Women’s Work: A Personal Reckoning with Labour, Motherhood, and Privilege

Megan K. Stack

Women's Work: A Personal Reckoning with Labour, Motherhood, and Privilege
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Women’s Work: A Personal Reckoning with Labour, Motherhood, and Privilege

Megan K. Stack

‘The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me. It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position. The reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men. 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.‘


After her first book was published to acclaim, journalist Megan K. Stack got pregnant and quit her job to write. She pictured herself pen in hand while the baby napped, but instead found herself traumatised by a difficult birth and shell-shocked by the start of motherhood.

Living abroad provided her with access to affordable domestic labour, and, sure enough, hiring a nanny gave her back the ability to work. At first, Megan thought she had little in common with the women she hired. They were important to her because they made her free. She wanted them to be happy, but she didn’t want to know the details of their lives. That didn’t work for long.

When Pooja, an Indian nanny who had been absorbed into the family, disappeared one night with no explanation, Megan was forced to confront the truth: these women were not replaceable, and her life had become inextricably intertwined with theirs. She set off on a journey to find out where they really come from and understand the global and personal implications of wages paid, services received, and emotional boundaries drawn in the home. As she writes herself: ‘Somebody should investigate. Somebody should write about all of this. But this is my life. If I investigate, I must stand for examination. If I interrogate, I’ll be the one who has to answer.’

Review

Megan K. Stack has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. She was a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; she made a career of immersing herself in cultures and conflicts, observing and analysing what she found. Stack brings a wealth of skills to her latest project, and she sacrifices her own privacy in pursuit of an illustrative and in-depth case study.

Women’s Work is an investigation of the essential labour that is overwhelmingly undertaken by women around the globe to keep humans alive: care-giving, home-running and all that they entail. It is also, necessarily, an interrogation of how women and women’s work are valued. As Stack acknowledges, she writes from a position of immense privilege – she is an educated white woman in a legally recognised heterosexual relationship who has been physically and financially able to fulfil her desire for children and to continue her career. Yet even Stack cannot escape the confounding ethical, logistical and emotional dilemmas that confront every care-giver attempting to make care-giving and paid work coexist – which, for most people, is the only option.

It’s easy and convenient to dismiss this subject, but there’s no dismissing this riveting book. The people Stack writes about are unforgettable; the places she evokes are tangible. Her insights are shocking, often disarming, and, frequently, both. Stack’s breathtakingly honest examination of her own choices and experiences, and the effects of these on the women she employs – and of their choices upon her family – raises important questions about how the inescapable work of home and family can and should be done, and, most crucially, by whom.

Like Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business before it, Women’s Work is an important book that is already generating discussion, offering hope that these issues will, sometime, become impossible to ignore.


Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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