'Who's looking after the children?' The answer may be uncomfortable

Author and former foreign correspondent Megan Stack had complicated moral and philosophical issues with using cheap ...
Author and former foreign correspondent Megan Stack had complicated moral and philosophical issues with using cheap childcare labour. Photo: Supplied

It is the great dilemma for middle-class feminist mothers (and should be for their partners): how do you justify using far lower paid and dramatically less privileged women to care for your children so you are free to pursue your own, much better paid, higher-status work?

In Australia, childcare workers are paid so poorly – around $21 an hour for a Certificate III worker, or about half the average hourly wage – and demands of the job are so great, the industry burns and churns women. Many leave it without much to show for years spent tending to other peoples' babies and pre-schoolers.

Compared with countries in which the off-books childcare economy is more prevalent, our industry is relatively regulated. Most of it occurs in structured environments, employers at least purport to monitor rights of in-home carers, and our au pair system includes provisions about what is – and is not – expected or acceptable domestic work.

Megan Stack's book is out now.
Megan Stack's book is out now. Photo: Supplied

Not that any of this is a guarantee of equitable treatment.

In the US, and among well-paid expat communities the developing world over, individual parents hold enormous control over the, often very low-paid, women they employ. These women are, says author Megan Stack, often driven by economic necessity to make the sacrifice of leaving their own, very young, children in their home towns so they can work as carers for other women's babies in big cities.

Stack, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent,  has explored the dynamic of power, privilege, and potential exploitation of women employed as domestic workers and child-carers by comfortable couples, and told her own story, in her new book, Women's Work, A Reckoning with Work and Home.

Stack was living in Beijing when she conceived her first child, quit her enviable job, and decided to write a novel. She found the "constant gaping demand for labour" of motherhood made that difficult. She also suffered some symptoms of post-natal depression, so Stack and her husband, fellow correspondent Tom, hired the first of four women of colour who worked as their domestic workers and child-carers in China, and then India.

Part well crafted memoir, part exploration of the impact on women's lives of the role still mainly assigned to women, no matter their background – chief child-carer, cook, cleaner and washer – the book takes an unflinching look at both the imbalance between women and their disempowered employees, and those same women and their often under-delivering (in the home) partners.

Having been raised by a mother in the generation who fought hard for basic workplace equality for women in the US, Stack says examining the relative lack of rights for low-paid domestic workers presented "a hard picture", and one about which she has "very complicated" feelings.

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"Part of the thinking behind writing the book is trying to at least come out with some of these issues; I do think that we should be looking for better models (of child care), I don't think we should keep relying on this kind of hidden model; the idea your're putting a vulnerable woman into a private home and her best hope is she will end up with employers who are on the ethical side of things," she says.

"We tried to create an ethical situation in our own home, with the understanding we were operating in a bad context. I thought I did not have a better option (than using cheap labour) and I thought these women didn't have a better option. That being the case, we tried to find a way to make it as good as it could be.

"That is [still] not a good model; we had so much power in these relationships."

One way of addressing how she felt about having so much more than the women she employed was to go beyond the bounds of what was expected; Stack paid for "school fees, relative's surgeries, a wedding" for her workers as a kind of "expiation of your guilt". This did not, by the way, leave her feeling the relationships were anywhere near the ballpark of equal.

And neither does the labour split in her own home appear equal between Stack and her professionally free-wheeling husband, who is able to live relatively uninterrupted by fatherhood.

"We need to reframe this discussion, desperately, I don't know if men are fully conscious of it," says Stack. "This is people's welfare, and lives, and in every way an issue of deep equality and fairness that has to be addressed."

Online reviewers have praised the author for her frankness. Stack turns a forensic eye to her own behaviours with her employees, and airs detail from her relationship while examining the question of how, in a dual-earner household, home-based labour falls largely to women.

She laments the fact it is still mainly women having the discussion.

"I feel that clearly, men have managed to avoid this conversation," she says. "It's something I have felt very keenly since publishing this book. I come from a background of writing about a lot of other issues of interest to men (in her foreign correspondence work) ... [in] so many interviews, notes from readers and even the critics assigned to review the book, there's been no men.

"It's all women reading the book and engaging with the questions it's raising. Men have managed to shy away from, and avoid, having to answer the question that should be posed to them."

"This is not an issue only the women have to pay attention to; it needs to be reframed and understood as it is: which is a labour issue, an economic issue."

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