Stunning memoir about work, mothering and domestic help
Housework is “everything,” former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Megan K. Stack writes in her new memoir about mothering, work and the hired help who make it possible for her to do both as an expat in China and India.
Stack, a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for her book about the war on terror, “Every Man in This Village Is a Liar,” was working and living in Beijing when she decided to leave her job to have a baby and write a novel.
The novel remains unpublished, despite four years spent writing in “crazed bursts of work” from home while her journalist husband continued his job and nannies and housekeepers watched their kids, cleaned their home and cooked their meals.
Instead, that intense, complicated time became the backbone of the memoir, “Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home.”
“The subject was terrifying and also somehow abasing, and it took me a long time to admit, even to myself, that I would go there,” she writes.
She does go there, though. Stack writes, unflinchingly, about what it was like for her world to shrink and her life to entwine with the lives of her hired help – who left their own kids behind in order to work in her home. The result is messy, self-critical, probing and fascinating.
Stack doesn’t shy away from describing her own feelings of guilt and dependence, as well as the distance that grows between her and her husband.
“Everything that was most precious to me – my work and my child – was bound up in the behavior of a woman I hardly knew,” she writes about their Chinese nanny, Xiao Li.
She also works to turn her own daily “postmodern feminist breakdown” into an exploration of the ways that domestic work has and continues to shape women’s realities. “The cause was not, as I had been led to believe, that women had been prevented from working. Quite the opposite: we had been doing all of the work, around the clock, for centuries,” she writes.
Stack’s writing is sharp and lovely, especially in the first section of the book as she deftly describes her plunge into new motherhood and yearlong journey to find herself again. Her account reminded me at times of Elisa Albert’s intense, raw novel “After Birth.”
“Long mad mornings. Weird sleepless nights. Veins of summer lightning. Sleep bleeding to life bleeding to sleep. I was a shade; my baby was ancient; I had been breastfeeding forever,” Stack writes.
While Stack ably and compassionately writes about Xiao Li and the family’s relationships with their Indian domestic workers, Pooja and Mary (even detailing in some memorable passages how she Facebook-stalks Pooja), the one way the book didn’t fully succeed was in sharing these women’s full perspectives.
Stack tries to do this in the third section, traveling into the countryside to do interviews. She ends up admitting that her relationship to the women is too complicated to fully get at the truth in the ways she once did as a reporter.
In this book, the tough questions Stack asks are of herself.