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Raising kids is 'Essential Labor.' It's also lonely, exhausting and expensive

Fourth-grader Lucy Kramer (foreground) does schoolwork at her home, as her mother, Daisley, helps her younger sister, Meg, who is in kindergarten, in 2020 in San Anselmo, Calif.
Ezra Shaw
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Getty Images
Fourth-grader Lucy Kramer (foreground) does schoolwork at her home, as her mother, Daisley, helps her younger sister, Meg, who is in kindergarten, in 2020 in San Anselmo, Calif.

During the pandemic, when schools and day care facilities shut down abruptly, millions of parents — especially mothers — dropped out of the workforce to pick up the slack. Author Angela Garbes was one of them.

Garbes had been working on a book in 2020, but was forced to abandon the project when her child's day care closed. And although she loves being a mother, the isolation and exhaustion of being a full-time caregiver took a toll.

"I really felt like I was watching the pleasure and the color drain from my life," she says. "I felt like someone who was 'just a caregiver.' And while I knew that that was valuable work, I had to confront that that wasn't enough for me."

In her new book, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Garbes makes the case that the work of raising children has always been undervalued and undercompensated in the U.S.

"We live in [a culture] that doesn't value care work and that doesn't value mothers and that doesn't value women," she says. "America doesn't have a social safety net; America has mothers."

Unlike other countries, which offer paid parental leave and state-subsidized daycare, Garbes says the U.S. often leaves the parents of young children to fend for themselves. She counters that raising children is a social responsibility — and should be treated as such.

"[Children] need other people. They need family. They need friends. They need adults who are not related to them, who have a certain patience and bring something different to their life," she says. "We were not meant to raise children in isolation."


Interview highlights

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, by Angela Garbes
/ Harper Collins
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Harper Collins

On how it felt to not have day care during lockdown and giving up work

If you go back to those early days of the pandemic when we didn't know what was happening ... it felt really clear to me that the most important thing I could be doing was not writing. It was not making a podcast. It was taking care of my family, taking care of my children and keeping them safe, and also taking care of my community. And that meant pulling away, living in isolation. ...

As far as my husband working, he's the person who had a regular paycheck as a writer. I have deadlines on the horizon. It's all very nebulous, when my work is due and, you know, there were no regular paychecks, there was no health insurance coming our way from my work. We were getting those from him. So it was easy for me to say, "Let's prioritize your work."

But he has always insisted we have this part of our marriage where we say: My work is not more important than your work. It's equal. So he would say, "Take your time. Go write. Go lock yourself in the guestroom, put on the noise-canceling headphones and do what you can do." And my children couldn't respect that boundary. There were basically no boundaries within our home. But also, I felt my ability to uphold those boundaries kind of slipping away.

On women being forced to leave the workforce

In September of 2020, 865,000 women were forced out of the workforce in one month, and that was because schools remained closed. People were saying essentially, 'I can't be a mother, be an online school proctor and be a professional worker at the same time. It's just too much.' And so I think like that anger, this care crisis, it predates the pandemic.

The statistic that always stays with me is in September of 2020, 865,000 women were forced out of the workforce in one month, and that was because schools remained closed. People were saying essentially, "I can't be a mother, be an online school proctor and be a professional worker at the same time. It's just too much." So I think that anger, this care crisis, it predates the pandemic. And a lot of us were more familiar with the financial hardship of having kids in day care. People have been making these decisions and logistical negotiations for years, but suddenly it was a problem that affected everyone. And that's when we really saw a lot of that anger.

On how momentum to change the system has slowed

I felt like there was attention being paid. There were some articles, including mine, that are basically like, "Women are not OK, mothers are not OK." And then we saw things like the advance child tax credit, which was the government sort of acknowledging, yeah, this is hard work, having families and raising children, and so we're going to give you some money each month. And that funding for the CTC was allocated for a year, and in December, Congress let that lapse — even though the funding had been set aside. In trying to figure out Build Back Better, I guess it was collateral damage or just something that we were willing to let go of.

I feel a certain amount of anger at lawmakers and some anger at Democrats and at the administration that I voted in because that administration also bargained away paid leave, which was something that the Biden administration ran on. I feel like we are losing that momentum and we're losing some of the energy behind that very righteous anger that so many women and parents felt.

On how she made decisions about her own childcare

Angela Garbes is also the author of <em>Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.</em>
Elizabeth Rudge / Harper Collins
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Harper Collins
Angela Garbes is also the author of <em>Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.</em>

When my first daughter was born, we both had full-time jobs and it was still very hard to make ends meet. And so we relied on a mix of things. My mother helped us, and that was unpaid labor. We did a nanny share with two other families. This woman was a woman from Mexico. She would take care of two to three babies at a time in these other two homes. And we made sure we had a meeting where we were paying her at least $15 an hour, and we gave her a month off every year. And she was welcome to bring her son, who was about 3, to the home where she was caring for the children. So I make decisions where I feel like I am paying people as much as I can, as fairly as I can, and that I am giving them time off. I treat it like a real labor negotiation. And I should say, also, that my husband is a union organizer. So these issues happened to be top of mind for us.

On Roe v. Wade likely being overturned by the Supreme Court

We've known this is coming. And really, for many people in the United States, especially poor people of color in the South, abortion access is already extremely limited. I think that rich people will always be able to get abortions and the people who will suffer the most are already the people who are suffering. My favorite abortion statistic is that [the majority] of people who have abortions are already parents. They're already mothers. And to me, that says so clearly, we know the cost of having children: financial, emotional, psychological, but financial mostly. And I think when we condemn people. When we force people into motherhood, we are forcing them into poverty. I think in that sense, what's happening right now is that our system is working exactly as it's designed to keep people in power and to keep poor people and people of color and marginalized people in lives that are harder than they need to be.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Laurel Dalrymple adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.