Angela Garbes’s Reality Check About Motherhood

Photo: Elizabeth Rudge

The actual labor of motherhood (i.e., the kissing of boo-boos; the knowing to make the orange, not white, mac and cheese; the washing and drying and folding and putting away endless loads of laundry) takes up far less space in our collective imagination than the static imagery of motherhood. Social media would have us believe that motherhood is free of messy realities. Instead, it’s a nap on a gingham picnic blanket, a stroll through a strawberry patch, a pregnant silhouette at sunset.

Sounds nice, right? Except for when it leaves us feeling enraged, gaslighted, and exhausted.

At least we have Angela Garbes, whose newest book, Essential Labor, examines the collective power of mothering and interrogates how individuals can both fight for systemic changes (like affordable quality child care, paid family leave, and comprehensive maternal health care) and reclaim acts of mothering in our own lives. Garbes does not sugarcoat the difficulties and complexities of mothering; rather, in Essential Labor, she “offers space to imagine the chores that often seem overwhelming and laborious as opportunities to craft meaning and — this is the dream — contribute to positive social change.”

What planted the seed for Essential Labor?

I actually had an essay collection about bodies under contract, which I spent two years basically being unable to write. And then I wrote a piece for the Cut examining what happens if women and mothers disappear from professional and public life for a year or more because of the pandemic.

And when the piece went viral, I kind of felt like, Oh, here’s every bad thing that I have been dealing with personally and privately for the better part of a year, and as it turns out, I am so not alone in this. This is the book that I want to write. Essential Labor isn’t specific to the pandemic, but it is about care work and mothering and how we devalue that.

It makes sense that your initial book concept was concerned with bodies. There’s so much corporeality in both Like a Mother and Essential Labor.

I have always been interested in embodiment, corporeal reality, and physical pleasure. My background is as a food writer, so I’ve also always been interested in the sensual experience of eating.

This explains why I feel so hungry after reading your work! In Essential Labor, you delineate the difference between our Western cultural preoccupation with idealized maternal identity and the active labor of mothering and care work. How much do you think focusing on the mother as an identity marker versus focusing on the labor of mothering has impacted how fucked up the institution of motherhood is in America?

A light softball question! I just had a conversation with someone about an essay about beauty by Tressie McMillan Cottom in her book Thick. And this woman was explaining that when she says, “Oh, I’m not a great mother,” people always say, “No, no, you’re a great mother.” But she was talking about “good motherhood” in the context of Tressie’s essay, which I quote in Essential Labor. In the essay, Tressie is basically saying, When I say I’m not attractive or beautiful, it’s not that I don’t think that I am. It’s that I’m nowhere near this traditional ideal of beauty in white patriarchal American culture. There is a standard of motherhood in American culture, and I have always known I’ll never meet it. And I don’t say this in a way that’s, like, oh, it makes me sad. No. It’s liberating.

No one is ever going to meet those standards. Not even the richest white women. And so there’s a part of me that is arguing in this book that rather than hold ourselves to a standard, wouldn’t it be more freeing to be the people we are?

I was thinking about your book yesterday as I was changing my toddler’s diaper — how this highly skilled labor demands very specific knowledge about singing a song about strawberries that will distract him from flailing so he doesn’t get shit everywhere. And then after I changed him, he toddled off, and I had this brief moment of satisfaction because I made another human being more comfortable. And finding empowerment in this type of work can be so tricky, because capitalism really encourages us to seek value in other ways. It’s much easier to go on Instagram and buy some sort of diaper balm that also doubles as a facial highlighter from some mom-fluencer, click “purchase now,” experience a hit of dopamine, and fool yourself into thinking you did something for yourself, for your maternal well-being. 

I recently reread Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which is such a fucking good book. And there’s a part where a character does something for her child and she feels this intense grief. Because in that moment, it’s all about the mom and the child and this singular moment in their lives. And it will go away.

So I think that, yes, it’s highly skilled labor, but the labor doesn’t stay the same. The child doesn’t stay the same, right? It’s a constantly evolving set of skills. And that kind of satisfaction and expertise is deeply private, and therefore it’s really hard to express to somebody. And there’s also grief and sadness and loss that’s implied in this work. And we’re not really great at holding those feelings.

In terms of capitalist patriarchal society, the joy and the value of care work and mothering can’t be measured. It can’t be repackaged. It can’t be quantified. And so there’s no way of validating it. So it’s the work of internally knowing that it matters. Because you can’t be looking for external validation. I feel sad as I’m saying this, but you’re just not going to get it, right?

In the book, you distinguish between the cult of self-optimization that runs rampant in white mom culture versus the collective community advocacy that Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized activists have been engaged in for centuries. How can a breakthrough in white feminist thinking be achieved? Like, for example, how can we convince white feminist moms to stop fixating only on their kid eating the most locally sourced nontoxic veggies and instead focus on all children having access to safe and nourishing food?

There’s the nuclear family, you know, with everyone looking out for No. 1, wanting what’s best for one’s individual family, the privatization of what is good. It’s helpful for me to remember that the ideal of the nuclear family, while very powerful and pervasive, is relatively new in the history of the world. Western culture has done a great job of purging other ways of communal living from the historical record, right? But you would not need to go back more than four or five generations to find examples of community care.

Even I can get trapped into obsessing about what is best for my individual child. But I think it’s about reimagining and talking about how we define what’s best. And what’s best should be what’s best for everyone, especially those who need the most support.

And when we talk about feminist history, let’s not just talk about Betty Friedan. I want us to be talking about Johnnie Tillmon. I want us to be talking about the National Welfare Rights Organization. I want us to be talking about Silvia Federici’s wages for housework. I want people to read Dani McClain to understand that all the good things that benefit parents came from the activism of Black women. Like school lunches, right? We all benefit from these things.

I was hoping the pandemic would shake us out of the delusion that we can individually save ourselves. We cannot. And I worry that all of the anger women and mothers felt early in the pandemic, especially affluent white women, started to go away once schools reopened. Or when people could rehire nannies and send their kids back to child-care centers. These problems predate the pandemic and they will outlast the pandemic. But none of us are going to forget how hard it was, right?

Your book made me feel hopeful, energized, and held. I’m wondering which works of art or media related to motherhood make you feel similarly inspired? 

The Lost Daughter destroyed me in a really beautiful way. And I always return to Dani McClain’s book We Live for the We, as a reminder that no matter how deeply personal motherhood and mothering might feel, we can always find insights to current issues in social movements from history. Alice Neel’s diverse and sometimes unsettling portraits of mothering, Johnnie Tillmon’s 1972 essay “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write and Smile (she writes about the tension between motherhood and creativity, but also seamlessly shows how they are of equal importance and influence in her life), and everything Carvell Wallace writes about parenting.

Now can we talk about the sex chapter? 

We don’t talk about sex within marriage and within a long-term relationship after children. Spoiler alert: Children are the result of sex! But we don’t talk about mothers as sexual beings. And I want my girls to understand how their bodies work, and to understand pleasure and their right to it earlier than I did.

I also don’t read many accounts of mothers’ sexuality, the sexuality of Filipino women, or the sexuality of women of color. Most people who do talk about sex are, like, my sex life is great. Or my sex life is nonexistent. But there’s a large area in between, which is where I have spent most of my life. Sex can be mediocre to momentarily transcendent to perfunctory. That’s what my sex life is like, and I have a feeling that I’m not alone.

Monogamy in general is so fraught, and the whole either-or way of looking at sex just sets us all up to feel bad in some way.

It’s another area where we’re supposed to be ambitious leaders who achieve and dominate. Be powerful like a man. I’m still trying to figure out my true sexuality. And this is another part of the ongoing project of accepting where I’m at instead of trying to live up to an ideal.

A Reality Check About Motherhood