I am so proud of Angela Garbes, a Filipino American South Seattle resident. She displays freedom and courage to write and speak publicly about the multiple dimensions of women’s lives—dimensions heretofore silenced. The first part of Essential Labor is a history of mothering in the United State and the second explores mothering as social change.
The main dimension is that mothering is essential labor. Garbes emphatically states that reproductive labor has sustained the productive labor force for generations. Yet, it is not just silenced; it is unacknowledged; it is invisible. Mothering is caregiving done mostly by women and in particular women of color who are in the background, if at all. With Covid’s appearance in 2020, adults have had to acknowledge the paramount importance of mothering work, of caring for people. All other work by the labor force cannot occur without caring for people first.
Another revealed dimension is the privilege of white women to enter graduate and professional schools and traditionally white male occupations on the backs of women of color, both paid and unpaid. At the same time Garbes readily acknowledges that she, as a middle class author with a supportive extended family, is herself privileged.
On a personal dimension, she reveals the price that hard working immigrants, including her parents who were professional caregivers in their homeland, paid to attain the American dream of middle class status and a home in a nice neighborhood. Such sacrifices are not readily acknowledged or talked about by her parents or relatives.
Garbes weaves in historical facts and contexts from literature and social science ranging from climate change to immigration to employment discrimination to self-awareness. For example, she shows how the American Dream for Filipinos and other former colonized populations are a direct result of U.S. imperialism. In particular the Philippine health care system founded by Americans contributed to the recruitment of Filipino doctors, nurses, and other health care providers to staff the U.S. health care system since the1960s. Oftentimes these caregivers are relegated to overtime work and lower wages. She notes that the impetus for writing Essential Labor was the Covid statistic in 2021 that Filipino Americans accounted for 4 percent of the nurses in the U.S. but about 25 percent of Covid-19 deaths among nurses.
She reminds us of earlier efforts in the 20th century to improve the lives of care workers and mothers such as the National Welfare Rights Organization in1966 whose leaders were primarily Black women, including Johnnie Tillmon.
The part on Mothering as Social Change is a witty, open book that captures the reality, sometimes dilemma, of women who want to have it all. In a time of Covid, how does one balance being a college-educated, middle-aged American woman who identifies herself as more than a wife and mother? How does one also be a productive (as opposed to reproductive) worker and an individual with needs and wants? Garbes brilliantly approaches this question first by looking at her daughters and imagining the kind of adults and engaged citizens they will be. She muses, “My natural tendency is to explain away, to overcompensate for how I was raised. But if I can help my daughters attune to their bodies, eventually, I won’t have to explain so much. My hope is that I will have prepared them to trust what they feel and know in their guts and bones.” She goes on to say, “Caregiving and mothering shape the emotional expression and resilience of the next generation of adults.” (p. 155)
Then, she looks at herself and says out loud and in detail what other woman think in silence– mothering as pleasure, sex as pleasure, the pursuit of happiness. She awakens to the beauty and healing power of the natural world. She is introduced to hiking by a boyfriend who later becomes her husband. As they grow together in parenthood, she take hikes with Will and their children as a family but also go off by themselves as a couple, as partners. She shares mothering trials and joys with other parent and caregivers. In so doing she deepens a consciousness of mothering as Interdependence. Not only does it take a village to raise a child. It takes an entire society to come together for the greater good. Her concluding paragraph is, ”To commit to witnessing, to “merely” showing up: mothering, fathering, parenting, leading and following, articulating what you know and admitting what you don’t, doing things well, making mistakes, getting over it all and getting on with it. How is all of this anything but unequivocally right? To be part of the humbling and heroic, the smallest details that comprise a child’s big, wondrous life—that is our duty of care.”