STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Megan Stack is a former foreign correspondent for the LA Times. She gave up a life of covering war and natural disasters when she had her first child in Beijing. She hired a nanny and realized how dependent she had become, something she writes about in her book, called, "Women's Work." In a talk with Rachel Martin, Stack said it was a hard decision to write about her own home and family.
MEGAN STACK: I would not have done it if I could have found another way to tell the story that I felt that I wanted to tell. It is, really, at times, unflattering - a very honest view into this very difficult issues of parenting, and marriage, and paid domestic labor and, you know, all of the tangled issues around those things.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: If you talk to someone who has full-time child care at home - in this country, abroad - they will often suggest that these women are like family. And you talk about that in the book. But is that how you thought of them?
STACK: I have consciously tried to avoid thinking of these women in those terms because I think there are a lot of problems attached to that framing. When you say somebody is your family member, a lot of familiarity goes along with that, and a lot of labor protections tend to kind of go out the window because you sort of say, well, she's here and, you know, we love her, and she loves us and she loves the kids - she doesn't mind, you know, working the extra day off. She doesn't mind coming in even though maybe, you know, her family has something else to do. And you sort of impose.
I think it often starts from a very good place and an honest place. And I understand that place because I have definitely felt that I loved the women who worked in my house. Like, I literally loved them. I know that it starts in that feeling, which is a very natural and good feeling. But the problem is when you put that on somebody who is actually your employee and who doesn't have the same power in the relationship, you are taking away more of their power, I think.
MARTIN: You tell these anecdotes in the book about how reliant you did become on them. You mention, you know, your first caretaker in China, that if she had left, things would have just fallen apart. Even when one of them had a health emergency, or if there was some other urgent situation, you felt this panic, almost, that they were going to go away for maybe a day, but maybe it was going to be weeks.
Can you talk about that fear? Because I mean, it's a human who has a problem, and they need to go deal with it. But it was so debilitating for you to think about them being gone.
STACK: It was. Well, I think that that comes from a few things. I think for one thing, it was kind of the particularity of being in China and being so far from my family. And I was quite dependent on this woman who I trusted with my baby. And it wasn't easy for me. And the other thing was that I'm kind of a maniac. I mean, I'm a workaholic. I was - you know, within a few weeks of having the baby, I was already just berating myself because I wasn't back to work at the book the way that I thought I would be, and now I have to write this book, but I didn't realize I was never going to sleep.
So my brain is dysfunctional, and how am I going to write a book in this state? And, you know, and every time Xiao Li was not there, I had the feeling, well, I'm going to lose another hour of writing time. And I was so desperate for work time. Which, in retrospect, seems a little crazy to me. So...
MARTIN: But it's really honest. You know?
MARTIN: It's a thing that a lot of women go through, feel, grapple with and don't talk about.
STACK: Yeah. I think that's true. I mean, I really was unprepared for a lot of the things that happened that first year, both just even the simple biological facts of sort of pregnancy and delivery of the baby, and then the things that happen to your mind and your emotional state. That was all shocking. And then, you know, introducing this whole other element of another woman who's also a mother - you know, this was the thing that I began to focus on more and more.
And I wrote about this in the book, going from thinking about this other person, this other woman, this other mother, as somebody who is somehow there for you in a - as you - in sort of a functional way. You know, she's there so I can work, and she's there so I have somebody to help me watch the baby.
MARTIN: She's left her children to care for yours.
STACK: She's left her children. This is the realization. And it's, of course, something you know, but it's coming to understand as a mother yourself, and it's coming to sort of to grapple with the ethics of this situation, which are not straightforward. Even after having read this book, I feel like there are - I cannot condemn the model of paid domestic labor, but I can at the same time. I feel like, yes, you know, given the world that we have, you know, this was a good job for her. It was a way that she was able to make some money to take care of her daughter.
But the fact that she had left her daughter behind in order to have the money to support that daughter is, you know, it's a very common story. It's a very modern, contemporary, global story. It's happening all over the world. And, you know, the thing is, when you have that woman in your house, taking care of your children, it starts to seem very crazy. You know, like, who's taking care of her children?
MARTIN: How often did you let yourself think about that? Or did you block it out? I mean, how did you manage those thoughts?
STACK: I think it was a slow process of first, you know, not really being aware of it then becoming more aware of it and not wanting to think about it because it felt so dangerous to my status quo.
STACK: It was sort of like, OK, I don't want to think about it. And then thinking, no, you know, this is not in my nature. I'm a journalist, and I have always been someone who tries to go to the difficult places and the places that are uncomfortable. So I'm going there more and more. And I'm asking more questions. And then eventually, those feelings sort of led to me deciding to write this book, which is kind of a departure for me. There was a long time when I was sort of working on a different book, and I would meet friends for coffee and I would - we would talk about the things that are in this book, this "Women's Work." And I would say, if I had any time, I would write this book 'cause this is really...
STACK: ...Interesting. (Laughter). But I don't have time for this book 'cause I'm engaged in real - you know, it was sort of like, I'm engaged in the serious stuff, not the mommy, and the baby and the household. So finally, I decided, well, I am going to write that book. You know, and then it kind of turned into that. And that helped me a lot because it put me more at peace with confronting that.
Those - like, all of the aspects of the decisions that we had made and the trying, to the extent that I could, and trying to be respectful, but trying to bring the stories of the women and their families and their children and their own sort of landscapes as working mothers, and trying to put those into the same place as my own landscape as a working mother and to understand how they were intersecting.
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INSKEEP: Writer Megan Stack, her latest book is called, "Women's Work: A Reckoning With Work And Home."
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