Essential Labour: Mothering as Social Change 
by Angela Garbes.
Harper Wave, 222 pp., £20, May 2022, 978 0 06 293736 0
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For one day​ , 24 October 1975, nine-tenths of the adult female population of Iceland went on strike. They withdrew their paid labour and stopped their unpaid work, putting down their babies and abandoning the housework. Kvennafrídagurinn, or ‘Women’s Day Off’, reversed the usual scenario in which wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters supported unionised industrial action taken by men. Employers stocked up on sweets and coloured pencils to entertain children who went to work with their fathers. Shops sold out of sausages. The following year, parliament passed an equal pay act (it wasn’t the first: similar legislation had been adopted in the US in 1963 and Britain in 1970). The strike showed how indispensable women were to Icelandic society, but equity and recognition came only for their paid work. How could the public/private division be overcome?

There have been many attempts to imagine ways of organising care beyond the family unit. In the 19th century, Charles Fourier drew up blueprints for ‘phalansteries’, self-contained communities of around a thousand people who would undertake all the necessary tasks (children would be looked after in the ‘noisy area’, next to the carpenters and blacksmiths). Jane Sophia Appleton designed kitchenless cities where everyone would be provided with free cooked meals. Alexandra Kollontai proposed the mass roll-out of co-operative childcare centres. In more recent decades, Frances Gabe thought about how to build ‘self-cleaning’ houses and Shulamith Firestone dreamed of the ‘diffusion’ of care responsibilities across the adult population. Participants at the National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays resolved to ‘abolish the family’ and dismantle proprietary parenthood in favour of children’s liberation. The more radical wing of the US-based National Welfare Rights Organisation insisted that low-income people should receive aid not based on maternal ‘deserving’. And, despite its name, the Wages for Housework committee fought not for wages for housework – which its members thought undesirable and structurally impossible – but for the end of the ‘work society’ (capitalism) that the naturalised family (in their terms, the ‘social factory’) sustained. As Silvia Federici put it, ‘nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.’

The group’s name also pointed up a particular difficulty for its critique of capitalism. Mothering and other forms of intimate labour reproduce and sustain both capital and life; both workers and comrades; both patriarchal society and the possibility of liberation from it. In this sense, to say that life-preserving work (such as feeding, hoovering or wound-dressing) is ‘essential’ – as we did during the Covid pandemic and as Angela Garbes does in her new book about mothering – isn’t sufficient. The better question would be: essential for what?

In her first book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy (2018), Garbes drew attention to America’s relatively high maternal death rate: ‘I’m not trying to scare you unnecessarily. While death in pregnancy and childbirth is rare here, it is nowhere close to rare enough.’ Every year, Garbes noted, between 700 and 900 Americans die in childbirth, while almost 65,000 experience near fatal complications. ‘Even more alarming is the racial disparity within these deaths: Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white mothers.’ Despite the prevalence of the phrase ‘empowered birth’ in pregnancy discourse, ‘mothers and expectant mothers have far less power than we should.’ In fact, she continued,

the vast majority of resources on pregnancy and motherhood direct our eyes and minds to issues that don’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things. The problems we face are much bigger: a culture in which men hold nearly all of the legal and economic power; a society in which whiteness is considered the norm … an economic system that relies on, but does not adequately value, domestic work that is performed overwhelmingly by women (or, if you prefer: patriarchy, white supremacy and American capitalism). It’s not what many people want to hear, but it is our reality: there aren’t any easy answers to questions about pregnancy – they are all political.

Garbes didn’t explicitly question or criticise the nuclear family, the work society, the privatisation of care or the sex distinction itself, as a 21st-century Kollontai or Firestone might have done. Like a Mother was, after all, a pregnancy memoir. But she did inveigh against racist obstetric injustice, the paltriness of US family leave and institutional ignorance of the postpartum perineum.

Essential Labour tells the story of her transformation during the pandemic from indignant pregnant woman to ‘sensual’ and ‘financially privileged’ mother of two. She wasn’t alone, she thinks, in learning to stop worrying and love reproductive labour in 2020. In lockdown, mothering became many people’s ‘most urgent and important work’. She was surprised at how satisfying she found it:

Ever since … high school I’ve wondered what ‘real work’ is, and sensed that my understanding of it was out of step with the world. I never really wanted to be a professional; all I knew was that I wanted whatever I did to matter. I believe writing matters, of course, but nothing has ever felt more real to me than the work of caring.

The book purports to critique the ways in which international markets recreate colonial, as well as gendered, patterns in the provision of care: like millions of Filipinos, Garbes’s parents emigrated to the US to work in healthcare. But Garbes ends up repeating her mother’s intense identification with the apparently transhistorical dignity of housework, swooning over its messy, intuitive, edifying beauty. She praises a TED talk by Ai-jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in which Poo ‘encourages us to emulate the many domestic workers who “cross cultures and generations and borders and boundaries” and whose jobs are to “love and they care and they show compassion no matter what”.’

Garbes’s own mother, Josefina, puts it like this:

You know the story of Mary Magdalene, who washed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair? I’m like her sister, Martha, the one who was so busy around the house and said: ‘Jesus, why don’t you stop talking and let Mary help me clean up?’ Well, I’m Martha. I’ll do the dishes. I’ve always been like this … Maintenance [is] the core. It’s everything.

Garbes writes that when she asked her mother’s views on ‘maintenance’ she was paying homage to the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose 1969 ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ reframed domestic work as ‘maintenance art’ to draw attention to its low status. Josefina and Ukeles, Garbes implies, speak with one voice. Both women remind us that ‘those who mother are the sanitation workers of bodies – handling the refuse, the filth and putrescence, living in the stink.’

But Josefina’s views and Ukeles’s are not the same. Ukeles wanted to denaturalise ‘maintenance’, to overthrow the dichotomy between art (‘development’) and care. ‘Maintenance art’ was a utopian oxymoron. Before writing her manifesto, Ukeles spent eleven months shadowing sanitation crews on sixteen-hour shifts; her ‘exhibitions’ involved cleaning the gallery itself. Under capitalism, she wrote, creative productivity is generally part of a ‘death instinct’, while reproduction is a ‘drag’ that ‘takes all the fucking time’ even as it represents ‘the life instinct’. How might this situation be transformed? Simply thanking or appreciating the underpaid (or unwaged) people who maintain our families and cities is counterproductive – a point she was keen to stress during the pandemic. Since 1977, Ukeles has held the position of artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. In 2020, she revived her 1979-80 performance Touch Sanitation. Cleaning crews, commuting to work during lockdown, saw the following message displayed on the subway and rail systems:

Dear Service Worker,

‘Thank you for keeping NYC alive!’

For → forever …

It seems possible that the quotation marks were lost on Garbes. In my reading, they signalled the empty thanks of the city, whose citizens hid in their homes while cleaners and other ‘essential’ workers risked an unknown disease. The quote marks were an invitation to class struggle. Ukeles hadn’t shaken the hands of New York’s 8500 ‘san men’ in Touch Sanitation to encourage them to keep at it, chin up. Two days of wildcat strikes by New York rubbish collectors in 1975 left 48,000 tons of trash on the streets of New York. Garbes doesn’t mention this history when she praises Ukeles’s bid ‘to acknowledge the city’s essential workers’.

Garbes defines mothering as ‘the work of raising children’ and states that ‘the terrain of mothering is not limited to the people who give birth to children; it is not defined by gender,’ but at no point does she depict a man in this role. Perhaps she is chiding herself for declaring in Like a Mother (despite its nods to trans reproductive justice) that ‘women … make and have the babies … female bodies were built to accommodate other bodies.’ ‘Female is our origin sex’; ‘we were all female once’; and the uterus is ‘a uniquely female organ’.

In​ her new book, this essentialism is all the more insidious for having slipped half-underground. Garbes writes from the assumption that children belong to their one or two parent-authors, who live in happy units alongside other such families. The oppressive structures of patriarchy, white supremacy and American capitalism can be mitigated by acts of reciprocity between these units: ‘I want to give and receive, to always be swapping Tupperware and food, all of us crowded together like curvy lumpen mangoes in a baking dish.’ Is neighbourliness between middle-class couples really a vector of ‘social change’? (She also suggests making permanent the US’s pandemic Child Tax Credit provision.) For Garbes, the clash between art and maintenance can be overcome even before the world shakes off capitalism:

I want more friends, more casual impromptu hangs, more dropping by with dinner, more walking and talking and advice sessions, more kids underfoot, more asking for and saying what we need, more hands to carry heavy boxes, more laughing and cackling and snorting, more children farting at the dinner table, more of what makes life messy, less painful, more sweet.

Maternal memoirs aren’t a new genre, but publishers have tended to prefer certain representations of the experience (or ‘institution’, as Adrienne Rich called it). In recent years, as the feminist theorists Jennifer C. Nash and Samantha Pinto have pointed out, the dominant version has been the ambivalent ‘white, middle-class mother’, with her titillating, unthreatening articulation of dissent (titles include Motherhood: A Confession, Screaming on the Inside, Send Me into the Woods Alone). Insofar as the market is interested in non-tragic narratives about mothering as a person of colour, the preference is for the celebratory and affirming: The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris, Mama Bear by Shirley Smith, Becoming by Michelle Obama – and now, Essential Labour.

The more established non-white Western mother memoir deals with state violence against Black children (especially boys), something Garbes doesn’t mention. The Black maternal bereavement memoir, to quote Nash and Pinto, is the ‘photo negative’ of the ambivalent white memoir, in which the loss is ‘of autonomy, of erotic selfhood, of time, of boundaries between self and other’. Black Lives Mamas are acceptable when they offer words of healing, and promote interdependence, sociality and the transformative labour of Black mothering.

‘Is there space for maternal unhappiness in the black feminist theoretical maternal archive,’ Nash asked in ‘The Political Life of Black Motherhood’ (2018), ‘space for accounts of motherhood that find mothering profoundly unradical, perhaps even tedious, exhausting or upsetting?’ I would add to this space for conversations about the violence that mothers inflict – even mothers who have themselves been subject to violence. Regressive political projects have been advanced in the name of a maternalist feminism or eugenic motherhood, as the historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae showed in Mothers of Massive Resistance (2018). Yet Garbes seems convinced that mothering’s progressive character is assured. Organised political activity and redistributive policies aren’t required. ‘As much as some of us might hope to burn down the capitalist system … we don’t need to wait for revolution to incorporate principles of abundance into our lives’:

Dropping food off for friends, watching someone’s kid for a few hours, trading some light finish carpentry for an hour of massage, growing herbs on your windowsill or vegetables in your garden. This is caretaking and it is labour … if we changed our relationship to it – even ever so slightly – yes, our finances might contract, but our emotional lives might expand in ways we can’t yet measure or know.

The quietism at the heart of Essential Labour is disguised to some extent by its self-consciously radical fashioning. Garbes positions her memoir-manifesto as a sibling to socialist-abolitionist, disability-liberationist and critical-race feminist titles. Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Cathy Park Hong all appear in its first twenty pages, as does Federici. There are plenty of Reds throughout, in fact, not least the Marxist scholar Rhacel Parreñas, the journalist (and author of Work Won’t Love You Back) Sarah Jaffe and the Argentinian feminist organiser Verónica Gago.

Garbes even gestures towards some of the historic challenges to the private nuclear household, such as Angela Davis’s ‘The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework’. Unfortunately, she misreads Davis’s argument for the ‘socialisation’ of housework as an argument in praise of the ‘erotic’ pleasure and ‘camaraderie we feel with others’ when we ‘put our bodies to work together’. This is quite a feat, given that Davis recommends ‘teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling’ with ‘technologically advanced cleaning machinery’ precisely because she sees nothing whatsoever to redeem in housework (she criticises Wages for Housework at length on this basis). Garbes tries to paraphrase: ‘There is no reason maintenance work should be hidden, no reason it should happen in isolation. By nature it is social.’ But it’s one thing to say that domestic work ‘is social’ and quite another to call, as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse, for its socialisation.

The biggest problem with housework, as Davis saw it, wasn’t that it was devalued, hidden or even gendered, but that it sucked. Unlike Federici, Davis didn’t think of the ‘social factory’ as a – once communised – potential site of the ‘activities and relations that most satisfy our desires’. Were it possible, she asks, ‘to liquidate the idea that housework is women’s work and to redistribute it equally to men and women alike, would this constitute a satisfactory solution?’ Absolutely not: no one should waste precious hours of their lives on these ‘repetitive, exhausting, unproductive, uncreative’ tasks. Whether we do it in teams or not, we’re stuck with ‘the oppressive nature of the work itself’, so the solution can’t be voluntaristic or ad hoc; it must, Davis believed, be totalising and revolutionary. In contrast, Garbes appears to have convinced herself that a change of attitude– at the level of the individual and the community – might suffice. ‘Whether a commitment to maintenance is part of our nature, an obligation we begrudgingly fill, or something that brings us genuine joy, there is no getting around it,’ she claims. ‘A lack of shared responsibility and interconnectedness makes it difficult to find solutions for needs more easily addressed in community, such as childcare, meal preparation and household maintenance.’ Mutual aid combined with mass movement can be revolutionary, but communitarianism is a poor substitute for social change, and a good cover for no change at all.

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