Motherhood as a radical path to social change

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Angela Garbes hadn’t planned to write another book on motherhood. His first book Like a mother: a feminist journey through the science and culture of pregnancy, an investigation reported on pregnancy in exuberant and detailed prose, was published in 2018. But on the isolating dawn of the pandemic, Garbes began to ruminate on the question: “What is the most precious thing I can do? of my time? The answer was not to write another article or do a podcast, but rather to ensure the well-being and safety of his family and his community: “It is an honor to take care of them ; they are parts and extensions of myself. Thus began his journey which culminated (fortunately for readers) in Essential Work: Mothering as Social Change.

Her definition of mother is not restricted by who gives birth to children, nor by gender, but rather focuses more broadly and beautifully on raising children as the act of “mothering.” She writes that raising children “is a social responsibility, which requires strong community support. The pandemic has revealed that mothering is one of the only truly essential jobs humans do. Paid (and unpaid) caregiving work, mostly done by black and brown women, is horribly undervalued when paid, however. This figure from Oxfam is particularly astonishing: in the United States alone, women are estimated to have earned (at minimum wage) $1.5 trillion for unpaid care work performed in 2019. The figure for the whole world was 10 .9 trillion.

Garbes reflects on the nature and current state of caregiving through her Filipino American family, and the care work done by the Filipino diaspora around the world, and her personal and community experience of maternity. She advocates for a vision of motherhood as a radical path to social change, as well as for a universal income for caregivers, in line with the National Welfare Rights Organization campaign led by Johnnie Tillmon and other black activists.

I spoke to Garbes about intimacies, how her mother (and her daughters in the future might view) reads her work, and keeping the hope behind her manifesto.


JR Ramakrishnan: What was the biggest insight (or most amazing/shocking fact) you came across while researching this book? The one that appealed to me was the 300,000 salary you would get for taking care of your family.

Angela Garbes: The statistic that will stick with me forever—one that clarified my view of this book and the need to include my own Filipino American family history—is this: Filipino nurses make up 4% of the workforce. nursing work in America, but account for 34% of Covid nursing deaths. It made the devaluation of the care work done by women of color — the very lives of women of color — undeniable.

JRR: You’re probably pretty used to writing about intimacies after your first book. I was struck by your speculations about your mother’s childbirth problems. Your husband chatting about sex/penis standing/laying with your daughter was so honest, hilarious and personal. Does your mother read your work, and what do you think your daughters will think of all this in the future?

AG: My mother reads my work, although she doesn’t always like it or approve of it! But she is so generous in her support of me and believes these are my stories to tell. Our relationship is complicated, but his love for me is unconditional and the greatest gift of my life. As for my daughters, I don’t know what they will think! I expect them to be mad at me at some point as I get older, but hopefully we’ll talk about it. I will listen to them and we will find a solution.

JRR: I was really connected so intensely with the meditations on the body. Your Dance Church experiences have comforted my heart. Also, the scene where your girls notice you’re getting fat was breathtaking in so many ways. Was it hard to write? Do you think they will be able to maintain that feeling of body positivity for their own bodies and those of others?

AG: It was extremely difficult to write! (So ​​was knowing, as it happened, that I would write about it. Writers are such traitors to our families.) Writing about my body, honestly expressing those feelings on the page, is one of my biggest challenges, but I think it’s worth it, both for me and for the readers.

Honestly, I don’t know if my daughters will be able to maintain body positivity as they grow up. Diet culture and fatphobia are so powerful and insidious. If they can’t be positive all the time (and really who can?), I hope they can feel something close to neutral in their body and always know they are. much more than their body.

JRR: I loved the scene where your daughter’s babysitter, Penelope, wears a t-shirt with a slogan about brainwashing European beauty standards and how you go about explaining it to your daughter. For me, this scene sums up so well how the work of mothering is done by so many people and those who may not be mothers themselves and with no blood connection to the people cared for, and how drastic it can be (in this case, reverse the beauty lineup early). Your community seems amazing. Can you talk about how you fed yours?

Filipino nurses make up 4% of the nursing workforce in America, but account for 34% of nursing deaths from Covid. This made the devaluing of care work done by women of color undeniable.

AG: Yes, I couldn’t survive without my community! I fed mine slowly and deliberately, over many years and thousands of meals, dates, dances, work parties, phone and FaceTime calls, hangings in the garden, cards letters, tears, hugs, text messages, vacations, awkward conversations, walks. , misunderstandings and help, requested and given.

JRR: You write about how you thumb your nose at your parents’ version of the American Dream and all of its content (including individualism). I loved that idea you note about freedom coming from the Indo-European word friya meaning “beloved” and its links to more connection, not less. Yet much of the most contemporary construction is still incredibly powerful to many inside and outside the United States (although perhaps in decline). How do you think your book would read to someone outside the United States, a potential immigrant to the Philippines or from the Philippines, for example?

AG: Honestly, I do not know ! What I do know is that most immigrants, especially Filipinos, come for economic reasons and send a large portion of their earnings back home. So while they live an individual life, it is in service to their beloved families, always maintaining a bond.

JRR: I really felt that your book is such a document of what the pandemic has really brought about for many: a reshaping of how to be a human being. Do you hope this (seemingly more) community change continues as we emerge from the pandemic? Both at the community level and at the political level (for example, the guaranteed income pilot project in Los Angeles which recalls the campaign of the National Welfare Rights Organization to which you refer). I’m curious when you finished writing the book and if you have more (or less) hope now in 2022?

AG: I finished writing the book in November 2021, just before Congress allowed the Child Advance Tax Credit to expire — monthly payments that since July 2021 have released nearly $4 million. children of poverty. It’s hugely disheartening, as is the Biden administration’s failure to deliver on its paid vacation promises and codify Roe v. Wade. Although things look bleak, I’m hopeful. And what gives me hope is that I can’t afford not to hope. Mariame Kaba says that “hope is a discipline”. I think about how oppressed peoples and colonized peoples still have thriving cultures through thick and thin, and that gives me hope. My ancestors didn’t give up and neither did I.

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