Can Motherhood Be a Mode of Rebellion?

“In our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it,” the late anthropologist and activist David Graeber wrote, in 2018. That sentence rattled around in my head for most of seasons one through four of the pandemic, and, once, on a winter night in 2020, when I was struggling to nurse my five-month-old, the bald fact of it made me crumple in tears. My boyfriend and I had just hired a nanny to spend three days a week caring for our baby, to do a kind of work that I’d been shocked to find intimately rewarding but also far harder than anything I’d ever tried to do for eight hours straight. We could afford to do this because a person can get paid more to sit in front of her computer and send a bunch of e-mails than she can to do a job so crucial and difficult that it seems objectively holy: to clean excrement off a body, to hold a person while they are crying, to cherish them because of and not despite their vulnerability.

I had deliberately not thought much about what caring for a baby would be like. (This was part of a larger life philosophy of mine: to better my chances at happiness by expecting nothing, or the worst.) The work demanded creativity and intuition: spending a day alone with my infant daughter reminded me of shepherding a friend through a first-time acid trip, continually gauging whether she needed to look at a flower, or listen to music, or sob for ten minutes, or be alone in the dark. Caregiving was humiliating and transcendent and unending, and I was unnerved by how quickly it could decimate me. Even with a partner who did eighty per cent of everything not related to breast-feeding, I could be scorched to a brittle skeleton by a mere half hour of my baby’s screaming. I needed not only my partner but our parents, our friends, and the mercy and labor of strangers, desperately. During nap time one day, I left a note for myself: “Maybe I eventually should write about caregiving, how I can only care for her because I’m being cared for, how we have to make of ourselves and our situations a soft place for others to land.”

About a third of the child-care workers in the United States live in or close to poverty; the average annual pay for such workers is less than twenty-six thousand dollars. And yet, as the pandemic made brutally clear, without a broad system of shared care, the modern world devolves into screeching impossibility. Many child-care facilities, often staffed by women who can’t afford child care, shut down, or ran at a loss; parents unravelled, trying to work while homeschooling their children. Caregiving duties fell to women, millions of whom had to leave the workforce, including the nurses and teachers who had previously left their families every day to watch over the old and the sick and the young. “The terrain of mothering is not limited to the people who give birth to children,” Angela Garbes writes in her new book, “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change.” Raising kids is “not a private hobby, not an individual duty,” she goes on. “It is a social responsibility, one that requires robust community support. The pandemic revealed that mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do.”

Garbes’s first book, “Like a Mother,” traced her journey through the science of pregnancy as she experienced it for the first time, in her late thirties. The book gained a cult following; it was a heady, pungent, progressive corrective to the saccharine paternalism that expectant mothers tend to encounter at every turn. She wrote about smushing warm, almost-black tissue from a miscarriage between her fingers, and about breastfeeding as the transmutation of blood into milk. To those readers feeling blackout-tired in their first trimester, she offered reassurance: you’re growing the placenta, an organ that will eventually contain thirty-two miles of capillaries, that inherits half its DNA from the father of the fetus, and that, in Hmong culture, is considered a jacket that the soul has to put on to rejoin its ancestors after death. Fatigue, in such circumstances, is understandable. She trawled through research about birth and pregnancy while reflecting on the forms of oppression that are a part of the scientific tradition: the procedure to repair fistulas, for example, was developed through repeated, uncompensated experimentation on women who were enslaved.

Now Garbes is a mother of two who spent most of the first year and a half of the pandemic both caring for her children and struggling to write the new book. Her husband’s job provided health insurance and regular paychecks; Garbes writes that it “may take me a lifetime to undo the false notion that my work is somehow less valuable than his.” She means both the work of writing and of caregiving: Garbes, during this period, began to examine how the latter “came to be seen as naturally female, which is to say invisible and undervalued,” and why it’s conceived as “low-wage labor, rather than highly skilled work that is essential, creative, and influential.” She began to see her frustrations mirrored all around her, as a larger reckoning with the broken American care structure began emerging in the news.

“Essential Labor” is Garbes’s attempt to harness the parental desperation and civic potential of the past two years. It’s partly a history of caregiving in the United States—or, more specifically, a primer on how colonial capitalism and self-regarding feminism made it possible for one of the wealthiest societies in the world to rely, for its basic functioning, on “an invaluable force of women, most of them brown and Black, performing our most important work for free or at poverty wages.” It’s also a call for a guaranteed decent income for domestic workers and caregivers, parents included. (In this capacity, it draws on the Wages for Housework and National Welfare Rights movements of the nineteen-seventies.) Above all, it is an argument that care should be public and universal—that the grace and affirmation that women are asked to bestow on their children should not be limited to mothers, or to parents, or to the private sphere. The book is warm, raw, and occasionally scattered; some sections feel inchoate, animated by a diaristic desire to get longing on the page before it evaporates. Yet, as a lived-in argument for radicalized parenting, “Essential Labor” is a landmark and a lightning storm, a gift that will be passed hand to hand for years.

Garbes’s parents immigrated to the States from the Philippines, in 1971, and eventually settled in a rural and nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania, where they were, Garbes writes, “respectable but always on the edge of acceptance.” Her mother was a hospice nurse, and her father was a pathologist who performed autopsies. “Their work democratized human bodies, made care part of everyday life and conversation,” Garbes writes. “Each year, more than two million Filipinos leave their homeland” to work abroad, she points out, and many of those who emigrate become nurses, nannies, and housecleaners; an estimated twenty-five thousand Filipino nurses migrated to the U.S. between 1966 and 1985. They were a key part of a “system that allowed the United States to take what it needed from people when it wanted and shut them out when they preferred not to have them around,” Garbes writes—a system that allowed Garbes’s “mother—a petite, agreeable Filipina woman—to become a professional caregiver, and that would have made it difficult for her to be anything else.” (As Garbes points out, although Filipina nurses make up just four per cent of all nurses in the country, they account for upward of a quarter of all COVID-related nursing deaths.)

For many people, having a child feels like a chance to start over, to undo family patterns of cruelty or conditional affection, to refashion the norms and practices we internalized from the world. In “Essential Labor,” Garbes bends the narrative trajectory of her lineage with loving, wincing ambivalence. She recognizes that her efforts to dismantle white supremacy and colonial deference have been made possible by the ways in which her parents acquiesced to these forces—accepting discrimination and isolation in order to grant their kids freedom and independence. Garbes’s daughters “will have fewer financial resources than I did,” she writes, “but I already know I have given them more of a sense of self and confidence and community than my parents, who spent years just surviving, were able to give me.” She also writes: “It feels shameful to admit that I don’t have the desire to hustle up that same ladder.” But her frank disavowal of upward mobility is one of the most profound aspects of the book. She has no confidence in being able to pay for braces or college, and her kids’ clothes are often threadbare, but, in other ways, her girls are rich beyond measure: they have Filipino classmates, which Garbes, like me, didn’t have growing up; their early authority figures were brown-skinned immigrant women; they have “more than ten grown-ups in their life whom they love and trust, who see them fully, and whom I would let discipline them without a thought.”

At one point, Garbes compares the pandemic to early parenthood, a period of time “when whole lifetimes are held in a single day,” when “the smallest details matter, they become the universe”—when we “restructure and rearrange the way we live, how we define our lives, and what we value.” I gave birth in the summer of 2020, and so the pandemic and early parenthood feel inextricable: the interminable days and vanishing months, the white afternoon sunlight, the lifeline of a friend waving outside the window, the fragility and loneliness and love and fear. COVID made plain Graeber’s point about how poorly paid—and ill-protected—are those who do the work the rest of us can’t live without. Parenthood likewise forces an encounter with the illogic of the market: good fortune means getting to pay someone less than you make to do a job that’s harder and probably more important than your own. Having a child ought to attune people with no prior experience of vulnerability or hunger to the absolute urgency of those states, to the beauty and necessity of sheltering the helpless without condition.

I have spent a lot of time wondering why neither parenting nor the pandemic has been universally radicalizing. Many people have children and turn ever more inward, choosing to participate with increasing vigor in the systems that are constantly being revealed to them as demented—because the world is only getting hotter and worse, and you have a family to protect now, do you not? Garbes holds her life up as proof that parenting toward a more just world requires more than diverse baby dolls and platitudes about equality. It requires seeking alternative visions of security and opportunity for your children; it requires surrendering advantages, and becoming more dependent on others, not less. She quotes the writer Carvell Wallace, who, after the 2016 election, told his children, “One of the most important questions you have to answer for yourself is this: Do I believe in loving everyone? Or do I only believe in loving myself and my people?” Nearly everyone gives lip service to the former, but the norms of upper-middle-class parenting point firmly in the latter direction.

In “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” published in 2018, the British academic Jacqueline Rose writes that it is “not only motherhood that is impoverished if it fails to connect to the wider world.” Many of the modern rituals of motherhood—the all-female baby shower, the all-mommy WhatsApp group, the all-important registry list—teach that caregiving is a project for women to figure out with other women, with the aid of consumer conveniences and (frequently unacknowledged) paid help. The social and political potential of parenting is largely erased by this privatized vision of motherhood. The further you are from essential labor, the easier it is to forget, or never grasp, the worth and honor in that work. (More than half of the members of the U.S. Congress are millionaires, and the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 for more than a decade.) In an ideal world, Rose writes, “everyone, whatever the impulses driving them hard and fast in the opposite direction, would be capable of thinking of themselves as mothers.”

I have made Garbes’s book sound like an earnest anti-capitalist, anti-racist manifesto—and it is that. But it often reads more like a paean to the strange pleasures of nurturing a young life. Garbes goes straight to the register of the animal and of the erotic, in the Audre Lorde sense—a link between our sense of self and our strongest unexpressed feelings. “There is nothing like a body willing to do the work,” she writes, “to lend energy and time, its physical magnificence.” She describes long hugs with her toddler after a fit of mutual yelling, and resisting humiliation when her daughters tell her she got fat, then climb on top of her to pet her stomach, squealing. “It’s not shameful to be a fleshy mass, to have needs,” she thinks. She describes her daughters’ heads in her lap as she excavates the “orange fudgy wax” from her daughters’ ears, as her mother once excavated hers. The physicality of Garbes’s motherhood—the changes in her own body, the tedious, tender attention to soaked sheets and chapped butts, the ravenous appetite her children inherited—brings her to a new understanding of unconditional worthiness that she strives to extend to the world.

Garbes is working within a literary tradition of women, most of them nonwhite and queer, who have tried to write a radical vision of motherhood into existence. “Essential Labor” is a descendant of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born,” and of “Revolutionary Parenting,” a chapter in bell hooks’s book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.” Garbes is in dialogue with the writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs—who argues that “mother” should be less a gendered identity and more a “possible action, a technology of transformation”—and the journalist Dani McClain, who argues that Black mothers are necessarily conscripted into the struggle for liberation lest they participate “in our own and our children’s destruction.” She reaches for other cultural lineages, quoting the scholar Barbara Christian—“There is no doubt that motherhood is for most African people symbolic of creativity and continuity”—as she searches for a version of motherhood that can counter “flatness, dulled senses, and isolation with relationships, lineage, cleverness, and art.” She wonders, “How can mothering be a way that we resist and combat the loneliness, the feeling of being burdened by our caring?” Motherhood doesn’t have to be a site of acquiescence to a broken structure, she argues; mothering can be a vehicle of rebellion.

In this, “Essential Labor” serves as a corrective to the kind of dead-end consciousness-raising that flourishes in the mom-centered corners of Instagram, where life-style accounts feature memes about maternal exhaustion and infographics detailing various reasons a woman raising a child might crumble under her several thousand daily tasks. (“Hey mama ♥ I see you out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders,” an average caption might begin, gesturing toward support while suggesting that an impossible individual burden is simply what motherhood means.) The book also signals a way out of a prominent contemporary narrative in which women—usually white women—are portrayed as intellectually and creatively stifled by childbearing, and motherhood is characterized as an inherent threat to individual possibility. This narrative isn’t wrong; during the past nineteen months, I’ve had less time to work, have essentially forgotten what unbroken focus feels like, and have a brain that is often battered by two hours of screaming by 8:30 A.M. But motherhood has also granted me a chance to see what my life is like when I reorganize it around care and interdependence in a way that stretches far beyond my daughter. It has made me feel more civically capable and existentially malleable than I’ve ever felt before.

I finished “Essential Labor” thinking about how care became so intertwined with its opposite, which is exploitation. The question brought me back to the work of David Graeber. His book “The Dawn of Everything” was published last fall, about a year after his death, at the age of fifty-nine, from pancreatitis. In it, he and David Wengrow write about the sixteenth-century Guaicurú, a society of warrior-foragers who raided villages and captured slaves. The Guaicurú primarily enslaved women, who then served as domestics and nursemaids, “non-persons” who allowed Guaicurú children to become “warriors, princesses, ‘human beings’ of a particularly valued and special kind.” Graeber and Wengrow write, “Mere acts of violence are passing; acts of violence transformed into caring relations have a tendency to endure.” It was fearsome to consider that the violence undergirding what passes as the American care structure endures because of the thing it can be undone by, which is love.

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