Book Review: Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change


Photos courtesy of Harperwave

What is the defining characteristic of mothering?

According to journalist-author Angela Garbes, it is the constancy of care. In her latest book, Garbes posits that for this reason, mothering is the most essential work in the world – the work that makes all other work possible. And yet, like the work of professional caregivers across the United States, it is often invisible and always undervalued.

Angela Garbes

Angela Garbes/Photo courtesy Harperwave

It is time, says Garbes in “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change”, take up the night on these affronts and for those who mother (whether they are parents or not) and see this “radical” work for what it is. That is to say, the foundation of the world economy and the only real hope for world peace.

In bookstores May 10

I’ll be honest, I viewed the work of mothering my children into the beautiful adults they became in many different ways, but never as essential work for the world at large. Garbes’ hypothesis cried out to me right from the cover of the book and settled into my brain as fact over its 256 pages. It will be released in libraries on May 10.

Garbes, a Seattle mother and author of the acclaimed book “Like a Mother,” uses a mix of research, reportage, cultural dissection and memory to examine the history of professional caregiving in America and to explain how this work has been devalued, “racialized and gendered” in this county. Likewise, mothering and its inherent caregiving work has also been devalued.

The pandemic shows the author what is essential

Much of the information provided here by Garbes was developed during the pandemic lockdown. With the whole family stuck at home, Garbes writes that she recognized in new and profound ways the critical importance of her role as caregiver. In “Essential Labor,” she examines the enormous burden that mothers and caregivers carry in our society, most often without any safety net.

“Mother’s repetitive tasks — wiping cigarette butts, cleaning food off the floor, reading books over and over, keeping track of clothes that are about to outgrow — make up everyday life,” Garbes writes. . “It is the essential work that makes all other work possible. It is vital for the economy, but it is underpaid, even compensated.

The invisible economic engine

The book’s publisher, Harperwave, is spot on in describing what I found to be thoughtful and thought-provoking work: “Garbes explores assumptions about care, work and merit, offering a deeply personal and rigorously reported look on what mothering is. , and can be. A first-generation Filipina-American, Garbes shares the view of her family’s complicated relationship with care work, placing motherhood in a global context – the economic engine invisible that has historically been required of women of color.

While exploring all of this, the book offers another perspective that I’m embarrassed to admit, as a 26-year-old mother, I’ve never really considered: that mothering impacts society at its deepest level. central and most fundamental and therefore holds all the potential to create a more just and equitable society. From this point of view, motherhood is an essential tool for creating social justice in a world and a planet that are sorely lacking in this area.

An invitation to change

“Essential Labor” is, at its core, a persuasive call to action. It asks readers to see, assess and advocate for better compensation for caregivers – and mothers. What if, the author wonders, the pandemic monthly payments to families, a form of payment for the important work of raising children, continued in perpetuity?

And yes, indeed. Imagine receiving a check that confirms what you know all too well, that mothering is by far the hardest job in the world, even with its rewards.

Advocate for valuing caregivers of all kinds

Skimming through the pages I had marked while reading, I realized that what I retained most from Garbes’ work was at the very beginning, in the introduction. This is where the author explains why we need to place more importance on mothering and other care.

Speaking of her daughters, Garbes laments the harsh realities of the world they might face later in life (those “sharp-toothed dogs coming to nibble at their heels”). At the same time, she redoubles her efforts to instill in them “deeply rooted, undeniable, impenetrable and unshakable beliefs in their own worth”.

“I want to believe that what I teach them will last, what I model for them will last,” she wrote. “The truth is, I don’t know. But I’m sure if I don’t at least try, they’ll never experience the full potential of their lives.

Here is the social change power of mothering and caregiving at its most fundamental level.


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