A Reckoning With Work and Home
By Megan K. Stack
Motherhood is an exercise that both equalizes and divides. It’s an experience shared by women across the world — a lesson in dissolving borders, in love and in sleep deprivation. It is work: a flow of activity that requires organizational thinking and endless labor. It is also an institution that clings to gender stereotypes and casts a harsh light on class and race — the firm boundaries of opportunity and care that privileged parents can draw around their own children, often to the detriment of other people’s. “Some problems we share as women,” Audre Lorde famously observed in a 1980 speech at Amherst College. “Some we do not.”
Megan K. Stack sets out in “Women’s Work” to explore the underside of motherhood — the realities of labor and child care that men ignore and that women of privilege regularly gloss over: leaving the nannies and cleaners out of their books, excluding them from social media posts and rendering their work invisible. “I’m complicit,” Stack writes. “The women I’ve rented are sweeping the floor outside my office even as I type; I hear the swish of their brooms over the boards.”
“And so, reader,” she continues, “are you.”
Stack’s book is a memoir in three parts, tracing her experience of motherhood while living in China and India, and recounting the relationships she forms with the women who work in her home. Stack, a former foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, has covered multiple wars, reported from Egypt and served as the paper’s bureau chief in Moscow. At the start of the book, Stack is still a reporter, still accustomed to jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice or running toward whatever crisis is happening nearby. And then, pregnant with her first child, she decides to quit her job and attempt to write a novel. She envisions motherhood as a kind of writing retreat, a gently napping baby in the corner as sun streams through the window. It’s an idyll that disintegrates nearly as soon as the baby, a boy, arrives home from the hospital.
“The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me,” Stack writes. “Somebody, after all, must wash and feed and train the kids and get the food and clean the house and care for the sick and elderly.” Early on, she describes this work not as a job, but as a “constant gaping demand for labor.” (This is a characterization I disagree with — child care requires labor, yes, but also skill and a body of knowledge, whether earned by experience, passed down from family members or found in books.) Stack is overwhelmed by her domestic responsibilities; she is exhausted and anxious: “Just thinking about getting any more tired was like sliding slowly and nauseously down the walls of a carnival Gravitron that has just stopped spinning.” Her loss of identity is so profound that early in the book she arrives home from a dinner out and starts writing an essay titled “How to Disappear.”