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.