When Megan K. Stack decides that it’s time to have a baby, she looks at this as a type of sabbatical. A war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for international reporting, and author of Every Man in this Village is a Liar, which was a National Book Award finalist, she anticipates a quiet domestic life with her infant by her side, giving her ample time to finish her novel-in-progress. She has no idea that “the immediacy of domestic life and the desperation of small humans” can be as all-consuming as time spent in a battle zone.
Faced with a baby who screams for hours with colic and takes his sleep in random snatches, Stack becomes “crazed and haggard.” When her husband, whose journalism career mirrors her former life, walks out the door and “vanished back into work,” Stack is overwhelmed with panic and envy. Although his job supports them all, his morning departures feel like a form of abandonment, and Stack finds her only refuge in a phrase she’s often heard from other expat wives, “Help is affordable.” An affluent American living in Beijing, Stack knows help isn’t only affordable, it’s a fact of life. She soon acquires employees of her own, in China and later in India, when her husband’s job takes the family to that country.
This should be the perfect solution but Stack is still swamped in domesticity. Housekeeping is a prime example of Parkinson’s Law, expanding to fill all available time, and Stack’s time is filled, even when she has two “helpers” in Delhi. Her novel falters. When it’s finally completed, it receives a tepid reception and she abandons it. But writing is the core of her existence, the one thing that keeps her from becoming an expat June Cleaver, so Stack decides her next book will be about the lives of domestic help in foreign countries.
Although this is a book that many would like to read, they won’t find it in Women’s Work. This is a highly personal memoir of the travails of a fortunate and oddly oblivious woman, one who refuses to use the pejorative term “maid,” but who is blithely unaware that an employee who lives in servant’s quarters behind her house is surrounded by filth and squalor. When her husband suggests installing an air conditioner in the “helper’s” sweltering room, Stack has to be persuaded that this is essential. When a later occupant of the same room is ill for a week, Stack never thinks to extend any concern beyond fulfilling the woman’s request for diarrhea medicine. She regards another employee’s sick child as “a horror I hoped would simply blow over.” The women who work for her are appliances, in place to make her own work possible--until she finally decides they can be useful in other ways.
In the final eighty-one pages of Women’s Work, Stack attempts to harvest every detail of her employees’ lives, posing intimate questions, asking to see their domestic circumstances, even stalking one of them on Facebook. Her failure to achieve her goal is a triumph for the women she has employed; after all, they sold her the right to their labor, not a license to invade their privacy.
Women’s Work stands as a document that clearly defines white privilege. It’s a How Not To manual for any employer of household help, be it at home or in another country. Read it and try not to hurl it against the nearest wall.~Janet Brown