frequent subject of squabbles and disputes. In one early episode, Xiao Li’s young daughter, who lives with grandparents outside the city, gets sick; Stack has given Xiao Li time off. But her absence is a strain. Stack doesn’t have any time to write. “So fire her,” suggests Tom. Stack demands to know what he’d do if their own son were hospitalized and she had a boss who fired her for visiting him.

“Obviously,” he said unrepentantly, “I would be furious.”
“But you’d do it to somebody else.”
“Because I have to worry about our family. And we are not a welfare state.”

No one was asking if they were a welfare state; the question was whether they felt bound to treat the woman in their employ as they themselves expect to be treated.

Stack senses something poisonous in the power they wield and in what it’s doing to them. The family moves from Beijing to Delhi just before they have a second child; there, they hire two women, Mary and Pooja, to replace Xiao Li. Their intimacy becomes even more inescapable: Unlike Xiao Li, the women speak fluent English, so there’s no language barrier, and Pooja lives with Stack’s family, in servants’ quarters behind their home. Xiao Li’s personal life remained entirely unseen; now they must decide what to do about Pooja’s husband—they discover that he’s abusive. Tom doesn’t go so far as to suggest firing Pooja, but he does wonder whether it would be better for all parties if she chose to leave. “Her private life is part of our private life,” he tells Stack. “We can’t have our kids around domestic abuse.” She writes:

Sometimes when Tom and I stretched side by side in bed, having a conversation like this, I’d mentally slip out of my skin to eavesdrop on a couple discussing their servants. It was a disgusting sensation, and I was filled, each time, with a yawning despair. In order to liberate ourselves from the chores, to continue the work we believed was crucial, we had converted our home into a job site. I was a manager—not of a bureau or a newsroom, but of a claustrophobic domestic universe. We held a dismaying amount of power over vulnerable people, and that meant grappling with the ethics, finances, schedules, and personalities. Every time we talked like this—which was often—I disliked Tom and disliked myself and felt a queasy certainty that Tom, too, must share this disgust.

She resents Tom’s freedom from her domestic universe, and senses his resentment when she attempts to pull him into it. He “was still at large in the world,” she writes. “He stuck up for the underdogs. He interviewed dissidents and human rights lawyers and Tibetan monks. He had become a parent and kept his career without making any degrading compromises.” Distance allows him to keep his idealism intact. Somewhere between Xiao Li’s daughter’s illness and Pooja’s abuse, Tom receives a phone call from Ethel Kennedy informing him that he’s won the Robert F. Kennedy award for human rights reporting. “He would travel to New York to be feted,” Stack writes. She remembers this call a few days later, when the two are eating lunch in a café and he asks how her book is going. She begins to answer, but before she’s finished, his attention wanders; he pulls out his phone. “Do you mind if we get the check?” he asks her. “I’ve got to get back to work.”

Have structural factors drafted Tom into the role of The Man? Is this some kind of Tom-specific problem? Is he actually as bad as he sounds? Stack can’t quite say, but, regardless, she’s the one left alone with a sense of being inescapably conflicted and complicit. Worrying about the women and wanting to do right by them becomes yet another kind of women’s work. She finds herself in an impossible position, her self-preserving avoidance directly in conflict with her instincts as a journalist. “If I found out too much, if the facts were too grim, then I might conclude that my domestic arrangement was fundamentally unfair,” she writes. “That was my formless and underlying fear: That if I understood too much, I might have to rip apart the status quo.” Stack can’t look too closely or ask too many questions. If she did, she might not be able to do any of her own work at all.

Eventually she arrives at what seems like a partial solution to this conflict: She decides to make the women themselves the focus of her work. In the book’s last section, she interviews Xiao Li, Mary, and Pooja; she hears about the circumstances that brought them to her household, about the choices they’ve made and the children of their own they’ve left behind. You get the sense that these were meaningful encounters for Stack, but as journalism they fall a bit flat. “I wanted to have a better life, to be able to buy myself little things if I liked,” Xiao Li tells her, through a translator, explaining why she left her family behind to work in the city.

Stack hesitates to probe any deeper. “I had never been so deferential and evasive during an interview,” she thinks, after their conversation. “But, then again, I’d never been so painfully conscious of cradling a person’s ego in my hands, fragile as a thin glass bulb.” However formidable Stack’s professional skill, reporting introduces a new power imbalance: She controls the conversation; she controls the story that emerges. And the employer/employee relationship is not so easily set aside. These women still call her “ma’am”; they still need her as a reference for future jobs. “I couldn’t do it,” Stack writes, of interviewing Xiao Li. “To write about her was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.” With Pooja and Mary, she has more success, yet she still finds herself stopping short. They aren’t as skittish as Xiao Li, but even so, Stack declines to press them in ways that might prove uncomfortable. She chooses to let confusing or improbable details slide. “Do you really want to take her stories away from her?” asks Stack’s own mother, as Stack grapples with Mary’s inconsistencies. Stack decides she does not.

Perhaps the most revealing thing she learns is about the work itself. “None of our people know we are working in these jobs,” Pooja tells her. What kind of work do they think she’s doing? “I dunno, ma’am,” Pooja says. “A call center.” Why? “They’d laugh at us. These aren’t respectable jobs.” Pooja’s sister elaborates: “They see we have money, and they think we have great jobs. . . . If they knew the truth they would make fun of us.” So much for any wishful fantasy that their arrangement looked more appealing to the women on the other side.

Stack lets nothing slide when it comes to herself, though; she’s unsparing, even brutal. Women’s Work is filled with moments of selfishness, patronizing judgment, neediness, and hypocrisy laid bare. Last year, the writer Amanda Hess noted that there’s an “obligatory paragraph in much online personal writing” wherein the author acknowledges that she is white, straight, cisgendered, financially secure, etc., and then returns to her story unburdened by these concerns. Stack doesn’t bother with perfunctory disclaimers. Her whole book stares directly at such disparities.

Of course, the obligatory paragraph Hess described also functions as a stamp of self-awareness: I know how this all sounds. It’s an attempt to preemptively disavow anything objectionable. Stack makes no attempt to protect herself against critique; she gives the reader no such reassurances, no comfortable distance from uncomfortable facts. Does she know how this sounds? I found myself wondering, as she judged a nanny’s clothes or Facebook habits or friends. And then I wondered: Does it matter? There’s bravery in a writer’s willingness to look bad. A genuine reckoning demands it.

Molly Fischer is a senior editor of The Cut and the host of the podcast The Cut on Tuesdays.