It was never Angela Garbes’ plan to write another book about mothering after the success of her 2018 release, “Like A Mother.” But in 2020, amid school and child care center shutdowns, Garbes was left with nothing to do but mother. She started to notice her frustrations and racing thoughts about the state of caregiving in America show up in newspapers, on the radio and in Zoom conversations. People were beginning to understand that American life is not working for families.
Garbes’ newest book, “Essential Labor,” argues that mothering, or caregiving, is not limited to the people who give birth, is not defined by gender and is some of the only genuinely essential work humans do. Without people to care for children, we are lost. Yet American society only values work in terms of how much we produce and how efficiently we can do it. “Essential Labor” weaves Garbes’ personal experiences and America’s history of care to help readers redefine the perception and importance of care work and mothering.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your introduction mentions that you didn’t plan to write another book about motherhood, but the pandemic changed everything. Can you pinpoint an exact moment when you got over your creative rut and realized that America needed to reframe its outlook on mothering?
In one sense, I can pinpoint a moment when everything changed and I got momentum, but when I reflect on it, even though the early pandemic was a period of time where I felt creatively pretty dead inside, and unable to access the time and space to write, I’m always thinking about things, it’s part of being a writer. So when I was doing pretty much nothing but caretaking, I was always thinking about, “Why do I know this work is essential and meaningful but also why does it feel like it’s not enough for me?” And “Why does every day it feel like it’s the most important thing I could be doing, but no one is talking about it as being valuable and important?”
So I was thinking about those ideas and then in the fall of 2020, I had an editor at The Cut named Jen Gann who reached out to me. I had said something to the effect of “What happens when mothers disappear from public life?” And she said, “I think there’s a piece here. Do you want to work on an essay about this?”
That piece came out in February 2021, and within a day, it went viral.
Even though I didn’t necessarily want to write about motherhood again, I felt like if I had this opportunity, and there aren’t that many women of color who have this platform and who people are turning to for insight. So I thought, this is a chance, and this is important, and I feel it so deeply. So I thought, OK, there’s a book here.
In “Essential Labor,” you go into the terms “caregiving” and “motherhood,” saying that they extend beyond those who can give birth. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Part of why I think I resisted writing about motherhood is that motherhood — especially in American culture and capitalist culture — it’s really presented as a lifestyle. You make choices about everything from sleep training to breastfeeding or formula feeding. The sort of Instagram mom culture tends to take up a lot of space, and that’s just not the sort of conversation I was interested in having. Mother is an important identity for me, but it is not just women who give birth; it is not just women who parent. Caring for children is a social responsibility.
In terms of our understanding of gender, and gender expression, I’m still learning and I think as a culture, so many of us are still learning, so I wanted to bring what I had learned to this book. And coupling that with really believing that raising children is a social responsibility, I wanted to find a way to talk about care work. Which a majority is still done by mothers and women, so I don’t want to deny that fact. But I also learned from other writers and thinkers like Dani McClain, who wrote “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood,” and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens and Mai’a Williams, who edited a great anthology called “ Revolutionary Mothering.” They really pointed the way to using mothering as a verb. It does not exclude motherhood, and it does not exclude mothers. But it is an action that does not leave out people — anyone can participate in mothering.
For those who have yet to read “Essential Labor,” or are maybe reading this interview and thinking about picking up your book, can you speak to the importance of caregiving and mothering and the disproportionate value our society places on the work?
It’s a fairly recent invention that mothers and women are natural-born caregivers and that we are innately suited to this work more than men. It’s not true. And there are many mothers, many people, who know this, who don’t feel like “natural mothers.” We’re expected to do it as a “labor of love.” And since the 1960s mainstream feminism, and by that, I mean mostly white feminism, has told women to find meaning outside of the home through work. Which is fine, that’s one way to find meaning, but it doesn’t reckon with the fact that just because you work outside of the home doesn’t mean the work of the home ever goes away.
Something that you point to as a vital element in mothering is the importance of community. But in America, our society isn’t set up to emphasize that, we live in nuclear families for example. Do you have any advice for those who don’t have a communal structure, like, say, parents or a close-knit neighborhood already in place around them?
I want to say, first and foremost, it’s hard, and the pandemic has made it hard. There are so many societal problems that are systematic failures that we are made to bear as individual problems. And it is not an individual problem; it is not someone’s fault. And it’s not their job to solve the whole question. Community is fundamental and there are public structures and programs. Like in Seattle, there are pilot programs for pre-K, there are community funded resources, through Seattle Parks and Recreation there are after-school programs. There are community structures that are more affordable prices. That’s one place to start.
The other thing is, again, it’s not a problem of someone who lacks community support to solve on their own; they are really busy. So I think what needs to happen is that people who do have resources, who are members of a community, what I’d like to see is people in those positions understand that they have to stretch a little bit and make an effort to be part of a community, you know whether that’s volunteer time or hosting a play date for families that have less flexibility in work and life schedules.
A lot of problems that people experience, people of color are often asked, “What’s a solution for fixing racism?” But really, the responsibility is on white people.