Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change
by Angela Garbes
Published 10 May 2022
“Here is the artist-mother’s bar graph,” writes the novelist Claudia Dey. “Line one […] the multiplying size and need of her expression—held up against line two—the rapid dissolution of time.”
I’ve pictured that bar graph many times over the past few years as I’ve mothered my two babies into childhood. It resonates with me not only as a writer but also as a political person. No experience in my life has radicalised me as deeply as motherhood. Caring for children brings me in touch with vulnerability, fear, and love; deepens my awareness of the brutality and cheapness of life in America; and heightens my sense of urgency to fight for a better world. And yet I have often felt frustrated that the quotidian work of mothering saps my energy and turns my attention inward, toward the smallness of my children’s lives: changing diapers, wiping sticky banana handprints off the furniture, keeping track of all the finger- and toenails that need to be trimmed, and falling behind in the Sisyphean cycle of children’s laundry.
From my laptop in liberal, predominantly white Madison, Wisconsin, I experience this cognitive dissonance: in one tab, a parenting blog counselling me on how to safely give my eight-month-old baby various solid foods so that he doesn’t choke; and in another tab, an article about how, less than 100 miles away from me, in neighbourhoods that are predominantly Black, the water that comes out of the taps is contaminated with lead and has been poisoning children. As I scrub mashed sweet potato off the floor for probably the tenth time today, I contemplate all the hours of work and worry and damage control that I imagine go into caring for a baby in a place where the water isn’t safe. Like mothers don’t have enough shit to worry about, I think.
For a moment, the two stories merge. Or at least, so it seems. Both stories are, in a small way, about the same thing: our responsibility to take care of children’s bodies. The parenting blog compels an action: to minimise the risk of choking, give a baby a steamed wedge of sweet potato with skin on, allowing them to grip it in their fist and mash it with their gums. But the story about lead in the drinking water—which is, of course, a story about environmental racism—does not come with any parenting tips.
What can bridge the intimate, immediate, urgent work of feeding one’s baby and the collective political work required to demand safe drinking water for all? Can the work of mothering connect these two worlds, merging everyday acts of care with efforts to achieve social justice?
The answer, for Angela Garbes in Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, is yes. She argues that mothering—which she defines as an action, not as biological destiny—can completely remap our political commitments and offer an opportunity for social and political transformation. “It is time,” she tells us, “to double down on the radical power of mothering … If we are able to harness even a fraction of the frustration, creativity, ingenuity, and commitment we’ve seen over the last two years, it could be nothing short of revolutionary.”
I want to be convinced. But Garbes joins a struggle that has deeper roots. In making her case, she stands on the shoulders of many feminists and activists from the past—especially Black feminists—who have worked to harness the power of motherhood for the purposes of social transformation and yet struggled to do so. In past movements, even the most brilliant and committed organisers have found that the potentially unifying power of motherhood is no match for the forces of racism, classism, and imperialism that divide us.
Is Garbes’s unifying vision enough to confront what we are up against? Or is radical motherhood only the first stop on the road to mass politics for collective justice?
I owe a lot to Angela Garbes. I had her first book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, on my bedside table when my first child was an infant. She wrote with humour and compassion about pelvic floors and vaginal walls, breastmilk sommeliers and awkward postpartum sex. She detailed the physical and emotional sensation of miscarriage and the sweet taste and funky composition of breast milk (“the nutritional and immunological components of breast milk change every day, according to the specific individual needs of a baby”).
Garbes’s was the one parenting text I read that made me feel wonder and joy instead of anxiety. She addressed mothers as intelligent, sentient, complex people.
In so doing, she diverged from many other kinds of writing for and about mothers that address us as people bouncing back to “normal” (read: “productive”) as though nothing had happened; as selfless incubators demoted to the kids’ table; as efficient managers of future high achievers. What a revelation it was to read a book about motherhood by someone who actually enjoys life both with and beyond her children.
Garbes did not want to write another book about motherhood. She feared it was a theme for a niche market, not a topic for serious writers or thinkers. I know how she feels. After all, it is usually the self-help section of the bookstore where one finds the “work of mothering” category, adjacent to diet and lifestyle rather than philosophy, politics, or literature. This brand of parenting advice typically renders us into little financial managers, optimisers, speculators in some future market of humanity. As a mother searching for information about seemingly banal decisions, I encounter statements like: Children who are put to bed 15 minutes earlier on average earn another $20,000 per year as adults. Or: Putting aside an extra $20 per month in a 529 account now will pay for another week of college in 2035. Or: Children who learn to play a musical instrument are less likely to be incarcerated as adults. Even more annoying—perhaps because I seem to be the target audience—is the torrent of ostensibly feminist advice pieces about “work-life balance,” which treats motherhood like an expensive hobby: something to “succeed” at, but that should in no way interfere with the “real” work of what we do for income.
All this writing, it seems, fixes motherhood squarely in the status quo. This country has no guaranteed maternity leave and does little to support parents and children. So perhaps it’s no wonder that so much writing directed my way as a professional and mother seems designed to hide, manage, or compartmentalise motherhood.
In Like a Mother, Garbes stopped short of analysing the systems that make motherhood in America so relentlessly hard in the first place. This is what she promises in her new book, Essential Labor. She draws on a wide range of thinkers and activists, including the welfare rights movement, the National Domestic Workers Association, the Black Panther Party, indigenous environmental scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Black feminists like Dani McClain and Audre Lorde, and Filipinx studies scholars, including Catherine Ceniza Choy. She brings all this thinking into conversation about a central question: How did America become “a wealthy country with an invaluable force of women, most of them brown and Black, performing our most important work for free or at poverty wages”?
To this conversation, Garbes contributes an analysis of her own experiences as a Filipina woman and the daughter of immigrants. “In many ways,” she writes, “Filipinx people are the care workers of the world.” Since the 1960s, human labour has been the greatest export of Philippines, and many of these emigrants work as nurses and nannies. They are also on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Garbes cites a staggering statistic that I had to reread several times to make sure I got it right: Filipinx people make up just 4 percent of the population of nurses in the US, yet 34 percent of the nurses who have died of COVID-19.
Garbes tells part of this global story from her childhood home in rural Pennsylvania. There, her parents—who are health care workers—care for the sick and vulnerable in rust belt America while facing condescension and racism from many of their white neighbours. She sees another part of the care work chain when she visits the family home in Philippines, where she and her siblings are cared for by domestic workers employed by her family. She writes about a sense of isolation and boredom growing up in Pennsylvania, where her brother learned to crave “Smucker’s Goober Grape” jelly on white bread, in contrast with the sumptuous communal feasting on Filipinx food at family get-togethers. She writes about how her parents found a happier, more communal experience after moving to Seattle, a city with a larger Filipinx community, where Garbes now lives with her husband and two daughters.
Throughout the book, Garbes strives to connect the personal with the political. As she recovers from a C-section, she deepens her awareness and curiosity about disability and capitalism and extends these insights into how she parents, questioning assumptions about bodies and worthiness in a capitalist system that seeks to extract profit from our bodies. She draws on her experiences as a Filipina mother of biracial children to think about race and class. When she is mistaken for the nanny of her more light-skinned daughter, she is initially offended and then reflects on her reaction: Why would being the nanny be something to be ashamed of, accorded lower status than biological motherhood? What would it be like, she wonders, to find in motherhood the basis for political solidarity with the world’s caregivers?
Garbes is not the first to envision a social movement grounded in reproductive labour. Indeed, there is no shortage of inspiring writing on the topic. But unpaid and underpaid care work has also been uniquely difficult to organise on a mass scale.
One challenge has to do with the essential nature of caregivers’ work. The 1975 Iceland women’s strike, in which for one day, 90 percent of Icelandic women refused all forms of unpaid reproductive labour, was an ingenious act of political theatre, raising consciousness and showing just how essential women’s labour is. The cultural effects continue to reverberate. Yet it’s hard to imagine this as a longer-term strategy. Wage workers can withhold labour from their bosses and go on strike, but withholding our work as mothers and familial caregivers punishes vulnerable people we love and care for. In a 1974 pamphlet, the London Wages for Housework campaign referred to this predicament—shared by both unpaid mothers and underpaid National Health Service nurses—as “the blackmail that is over all women” (Power of Women, 1974).
Another challenge to organising caregivers is spatial. In modern capitalist America, reproductive labour is often relegated to the private home, isolated from community. Betty Friedan and other liberal feminists of the 1960s and 1970s saw the suburban housewife as a kind of prisoner in her own home, but other feminists have thought about radically remaking spaces of care work.
For example, as Dolores Hayden shows, some feminists in 19th-century America envisioned redesigning homes and neighbourhoods (The Grand Domestic Revolution, 1982). They proposed replacing isolated nuclear family homes with kitchenless houses and organising family life around communal kitchens and laundry rooms, in hopes that changing the spatial environment would remake social relations and gain economic autonomy for women. One group from Cambridge, MA, challenged the division of labour in individual patriarchal families by forming a “Co-operative Housekeeping Society,” which socialised housework among women and charged husbands for their services.
A century later, in 1971 Italy, Lotta Femminista (a precursor to the Italian Wages for Housework campaign) called for the complete reorganisation of neighbourhoods around care work, rather than profit and wage labour. This meant building communal canteens—as well as spaces for children, the elderly, and the infirm—at the very centre of public life. To make it all possible, Lotta Femminista called for a 20-hour work week and guaranteed income for men and women alike, so that all could participate in care work.
These experiments are exhilarating to read about. To enact them would be an uphill battle in a society that rewards precisely the opposite: private, atomised family homes; individual car ownership; and the tacit agreement that elder care and child care are private affairs rather than collective responsibilities. To reorganise our lives around care work would require not just changing mindsets but also digging up and re-laying roads, knocking down walls, and rewiring our cities.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to organising a movement of carers has been racism. This is particularly clear when we consider the history of welfare in America.
Initially, there was widespread support in the US for government welfare for single mothers. But that changed when Black women started entering welfare rolls in the 1950s. Although the majority of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) had always been white women, public support for welfare was eviscerated through the racist trope of the “Black welfare queen.” Welfare payments were reframed as handouts to people unwilling to work, rather than collective support for the work of caring for children.
Self-identified poor Black feminists of the welfare rights movement, whose leaders included Johnnie Tillmon and Beulah Sanders, insisted that motherhood was essential work and welfare was payment for that work. Some in the movement defined welfare more broadly as a form of reparations for unpaid care work historically performed by women.
But as historian Premilla Nadasen shows, the welfare rights movement did not find sufficient support from well-resourced liberal feminists, who prioritised equality with men in the workplace rather than support for the work of mothering (Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement, 2012). For them, the domestic sphere was the site of their oppression and paid work the means of liberation. By contrast, Black women in America had always been forced into exploitative work and had historically been denied the ability to care for their families at home. For many influential middle-class feminists, becoming the equals of men in the workplace took precedence over building solidarity with unpaid and low-waged caregivers.
Facing these and other obstacles, those of us who do the work of mothering have struggled to make common cause. But maybe we are in a new moment. The COVID-19 pandemic made visible much of the care work that had previously been hidden. The withdrawal of the Child Tax Credit; the criminalisation of abortion; the failure to protect our water and air; the complete lack of interest of the most powerful men in our society in protecting our children from mass shooters: all make clear just how much contempt those in power have for the work of reproduction.
Can Garbes take us somewhere new, so that we might succeed where previous movements have failed? How might we take up her call to “double down on the radical power of mothering”?
Garbes points to the spatial isolation of the American nuclear family ideal, frequently mislabelled as “traditional,” and shows us its historical weirdness, contrasting it with the multigenerational immigrant family that shares the burden of care work. Historically, she explains, the extended family household is far more common. She adds to this the wisdom gained from pandemic pod living, which showed many of us that parenting could become less individual and more collective.
The racism of white women toward other women may be harder to tackle. Our liberal feminist foremothers failed to support working-class women and women of color in the past. What would make white women today identify with care work and show up in solidarity with other caregivers?
As I understand it, a critical part of Garbes’s message to white middle-class American women is: this culture impoverishes you too. It exploits your labor, separates you from your community, isolates you, exhausts you. This is no way to live. Instead of chasing equality with the men at the top of the economic hierarchy, throw in your lot with—and be led by—those who are caring for people and communities and the earth.
“I want more,” Garbes writes. “I want more friends, more casual impromptu hangs, more dropping by with dinner, more walking and talking and advice sessions, more kids underfoot, more asking for and saying what we need, more hands to carry heavy boxes, more laughing and cackling and snorting, more children farting at the dinner table, more of what makes life messy, less painful, more sweet.” Who could disagree? This book will no doubt inspire many people to recommit to care, and in so doing, live more meaningful lives. I know it has done this for me. But are such lifestyle changes enough to confront what we are up against?
In my view, Garbes’s radical, beautiful vision can only be transformative in a broader sense if it is linked with a political commitment. “As much as some of us might hope to burn down the capitalist system,” writes Garbes in the final pages of the book, “we don’t need to wait for revolution to incorporate principles of abundance into our lives. It is possible to create gift economies that run parallel to market economies.” This gave me pause.
It made me think about the 2021 Child Tax Credit: the brief window during which my country—the wealthiest on earth—committed to transferring a modest monthly sum of money to parents and in so doing, cut childhood poverty in half. Then Congress voted to end the program. In a country where billionaires fly into space for a thrill and small-town police departments are armed like militias, they told us we can’t afford it.
Faced with such a complete failure of our political system, I can absolutely understand the appeal of the lifestyle shifts that Garbes suggests. But I’m not convinced that they will do much to confront systemic injustice.
To give just one example: in early 2020, as schools closed their doors, many parents I know got together to share the work of facilitating the online education of their children, either taking time off from their paid jobs or hiring tutors to manage small learning groups. Inevitably, middle-class parents joined with their friends from similar socioeconomic circumstances. The public school system, in theory, is designed to share resources among children of different means. So when schools had to close and well-meaning parents took matters into their own hands, kids whose parents did not have the resources to drop out of the workforce or hire a tutor, or for that matter, to have a working computer at home were left out. Many kids who relied on subsidised school lunches went without meals.
To be sure, the experiments in communal parenting that Garbes recommends can help reorient our values toward the collective. But they are ill-equipped to do things like transfer resources into the hands of caregivers or bring safe water to caregivers and children in Flint, Michigan.
Another lifestyle shift Garbes recommends is learning to live on less and taking a pay cut to reorganise our lives around care and community. On a personal level, I say: count me in! But this is exactly the equation that devalues care work in the first place. Women already do this, and it impoverishes us relative to men. Moreover, in our current circumstances, the difference between wage labor and unpaid care work is about more than mindset: it’s about health care, maternity leave, sick leave, and the right to someday retire from work. If we want a better world for carers, we can’t leave money out of the equation.
This is not a criticism of Garbes, who acknowledges that “meal trains, playdates, and hand-me-downs are not proper substitutes for a society.” Her book makes room for experiments in collective living and organised coalition building. We need both.
I am grateful to Garbes for pushing me to think about how the essential labour of mothering can be a source of political insight. It is clear that we must reject the cultural forces that frame mothering as insular, apolitical work and reframe it as an opportunity to continually ask the most profound of political questions: What kind of world do we want to live in?
But this is only a starting place. Our challenge is to transform this renewed personal politics of motherhood into strong, far-reaching solidarities and a collective struggle against that which harms us all.
The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. This essay, ‘Can Motherhood Bend Toward Justice?’ by Emily Callaci, was published by Public Books on 22 September 2022.
Claudia Dey, “Mothers as Makers of Death,” Paris Review, August 14, 2018.
Power of Women Collective, Power of Women, vol. 1, no. 2 (1974).
Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities, (MIT Press, 1982).
Premilla Nadasen, Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement, (Routledge, 2012).