Angela Garbes, author of “Essential Labor”, on the role of mothers

It was never Angela Garbes’ intention to write another book on mothering after the success of her 2018 release, “Like A Mother.” But in 2020, amid school and nursery closures, Garbes has nothing left to do but her mother. She began noticing her frustrations and thoughts about the state of caregiving in America in the newspapers, on the radio, and in Zoom chats. People were beginning to understand that American life was not working for families.

Garbes’ latest book, “Essential Labor,” argues that mothering, or caregiving, is not limited to people giving birth, is not defined by gender, and is one of the only truly essential labors that humans perform. Without anyone to take care of the children, we are lost. Yet American society values ​​work only in terms of how much we produce and how efficiently we can do it. “Essential Labor” weaves together Garbes’ personal experiences and the history of caregiving in the United States to help readers redefine the perception and importance of care work and motherhood.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Essential work: mothering as social change”

Angela Garbes, Harper Wave, 256 pages, $25.99, out May 10

Your introduction mentions that you hadn’t planned to write another book on motherhood, but the pandemic changed everything. Can you identify a specific moment when you overcame your creative rut and realized that America needed to reframe its view of motherhood?

In a way, I can identify a time when everything changed and I gained momentum, but when I think about it, even though the first pandemic was a time when I felt creatively pretty dead inside and unable to access time and space to write, I’m always thinking about things, it’s part of being a writer. So when I was doing almost nothing but maintenance, I was always thinking, “Why do I know this job is essential and meaningful, but also why do I feel not enough for me? and “Why does it every day feel like it’s the most important thing I can do, but no one talks about it as valuable and important?”

So I thought about these ideas, and then in the fall of 2020, I had an editor from The Cut named Jen Gann reach out to me. I said something like, “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 on this? »

This piece was released 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 I had that opportunity, and there aren’t a lot of women of color who have that platform that people are reaching out to. turn to get a glimpse. So I thought, this is lucky, and this is important, and I feel that so deeply. So I thought, OK, there’s a book here.

In “Essential Labor” you address the terms “care” and “motherhood”, saying that they extend beyond those who can give birth. Can you talk a bit about that?

Part of the reason I think I’ve resisted writing about motherhood is that motherhood – especially in American culture and capitalist culture – is really presented as a way of life. You make choices about everything from sleep training to breastfeeding or formula. The mom culture kind of Instagram tends to take up a lot of space, and it’s just not the kind of conversation I was interested in. The mother is an important identity for me, but it’s not just women who give birth; it’s not just women who are parents. 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 a lot of us are still learning, so I wanted to bring what I had learned to this book. And combining that with the belief that raising children is a social responsibility, I wanted to find a way to talk about care work. Which is still mostly done by mothers and wives, 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 Motherhood. They really paved the way for using mothering as a verb. It doesn’t exclude motherhood, and it doesn’t exclude mothers. But it’s an action that doesn’t let people aside — anyone can participate in mothering.

For those who have not yet read “Essential Labor”, or who may be reading this interview and considering picking up your book, can you talk about the importance of caregiving and motherhood and the value disproportionate amount that our society grants to work?

It is a fairly recent invention that mothers and women are born caregivers and that we are naturally more suited to this job than men. It’s not true. And there are a lot of mothers, a lot of people who know that, who don’t feel like “natural mothers”. We are expected to do this as a “labor of love”. And since the 1960s, mainstream feminism, and by that I mean primarily white feminism, has told women to find meaning outside the home through work. Which is nice is a way to find meaning, but that doesn’t take into account that just because you work outside the home doesn’t mean the work from home is going away.

One element that you point to as a vital part of mothering is the importance of community. But in America, our society is not made to emphasize that, we live in nuclear families for example. Do you have any advice for those who don’t have a community structure, like, say, relatives or a tight-knit neighborhood already in place around them?

I want to say, above all, that it is difficult, and the pandemic has made it difficult. There are so many societal problems that are systematic failures that we are made to bear as individual problems. And it’s not an individual problem; it’s not anybody’s fault. And it’s not up to them to solve the whole question. The community is fundamental and there are public structures and programs. As in Seattle there are pilot programs for pre-K, there are community funded resources, through Seattle Parks and Recreation. are after-school programs. There are community structures that make prices more affordable. It is a starting point.

The other thing is, again, this isn’t a problem of someone who doesn’t have the community support to fix it on their own; they are really busy. So I think what needs to happen is people who have resources, who are members of a community, what I’d like to see is people in those positions understand that they have to s ‘stretch a bit and make an effort to be part of a community, you know if it’s volunteer time or a play date for families who have less flexibility in work schedules and of life.

A lot of the issues that people face, people of color are often asked, “What’s the solution to fix racism?” But really, the responsibility lies with white people.

Angela Garbes and Melissa Miranda discuss ‘essential work’

7 p.m. May 17; Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle and online; free;

Lola R. McClure