Book Review: ‘Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change’ by Seattle writer Angela Garbes

Photos courtesy Harperwave

What is the defining characteristic of mothering?

According to – the work that makes all other work possible. And yet, just like the work of professional caregivers across the US, it is often unseen and always undervalued.

angela garbes

Angela Garbes / Photo courtesy Harperwave

It’s time, Garbes argues in “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change,” to take back the night on these slights and for those who mother (whether they are parents or not) and to view this “radical” work for what it is. That is, the foundation of the world economy and the one true hope for world peace.

Essential Labor in bookstores May 10

I’ll be honest, I’ve looked at the job of mothering my kids into the fine adults they’ve become from a lot of different angles, but never as a work essential to the broader world. Garbes’ hypothesis screamed true to me right from the cover of the book and settled into my brain as fact over the course of its 256 pages. It will hit bookshelves May 10.

Garbes, a Seattle mom and author of the acclaimed book “Like a Mother,” uses a mix of research, reporting, cultural dissection and memoir to look at the history of professional caregiving in America, and to make the case for how that work has been devalued, “racialized and gendered” in this county. Likewise, mothering and its inherent work of caregiving have also been devalued.

Pandemic lockdown showed Angela Garbes what is essential

Much of the insight offered 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 tremendous weight mothers and caregivers carry in our society, most often without any safety net.

“The repetitive tasks of mother —wiping butts, cleaning food off the floor, reading books over and over, keeping track of clothes that are on the verge of being outgrown —constitute everyday life,” Garbes writes. “This is the essential work that makes all other work possible. It is vital to the economy, yet it is underpaid, if compensated at all.”

The invisible economic engine

The book’s publisher, Harperwave, is spot on in its description of what I found to be a thoughtful and thought-provoking work: “Garbes explores assumptions about care, work, and deservedness, offering a deeply personal and rigorously reported look at what mothering is , and can be. A first-generation Filipino-American, Garbes shares the perspective of her family’s complicated relationship to care work, placing mothering in a global context—the invisible economic engine that has been historically demanded of women of color.”

While exploring all that, the book offers another perspective that I am embarrassed to admit, as a mother of 26 years, I never really considered: that mothering impacts society at its most core and fundamental level and thus holds all the potential to create a more just and equitable society. By this view, motherhood is a primary tool for creating social justice in a world and planet sorely lacking in this arena.

Angela Garbes’ invitation to change

“Essential Labor” is, at heart, a persuasive call to action. It asks readers to see, value, and advocate for better compensation to caregivers – and mothers. What if, the author ponders, the pandemic monthly payments to families, a form of payment for the important work of child rearing, continued in perpetuity?

What if, indeed. Imagine receiving a check that confirmed what you know too well, that mothering is hands down the hardest work in the world even with its rewards.

As I looked back through the pages I’d marked while reading, I realized that my most important take-away from Garbes’ work was found at its very beginning, in the introduction. Here is where the author makes the case for why we must more highly value mothering and other caregiving.

In speaking of her daughters, Garbes laments the harsh world realities that may face later in life (those sharp-toothed “dogs coming to nip at their heels”). At the same time, she doubles down on her commitment from Ella to instilling in them “deeply rooted, undeniable, impenetrable, unshakeable beliefs in their own worth.”

“I want to believe that what I teach them will stick, what I model for them will last,” she writes. “The truth is, I don’t know. But I am certain that if I don’t at least try, they will never know 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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