‘Normal is unacceptable’: Seattle author Angela Garbes on parenting during the pandemic | August 24-30, 2022
BOOK REVIEW: “Essential Work: Mothering as Social Change” By Angela Garbes | 2022 | Paperback, $26 | Non-fiction, sociology | Available at the Seattle Public Library
In “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change,” Angela Garbes examines why “American life isn’t working for families.” Raising children, writes Garbes, is “a social responsibility, which requires strong community support. The pandemic has revealed that mothering is the only truly essential job humans do. Without anyone to take care of our children, we are lost. “Essential Labor” makes a compelling case for valuing mothering through both personal stories and social critiques.
The book is partly a memoir about being the daughter of immigrants. Garbes writes lovingly of her parents, who left the Philippines in 1971 to raise their family in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. They worked long hours and tried to shield their children from the “complexities of the world.” Garbes says her father knew three languages but only spoke English with her because he didn’t want her to experience “the discrimination he was experiencing because of his accent”.
During the pandemic, Garbes took on most of the parenting of her two young children and didn’t have time for her work as a writer. “I started to doubt my own sense of myself.” At the same time, she acknowledged that the crisis was not personal or based on any of her own decisions. Challenges for caregivers are “embedded in labor and financial institutions; they are, by design, the basis of American life.
It addresses the roots of the poverty wages paid to caregivers. “We entrust what we say is most precious – our children, our future – to other people, but we are unwilling to pay them a living wage?” Garbes argues that the low salaries of educators are based on both capitalism and colonization. “At the heart of both is the impulse to draw a line between beings with power and beings to be domesticated, to create cultural binaries of civilized versus natural, modern versus primitive, with what is supposedly civilized and modern being superior. “
Garbes notes the disastrous impact of the pandemic on American women who had to leave the workforce when schools closed and jobs disappeared. “Unemployment has hit black and brown women the hardest as restaurants, salons and daycares closed early, some never reopened.” When women spend time out of the workforce, they face long-term financial harm. They are “losing money not only in wages, but also in retirement funds and health care benefits.”
Garbes shows that collective action is a means of promoting women’s work. During the 1975 women’s strike in Iceland, 90% of women did not show up for work at home or other workplaces. Factories and schools had to close. Eventually, women’s work became more valued. “In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to require employers with more than twenty-five employees to pay women and men equal pay for equal work.”
To care for her children, Garbes created a supportive community that included her mother, friends, babysitters and teachers. Nevertheless, structural shortcomings remain. “Meal trains, play dates and freebies are no good substitutes for a society that provides affordable childcare, adequate wages and time for recreation, but these patchwork solutions are precisely the how so many of us survive.”
Garbes both acknowledges the struggles of caregivers and celebrates mothering as creative and valuable. Ultimately, his message is inspiring. “In a society that still believes that a ‘normal’ person is a straight cis white male, many of us feel like we are, in one way or another, anomalies. As caregivers, we can affirm the existence of every child.
Jennifer Astion is a freelance writer and yoga teacher living in Seattle.