Essential Reading: A Review of Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change
Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change
by Angela Garbes
Harper Wave, 2022; 256 pp., $24.17Buy Book
Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change by Angela Garbes is a book about mothering and yet it is relevant for anyone interested in the work and role of caregivers in the world today. By skillfully interweaving her personal history as a second generation Filipina woman growing up in the United States, the “double consciousness” she experienced as a child of immigrants, and her experiences as a mother during a pandemic with, more broadly, a sociohistorical accounting of caregiving labor, Garbes offers readers an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences as caregivers and a chance to discover new possibilities for a collective future. She shines a light on how we can build “something much more powerful, based on love and inclusion, mutuality and acceptance” than what we currently have.
Importantly, Garbes pays homage to past movements calling for the recognition of the rights and dignity of caregivers, such as the National Welfare Rights Organization (called Aid to Families with Dependent Children at the time) and recognizes the important work of Black and Indigenous women who initiated the fight for Universal Basic Income. Garbes illustrates how this history of action provides a foundation for a radical reimagining of society’s relationships to caregiving. In addition to offering historical references, she highlights the work of Sara Hendren and others involved with the modern disability justice movement and notes what it can offer caregivers. By referencing these movements within the context of her own experience of mothering, Garbes makes social action accessible and engaging.
Garbes’s mothering and writing experience were both dramatically affected by the pandemic, particularly when schools closed and outside care options were limited. Mothering became even more central to her life and a struggle for time and creative energy followed. In the book, she navigates mothering on several fronts, as reflected by her chapter titles in “Part I: A Personal History of Mothering in America” where she explores “Mothering as Survival,” “Mothering as Valuable Labor,” “Mothering as Erotic Labor,” and “Mothering as Human Interdependence.”
From there, Garbes moves from a historical perspective alongside her own personal history and experiences into “Part II: Exploring Mothering as Social Change.” In this second half of the book, she expands on her individual perspective and moves toward a view that is communal. Central to this is her consistent pushback against sexual reproduction as “labor,” which is even more urgent and important in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned. “Reproductive labor,” Garbes notes, “is all the work needed to sustain a productive workforce for generations.” Yet she does not leave it there. Importantly, she rejects this approach to child-rearing.
“The terrain of mothering is not limited to the people who give birth to children; it is not defined by gender,” Garbes writes. In fact, she continues, “raising children is not a private hobby, not an individual duty.” Even if it is treated or framed as such in the United States, Garbes consistently reminds us that mothering “is a social responsibility,” which requires “robust community support.”
While the book is specific to her own experience, it is also incredibly relatable. I too had parents who were caregivers (hers in healthcare, mine in ministry and education). I too experienced the shift that came with pandemic life, the way it called for what Garbes refers to as a “recommitment to care,” as it suddenly seemed like there was so much more caring to do, with children schooling from home, all meals and snacks at home, parents working from home, etc. In the spring of 2020, we saw renewed appreciation for essential work, but that appreciation was short-lived, reminding us that we need the shifts that Garbes suggests. With intimate language and honesty, Garbes insists that care work doesn’t have to wreck us. It can be “shared, social, collective—and transformative.”
Essential Labor underscores the reality of an American society in which production and efficiency are king, with caregiving devalued on a massive scale. When she references Amy Westervelt’s Invisible Labor Calculator, which she used to discover that during the pandemic she contributed $300,000 of unpaid labor through caregiving, I immediately thought of my early experiences in motherhood, in which a time audit reflected I spent 20 hours each week just wiping my two kids’ butts. The global economy, she reminds us, is driven by care. This is productive labor but it is rarely treated as such. Caregiving is, as the book’s title indicates, essential labor. Garbes encourages us to shift our thinking. “If we were to think about work in terms of our humanity—making people feel dignified, valued, and whole—then caregiving is the most important work we can do with our time on earth.” And yet, rarely is it treated with the reverence it deserves, and caregivers remain the most underpaid (and unpaid) of all workers.
“Raising children should not be as lonely, bankrupting and exhausting as it is,” she reminds us. By connecting the current realities of mothering to larger systems, rather than placing the struggle of motherhood squarely on the backs of the mothers who are (all too often) isolated and alone, she offers us a way through:
A lack of shared responsibility and interconnectedness makes it difficult to find solutions for needs more easily addressed in community, such as childcare, meal preparation, and household maintenance. It leads to isolation and an every-family-for-themselves mentality. It leaves parents feeling common domestic strains as personal problems rather than structural ones.
In highlighting opportunities to move away from this isolation and scarcity mentality and toward community, transformative change, and an abundance mindset, Garbes demonstrates that caregiving and mothering can be a daily resistance to patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and exploitation. Garbes resists in many ways: by mothering collectively with others in her community; by centering experiences and stories of those outside of the typical “norm” in the United States; by drawing on the disability justice model to support her parenting practice; and by insisting that caregiving is valuable labor, is essential, and is deeply important work.
The triumph of the book for me lies in Garbes’s ability to lift up how joyful mothering can be. This was a welcome break from predominant narratives that often emphasize mothers as martyrs who view day drinking as an acceptable practice because it is what is needed to “make it through.” Garbes shares beautiful stories of pleasure and discovery. She points out that pleasure seeking for ourselves as caregivers is worthy and valuable and that mothering is about supporting our children as pleasure seekers as well. She talks about playing with her children and their collective experience of “pleasure without a specific goal,” how this offers opportunities to “access the deeper, undervalued parts of us—inefficient and sloppy, maybe, but also generous, fun-loving, carefree.” Garbes even writes about the wild abandon of her body moving freely alongside strangers at Dance Church and connects this experience directly with healing, referencing Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which so many of my friends are reading right now.
As I finished reading her segment on Dance Church, two butterflies swooped into the backyard, where I sat on the patio before my family woke for the day. I was reminded that this need to move with abandon, to play with others, is hardwired into all living beings. I watched the black-and-yellow butterflies dance with each other through my yard and then fly off to another. Their movements, graceful, simple, beautiful, were reflected back to me in the book as Garbes underscored the themes of delight and worth as central to caregiving. “Our stories matter; they are how our children will know we survived,” she tells us.
Our bodies matter too, and Garbes honors them. She praises the bodies of caregivers and of mothers, but not because they are reproductive machines. Instead she stresses that bodies of all kinds have worthiness and beauty and calls out the systems that seek to negate this. “The questions we grapple with over our worthiness don’t come from inside. A person is never inherently a problem; it is the prejudging of able-bodied, cisgender men that makes so many of us feel unworthy,” she states, and then nudges us, noting that “the othered” far outnumber “the standard-bearers.”
Through skillful juxtaposition of the systems that devalue caregiving against the beauty and importance of this work, Garbes makes the possibility of creating something new even more attractive and enticing for readers. “We need to question our entire system of values,” she urges, understanding the potential power of unity among caregivers, among the othered. When mothering exists within the context of interdependence, pleasure, joy, and worthiness, it exists as a framework for social change. Part memoir, part call to action, part historical narrative, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change is, above all else, a beautiful invitation to honor the act of caregiving and in doing so, to change the world.