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Consider all the universal mundanities of caregiving: the endless feedings, diaper changes, cleanups, sleepless nights and confining days, not to mention all the laundry. What if, with the help of journalist, activist and mother Angela Garbes, we could radically reconsider the incredible value of this work? In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Garbes swoops from the universal to the personal to the downright intimate, offering an all-encompassing vision of a more socially and economically just way of caring for one another that, de facto, would improve our individual and collective lives.

The author of the hybrid memoir Like a Mother, a 2018 NPR best book of the year, Garbes serves up her own experiences as a first-generation Filipina, daughter, wife and mother in her second book. She calls Part I of Essential Labor “A Personal History of Mothering in America” and uses it to delineate her social relationship to motherhood, including her own family’s complicated origins in the U.S., beginning when her parents emigrated from the Philippines in 1970. Part II, “Exploring Mothering as Social Change,” expands into the kinds of activism that mothering can and should inspire to create a more equitable world.

Garbes wants so much more for her mixed-race children than the racialized, gendered immigrant experience that her parents endured—yet there is more to mothering than personal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic, Garbes says, changed how we care for each other, revealing that “mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do.” She also identifies child care as a political issue—a kind of infrastructure for families that needs bipartisan government support.

At the same time that workplaces gave way to home “offices” during the pandemic, nursing homes became off-limits, schools and child care centers closed, and families were left with the work of finding other ways of caring for young people, elderly people and themselves. The myth of a self-sustaining family was no longer viable, Garbes observes; mothering needed the support of communities and multiple generations. The work of mothering, taking care of ourselves and others, became more essential than ever.

There is a great deal to digest here, and Garbes’ analyses will certainly resonate with people whose caregiving responsibilities increased during the pandemic. Yet by identifying the inherent power of mothering as a force for change, Garbes makes her message relevant to a broader audience. Indeed, as Essential Labor makes clear, all our fates are intertwined.

Angela Garbes swoops from the universal to the intimate as she offers a vision of mothering that would improve our individual and collective lives.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection, I’ll Show Myself Out, finds Klein in her 40s, parenting a toddler and trying to regroup in unfamiliar Los Angeles, a world away from her beloved New York City. “I constantly feel like I’m a leaky raft in open water,” she writes in “Listening to Beyoncé in the Parking Lot of Party City.” It’s a thoughtful essay that laments the changes of midlife and motherhood; it also had me laughing out loud, wishing I could share it with a friend.

Some of Klein’s essays are light—the one about her love for designer Nate Berkus, for instance, or learning to live with her ugly feet—while others dig a little deeper. She builds one essay around the “underwear sandwich,” a contraption postpartum moms wear to cope with bleeding and birth injuries, somehow managing to make fresh, feminist points in the process (and, yes, making me laugh out loud again). These voicey, funny essays give unexpected dimension to familiar topics, such as how widowers remarry faster than widows or that the mommy wine-drinking trend is out of hand.

One of the collection’s themes is anxiety—Klein’s, her partner’s and her child’s—and how it can rear up in the most innocuous-seeming moments. Another is Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, which Klein muses on to marvelous effect throughout the book. She turns the narrative template on its head, positing that pregnancy, birth and early motherhood are full of rigors and pitfalls, as difficult and life-altering as any masculine adventure. “We just feel the guilt of being terrible monsters, ironically, at the exact moments that we actually, as mothers, become the most heroic,” she writes.

Klein, who has produced and written for TV shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Big Mouth,” fills in the picture of a woman at midlife who’s beginning to make sense of it all. This collection is as entertaining and heartfelt, personal and comic as they come.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection is full of voicey, funny pieces that give unexpected dimension to the familiar topics of motherhood and midlife.

When Zain Ejiofor Asher was 5, her father—a larger-than-life personality who was training to be a doctor—was touring his Nigerian homeland with his 11-year-old son, Chiwetel. Not long before they were expected home in London, Asher’s pregnant mother, Obiajulu, received a life-changing phone call: The pair had been in a car accident, and only one had survived. Obiajulu had to fly to Nigeria to find out it was her husband who had died.

As Asher writes, “There is tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy. It is a story of grit, grace, and perhaps above all, an extraordinary story of extraordinary triumph that I want to share with the world.” Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable is an ode to her parents—who both achieved success despite facing civil war and famine—and especially to her mother. Asher is a master storyteller as she interweaves both of her parents’ life stories with her own upbringing. Thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy fill every scene, making for a mesmerizing read from start to finish.

Asher’s parents owned a small pharmacy in London, which Obiajulu continued to run after she became a widow. Meanwhile, her life’s work became ensuring her children’s success, following her firm belief that formal education was key to survival. She began a family book club, requiring each child to read and discuss a book every week. She plastered their walls with inspirational photos of “uplifters”—successful Black people, especially Nigerians. When 9-year-old Asher experienced racism from her peers, her mother sent Asher to live with relatives in Nigeria for two years, a common practice among Nigerians known as “shipping back.” There, she had to walk a mile to a river to fetch water for her family. Electricity was rare, and discipline was omnipresent. As Asher reminisces, “Nigeria, for all its faults, was the perfect place to toughen me up. It was an elite training ground for resilience; the West Point academy of perseverance. Survive in Nigeria for ten years and you can survive anything. Thrive in Nigeria and you can change the world.”

Thanks to Obiajulu’s determination, Asher and her three siblings are doing just that. Asher is an Oxford-educated news anchor for CNN International. Her sister is a physician; her oldest brother, an entrepreneur. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who received an Oscar nomination for his role in 12 Years a Slave.

It’s important to note that Obiajulu, for all her single-minded focus on achieving excellence—and her sometimes shocking strategies—doesn’t come off as overbearing. She empowered her children to believe in the seemingly impossible and to focus on personal achievement, not competition. Where the Children Take Us is an enlightening and entertaining read that will likely challenge readers to reexamine their views on child rearing and education.

Where the Children Take Us is an ode to Zain E. Asher’s determined, driven mother, full of thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy in every scene.

To say that Brian Morton’s mother, Tasha, was “a woman of stubborn energy” is an understatement; from start to finish, she was a bona fide contrarian. For instance, after agreeing to a short trial stay at an assisted living residence in Teaneck, New Jersey, she literally did an about-face on move-in day. “I’m not going in there,” she said. “Take me home instead. Or take me to the city dump. Just dump me with the chicken bones. Or better yet, take me to the cemetery. Save yourself a trip later on.” Refusing to even step inside, she simply walked away, and Morton later found her sitting on someone’s porch, eating a banana.

Such are the myriad confrontations Morton describes in his hilarious yet tender memoir, Tasha. A novelist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, he had spent much of his life trying to maintain distance from his mother, whose concept of boundaries could generously be described as “loose.” In junior high, if he was late for dinner, she would begin calling friends, hospitals and the police to search for him. Once he became an adult, she had little inclination to loosen the reins. However, once her health began to fail in 2010, after a stroke and the onset of dementia, Morton knew he had no choice but to step in.

At the age of 60, Morton was already juggling the demands of both his career and his family, including two sons in middle school. He is wonderfully honest about his hesitation to take on additional responsibilities for a parent or navigate the duties of the sandwich generation. He’s also careful to paint a complete picture of his mother’s life, including her nonstop educational activism and excellence as a pioneering elementary school teacher, particularly with disabled students. When Tasha’s husband suddenly died in 1984, she retired and sank into a despondency (likely undiagnosed depression) that she never overcame. Hoarding ensued, and in one memorable scene, Morton can’t convince his mother to throw away even one of five swizzle sticks—the mere tip of a true iceberg.

Morton excels at bringing his novelist’s eye to many such standoffs, including picking up his mother at the police station on more than one occasion. As he addresses the harsh realities of taking away a parent’s independence, trying to make that parent happy and trying (and failing) to procure adequate care, his superb storytelling skills add a helpful dose of levity. As a result, Tasha takes a difficult topic and transforms it into a soulful and often funny memoir about spirited mothers, refreshingly told from a son’s point of view. The book’s unique ending, which gives Tasha the last word, is an absolute tour de force.

Brian Morton’s hilarious yet tender memoir of caring for his aging mother takes a difficult topic and transforms it into the soulful tale of a spirited woman.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.

Growing up, Liz Scheier’s mother, Judith, insisted that all parties be held in their Upper West Side, rent-controlled apartment and nowhere else, because you simply couldn’t trust other people. At first, Scheier thought her schoolmates’ moms accompanied them to these parties because these women were friends with her mother. Only later did she understand that the women were there because they didn’t trust her mother, who frequently screamed at their children and raged at and battered her own daughter.

Even as Scheier began to doubt everything her mother said—Had her father really died in a car accident? How could the two of them afford to live in their apartment when Judith had no means of support? Was everything Judith said a lie?—she worshiped her mother. “I loved her smoky cackle and her jokes. . . . I loved that she adored me above everything else on earth,” she writes.

In her teens and 20s, Scheier tried to separate from her loving, controlling, raging, truth-shading mother. After college, during her first job in publishing, she learned that Judith had been concealing a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This knowledge didn’t protect Scheier from her mother’s incessant, desperate phone calls, but it did force her onto a wobbly identity quest. Scheier tracked down information about her deceased father, with help from her first girlfriend’s aunt. She found jobs that took her away from New York. She drank to excess. She refused her mother’s calls. Still, when Judith was threatened with eviction, Scheier sold her eggs to a fertility clinic to pay back rent. Even after Scheier got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and had two children, there seemed to be no escape from her mother.

This is just the beginning of the tense and heart-rending story Scheier tells in Never Simple, her memoir of growing up with her ”petite, stylish, sardonic mother.” In relating this story, Scheier is sometimes as sardonic as her mother, as well as funny and frequently clever. (For example, she titles the chapter describing her hookup with the man who became her husband “Switching Teams.”) The narrative sometimes feels undercooked, but ultimately Never Simple writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep and complicated love can arouse.

Liz Scheier’s memoir of growing up with her loving, controlling, raging mother writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep, complicated love can arouse.

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