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Monday, Jan 25, 2021

The complex ties between mothers and their domestic helpers

Megan K. Stack’s memoir Women’s Work takes an unflinching look at the relationship between an expat journalist and the Asian migrant women who helped raise her children.

When American journalist Megan Stack moved to China, in 2010, she knew her life was at a crossroads. Having spent the previous decade working as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, “I was at a point when I was burned out on travelling and reporting,” she says, speaking from yet another “new” home in Singapore.

Stack’s last posting, in Russia, had followed a five-year spell covering the Middle East – “a huge beat” she notes with understatement, adding that she had worked in every country in the region save for Oman.

So when her husband, Tom Lasseter, also a foreign correspondent, was made a Beijing bureau chief, Stack decided it was time for a change of direction. “I wanted to write a novel and I wanted to write books,” she says. But just as she was settling into her new city and beginning Chinese language classes, Stack learned she was pregnant with her first child.

The long story of what happened over the following nine years forms the basis of her book, Women’s Work (2019). It is essential reading not only for new mothers, working mothers and mothers who work for working mothers, but for parents of all stripes and indeed anyone interested in the world right now.

Stack examines the ethics of domestic labour, gender relationships within and without family structures, Asia’s social, political and economic relationships with the rest of the world and, joining all these dots, 21st-century migration.

“There is an undertone in the book of this dystopian future,” says 44-year-old Stack. “I hope one of the things people are reading out of it is the experience of unprecedented human displacement and migration. That to me is the story of our age.”

Grand as these narratives are, they all grew out of Stack’s personal experience, shaped by parenthood and her life in Asia (China, India and now Singapore). As she writes in the book’s introduction: “If I investigate, I must stand for examination. If I interrogate, I’ll be the one who has to answer.” There are unflinching accounts of the shock and joy of adjusting to parenthood; bidding adieu to a beloved career; the impact on her physically, emotionally and mentally; and the struggles to balance the competing demands of children, a husband and her own self.

Women’s Work was prompted by one question above all others: what does it mean to pay for help with childcare? Stack found the answers in her relationships with three women – Xiao Li from China, and Pooja and Mary from India. Each was hired to help Stack look after her two sons, and in the process enable both her and Lasseter to keep working.

Stack didn’t anticipate that this seemingly straight­forward transaction would become charged with issues of money, class, power, language, gender and even love. “Your house is a place where you are setting the moral boundaries and making choices,” she says. “Those choices are who you are.”

Women’s Work might be summarised as examining the emotion of economics and the economics of emotion, and the second decade of Stack’s working life challenged many of the assumptions developed during the first.

“Having a baby and understanding the exhausting physical labour that goes into running a household shifted my whole idea of what work was. Work is not something women are allowed to do; it’s that women are having to do all of the work. That’s the reason women can’t get out of the house. That’s the reason we haven’t really been sent to school. If we go to school, women aren’t going to want to do all that work any more.”

Stack laughs. “Actually, nobody wants to do all that work if there is any way to avoid it – slogging away at home at the level that women have done historically. It was around me in plain sight. I didn’t really see it until I lived it. Then I couldn’t un-see it.”

Our conversation requires two lengthy sessions. This is partly because Women’s Work raises so many pressing issues but, true to the book’s thesis, finding time for considered discussion requires considerable juggling by Stack, the working parent.

Interview number one takes place only a few hours after she has returned to Singapore on a long flight from the United States with her sons, eight-year-old Max and five-year-old Patrick. I ask what arrangements she had to make to talk today.

“We have a helper here in Singapore. I am not alone with the kids. Somebody else is keeping an eye on them as we chat, which is of course extremely helpful,” she says.

Such assistance does not prevent Stack from worrying that the boys will fall asleep and wreck her careful plan to adjust to Singapore time. As if on cue, one of her sons chooses this moment to wander into her study. When we start over a couple of days later, I repeat the question: how did Stack manage to talk to me today? “It’s Sunday, so we are without the benefit of a nanny, a babysitter or anybody else. My husband is on his way to the airport for a reporting trip, so I had to let the kids watch cartoons.”

This is no small sacrifice, Stack monitors her sons’ screen time strictly. “I use screens when I have to, like on long flights. I try to give them enough so that’s it’s not too rarefied … It’s not ideal, but it’s OK.”

Such compromises will be familiar to anyone balancing career and parenthood. Although Stack is an old hand now, she remembers a fundamental disconnect between her expectations of having a baby and the reality. “One reason [motherhood] is so shocking – especially for women who have been independent, have worked, have been educated – is our experiences have not been written about by women who felt free to express the gory truths of what was happening to them. For me, motherhood was definitely the experience whose reality was most radically different from how I envisioned it, based on what I heard, read or absorbed from the culture. I understood that women had not been able to tell that story for a very long time.”

As an example, she cites “the vanishing babies” that inhabit mainstream films and television series. “Babies don’t seem to be there a lot of the time. They don’t seem to be crying. I thought babies spent most of their time sleeping in cribs and not bothering grown-ups, who were going about their usual lives. It’s like Hollywood hawking the idea that there is always a parking space.”

Born in Connecticut in 1975, Stack was the youngest in her family, which she believes explains her unfamiliarity with small children: in her house, she was the small child. The family didn’t travel much when Stack was young, something that inspired wanderlust from an early age. “It was something I daydreamed about but wasn’t sure I would ever get. People who did globe-trot were very blasé. When I had the opportunity to see all these countries I never thought I would see, I really appreciated it. I wanted to see what war was like. I was so hungry for those experiences. And I got them,” she says.

Her first job in journalism was as a national reporter in Texas: ideal training for covering vast geographical terri­tory and developing self-reliance. “I answered to lots of people, but I was the only one there.” Her transition to foreign correspondent was the result of chance and being in the right place at the right time. Stack was on holiday in Paris, France, when the World Trade Centre was attacked in 2001 and found herself seconded to the LA Times’ international desk. From there she “ended up going to Afghanistan to help cover the war. From that I was allowed to join the foreign staff”.

Moves to Jerusalem and Cairo, Egypt, followed as Stack began to report from around the Middle East. “A lot of times I had to figure out what to do when everyone else was asleep. You’re out there on your own and entrusted with making decisions. That’s the main thing: to make decisions and function without any guidance.”

Given this context, it is not a surprise when she says having children was not uppermost in her mind. “I was young, in my 20s. I had a wonderful time. I loved seeing the world. I didn’t feel I was missing out on a family. I hadn’t really started to think seriously about those things yet.”

But even back then Stack was not unaware of colleagues who were confronting a career-vs-children dilemma. “You didn’t see many women [foreign correspondents] in their 40s, 50s or 60s – and if you did, they didn’t have families. It appeared most [women reporters] had to choose between having families and work.” In the infamously macho world of foreign correspondents, “you can’t miss the fact that men are clearly not making that decision. You are surrounded by older married men whose wives are at home with their kids”.

I ask whether her peripateticism was a means of escaping something? “No,” she answers. “At some point I felt like I couldn’t go back to anything. I was moving so fast. Getting on planes, living in hotels. I felt I wanted to return to the US for a more peaceful and thoughtful existence. But in some ways, I couldn’t bring myself in that direction.”

Given how she thrived on the freedom offered by journalism, Stack’s struggle to adjust to the relative confines of parenthood were perhaps inevitable. “I didn’t realise how isolating [motherhood] is,” she confirms. “You have this feeling that you are just gone from the world. I felt I had disappeared, especially with my first son.”

Enter Xiao Li, who offered emotional relief and practical assistance, which Stack likens to that of a mother or sister. “This almost familial love came over me, both times I had a new baby, towards the woman who was most present and helping me. Xiao Li was effectively a stranger whom I couldn’t speak with, but there was a dependence. I don’t know if it’s hormonal, or pheromonal, but I’m 100 per cent sure that is how we evolved as a species. I don’t think there is anything very healthy about this bond between [just] one mother and one child together in a house.”

Stack’s reliance on Xiao Li extended beyond the new baby: she hoped to keep working, mainly to write a novel inspired by her time in Moscow, Russia. As the relationship grew deeper and more intricate, Stack began to question the nature of their contract. What did each woman owe the other? When Xiao Li failed to turn up for work, was Stack justified in feeling annoyed?

What exactly was Xiao Li’s role in the family, her relationship with Stack’s children?

“Xiao Li’s presence was what made me feel better a lot of times. When I would spin out on fear, or basically non-problems, having this constant reminder of another mother who has made it through much more precarious situations, who shows up every day and holds it together always brought me back to myself. You stop and think, ‘Come on, I can’t get too upset about this, look what Xiao Li can do.’”

Women’s Work traces Stack’s growing awareness of a discomforting power dynamic, in which intense emotions are contingent upon money, class and personal freedom. “What happens when you bring this unequal relationship into your house?” she asks. “There is no law that says I can’t hire someone and pay them this much money, but is it something I want in my family history? Is it something I want my children to grow up with?”

Women’s Work investigates how this interpersonal connection chimes with wider economic and political currents. “I wanted it to be a story about migration, and the ethics of cheap labour. What is interesting about domestic labour is it distils, humanises and makes immediate these more abstract questions that we all have to navigate in the ‘developed world’, or whatever you want to call it. You are buying cheap goods, but what is the supply chain that begins very far away? Why is the windbreaker from Target so cheap? We want to know but we don’t really want to know.”

Stack’s personal conflicts are exposed when Xiao Li’s own daughter becomes dangerously ill. While she accepted Xiao Li taking an extended leave of absence was of vital importance, Stack also admits with no little shame her frustration on losing her trusted childcare. But “somewhere there was a child who had been left with grandparents because her own parents had to come to work in the city. What would she think if she walked in here one day to our house and saw her mom taking care of my kid as if she were his mother? That was hard for me to get my head around”.

Motivated by this “discomfort that Xiao Li had a daughter”, Stack began to research the global economic network of working migrant mothers, who were working to help other working migrant mothers work.

“Domestic labour is intertwined with migration. It’s a lot of working moms who have to leave their kids in order to earn the money to support them. And while they’re making that choice, to work in a factory somewhere, the child is not. As I worked through the book and examined domestic labour and migration in different cultural contexts, this was also the end discomfort.

Everything else you can say – it’s a job, people migrate, they send money. But the children were what I couldn’t resolve comfortably with my own role in domestic labour.”

Hard as the problems raised by Women’s Work un­doubtedly are, Stack argues that many can be successfully addressed.

Properly funded and managed day care centres, for example, would mitigate much of the interpersonal strife in the mother-nanny relationship. “There is no getting around the chaos of having a newborn – we can’t think our way around that. We can support parents going back to work with day care centres and flex time. We can provide childcare credits. Fathers should be given as much [paternity] leave as mothers get. All of these things are within reach.”

While Stack doesn’t completely rule out a return to her former role as a foreign correspondent (“I miss it and I love reporting”), in the short term she is not sure she wants to “cede everything [in her life] to the flow of the job”.

For one thing, she has more than enough on her plate: book tours, an unfinished novel about her time in Russia and a new non-fiction project. But motherhood has ensured she is no longer the same person who reported from war zones, who spent days rather than months each year at home.

“It was a privilege to be around [Max and Patrick] when they were babies and when they were little. Parenthood is such a material well of understanding humanity. That sounds silly, but what I have learned from these experiences is a connection with humanity. It is something you have in common with people all over the planet. In terms of my writing, my art, my thinking, it has been very important.”

As Stack’s family settles into its second year in Singapore, and she has no doubt they are living at the epicentre of the 21st century, she says: “I feel ready to go back to the US. I’ve been gone since 2001. My husband’s been gone almost as long. I want to be closer to family. I also feel as a writer I want to go home and write about my own country.

“Ten years ago, I would meet people, especially in Arab countries, who asked, ‘Where is your family? Why are you here? What’s wrong with you?’ You kind of laugh, but there was a truth in that question. These people seem to have a clearer idea than I did. Why am I spending so much of my life on the other side of the planet from all of my dearest friends and family?” She laughs.

“Now, I think I have surrendered to the uncertainty of life’s movements. It’s partly knowing so many different people at so many different wealth levels who are migrants. This is where you are. Be open. Every place you go affects your view of everything from existence to the global economy. You have to keep rolling forward with that. I don’t know where this is all going, but I am open to it.”


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