The Christian case for getting domestic help and doing it well.
It’s summer now, and as often happens with a change of seasons, our family is swept up in a new flurry of activity. That means the physical living space of our home hovers on the verge of neglect. No matter how many tip sheets I read or gadgets I buy, one of the perennial enigmas of modern living for me, and probably most women, is how to keep up with the housework.
In her recent memoir, Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home, former Los Angeles Times international reporter Megan Stack wrestles with her own expectations of what it means to keep house. Both Stack and her husband, Tom Lasseter, were working in Beijing when they became pregnant with their first child. Stack had planned to quit her work with the Times and write from home once the baby was born while Lasseter continued his career as a foreign correspondent. The only problem was that she hadn’t anticipated the exponentially larger volume of work it would take to run a household with a child. The obvious solution was to get more help, so they hired a full-time ayi who cooked, cleaned, and took care of baby Max.
Stack and Lasseter spent years in China and later India and during those stints abroad always had a least one domestic employee. For Stack, these years were about more than just getting the help she needed for her (eventually two) kids. It was about turning her home into a workplace and “enmesh[ing] myself in a web of women’s work—as worker, employer, and beneficiary, all at the same time. My own work rested on the cornerstone of another woman’s labor,” she writes.
But it wasn’t just trading one woman’s labor for another. The women Stack hired lived in deep poverty, working for pennies on the dollar compared to the incomes of their foreign employers. The women were nearly all mothers, too, leaving behind their own children so Stack could stay home with hers. It was a reality Stack took advantage of but never with a clear conscience.
“I was in good company. The most brilliant and socially conscious female professionals I met around the world—the human rights workers, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, diplomats, and wonks—enabled their careers by hiring impoverished women to care for their children. That was the underbelly. That was the trade-off.”
For Stack, like the rest of us, the problem is hard to untangle: “Cooking and cleaning and childcare … underpin and enable everything we do,” she writes. “The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population. And yet honest discussion of housework is still treated as taboo.”
In my own family, honest discussions of housework do happen from time to time, especially because both my husband and I spent a few years as single adults doing it all on our own. In preparation for our married life together, Steve and I agreed that he would do the laundry, wash the dishes after supper, and take the garbage out while the shopping, cooking, and cleaning generally fell to me. As for the children—his three boys, to whom I enthusiastically became a stepmom—the bulk of the responsibility initially fell to him.
Though this delineation of chores continues, over time my role in our home has dramatically increased, especially when it comes to caring for the boys or attending to the extraneous tasks of domestic life that don’t fit into our neatly devised categories (like calling the plumber, buying underwear, or inviting grandparents for dinner). Like Stack, I’m a writer who works at home. In addition to my job and my domestic duties, I’m also a caregiver to my elderly mother, who lives in a nursing facility nearby. All total, I work close to 15 hours a day, including weekends. In other words: I have little margin for things to go wrong in our lives.
Originally published at Christianity Today Women on June 27, 2019.