“During the pandemic, many people have realized that American life doesn’t work for families,” she writes in “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change.” As women left the workforce to be with housebound children, Garbes conceived the idea that this turbulent time offered a chance to reinvent our approach to motherhood.
Equal parts manifesto, love letter, personal narrative, and cultural history, Garbes’ book is grounded in the day-to-day realities of parenthood, that constant work of caregiving. But in connecting the factors that got us to where we are – colonialism and its legacies, lack of support for caregivers, racial disparities – Garbes also looks beyond the individual to the larger webs that entangle us. all.
The first part of this book focuses on the importance of caregiving and its undervaluation in American society. (By “mothering” she means giving care, regardless of gender or relationship to the person being cared for.) The second half puts forward the idea that mothering can heal what afflicts us, that we can raise a generation of children who will force change in our values and politics.
Garbes’ Filipino heritage has given her a special familiarity with the subject she tackles. Filipinos “are the caregivers of the world,” as she puts it. She notes that the pandemic has highlighted the disparities in American society, especially when it comes to immigrants. “While Filipino nurses represent only 4% of all nurses in the United States, they account for 34% of nursing deaths from COVID-19,” she writes.
Caring is essential work, and yet in American culture it is undervalued. Remedying this is a challenge, she acknowledges, because care work is often driven by feelings for those cared for – a fact that justifies both, for many, its unpaid or underpaid nature, and which puts caregivers in a bind. How do you hold back the work that literally keeps your child, other people’s children, sick adults, aging parents and grandparents alive, to lobby for higher pay and better working conditions? Such restraint is not unprecedented, as Garbes notes, citing the Icelandic women’s strike of 1975. But such organized actions are understandably rare.
While I was reading and writing this review, my child was looked after by educators and their father, David, who cooked and brought me lunch and cleaned our apartment. I often stopped working to breastfeed and pump. We could afford daycare because California passed a law last July that made this essential service free to us, as a subsidized family, during the school year.
We are all, regardless of our professional status, race, gender or level of education, dependent on the care of others both at home and outside. That’s Garbes’ most important point — one she reiterates throughout this book and her 2018 book, “Like a Mother.”
She constantly returns to the possibilities of mothering as a social change. This change looks like interdependent relationships within the family and beyond, and communities that support each other through acts of mutual care. It resembles the recognition of the pleasures of physical movement, the curiosity for the living beings that surround us in nature, the belief in the inherent value of all people.
I realized a few days ago, lying on my back on the sofa, while my 11 month old son played with my wife, that I had no memory of my mother relaxing like this. She had nine babies and 10 pregnancies, and at least 10 years of breastfeeding.
Garbes shows in this book that work and ease are both essential acts of care. I find relaxation difficult, probably partly because I haven’t seen my mother resting. I don’t want my own child to have such difficulty balancing work and play, effort and rest.
Whether our children and the future of our lives are expansive or delayed depends in part on the actions of leaders – legislators, executives, others in positions of power – to enact the kind of change that could begin to reward and sustain the care delivery. I work for the University of California, one of the largest employers in the state with a quarter of a million workers. This year, my union is fighting for new contract protections, including health care coverage for dependents, expanded paid time off, and increased access to affordable child care. These kinds of protections are needed by caregivers beyond the UC system and outside of California as well.
But as Garbes points out, the quality of our lives and those of our children also depend on all the little choices we make every day. “We cannot afford to wait for government support,” she writes. Raising a child is “a social responsibility”. This book urges us to do things right.
Sarah Hoenicke Flores is a writer from Southern California.
Mothering as social change
Harper Wave. 222 pages. $25.99