There is a yellowed parenting cheat sheet on my refrigerator, which I first tore out of The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson when parenting felt particularly strained during the pandemic. My kids were always losing it, and I was fumbling to find the words to respond; everything came out wrong. The sheet outlined methods for helping my kids “use both the logical left brain and the emotional right brain as a team,” and included earwormy phrases like “name it to tame it,” to remind me my kids need help “storying” their “big feelings.”
Since I put that sheet up in April 2020, parenting in America has become a kind of psychological torture. Parents’ mental and physical health is steadily declining. We’re moving ever closer to the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, disaster capitalism is having an absolute field day, with corporations and influencers trying to convince parents of products, apps, and hacks to lessen the stress and suffering of parenting in America. I am still struggling to story my own big feelings about all this. Not surprisingly, I have barely looked at that paper on my fridge.*
In such a climate, the fanatical followings of parenting experts like Dr. Becky and Janet Lansbury only seem to be growing. Parents want help with pressing, everyday struggles. But there is also a small backlash forming against these highly child-centered philosophies and the general business of parenting advice. As of late, even the most “gentle” parenting recommendations have started to feel, to many, just a little bit laughable. In March, the New Yorker’s Jessica Winter wrote about the new resistance to gentle parenting’s strictures: “A fatigue is setting in: about the deference to a child’s every mood, the strict maintenance of emotional affect,” and the idea that the primary caregiver—usually a woman—lives their life “as only Mother,” tirelessly helping along a child’s emotional development in a domestic vacuum, without any consideration for how the storms of childhood might affect her own happiness, identity, or sense of personal agency.
There is a growing awareness in America that the work of parenting cannot be divorced from the world in which we live. Writer Angela Garbes’ second book, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, crystallizes this shift, and argues that “raising children is not a private hobby” but rather is “some of the only truly essential work humans do.” For this reason, Garbes argues that mothering can’t be treated as a subject that belongs only to women, but rather must be understood in “a global and national context of care—the invisible economic engine that has been historically demanded of women of color.”
The “parenting book” has long specialized in context-free, allegedly apolitical counsel. Prior to the last decade, parenting books avoided bigger questions about how we parent and why, largely excusing themselves from addressing how racism, sexism, and ableism can unconsciously structure the dynamics we maintain in the home. Even fewer parenting philosophies acknowledge the pain and terror one feels preparing children to enter a world that disempowers those who raise them.
Instagram parenting sages, for their part, fill the huge gaps in support created by failing public policy, but the sheer volume of this new type of parenting advice has further reified the idea that parents—especially mothers—should take on more labor, in the form of careful, time-consuming stewardship of everyone’s emotions, to better manage the nuclear family. This has often made certain parenting philosophies feel accessible only to white, middle-class families, even though, as Ashley Simpo recently wrote, these philosophies often draw on “core principles that are actually quite native to non-white culture,” such as collectivism. But as Simpo writes, “Black parents face a very different daily reality, and challenges, than white parents” and are more likely to be pouring from “an empty cup.”
Memes providing cookie-cutter scripts to use in reacting to kids’ daily frustrations can only take us so far in our quest for knowledge about the labor of parenting and our desire to become more intentional about the work. In a climate in which parents’ bodies are under attack at the national level and we’re running out of new ways to describe and cope with our desperation for material support, some parenting writers have rethought their approach to advice and “service” journalism, rejecting totalizing recommendations and reporting on the unprecedented issues caregivers now face, producing pieces and packages on how to parent at the end of the world, or pushing back on child-centered guidance by daring to treat the parent as a “whole person.”
Garbes’ Essential Labor suggests that perhaps the parenting book is also in need of an overhaul. In her first book, Like a Mother, Garbes explored the infantilizing nature of the literature of pregnancy. In this second book, she extends the gesture of upending the way we talk about caregiving, beginning with a personal history of mothering, which she describes as hard and ceaseless work, but also potentially transformative, when understood as a form of “embodied resistance.” The second half of the book explores how we pass down to children foundational understandings of concepts like pleasure, community, and natural interdependence. “Writing about mothering—right now—” Garbes writes in the book’s introduction, “is more consequential than ever.”
Part of what distinguishes Garbes’ treatment of the subject is a question of genre. Essential Labor is a mix of political manifesto, memoir, philosophy, and cultural critique, and the writing moves with both urgency and thoughtfulness. Garbes told me in an interview that she rejects genre and doesn’t really wrestle with it as she writes. She says she has come to embrace her work as “slightly illegible,” and feels this is reflective of her Filipina and American identity, and living in a world marked by colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, which only see certain bodies and ways of thinking as intelligible. Her book is also highly interdisciplinary, citing the intersectional political writing of the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde’s erotics of motherhood, global health statistics, and political and social history.
Other parenting books tend to emerge strictly from neuroscientific or social science disciplines, professing and preaching objectivity as they explain what’s happening to children at various developmental stages, and offer parents tools for dealing with things like toddler meltdowns. The observations in books like Siegel and Bryson’s, for instance, distill academic research into readable formats, but the suggestions they offer parents tend to lack an awareness of how psychology and neuroscience have themselves been influenced by sociopolitical forces. Neuroimaging, for instance, isn’t an entirely objective science, and psychology, as a field of study, has certainly had its troubles with racism and misogyny. Some have even claimed Americans’ over-attachment to attachment theory, which underpins many gentle parenting philosophies, is too totalizing and based on “shaky” science.
“You can say this is how a kid’s brain works,” Garbes told me. “But what if their cortisol level is sky high because of the daily existence of poverty?” Social determinants, or the conditions in which we live, work, and play, affect how we study bodies and brains, but also how children’s and parents’ brains and bodies function. As Jessica Winter writes, parenting books often pose “child-rearing as brain surgery,” in which every wrong move we make has the potential to disrupt our child’s psyche or life path forever. But parenting, Garbes told me, is “entirely affected by context.”
Feminist writers have, of course, in the past, looked beyond “say this, not that” advice-giving to consider how politics and economics intersect with parenting. Bell hooks wrote about the revolutionary power of parenting decades ago, as well as the larger misstep in the feminist movement in revering capitalist work as an avenue toward freedom, while rejecting the idea that caring for children could be a political practice. Had Black women’s voices been more central to the women’s liberation movement of the last century, hooks wrote in 1984, motherhood “would not have been named a serious obstacle to our freedom as women. Racism, availability of jobs, lack of skills or education and a number of other issues would have been at the top of the list—but not motherhood.”
Socialist feminists have also long thought of the home as a place where ideas about social revolution could be put into practice. In 2006, Silvia Federici argued that culturally dominant disciplinary methods, which often focus on “policing our children,” train children to be workers. Garbes’ book draws, in several sections, on Federici’s writing, refuting the idea that parenting should be about preparing children for the workforce. She also writes in the book about her own lack of ambition to “hustle up” the “ladder” and rejects “the American idea of ‘earning a living,’ ” despite having been raised “by immigrants who came to America with very little and worked their way into the middle class.” She inherited, instead, her parents’ attunement to the visceral, everyday labors of taking care—both of Garbes’ parents were care workers by trade.
Even as the American right has zeroed in on the nuclear family as a means of control, such ideas as Garbes’ have tended to remain fringe and radical, so that parents who consider themselves centrists or liberals regularly consume parenting advice that pictures the home as a separate sphere and mothering as personal, not political. Garbes told me that Dani McClain’s 2019 We Live for the We, which explores the political power of Black motherhood, provides ongoing inspiration for her work. McClain’s book, also a mix of memoir, critique, and philosophy, takes its title from the organizer and activist Cat Brooks, who is cited in McClain’s book saying that parenting toward liberation often requires prioritizing the community above the individual.
In turn, Garbes’ book shows the growing irrelevance and absurdity of treating parenting as a meritocracy, but also the problems with viewing parenting as an individualistic pursuit. She explores how many beliefs about parenting, such as the idea that two adults (or just one woman) are enough to shoulder the work of caring for children, are hangovers from colonialism. “It isn’t just colonized people who were coerced into adopting an isolated way of life,” Garbes writes in a chapter on human interdependence, “it’s all Americans.”
Parenting scripts and tricks remain attractive in this isolated environment because they are legible, and also easily digestible. They can feel like quick fixes: easy to implement in the hectic grind culture of America in 2022. But Garbes told me that while efficiency in parenting is for her sometimes “pragmatic and practical,” it’s not something she’s striving for as a parent. In fact, a major takeaway of Garbes’ book is that care work is simply not ever going to be efficient. This is what makes the labor so essential. “It is draining, tedious, repetitive, but the work keeps us close to one another,” she writes. At the same time, Garbes believes parenting doesn’t have to be what it has become in America. “Raising children should not be as lonely, bankrupting, and exhausting as it is,” she writes.
For Garbes, the revolutionary potential of care work lies in the way the work forces us to dwell in the moment, body to body. There is perhaps some overlap here with gentle parenting edicts, but Garbes writes honestly about the difficult work of slowing down and making the time, something that is often missing from more rote advice: “When my toddler refuses to get dressed or wear anything other than a star dress that is in the washing machine, things can go south pretty quickly,” Garbes writes. “I yell, she yells, I yell and leave the room and she cries,” Garbes continues. But sometimes, she remembers, she “can do something else.”
Often, that “something else” is hugging and breathing. Other times, it is talking. Garbes writes of the complex and equally trying work of synthesizing the present moment with history and the future, as we try to explain it all to children. In another moment in the book, Garbes describes her tendency to over-explain things to her two daughters, and the potential for discovery in those moments when she finds herself spinning out on “empire and the social safety net while both girls have moved on to biting apple slices into the shape of a boat or a moon or a butt.” I feel weepy each time I think of these moments in Garbes’ book, not only because I relate to the tendency she describes, but because they speak to the intense longing for change we so often bring to parenting. Caring for children is about understanding where we have come from, and where we might be going.
Garbes’ own habit of expounding on the world, she told me, in part comes from growing up in an immigrant household, where certain topics were off the table and different linguistic histories sometimes complicated discussions. Garbes’ writing is literary and luminous, and shines when she shows the messy, visceral, wet work, but also when she documents the effort she brings to the linguistic work of raising kids—that process of trying to convey the world to children, while leaving room for some other future version of it. Often, these moments come up in Garbes’ discussions of bodily differences.
“I don’t know exactly how to do this, of course,” she writes in one chapter that explores both disability and where our sense of worth comes from, as well as how she stumbles through this work. “Sometimes I feel completely out of my depth,” she admits, but she still works “to normalize concepts that are often shrouded in silence by just talking about them,” like “pointing out the person in the book We March who is marching in their wheelchair,” or “noting the bright green color of the leg braces worn by a schoolmate.” For her, it’s all tied up with teaching her daughters that every body is inherently worthy.
Garbes’ willingness to insist on her own worth outside her role as Mother and Worker, which she calls “a tricky act in modern America,” is perhaps the most radical thread in the book. Rather than see mothering as a labor of self-sacrifice, physical and emotional servitude, or an identity, as the role has often been shaped and defined by cultural and political mores, Garbes views the work of parenting as a chance to tune into the senses. “Mothering offers us an opportunity to form new relationships with our bodies,” she writes, “to listen to them.” She writes, in one chapter, about how she learned in motherhood to embrace what Carmen Maria Machado calls “fatness of the mind” and to delight in her own body.
The author also writes of the spontaneous nature in which she has found community since becoming a parent, something she claims is a crucial aspect of parenting toward social change, including the sharing of sensory pleasures like food and dance, mangoes and farts, arroz caldo and hearty laughs. Though Garbes makes room for the mother as person in the book, she also writes, drawing on Mia Birdsong, that freedom comes from being connected. Showing up for others is foundational to Garbes’ approach to the subject of parenting. To support all this essential labor, she told me, and she reiterates many times in the book, what we really need are more policies and leadership rooted in this spirit of care.
Garbes writes that more traditional parenting books leave her “agitated,” not only for what they leave out. She told me she is “allergic to advice” and, in general, hates the concept. She also rejects morality in parenting—the idea that one can be a good or a bad parent—and her book is far from preachy or directive. Garbes writes that her research for Essential Labor, however, made her “reimagine everything.” “I used to reject the idea that, in mothering, there is any way to judge what we are doing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ ” she says at the end of the book, but “making mistakes, getting over it all and getting on with it” now feels, to her, “unequivocally right.”
I asked Garbes whether this inefficiency relates to the ethics of care she presents in the book. Perhaps this slow and constant exploration is what parenting teaches us and what we cannot get from the realm of advice, which simply tells us what to do and what to say? “Children are a clarifying force,” she said. They force us to unearth what we really do think about certain subjects and articulate what we don’t know as well, she told me. Finding our unique footing and the words in the work then, it seems, is an important part of the process. After all, as Garbes put it, “How do I know what I think until I say what I think?”
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Correction, May 16, 2022: This paragraph originally said that women’s workforce participation is at a 30-year low in 2022. That is incorrect, as participation has actually rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.