A war correspondent and overseas bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, Megan K Stack never had much occasion to concern herself with gender equality even when she married another foreign correspondent and the two moved to Beijing a decade ago. But their marital dynamics changed when Stack became pregnant. She quit her job and stayed home with the baby; her husband Tom became the sole breadwinner and continued to jet off to remote parts of China and other countries on assignment.
Stack planned to write a novel—she had already published Every Man in This Village is a Liar, a non-fiction account of her experiences as a war correspondent—and make a career of it. Only she felt she needed help with her baby. Although in America live-in help would be out of reach for a middle-class couple, in China, like all over Asia, domestic labor is cheap and plentiful, and many expats in Asia hire nannies, housekeepers, and even drivers.
So, Xiao Li came to their home and cared for their son, Max. A mother herself, Xiao Li had to leave her daughter back with her husband’s family in the countryside; work in Beijing paid far more. When Xiao Li’s daughter developed a heart condition, Stack felt torn between Xiao Li’s needs as a mother and her own. When she talked to her husband about it, he simply referred to Xiao Li as “the maid” and wondered why Stack didn’t just fire her.
Rather than a novel, what resulted was Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home, in which Stack explores domestic gender imbalances through her own, perhaps not entirely typical expat experience of hiring and managing local women to care for homes and children, while men emotionally stay away and continue with their jobs uninterrupted. This latter includes the male family members of the domestic helpers, for when women like Xiao Li move to cities like Beijing to care for other people’s children, their husbands aren’t at home caring for their own children: this is most likely grandparents or an aunt. Many rural men in China themselves also move to big cities to become migrant workers, usually in construction or other manual labor fields.
Stack’s relationships with her domestic helpers—Xiao Li in Beijing and later Pooja and Mary when the Stacks move to Delhi—are complex and confusing. She sympathizes when their children fall ill or they suffer from domestic violence, while her husband Tom continues to view their helpers strictly as employees and has no problem firing them if they don’t do their jobs. However, when Pooja drinks the Stacks’ liquor and invites her sister over when she’s supposed to be staying with the Stacks’ young sons, Max and Patrick, Stack fires her. Six months later, Stack returns to writing (non-fiction writing: the novel, four years in the writing was going nowhere) and focus on domestic helpers and the gender imbalances in the home. It’s at this point when Stack learns there’s more to Pooja’s story than just a drunken night with her sister.
Stack interviews Pooja and Mary in India and Xiao Li back in China to finally get their stories. She writes with empathy about domestic abuse, alcoholic husbands, abusive parents, and other issues her domestic helpers faced. Yet when Xiao Li speaks of needing an abortion because she thinks her pregnancy isn’t medically viable, Stack seems to find the possibility problematical, while in China it’s simply a medical procedure just like a vasectomy.
One of the main themes carried throughout this book is that expat men usually get to keep their cushy jobs after their children are born, whereas—the availability of live-in help notwithstanding—it’s much more difficult for women to continue to work when they’ve just given birth. It’s the mothers who usually end up dropping everything to deal with every crisis at home. Stack writes that her husband Tom would also leave work for emergencies at home, but there were plenty of times when he left the apartment during a crisis because he needed to get to work, whether that entailed a short commute to his bureau office or hopping a plane for another country.
Stack concludes Women’s Work with a simple, yet stumping, solution:
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?
Although her own story is based in expat Asia, perhaps it can serve as a cautionary tale for the US, where income inequality is on the rise. When both parents have to work out of necessity and public daycare is cut back, perhaps they will also turn to importing domestic helpers, just as in Hong Kong and Singapore with the result that a strata of women are forever separated from their children to care for the kids of the better-off.