“Normal is unacceptable”: Seattle writer Angela Garbes on parenting during the pandemic | 24-30 Aug 2022


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Essential Labour: Mothering as Social Change’ By Angela Garbes | 2022 | Paperback, $26| Non-fiction, Sociology | Available from the Seattle Public Library

In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Angela Garbes examines why “American life doesn’t work for families.” Raising children, Garbes writes, is “a social responsibility that requires solid community support. The pandemic has shown that motherhood is the only really important work people do. Without people to take care of our children, we are lost.” Essential Labor makes a compelling case for the appreciation of motherhood through both personal stories and social criticism.

The book is partly a reminder of being the daughter of immigrants. Garbes writes lovingly about her parents, who left the Philippines in 1971 to raise their family in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. They worked long hours trying to protect their children from the “complexities of the world.” Garbes shares that her father spoke three languages ​​but only spoke English to her because he didn’t want her to face “the discrimination he had to endure because of his accent.”

During the pandemic, Garbes took on most of the raising of her two young children and had no time for her work as a writer. “I started to doubt my own self-esteem.” At the same time, she acknowledged that the crisis was not personal or based on any of her own decisions. Challenges for nurses are “built into labor and financial institutions; They are inherently fundamental to American life.”

She goes into the roots of the poverty wages paid to caregivers. “We entrust what we say is most valuable — our children, our future — to other people, but we’re not willing to pay them a living wage?” Garbes argues that low wages for childcare workers in both the capitalism as well as in colonization. At the heart of both lies 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 superior is.”

Garbes points to the pandemic’s devastating impact on American women, who were forced out of the labor market as schools closed and jobs disappeared. “Unemployment hit black and brown women hardest as restaurants, salons and childcare centers closed early and some never reopened.” When women are out of work for a period of time, they face a long-term financial disadvantage. They are “losing money not only in the form of salaries, but also in pension funds and healthcare benefits.”

Garbes shows that collective action is one way to increase the value of women’s work. During the women’s strike in Iceland in 1975, 90 percent of the women did not show up for work at home or at other workplaces. Factories and schools had to close. Finally, women’s work was valued more highly. “In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to require employers with more than 25 employees to pay women and men the same pay for the same work.”

To care for her children, Garbes created a supportive community that included her mother, friends, babysitters, and teachers. However, structural flaws remain. “Meal trains, play dates, and handouts aren’t really a substitute for a society that offers affordable childcare, decent wages, and time for leisure, but it’s these patchwork solutions that so many of us survive on.”

Garbes acknowledges the hardships for caregivers and celebrates motherhood as creative and valuable. Ultimately, her message is inspirational. “In a society that still believes that a ‘normal’ person is a cis, straight white male, so many of us are made to feel like we’re anomalies in one way or another. As caregivers, we can confirm the existence of each child.”

Jennifer Astion is a freelance writer and yoga teacher based in Seattle.


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