Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home

Megan K. Stack’s “private problems are no doubt duplicated in households all over our planet. And yet housework is seldom considered as a serious subject for study, or even discussion.” This, writes the Betty Friedan of our generation, “is an injustice on a grand scale.”

Women's Work

Women’s Work is not just about housework. Equal parts memoir and manifesto, the book uses the stories of four women who “stumbled through a house that was also a job site” to tackle motherhood, marriage, and other tidy, manageable topics like exploitation, poverty, gender, and the human condition. “Our routines were disrupted by pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, weddings, domestic violence, funerals, sick children, and school fees. Mine, theirs. The stuff of women the world over. We lived together in the space left by men who were temporarily elsewhere.”

It is a beautiful, horrifying reflection of domesticity rendered in prose that’s just the right amount stark and ornate in turn. “Imagine you are so tired your face feels like permanent putty and you cry at the slightest provocation and, in general, you are about as raw and crumbly as the flesh of a pale white mushroom with its skin rubbed away,” Stack writes, putting words to a state known intimately to sleep-deprived parents the world over. Some of them will also be familiar with the woman described by an unflinchingly introspective Stack: “I lived in terror of waking the baby, and I shared this terror with deliverymen, houseguests, and anybody else who made the strategic error of existing in the vicinity of my sleeping child.”

Descriptions like these are where any analysis of Women’s Work must begin. “Crescent stains of fatigue hung below her eyes,” she writes. “On those long afternoons of early summer, when our rooms steamed and thickened in the slanting sun, Pooja’s sadness hung like laundry that wouldn’t dry,” she writes. She writes of “anger so hot it could sterilize a wound” and a husband “dragging his eyes from his computer with the air of a disgruntled student forcing himself to contribute to class discussion for the sake of his final grade.” She writes, and I see and feel.

I haven’t hired full-time help like Stack, just a babysitter a few hours a week and once every two someone to clean. And yet, I recognize myself and my experience in her words. I too “assumed that, to the extent that our lives would be exploded [by having children], the disruption would be evenly shared.” My family also slipped into a troubling status quo: “It began with biology—I’d been pregnant, then breastfeeding. I’d been a physical necessity, which had been a role of exquisite privilege and total destruction. And somehow my rarified status stayed unchanged even as the babies grew. The habits we’d all adopted—my centrality, the children’s dependence, [my husband’s] slight remove—had stuck.” 

Those parts of her story that didn’t bring my own past emotions rushing back still resonated deeply thanks to Stack’s ability to tell a story both evocatively and self-critically: “I didn’t even know her full name, and I don’t think she knew mine. She called me Excuse Me.” Of a housekeeper who became pregnant, Stack says: “I promised myself I would not pressure her to add to her load, and I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. The best I can say for myself is, I could have been worse, and she wasn’t expecting anything better.” Of the entire endeavor, she writes: “I had loved Xiao Li, and she had loved my baby. To write about her was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.”

In only a few places did this self-awareness seem to falter. “She had to work long days in my rooms, fine, but she wouldn’t let me congratulate myself as her benefactor,” Stack writes, and I cringed. (Though that may very well have been the point, as Stack repeatedly offers herself up as an effigy of white privilege.) I also found something indelicate about how Stack describes her employees’ offspring: “The children of Mary and Pooja and Xiao Li had to trade like grown-ups, and their trade was the most brutal of all: they got money, but they grew up without mothers.” On the one hand, she again acknowledges her privilege and its cost to others. On the other, the critique is firmly grounded in the American nuclear family model.

I also got the feeling Stack lost steam a little near the end, with the penultimate portion of the book less finely crafted than the rest, but these minor criticisms are offered in the manner of a diamond jeweler whose job it is to find flaws amid overwhelming brilliance. Not many people can write like Stack. Not many can step outside themselves and think like her. The two strengths together produce a must-read not just for mothers, but for anyone who has a household or who benefits from others’ leaving theirs, which is to say, everyone.

The following quotes both explain why that’s so and provide a feel for Stack’s style: 

The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me. I’d known enough, already, about harassment and domestic violence and pay differentials and the incessant, exhausting focus on how you look and laugh and talk. But it had all been basically manageable—not ideal, certainly, even enraging, but navigable—right up until the baby came. It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position.The obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight 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. 

***

[My husband and I] fought because we were both exhausted and secretly convinced the other one had the better end of the deal. We fought because we were neurotically careful not to fight in front of the baby, and that meant we almost never got a chance to fight at all, and by the time we fought the annoyances had fermented to a potency that obscured altogether their original cause. We fought because we used to baby each other and now nobody got babied but the baby. As for me, I fought because I was reeling in shock, and because Tom was hardly there at all. He had slipped easily back into his old life while I had been bombed back to some prehistoric version of myself. And I was angry that he had accepted this superior position, this lesser disruption, as a sort of birthright. And so I fought with his absence. 

***

I made no effort to discover whether her lifestyle was a grand adventure or heartbreaking drudgery, or some combination of the two. Those questions lined themselves up in my thoughts, but I left them silent. They lit too starkly the discrepancy in our positions. That I had money and would not have to leave my baby behind. That she was poor, she had not been educated, she didn’t have choices. I had the vague idea that my silence was magnanimous. I told myself I was sparing her from embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I was the one being spared…. If I found out too much, if the facts were too grim, then I might conclude that my domestic arrangement was fundamentally unfair. That was my formless and underlying fear: that if I understood too much, I might have to rip apart the status quo. I could either drown or I could wear Xiao Li as a life vest. There was no third choice. 

***

I’d given my time to Tom, so that he could rush off to the office that very first morning and every morning thereafter. I’d given my time to Max, who was scared and unsettled and needed a parent down through the hours…. Every outgrown pair of shoes, trip to the dentist, or preschool obligation—any crisis or errand affecting anybody in the family—inevitably devoured another chunk of writing time…. My time had been used as capital. It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position. I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two. I paid and it’s gone. My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I’m not asking for a refund. Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 

***

I’d already cataloged the downside of depending upon impoverished women, but never had the limitations of employment in my house been more obvious. Just as Mary was not a day care and couldn’t guarantee a steady flow of childcare, I was not a company and couldn’t offer benefits and insurance and broader social protection….  That’s why ad hoc domestic labor is, ultimately, a bunk system. It’s a jerry-rigged, flaw-riddled compromise that will never live up to its promise of upward mobility for one woman and personalized childcare for another. 

***

Tears filmed my eyes. I was deliberately manipulating Mary. I was also speaking with unfiltered honesty. Both were true, both at once. I was showing Mary my buried fears, but I was doing it strategically. I wanted to leverage my vulnerability to make her more trustworthy. 

***

These women migrant workers are crucial because they solve a conundrum: middle-class and wealthy women demand a place in the job market—or at least a measure of leisure time commensurate with their social ranking—but their male partners don’t want to do more housework…. This model for women’s emancipation depends, itself, upon a permanent underclass of impoverished women. But of course these stories are not only about women—they also scream the reality of men who manage to duck not only the labor itself, but the surrounding guilt and recrimination. All those well-meaning men who say progressive things in public and then retreat into private to coast blissfully on the disproportionate toil of women. 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? It’s a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it’s a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work. No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don’t make a big deal out of everything. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy. Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success.

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