Megan K. Stack, author, Women's Work

In my mind, motherhood is only one facet of the experiences and characteristics that make up a complex human being ...

Motherhood, although an immeasurably rewarding experience, is one filled with numerous challenges. In order to raise a family, sacrifices are often made – career, free time, friendships. Motherhood and the work that it entails is a core focus of Women’s Work – the newest book from acclaimed journalist Megan K. Stack. In it, Megan describes the difficulty in picking up the pen and caring for her newborn while living abroad, how hiring a nanny not only gave her back the ability to work, and also how their lives became intertwined with hers. Megan K. Stack will be in the country to discuss the work with ABC Radio’s Rebecca Levingston on Tuesday August 6 as part of the year-round Writers + Ideas series, but before Megan touches down we asked her a few questions about what the experience taught her about parenthood, the role and importance of mothers and confronting uncomfortable truths.

You’ll be appearing at Brisbane Powerhouse in conversation with ABC Radio’s Rebecca Levingston next month, what should audience members know about you before they sit down to the session?
I’m a journalist and an author who’s lived all over the world. I love to discuss and debate all kinds of things. My current book deals with the many layers of thought and issues around paid domestic labour, and I’m looking forward to chewing over its themes in Australia.

The two of you will be discussing your new book Women’s Work, which draws upon some of your own deeply personal experiences. Can you tell us about the moment when you first got that feeling that you just had to write this book, and share these stories?
The book is rooted in my own immediate experiences, and I wrote it when those memories were still fresh. I wrote it fast, too – for better or worse, it sort of came rushing out of me. The impulse to turn these experiences into a book was driven by my feeling that I hadn’t seen any art or depiction that reflected the events in my household around money and domestic work and the relationships involved. I had the sense that many of these things are framed in a strange way that doesn’t entirely match my own lived experiences.

Tell us about those first uncomfortable inklings you had after hiring a domestic worker to help with your baby and around the house – what thoughts were going through your head that made you start to view the relationship and transaction differently?
The first thing that really stuck in my mind was the very same dilemma that remained unresolved after all the reporting and writing and thinking I’ve done: The structural craziness of hiring a mother away from her kids to help watch my kids so that I can, in turn, work. The absence of men from all of these calculations.

How challenging did you find it to write about your family, and the domestic workers who became such close friends?
It was impossible to tell this story without dragging my family into it. Luckily my husband is also a journalist and writer so he’s more understanding about the need for frank detail and immediacy than most partners would be – but even in our case, I have no plans to ever write about our domestic universe again. I don’t think either of us has enjoyed that aspect of it. There is also an ethical trickiness in writing about women who’ve worked for you. In the book I described that struggle and the ways I adjusted my usual reporting practices in response.  

What have been some of the most interesting reactions from readers since the book’s publication?
Not a day goes by that I don’t get a note from a reader, and the breadth of response has been great. I’ve been interested to see that people have different points of entry to this book – some of them are enjoying it simply because it’s about motherhood; others because they’ve experienced domestic labor relationships either as employee or employer; others because they’re interested in the broader global and social implications. The one thing that has been disappointing is that men don’t seem to be reading it, and in a way they were my intended audience.

There are a lot of surprises in motherhood – what’s one revelation that really floored you?
Especially in the early years, I was shocked at how hyperbolic the experience felt. The good aspects – the joy and the love and the human insight you gain – were so much more incredible than I’d imagined. Similarly, the exhaustion and self-doubt and identity crisis of new motherhood were more intense than I’d anticipated. I feel like I’m still caught off-guard by motherhood as I move deeper into it – lately I’ve been struck by how other people have shifted in how they perceive me as a person, a thinker, a writer. In my mind, motherhood is only one facet of the experiences and characteristics that make up a complex human being, but it’s constantly reinforced to me that from now on I’ll be perceived, first and foremost, as a mother.

What’s next for you – are there any other aspects of parenthood (or completely unrelated themes) that are tugging at the writer in you?
For the moment I’ve said everything I have to say about the household and I’m moving on to other topics and genres. I have a massive piece of literary fiction set in Russia (and having nothing to do with children!) awaiting revision and publication. And, to my own surprise, I’m missing journalism and reported nonfiction, so I think I’ll be doing some of that in the coming year or two.

Your book has been well received in Australia, are there any Australian writers whose work you’re particularly enjoying right now?
I’m a huge fan of Hannah Kent. Burial Rites is a book I recommend to people all the time.

You’ve achieved a lot in your career, reported on a wide variety of topics and been deservedly praised for your work, but what in your life so far are you most proud of?
I’m not particularly proud of anything I’ve achieved – really, I feel like I should have done more by now! I’m not sure if that makes me sound arrogant or like I have bad self-esteem or some horrible combination of the two, but that’s my completely honest answer. I have more ideas and plans than hours in the day, and it’s my hope that I’m just getting started.

You can catch Megan K. Stack in conversation with ABC Radio’s Rebecca Levingston at Brisbane Powerhouse next month for Writers + Ideas. Tickets are available here.

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