Saturday 13 April 2019

How domestic workers enable well-off women to prosper

In her new book, Women’s Work, the journalist Megan Stack grapples with how she’s been able to advance in her career at the expense of other women’s labor.

As more and more women have entered the workforce, they have naturally spent less time at home. Still, homes demand work, from cooking and cleaning to taking care of children. A majority of American children have two parents working outside the home, and nearly half of all married couples both work. In the U.S. and many other countries, there is no clear answer to who will take care of the housework.

That “second shift” of housework falls disproportionately on women. In the U.S. for example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of women report doing housework like cleaning or laundry each day, compared with just 19 percent of men. American women also spend twice as much time caring for children as men do.

To mitigate this second shift for working parents, some families with financial means hire domestic workers, more than 80 percent of whom are women. Around the world, women who can afford it are freed to pursue their career by other women who care for their children, cook their food, and clean their home.

In a new book, Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home, the journalist Megan Stack examines this dynamic from the inside, telling the story of her own employment of domestic workers, who took care of her children and home while she wrote a novel.

Stack’s memoir takes place in China and India, where she lived after leaving her job as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times when she became pregnant with her first child. In both places, she hired domestic workers—nannies, maids, and cooks—to give herself time to write.

I recently spoke with Stack, who now lives in Singapore, about her thoughts on the ethics of the domestic-labor economy. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Anna Waters: Millions of households around the world employ domestic workers to help with child care, cleaning, and cooking. Having a nanny to help with your young children has become fairly normal among financially privileged families, particularly ones with working mothers. What was it about this dynamic that made you think twice, and want to examine it in this book?

Megan Stack: I moved pretty thoughtlessly into having a woman come into my home and work full-time. But very quickly, I started to experience things that surprised me. The emotional components of trust, love, and jealousy, the attempt to turn a household into a job site, and the way that intersects with power imbalances of money and race … I hadn’t anticipated it. The more I adjusted to being a mother, the more uncomfortable I was, because I was looking at my nanny and thinking, She’s a mother, too. Who’s taking care of her baby?

It opened up uncomfortable questions that I hadn’t addressed when deciding to hire her, and that I didn’t feel like the culture broadly had addressed, either. There’s been this global swell of domestic labor as an unregulated and poorly understood job sector, so these relationships exist on a global scale, but are basically unfolding in private. I wanted to make them public.


Waters: The book is a really personal reckoning with how you have benefited from other women’s labor, but as you say, this is much bigger than individual private households. How much of the responsibility for this dynamic do you place on individuals, and how much on larger economic or systemic factors?

Stack: It’s hard, because as women, it’s important for us to say that the work we do is important. That’s how the world moves forward. And realistically, when I looked at my options to keep working and become a mother, there wasn’t any other option. My husband was going to keep his staff job with the salary and health insurance, and I was going to do writing projects that didn’t have those things. Like many women, I was surprised and overwhelmed by how much work came with the baby, and I didn’t see any way to keep working without hiring outside help.

For many women, on both sides, this is the best option. For many migrant women, this is one of the few jobs where they can earn a decent salary and pay for education for their children. So I don’t think I can blame individuals for participating in the domestic-worker economy, because it’s really the best option for so many people. But we all deserve better options.

Waters: What do you think some of those better options might look like?

Stack: I haven’t come up with a great answer. If I had, I would’ve written that book. Extending employment protections to domestic workers is a noble and serious first step. But honestly, that’s like fixing the leaks on a ship that we maybe shouldn’t even be on.

Domestic labor is a model for the advancement and equality of upper-class women, but it depends upon a permanent underclass of impoverished women. I’m not interested in a program for some women to advance on the backs of others.

Waters: This memoir is about being a woman harnessing women’s labor, but it’s also about being a white person harnessing the labor of nonwhite people. What role does race play in the question of offloading domestic work?

Stack: Race is a huge aspect of this. I think 100 percent of the reason domestic work is so poorly regulated is because it affects this trifecta of demographics that political decision makers don’t care about: women, poor people, and people of color. There’s this subconscious social consensus that things happening to people in those demographics just aren’t as important.

I did want to focus this book on the gender aspect, because this dynamic is more universally about women than it is about race. There are Chinese families employing Chinese domestic workers and Indian families employing Indian domestic workers. In those stories, race isn’t as clear-cut an issue as gender or class.

But in my house, the racial dynamic was very clear and troubling. I had this nightmare feeling sometimes in my house, where I raised two white sons seeing women of color working for us. What are the messages they’re picking up? What are we teaching them? That has haunted me.

Waters: You talk a lot in the book about how to place domestic workers in the context of your family. Do you consider them employees or part of the family? Is it possible to be both?

Stack: I had a very strong emotional connection and relationship to the women I hired to work in my home. I really came to love them; there’s no other way to describe the attachment and emotional investment I had in them.

That being said, I don’t think domestic workers should be considered part of the family. When you start to tell yourself that your employee is part of the family, you put them in an unprofessional and unregulated situation. You start to go, Oh well, you know, she’s really part of the family, so she doesn’t mind coming on her day off, because she loves the kids! But you have all the power in that relationship. It’s not like asking your aunt or mother-in-law to watch the kids. Muddying the waters in that way is just making an already vulnerable woman more vulnerable.

Waters: Something that comes up often in the book is the way employers of domestic workers exclude them from pictures and stories about family life. Why do you think some people with domestic workers are reluctant to acknowledge their existence?

Stack: Yeah, it’s interesting because you’ll sometimes see a domestic worker in a photograph, but it’s nowhere near as common as you’d think, especially in the context of how much time kids spend with their nannies. I think it shows some of the ambivalence people feel about having domestic workers. You don’t want to include this complicated aspect in the photographic effort of your life, because it’s uncomfortable.

It’s interesting because in colonial India, British colonials were so unabashed and proud of their servants. There are so many old pictures that will really make you feel ill, of little boys fanning reclining white people. They displayed that unapologetically. We’re in a different era now, where we know it’s not really okay.

Waters: You also write that this lack of acknowledgment goes both ways. In the book, one of your cooks in India said that her family and friends have no idea she’s hired help, and she conceals that.

Stack: That was the thing that surprised me the most from when I interviewed my own domestic workers about their experiences. These women come down to Delhi from rural villages, and don’t tell their families about their work. They pretend they work in call centers. There’s a real stigma and sense of shame around doing domestic work. Our nanny in Beijing would get up at her house every morning, dress up in a secretarial outfit for her commute, get to our house, and change into cutoffs and a T-shirt. When she left, she’d put her secretarial outfit back on just to cross the city by bus.

I started looking at the Facebook pages of a lot of domestic workers, and noticed that a lot of them went to great effort to disguise their work on Facebook. If the family was going to a resort for the day to go swimming, the nanny would find a moment to get someone to take a picture of her posing and she’d post that on Facebook. It was very much framed as, I’m paying for this for myself; this is part of my lifestyle. There’s so much fronting and ambivalence with domestic work on both sides, I think because everyone feels a little uncomfortable about participating in it, whether you’re an employer or employee.

Waters: What kinds of conversations did you and your husband have as you were writing this book? Like your domestic workers, he was a major character in the memoir, and I’m curious how he felt about the book and his role in it.

Stack: When I set out to write the book, I didn’t anticipate the role he would come to play in it. But I wanted to be very authentic about the totality of the experience. When I finished the first draft, I gave it to him to read, and I was very nervous. I wasn’t going to sabotage my marriage for this book, and if he wasn’t comfortable with it, I’d drop it.

But my husband is a really amazing person. After he read it, he said that parts of it made him cringe, but it was all true. Not many people would be strong enough to sign off on this from their spouse.

That being said, I’m never going to write about my family again. It was so hard for me to cross that bridge to write about my own home and marriage with this level of intimacy, and I’m eager to cross back over it.

Waters: You’ve recently moved to Singapore. Do you still have domestic workers?

Stack: We do have domestic workers. We have a woman who’s living with us, and she’s very wonderful, great with the kids. My sons are now 5 and 7, so I think we’re aging out of the time when we’ll have domestic workers around. However, writing this book would’ve been impossible without them. [Living abroad,] I can’t just send my kids to my mom’s house for the weekend to write. It’s been such a luxury to be able to afford someone to help me, but I’m looking forward to not having these relationships and being part of this complicated dynamic anymore.

(Source: The Atlantic)

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