Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Hardcover)
From the acclaimed author of Like a Mother comes a reflection on the state of caregiving in America, and an exploration of mothering as a means of social change.
The Covid-19 pandemic shed fresh light on a long-overlooked truth: mothering is among the only essential work humans do. In response to the increasing weight placed on mothers and caregivers—and the lack of a social safety net to support them—writer Angela Garbes found herself pondering a vital question: How, under our current circumstances that leave us lonely, exhausted, and financially strained, might we demand more from American family life?
In Essential Labor, Garbes explores assumptions about care, work, and deservedness, offering a deeply personal and rigorously reported look at what mothering is, and can be. A first-generation Filipino-American, Garbes shares the perspective of her family's complicated relationship to care work, placing mothering in a global context—the invisible economic engine that has been historically demanded of women of color.
Garbes contends that while the labor of raising children is devalued in America, the act of mothering offers the radical potential to create a more equitable society. In Essential Labor, Garbes reframes the physically and mentally draining work of meeting a child's bodily and emotional needs as opportunities to find meaning, to nurture a deeper sense of self, pleasure, and belonging. This is highly skilled labor, work that impacts society at its most foundational level.
Part galvanizing manifesto, part poignant narrative, Essential Labor is a beautifully rendered reflection on care that reminds us of the irrefutable power and beauty of mothering.
Angela Garbes is the author of Like a Mother, an NPR Best Book of the Year and finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, New York, Bon Appétit, and featured on NPR's Fresh Air. She lives with her family in Seattle.
"I have never felt more held, challenged, and called to action by a book. Angela Garbes seamlessly weaves together memoir, research, and cultural analysis in a way that is expansive and profoundly intimate. She offers a path forward for family life that is simultaneously instinctive, generous, and revolutionary, sounding a note that American society badly needs to hear. I know I will think about this book for the rest of my life—it's that important."
— Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
"Mothering is an invisible form of labor that is too rarely given its due as skilled, multi-dimensional work. Through historical analysis, personal narrative, and expert storytelling, Garbes illuminates the ways in which this essential work is devalued, under compensated, and inequitably distributed, while also offering a vision for a better future. Essential Labor is a rigorous, heartfelt, and deeply hopeful book." — Eve Rodsky, New York Times bestselling author of Fair Play and Find Your Unicorn Space
“You might think this is a book for parents. You're wrong. Essential Labor expands our understanding of what "mothering" can and should look like; it's a book for anyone — including and especially people who aren't parents — who wants to imagine what a more equitable and caring community could look like.” — Anne Helen Petersen, author of Out of Office and Can’t Even
"Essential Labor is exactly the right book, written by exactly the right author. at exactly the right moment. Garbes's work will help us put ourselves, our families, and our communities back together in a way that is more compassionate, more embodied, and more alive than before."
— Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., New York Times bestselling author of Come As You Are and Burnout
"A book that feels both sprawling in scope and intimate in execution—what a thrill to follow Angela’s mind as she radically reimagines the value assigned to care work.” — Mayukh Sen, author of Taste Makers
“Angela Garbes has given us the definitive explanation for something we all share: the sense that something is not right about our society’s treatment of parenting. Essential Labor is a beautifully written, painstakingly researched, and courageously personal book. Garbes reveals the way systems exploit caregiving and shows us how the essential work of mothering can fix not just family life, but society. A timely and unforgettable book.” — Heather McGhee, New York Times bestselling author of The Sum of Us
"In Essential Labor, Angela Garbes defines motherhood as a form of collective labor, contemplating love as a communal act and envisioning a society in which care work is no longer considered separate from or lesser than paid work. This book is a bold and generous offering that brings us closer to a future in which the everyday labor of care is treated to the reverence and value it is truly worth. Everyone should read this book." — Carvell Wallace, New York Times bestselling co-author of The Sixth Man
"In Essential Labor, Garbes challenges our preconceived notions about the value and visibility of mothering, and indeed, all caregiving work. She asks us to recognize how our personal biases and complicity in larger systems have caused us to so consistently privilege one kind of motherhood (white, thin, heteronormative, wealthy) over all others. And she then blows it all apart, and imagines a far better world, with gorgeous prose and heart-breaking precision." — Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct
“Meditation, memoir, and manifesto in one, this book makes a case for the mother in all of us. It’s an expansive and intimate testament to how and why we should care for others—and ourselves.” — Ligaya Mishan, New York Times writer and coauthor of Filipinx
"[Angela Garbes reflects] on the power that mothering holds in creating a better world, one which respects care as the critical infrastructure making all institutions possible." — Booklist
“When it comes out on May 10, this book is going straight to the top of the to-be-read pile” — Good Housekeeping
“A celebration of caregiving. . . . A sensitive reflection on essential work.” — Kirkus