The complex and uncomfortable truths behind the relationships with the women who care for 'liberated' women's houses and children.

There is a niggly, sore spot at the heart of your average nuclear family unit, as abrasive and impossible to ignore as a rough tooth. Bearing and raising children forces inequality upon mothers and fathers. It's as plain as that.

When working women have children, their daily lives change fundamentally. By necessity, they reduce their working hours or stop working altogether to look after babies for a period that may stretch to years and can make re-entry into the workforce challenging. They trade pay, career advancement and opportunity for the sake of their family.

Meanwhile, the fathers of these babies, for the most part, continue as before. Yes, their focus may be different, their feelings and hopes for the future forever changed. But their day-to-day existence? Their opportunities and earnings potential? Virtually untouched. It is a disparity that even Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, with her exhortations to "lean in", can't address without hiring a nanny.

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For people of means, the "solution" to this unsatisfactory situation is often paid childcare - a nanny, an au-pair, someone whose service allows women who want to keep working and contributing to the world in a realm beyond mothering, to buy back some time.

But this, says American writer Megan Stack, is a sort of Faustian bargain, one which she struck in 2011 when her first son Max was born, in Beijing. She gave up her job as an international correspondent for the Los Angeles Times to write a novel set in Russia, and hired a nanny, Xiao Li, who had left her own young daughter with family in a far-off village to earn money in the city. Stack's husband Tom, also a journalist, was often away from home on assignment and the new mum became emotionally dependent on Xiao Li.

Xiao Li was great with Max and kept the family's apartment spotless. But she was so tired she fell asleep at the kitchen bench in her lunch breaks and she skipped work without warning. When the family moved to Delhi for Tom's dream job, Stack was pregnant again and hired two women to help run the household: Mary to look after the children and Pooja to cook and clean. Both had shady, abusive boyfriends. Pooja had a son with whom she had never bonded because she couldn't raise him.

Mother's Work: the author, Megan Stack, on the Great Wall of China. Photo / Supplied.
Mother's Work: the author, Megan Stack, on the Great Wall of China. Photo / Supplied.

Stack came to see her life at home with these women as illustrative of a great injustice. In her book, Women's Work: A personal reckoning with labour, motherhood and privilege, she writes: "Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets women up for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population."

Stack's friends in Beijing and Delhi all used cheap local labour and justified it as supporting poor, disadvantaged women seeking generational advancement. "If you boil it down to that one person and that one job opportunity, it is often the best thing that could possibly happen in that situation, so it's hard to condemn it," says Stack via Skype. She is sitting in her home office in Singapore, where she is revising the Russian novel. "If you [ask] if this woman weren't doing this job, what do you think would be happening to her, the answer to that question is usually pretty bleak.

"So yes, I am glad she has that job and yes, I am glad she has a stable situation and is able to pay her kids' school fees. I still think it's worth asking, in the broader trajectory of our planet, because we are now living in a globalised reality and this book is very much set in a globalised reality, whether this is a direction we want to continue moving in, or if we want to look for something better and push beyond this. There are some ethical trade-offs that are inherent in this model. It would be better if it did not require poor women to leave their children behind to [go to] work."

A domestic worker in Beijing, known as an ayi, or aunt, takes a break. Photo / Getty Images.
A domestic worker in Beijing, known as an ayi, or aunt, takes a break. Photo / Getty Images.

Stack felt horribly guilty when she learned that Xiao Li's 3-year-old daughter was ill in hospital with a heart problem and needed her mother. But she also felt anxious at the thought of losing her support system. Sleep-deprived and wrapped in anxiety, she believed she couldn't care for Max without Xiao Li's help.

"One day perhaps there will be extensive research into women and hormones and motherhood and all these things that have mostly not been of great interest to the scientific community at large but I do have a theory that if you're with another woman and you have a baby and that woman helps you care for your baby, I think there is some sort of survival mechanism hormonal-emotional thing that goes on where you become very deeply bonded with that woman. It's a response I had both times I had a baby. It's like falling in love, you have this deep emotional feeling for them because this is a woman who is there to help you care for your baby."

While Tom wanted Xiao Li to leave as soon as her daughter's ailing health impacted on her job performance, Stack was unable to dismiss her. Theirs was not a clearly delineated employer-employee relationship, as she acknowledges it should have been.

The reverse was true in Delhi with Pooja, a vivacious woman who quickly won over the household with her aromatic curries and knack with babies. When Pooja started drinking on the job, Stack wanted her gone but Tom's fondness for her clouded his judgment. Pooja could have endangered his children but she lived in a poky little house in the back garden, she was poor, her life was hard. "It should be a professional, regulated situation, but it gets mixed up and crazy," says Stack.

"Almost everybody I knew in Delhi and in Beijing had gone through this topic extensively in their own minds but everybody had their own system of, I don't want to say justifying it, but people will end up saying things that will surprise even themselves. A lot of my friends were very critical of the domestic norms around us and they thought I should write some kind of an exposé, find people who are mistreating the nanny and housekeeper and write the most scandalous story of expats behaving badly."

But Stack wanted to write a more universal story, although the specific circumstances of Xiao Li, Mary and Pooja are fascinating and touching. She wanted to address the wider issue of the gendered division of labour.

Chinese women training to be qualified nannies, known in China as ayis, learn techniqiues with plastic babies at the Ayi University. Photo / Getty Images.
Chinese women training to be qualified nannies, known in China as ayis, learn techniqiues with plastic babies at the Ayi University. Photo / Getty Images.

"What I ask myself a lot is how do we get men involved in the conversation and how do we get society at large involved in this conversation? How do we move it out of the frame of 'it's a women's issue', 'it's a mum's issue'? In reality it's an economic discussion and it's a labour force discussion.

"The idea is that women are meant to have equal access to the workforce now, but beyond actually letting us physically go into the workspaces there has been no change that makes that possible. Someone has to be with the kids. If we are supposed to be in the workforce, then what is the plan for the kids?"

While raising many uncomfortable questions about domestic work, the exploitation of poor people and the supply chain in the developing world, Women's Work does not provide answers.

Stack says her ideas "almost come off as utopian" because they are so far removed from current practice. She would like to see all girls and boys learning both home economics and industrial arts in schools and plentiful daycare services staffed with young men and women paying off their student loans. More critically, she would like to see men taking the childcare imbalance seriously.

For now, Stack is managing another live-in worker and learning the ins and outs of the Singaporean domestic labour system, which is allowing her to tour with her book while her husband works. "I'm so looking forward to not having a full-time worker in the home," she says. "It's not like we have newborns and toddlers or we're in India where it takes so much labour to keep a house running. We're in Singapore, where groceries are delivered."

As she kisses her children goodbye, she is acutely aware that her freedom is possible because of another woman's labour and time - and an uneasy bargain the two have made.

Women's Work by Megan Stack, Scribe, $38, is available now.