Book Review: “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change” by Angela Garbes (@agarbes @Harper_Wave @seacityoflit @EasternRegional)

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave, May 2022) by Angela Garbes

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, by Filipino-American author Angela Garbes, is recommended to our readers by Seattle UNESCO City of Literature.

In mid-2018, Garbes achieved nationwide fame in the U.S. with her book Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy. Praised as a “required reading for mothers and double-required for everyone else”, the book explores the physiology, biology and psychology of pregnancy and motherhood.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and Garbes, like so many of us around the world,, found herself struggling at home over the physically and mentally draining work of meeting the bodily and emotional needs of her two young children. She began to ponder an important question: what is mothering and what can it mean in a global context?

Note the vital difference here between “mothering” and “motherhood”, as the terrain of mothering is neither defined by gender nor limited to those who give birth to children. Rather, Garbes focuses our attention on CARE WORK as the action of mothering, which includes anyone who is engaged in “the practice of creating, nurturing, affirming and supporting life”.

The history of mothering – including but not limited to the invaluable contributions made by mothers/parents, nurses, caregivers and domestic workers – has long been seen as “naturally female, which is to say invisible and undervalued”. For too long, and especially in wealthy countries, these people have been doing our most important work for free or at poverty wages.

In Essential Labor, Garbes not just acknowledges the role of care in our society but advocates for the radical power of caregiving. In her words: “When you become a mother, you engender life, endless possibilities. Mothering is creative in a very literal sense – it is cultivating all that potential, bringing a small person into consciousness.”

More profoundly, Garbes contends that “if we were to think about work in terms of our humanity – making people feel dignified, valued, and whole – then caregiving is the most important work we can do with our time on earth”. This is a sobering note in our world today that increasingly values work in terms of how much we produce and how efficiently we can do it.

A timely book that is meditation, memoir and manifesto at once, Essential Labor is an essential read for anyone who dares to imagine what a compassionate, equitable and caring community looks like.

Garbes invites us to believe in our ability to forge a future that is better than the present we currently inhabit. We are urged to think of ourselves as actively helping to cultivate future community members and leaders who will never think less of someone based on their age, their physical and/or intellectual capabilities, or the colour of their skin.

Because our lives are intimately linked to the lives of others, it is critical that our everyday labour of care is treated with the reverence and respect that it truly deserves. That, as Garbes argues, is positive social change.

Note: This book review was originally titled “Recognise the highly skilled work” and published under the title “Mothering in the global context” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, March 30, 2023, P.17.

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