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.