"Raising children is not an individual responsibility. It is a social one."
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My copy of Angela Garbes’ Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change is worn and tattered. It’s a galley — the paperback version they send out to people ahead of publication — and it has been places. I first read it this past winter (and brought it up in this interview Chris La Tray) then it followed me on work trips and even all the way to Norway. I don’t think any other book has informed my thinking this year quite as much as this one.
When you see a book with a subtitle like “mothering as social change” — and you’re not a mother — you might think that this is not a book for you. You are wrong. This book is especially for you, because it invites all of us, whether we directly care for children in our daily lives or not, to think of ourselves as doing the truly essential work of caregiving, both for ourselves and for others. The more we see ourselves doing that labor, the more we understand that labor as part of what makes us human and life worth living, the more we can actually, genuinely value it: not just with our words, or with largely empty gestures like clapping for essential workers.
It’s about money, sure. But it’s really about priorities, and how we think about our responsibilities as humans to one another. Do we understand that caring for a child, or an elder, or someone who needs medical care as part of our responsibility as members of society? Of a community? Or will we continue to buy into the deeply atomized, individualistic norms of (white, patriarchal) American society that are, quite frankly, making even people with the most means and privilege pretty damn miserable?
If you follow other feminist writers (or listen to Fresh Air, or watch Trevor Noah!!!) you’ve probably read an interview with Angela in the last few months. We talk about that level of exposure and success a bit below, and what it means to have a successful book in a despairing time, but one of the many reasons I wanted to talk to Angela was because her words, whether in her books or her Instagram captions, always feel urgent, and new, and persuasive. I hope they’ll make you feel as convicted as I do — that we must, we absolutely must, find a different way to care with and for each other.
Can we start on a very basic level with how you think of “care work” and mothering? I think it’ll help set the terms of engagement — and why this is a subject in which truly everyone should be invested, emotionally and financially.
I believe care work is the most important work in the world. Keeping ourselves and our people alive and healthy—feeding and nourishing our bodies with food, bathing and keeping them clothed, clipping our toenails, getting the rest we need, mothering ourselves just as others did for us when we were helpless and vulnerable, is the only essential work humans have to do on earth.
And make no mistake: it is work! Care and mothering — which, in the words of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, is done by any person “nurturing, affirming and supporting life” — deals in all the human body stuff that never goes away: the maintenance and tending to our inconvenient, chaotic, leaky, poop-producing, injury-prone, anxiety-ridden minds and bodies that need comfort, time, tenderness, stimulation, and attention. We can — and do — outsource a lot of this labor to nannies, babysitters, home health aides, early childhood educators, house cleaners, Instacart shoppers, therapists, and DoorDash drivers throughout our lives, but we’ll never be able to avoid the work of maintaining our lives. Everyone’s gotta put some skin in the game. No one makes it through the helplessness of infancy and childhood, the tumult of adolescence, the exploration and experimentation of early adulthood without care. If you’re reading this it’s because someone took care of you. Because you took care of yourself.
Becoming a parent is — I’m typing through tears here because this is no longer guaranteed by the violently racist misogynistic hellscape that is the American legal system—a personal choice, but raising children is not an individual responsibility. It is a social one. If that sounds wild to you, it’s because the United States has privatized human rights—health care, child care, housing, education—and succeeded at normalizing a uniquely American, inhumane way of life. Every single person, simply because they were being born, is worthy and deserving of a basic, decent life. It might seem radical but it’s not. It’s simple, it’s fundamental, it’s common sense. Investing in children and families and mothering is a long-term investment in public health, our nation’s emotional well being, a safer and more compassionate society. It ensures the success—however you define that—and existence of our future.
Usually I ask people how they came to write and think about the things they write and think about, but you make it so explicit throughout your work: you write and think about the devaluation of carework because how, as a mother of two small children, as the child of a Filipina immigrant, could you not? But then again, I think there are a lot of mothers, and a lot of women of color, and a lot of children of immigrants who don’t think about these things, for whatever cluster of reasons — because the reality of devaluation is too painful, because they’re too damn busy doing the carework, or because that devaluation has been naturalized and invisibilized by white, patriarchal, colonial powers. What made it visible and pressing to you?
Honestly, for most of my life I didn’t think much—consciously, at least—about care work. One of the luxuries of my childhood was that I was able to take so much of the day-to-day labor of domestic work for granted. Both my parents worked full-time but we had a home cooked family dinner together every night, I had everything I needed for school and extracurricular activities, I was bathed in affection and love. I was fairly oblivious to everything they did to make our life so comfortable.
It wasn’t until 2014, when I was pregnant with and gave birth to my first child, that I started to consider what my own mother had gone through—navigating maternal health care as a Philippine immigrant and nonnative English speaker, raising three kids while working full time (as a hospice nurse, the intense work caring for dying people and their families, no less), all while on her own, half a world away from her own family. During pregnancy and early motherhood, I desperately needed and relied on her for child care, which my husband and I could not afford to pay for full-time; for emotional support; and for the peace of mind that her familial, grandmother’s care gave me when I needed time for myself, time to get back in touch with me, momentarily free of thinking of myself as a mother.
I always thought of my mother as a “natural caretaker”—as a financially privileged and selfish young American girl, I didn’t give much thought to who she was before she was my mother, and definitely not the forces—big and small, familial, geopolitical—that shaped her life. But coming into consciousness as a young adult, actively engaging with my Filipina American identity, learning the specifics and the legacy of American colonialism gave me a fuller picture of my mother as a person in the world.
Throughout 2020 I was wrecked, over and over, with data about women, specifically Black and brown women and mothers—mothers leaving the professional workforce in droves because they had no access to child care and were subsumed by domestic labor that made paid work untenable, skyrocketing unemployment rates for women of color, particularly in the service industry where they are overrepresented, Black women dying from Covid at more than three times the rate of white men.
In early 2021, I encountered a statistic that hit me like a steel bar to the chest and will stay with me forever: Filipinx nurses, who are 4% of the nursing workforce in America, were 34% of Covid-related nursing deaths. This made the devaluation of care work done by women of color — the very lives of women of color —undeniable and personal. This could have been my mother, so many women I know and love. That one statistic was a lightning bolt for me: it instantly clarified my vision for this book and the need to root my telling of the history of caregiving in America–expected or demanded from women of color for free or at poverty wages — in my Filipino American family’s story. It was the best way for me to write how the forces of capitalism, colonization, exploitation, and white supremacy define care work in America.
In my previous reporting on eldercare, I read a lot about how coerced care — when people are forced to be caregivers, generally out of lack of employment options or lack of affordable caregiving options — can poison familial relationships and, in some cases, lead to situations in which the recipient of care is put in psychological or physical danger. How does valuing caregiving on a holistic level change that equation?
Wow I have such a visceral reaction to this question! Mainly: When caring for others feels coercive, when people feel so stretched and squeezed that the idea of caring for the people who cared for you feels forced—what does that say about us as a country? Like how totally gross of the United States to force people into totally unnecessary, high-stakes, high-pressure, emotionally-fraught and traumatic situations.
So much of American culture and capitalism appeals to the worst in us — feeling inconvenienced by others, by our elders! These ideas run so deep that rebelling against them or even pushing back slightly feels drastic, revolutionary, and — from an everyday perspective — really difficult. If our society, our systems were actually centered on care, people could take time, have the necessary space to make decisions that reflected their values, properly honor their family members' lives, access respite care, and give everyone dignity and agency.
I want to hear about this other book that you were going to write on bodies, before the idea for this book came around with the pandemic — can you describe it? Has the idea curdled in your mind or do you want to return to it?
My first book, Like a Mother, was about pregnancy. Publishing and promoting it was a lesson in the (limited) ways books about motherhood are marketed, perceived, framed, considered (or not considered). I worked as a food writer at an alt-weekly for most of my career, so writing about motherhood was never my plan, and I was eager to go in a different direction for my second book.
The vision for the book was a collection of essays that all used the human body as the primary lens to explore subjects. The thesis was basically that, for better or worse, the body you are born into affects everything about how you move through and interact with the world–and how the world interacts with you. Like, the lived experience of my body (brown, round, thick, generally proud and unapologetic) is totally different from, say, my husband’s (thin, white, athletic, approachable). We both love the outdoors but he has an inherent ease in the mountains and checking out gear in the aisles of REI; when we have to talk to a city clerk or a mortgage officer, he does the talking because they take him seriously; I do the ordering at Chinese restaurants otherwise the spicy dishes we order aren’t actually spicy.
I’d been working on the book for over two years and it was never anything but a slog, so I was quite happy to abandon it and write Essential Labor, which felt urgent and like it was coming from a sort of primal creativity that I hadn’t felt for a long time. Turns out that so much of my mothering is rooted in embodiment, physical and sensory pleasure, corporeality — all the stuff I’d been immersing myself in the last couple of years — so a lot of that research and thinking found a home in this book. It was reassuring — and honestly just a relief — that those years of work weren’t a waste, just part of a different process. I have no interest in returning to it at this point, but its spirit and ideas definitely continue to inform my work. I’m taking it with me as I move forward.
You’ve had an incredibly successful book release and received tons of glowing press — how have the conversations in the wake of the book’s publication changed, affirmed, or just generally textured your understanding of the way forward?
I knew this would be a timely book and was hopeful that it would resonate with the many people affected by America's care crisis—a crisis that precedes the pandemic and will almost certainly outlast it, but was exposed, made undeniable to everyone, and pushed into mainstream consciousness and media. Covid lockdown made the outsourcing of domestic labor impossible and a lot of affluent women were shocked and outraged to realize that, no matter how successful they are, all the care and household labor still came down to them. I wrote this book in part because I wanted to take advantage of that cultural moment–before we were all pushed to “go back to normal.”
The success of the book—being a national indie bestseller, getting a Jia review in the New Yorker, being interviewed by Terry Gross, being a guest on the fcking Daily Show—is not something I ever could have imagined. The launch has been a dream, almost beyond belief. In that sense, it’s EXTREMELY validating—like yes people are ready, hungry even, to talk about care work in America and how we can better value it and the people who do it. I feel immense gratitude toward everyone—from well-known media types to first gen Pinays and random folks sending me DMs on Instagram, to readers I’ll never hear from—for engaging with my work.
But I gotta say that there is a hard part to all of this that caught me off guard and that I’m struggling with. (Really hoping you might relate as someone who also writes about the uncomfortable truths and complexities at the heart of American culture.) There’s a tension between feeling good about the book and its positive reception but also feeling something like frustrated/disappointed/curious about the limits of writing—like can this actually change hearts and minds (and policy)? I know my work is important but also that it falls under the banner of thought, of “changing the cultural conversation.” Some days the work just feels nebulous and immeasurable.
On the personal and most important level, though, it’s all good. Months before publication, I defined success as writing/finishing the book in the first place (never a guarantee while raising two kids under six during a pandemic) and feeling proud of it. I was the freest I have ever been as a writer in the process, and I know unequivocally that it is exactly the book I needed to write at this moment in my life. I’m aware of all its flaws, its unevenness, its structural challenges, its odd tonal shifts. And I still love it.
In the article that became the catalyst for the book, you write “I work hard and do not want to work harder. I’m less concerned with getting ahead than I am with all of us getting by. Downward mobility was an inevitable fact of my life; the pandemic has merely increased its velocity. I am fortunate to have a place to move down from.”
I know a lot of people in my life, particularly but not exclusively mothers, are trying to figure out what enough means for them. What is *enough* childcare? What is *enough* career? And how does one balance that question with the ongoing wave of precarity, with that feeling of never enough cushion to make a soft landing?
I know the answer is forming more community, and continually thinking of the ways we can spread the abundance, the *enough*, that we do have onto others. But there’s such an impulse — particularly amongst white bourgeois women, I think, but also people who’ve adopted the mindset of white bourgeois women— to resource hoard and make fiercely individualistic choices, then label them “doing what’s right for my family” and wonder, in the aftermath, why they still feel pretty miserable. This is a rambling question that is essentially trying to ask: what does actual security or stability look like? And how can we harness the “mighty rage” of mothers in America that you cite in the book to achieve it?
To be perfectly frank, the answer is simple. And it is right there in your question: “the answer is forming more community, and continually thinking of the ways we can spread the abundance, the enough, that we do have onto others.”
What comes immediately after is the key, and I think of something Jon Snow says at some point in Game of Thrones, how all the words someone says before “But” don’t actually matter. “But,” you write, “there’s such an impulse — particularly amongst white bourgeois women, I think, but also people who’ve adopted the mindset of white bourgeois women— to resource hoard and make fiercely individualistic choices, then label them ‘doing what’s right for my family.’”
Rationally so many of people know what the answer is but they will do everything to avoid the reality of living it: white people, people with any kind of class privilege, will have to give things up — comfort, material resources, perceived advantages of private education, time, energy, as well as validation, public recognition for the work. They will have to learn that the point of the work is the work, and the most meaningful benefits of their efforts may not be tangible, immediately evident, or shareable on social media. So many democratic, liberal, and “progressive” people live in this massive gap and until they are willing to stretch and really go there — to understand and live the belief that was is “best” for themselves & their family is actually what is “best” for everyone, especially those with the least resources, this question is always going to seem like more of a head scratcher than it actually is.
But what you wrote also gives me some hope—“[they] wonder, in the aftermath, why they still feel pretty miserable.”
American life isn’t actually working for the majority of us. Capitalism runs on scarcity, encourages the resource hoarding that doesn’t actually leave us happy or fulfilled. Care promotes abundance, spiritually and emotionally. The most valuable things in our lives—connection, love, being seen and accepted just as we are — can never be quantified and they can never run out. They predate capitalism, they will always exist no matter the economic system we live under. They prove that we can abandon capitalism (a fairly recent invention, historically speaking) and thrive.
True solidarity and allyship — being open to real, messy relationships with people different from yourself, surprising yourself with your capacity for empathy and patience, finding that your time and energy and affection — is not in short supply after all, and can extend beyond your family, admitting to and giving into your needfulness, asking for and receiving help. This is us at our most human and beautiful. We are by nature social, caring, interdependent, and ever changing. Leaning into all this is what will save us — oh, and also makes us feel really really good while we’re doing it.
NOTE: LINK NOW FIXED!!! I’m currently working on a piece about the promises and failures of WFH/hybrid work policies for women and non-binary people in particular — if you’d like to share the good, the bad, and/or the regressive about your experience two+ years in, here’s how (with more details on the piece, too).
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