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Motherhood and domestic labor: How the pandemic showed women are 'still in a condition of servitude'

caption: Seattle author Angela Garbes has a new book out called "Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change".
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Seattle author Angela Garbes has a new book out called "Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change".
Elizabeth Rudge/Courtesy of Angela Garbes

Seattle author Angela Garbes' new book is about domestic labor — and the huge amount of work that motherhood is, and the way society undervalues it. She also touches on its power to drive social change.

Author Angela Garbes' released her first book "Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy" in 2018. She initially didn't want to write a second book on motherhood, she said.

"I was really aware of how women's stories are treated as niche. And they're not valued," Garbes said. "I am aware of the ways in which the stories of women and the experiences of women are pushed to the outside — we center men's experiences. And so there was a part of me that just wanted to not have to be pigeonholed."

But when the pandemic began, she decided to double down. That's because caring for her family became a central point in her life.

"[During] the first four months of the pandemic...I was home. Just at home. Just me, and my children, and my spouse. And we were really kind of cut off from the rest of the world," Garbes said. "I was taking care of them 24/7. And it was hard."

It's that difficulty — the invisible labor of taking care of her family — that Garbes focused on in her new book, "Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change".

"I think all of us realized in the pandemic that we couldn't do it alone," Garbes said. "And that's the sort of the bigger thing that I started to grapple with. You know, we are organized in the United States around nuclear families...and I think we've sort of lost sight of how truly interdependent we all are."

For Garbes, it was a moment for recognizing the systems that have allowed families to be so independent, so non-communal. And when something like a global pandemic happens, a lot of those systems go away.

"I think a lot of people, and specifically a lot of women, realized no matter how successful they are outside of the home in their professional work, and how much they had sort of outsourced that domestic labor, in the pandemic they were stuck doing it. And a lot of women realize, in terms of the male patriarchal world, we're kind of still in a condition of servitude."

Garbes said she wants this moment of reckoning to have a lasting impact.

"Here's our moment where now everyone sees it — right? And part of me writing this book was like, 'I want to take advantage of this moment. I never want to go back.'"

But Garbes said some of that anger, that realization, has dissipated as schools have reopened, and life has returned to some semblance of normal.

But she said she's hopeful that the rightful anger of mothers will continue. And that it will push the world to be a better place when her kids are adults, with children of their own.

"Parenting, to be fair, also feels like a lot of drudgery — it's never ending," Garbes said. "That's partly what this book is about, too. That's how I felt in the pandemic. But it was about reframing things and understanding the significance and the meaning of the work that we are doing as caregivers."

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