The Caregiver Crisis
Speaker 1: The tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Speaker 2: Welcome to the Waves Slate’s podcast about gender, feminism and today, motherhood. Every episode you get a new pair of feminists to talk about the thing we can’t get off our minds. And today you’ve got me Brigid Schulte. I’m a journalist, author of Overwhelmed Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. And director of the Better Life Lab, the Work, Family, Justice and Intersectional Gender Equity Program at New America. And you’ve also got Angela Garbus, author of Like a Mother and the new fabulous book, Essential Labor Mothering as Social Change. Angela will be joining me after the break.
Speaker 2: But first, let’s talk about motherhood. In the United States. We’re often told that being a mother, a parent, a caregiver is the most important work in the world. The language we use in politics, in advertising, the media and national discourse reveres mothers and caregiving, with politicians boldly proclaiming that we are a nation of family values. And at the same time, that same conversation, the same cultural norms and perspectives trivialize it or ignore mothers as invisible altogether mothers and caregivers as fully realized.
Speaker 2: Human beings are virtually absent from many of the movies and TV shows that shape our culture. And when they do come into view, mothers often show up as mommy bloggers, bad moms exhausted and trying to get away from their pampered kids or mean girls on the playground arguing endlessly about the proper stroller, or they’re caught up in stereotypical no win mommy identity wars about whether one should devote themselves selflessly, entirely to one’s family or selfishly choose to go work outside the home as if mothers have a choice. Most don’t.
Speaker 2: In truth, the reality for mothers is quite different. Those same politicians who extol the virtues of family values and proclaim to value mothers in care, it turns out that they only value the kind of mother who can exist in mostly privileged, white, middle and upper class circles the kind who can live a life that many of these politicians majority male, white and increasingly octogenarian, did or do with a Leave it to Beaver breadwinner going off to work who can support an at home homemaker. But the majority of the rest of us didn’t live like that. Couldn’t or wouldn’t want to.
Speaker 2: In truth, being a mother, a parent, a caregiver, it’s hard in the United States. It’s much harder than in our peer competitive economies. It’s much harder than it has to be. It’s so hard, in fact, that young people in America say they’re choosing not to become mothers, fathers or parents. And the COVID pandemic has only made it harder. And what most people don’t realize is that we’ve chosen to make it hard. Our politicians and our business leaders have chosen not to support mothers and families and caregivers. And yet our national conversation would have us believe that these are individual choices. And if we can’t get it together, if we’re exhausted and stressed, time starved or hanging on by a thread, it’s our own fault. And all we need to do is just, I don’t know, work harder or chill. And that’s just wrong.
Speaker 2: Caring for others truly is some of the most important and valuable work there is. It is truly the source of joy, connection, and human happiness that makes life worth living. It shouldn’t be so hard. I’m pissed. I’m pissed that it’s so hard. Angela Garbus is pissed. The way we think about and support mothers needs to change. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Speaker 2: We’re going to take a break here. But when we come back, we’re going to dig into the costs of motherhood and Angela’s book. Essential Labor. Welcome, Angela. I cannot wait to talk with you today.
Speaker 3: Thank you so much, Bridget. I’m excited to speak with you, too.
Speaker 2: So one of the first things that really strikes me, I think, about both of our work is that, you know, we think of mothering or parenting or caregiving in the United States as like, oh, we’re this nation of family values. This is something that we really value. And mothering is almost seen as sacred, the sacred duty. And yet mothering, parenting and caregiving is so hard. We make it so hard. And you make that point in your book as well. You know, we make it hard in the United States. It’s harder than in our peer competitive economies. It’s much harder than it has to be. And COVID made it harder. I’m pissed. I am pissed that.
Speaker 3: It’s not me.
Speaker 2: It doesn’t have to be like this. And it’s a choice. So so let’s talk a little bit about that. You know, you write in your book, which is a beautiful book, kind of a combination of your own story and really trying to understand it, like, how did we get here? Why is it so hard in the United States and why do we not understand it so hard?
Speaker 3: Well, that’s a huge question. But I like it because I think there’s there’s you know, there’s many ways in. Number one, I want to say, I think we spend a lot of time in the United States. And I think it’s all a distraction to the way we hold up mothering and motherhood as some sort of sacred act. Right. Like and it is there is something I think objectively, wholly about caring for people and caring for ourselves.
Speaker 3: I believe that care work is the most essential work that people do, but we don’t value that actual day in, day out, sort of unglamorous work, which is a lot of picking food up off the floor, wiping butts, like right washing dishes. You know, those are things that we we hide away right under, like the domestic, the private. I think both of us want to like bring that out into light, which is like this is this is the work that makes all other work possible. But I think a lot of our American culture is really sort of in service and romanticizing and sort of smearing Vaseline over the camera lens off of mothering and like fetishizing it in a way that is so unrealistic.
Speaker 3: Right. And so it becomes a standard that we hold people to. But it’s all an idea. And so much of American life in that sense is a myth. Right. Mothering doesn’t look holy. It’s down and dirty, you know, like my daughter’s in public school. Right? And, you know, school gets out at 230. And I think about how this is how it is for people across the country. And all of that is based on this idea. It’s a myth that there’s someone at home full time and there’s somebody out in the world, you know, working like 9 to 5. But there’s always someone to pick up a child at 230. And that’s what I mean. Like, I think we live under these ideals that are just they’re unrealistic and they if they were ever true, they’re not true now.
Speaker 2: You know, one of the other things that you point out in your book that’s kind of kind of continuing on the same theme. And it’s one thing that just drives me bats and it’s it really drives a lot of the work that I do at the Better Life Lab. You know, it’s this notion that if you’re not there to pick up your child at 230, it’s your fault. There’s something wrong with you. And, you know, you’ve written and talked about mother guilt. And, you know, that’s certainly something I experienced, particularly when my kids were young. And it nobody understands how structural this is.
Speaker 2: I was trying to understand, wow, why do we not have better childcare in this in the United States? And I always felt like it was my fault, you know, that that really I should be home with my kids, that there was such huge guilt around that. And I remember being shocked to find out we almost did have a universal childcare system high quality, easily accessible, affordable to all on a sliding scale in the 1970s. And it was Pat Buchanan who killed it, you know, and he convinced Richard Nixon to veto this bipartisan bill.
Speaker 2: And so I went to talk to Pat Buchanan. And I you know, just to say, like, well, you really screwed my life. What the hell were you thinking? And it was interesting. He said, you know, that our our our our goal was to not just kill the bill, but was to kill the very idea of child care in the United States, because every mother should be home with cake and pie to greet their children at 3:00. So when you said that about the about, you know, the bus coming home at the bus at 230 and the expectation that somebody that you or a mother particularly would be there to meet the child, that is mythology. And yet that drove a political decision that has affected millions and millions of people for decades.
Speaker 3: And it’s still driving that to, I think, you know, like that’s the other thing I was thinking about when you were talking about just really at the top of how we say we like love mothers, we’re all about family values. Right? Meanwhile, we’re in a moment. I mean, we’ve been in a moment, but now it’s becoming, you know, with the fall of Rome. But we’ve seen this coming for years. You know, for the last two years. Something happens in the Supreme Court. And then we we go out and march and people donate to Planned Parenthood in abortion funds. And then we all kind of go back and wait for the next shoe to drop. And then we all are angry again.
Speaker 3: But now I really think like we’re seeing what is the like, what has been coming this violent end to the right to abortion and abortion access, which is already inaccessible to so many poor people of color in the South. But I think about that a lot, how we say that we we care about mothers and families, but we’re forcing people into motherhood against their will, which is really forcing people into poverty. Right. And this idea of, like this, this Pat Buchanan, I mean, it’s so it’s so sinister and it’s so cruel. But they’ve always been really clear. Like there’s no confusion, like that’s their agenda and they’ve been driving under it. And yes, it’s a myth. And yes, it’s cruel, but it’s it’s successful.
Speaker 2: It really does feel like this nefarious and brilliant plot. You know, it’s like, where’s my red robe? You know? But, you know, just the other day, I got I got a call from a young woman or it actually was a text. She’s like, I’m on the metro, I’m in tears. She’s pregnant. She’s got a little kid at home. You know, she was working from home beautifully once, once she had care set up again, you know, certainly not beautifully when she was trying to do both at the same time. And she said, you know, and I’ve just been ordered back into the office, and she was able to do her work digitally, beautifully and still. The order came back in from a mailbox saying everybody back. And we’re we’re an in-person culture without working with the team and trying to figure out if that was actually true or how to experiment.
Speaker 2: And then what she said to me, just it just it just killed me. She said, well, maybe I just expect too much. You know, maybe I shouldn’t you know, it was hard for my mother. It was hard for your generation. And maybe, maybe I should just suck it up. And I just said no. You know, she was feeling like it was her fault. Once again, I’m worried that there was this, you know, this awakening, this, you know, care awakening, if you will. And yet now we’re going back into our atomized silos that you write about. We’re all in these, like, individual silos. We’re going back into like, oh, I don’t have, you know, there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got to go back into the office, you know, it’s. It’s my fault. I don’t deserve anymore.
Speaker 3: Oh, I mean, that just that’s so devastating to me and like, to that person, everyone. And I mean, I’m not going to say that I’ve never felt that way, you know? And again, that’s like the system crushing me, which is what it’s like, what it’s designed to do. And what I want to say to that is like, I think we’re in this moment, and I guess I. I want to say that, you know, I voted in the Biden administration because they were talking about things like paid leave. They were talking about codifying Roe v Wade. And I felt very hopeful about that. And we had the child the advanced child tax credit, which was benefiting families. Right. So I did have this feeling of hope. And now I hope that because the administration has failed to make good on those promises, I’m feeling kind of defeated.
Speaker 3: Right. And like, did I I expected more from these politicians and was that my fault? Right. Like, I can actually relate to that moment. And so I think I want to like hang out here on the metro with this woman because I think as we’re having this conversation, it’s really important for us to say, no, we have every right to expect these things. We actually should be demanding these things. Like we need to expect more and it’s hard to do that. It is true. It’s like the culture is not set up, like this is a long fight. I think that’s what I’m reckoning with. But I can’t think of a more important one to be in.
Speaker 3: So in this sense, like this conversation that we’re having is like, it’s frustrating to me and we’ve been focusing on the things that are really hard, but it’s also a balm to me because like I never going to stop talking about this. Like once the once we’ve seen this, so many of us have seen it. And even though we’re like busy and overwhelmed and going back to the office because we have to make a living like we need money. I get questions from people like, how do we change this? Like, I don’t want this. I know that this is unsustainable. Like, we know that this is unsustainable. And so that’s where I think, like, that’s where our conversation should go from here. Like, it’s I don’t have all the answers. You know, you’re doing this work, like we’re trying to figure it out.
Speaker 3: But, like, what happens next is we have to we have to share our stories. We have to, you know, really be honest about what our needs are and to think about how we can support each other. And I mean, I think collective action is a way forward. But I also think the real thing is, is talking about it and naming these issues. I mean, all mothers are working mothers, you know, whether they work outside of the home or not. But I also think about as as as so many women and mothers are navigating, you know, going back to work and how do we handle all of this? I think a lot about caregivers, you know, child care workers in America, the majority of them are women of color and the majority of them are also mothers themselves. You know, which begs the question, like. Who’s taking care of their kids when when they’re working and taking care of our kids.
Speaker 2: We’re going to take a break here. But if you want to hear more from Angela and myself, check out our Slate Plus segment. Angela and I are going to talk about the subhead of her book Mothering as Social Change. And please consider supporting the show by joining Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, no hitting the paywall on the site and bonus content of shows like this one. To learn more, go to Slate.com, slash the waves plus.
Speaker 2: Welcome back to the waves. So, Angela, we talked a lot about, you know, I guess what’s called unpaid care care that mothers, parents, caregivers give in the home. You know, but the other thing that the pandemic really showed in this care crisis, we’ve known about it. But finally, other people started to pay attention to the fact that we’ve got a care crisis with paid caregivers. So many of them, you know, they’re essential workers and yet they make poverty wages one in two earn so little that they qualify for public benefits.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I believe the median wage for childcare workers is 26,000. I’m not entirely sure it’s something close to that, which is really like we know that’s that’s not enough to live on. And most of these women are mothers themselves. So you know who again, I ask, who is taking care of their children. And so when I think about this, one of the I don’t know if you get asked this question, but I get asked a lot, especially in the pandemic, when all of us, you know, this is the individual families and nuclear family siloed off. People were like, how do I connect with other mothers? Like, I’m desperate for this and like we should be like a very powerful political bloc, like we could be a voting bloc like, but how do we like how do we organize and how do we find solidarity? And it’s a great question, and I am always like celebrating the spirit of that question.
Speaker 3: But, you know, my answer to that is that actually, I think that we need to be looking to other places for solidarity. We’re kind of so used to seeing ourselves in others, but we’re not as good as seeing like others in ourselves. And I think that’s particularly true when it comes to caregivers and nannies and the people like who work in our homes. And to realize, like these are, again, like mothers working outside of their home who’s taking care of their kids. And you realize, like, we are really no different from the people that we hire to do this work. And so I think it’s about building solidarity, which is then becomes, you know, cross-racial solidarity. It becomes cross-class solidarity.
Speaker 3: And, you know, there are people who have been working on this issue for a long time. I think about the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who’s like still they’re still on Capitol Hill every day talking to senators, insisting on the like essential nature of domestic workers and care workers. And I so admire their leadership in their work on this, which has been going on for well over a decade. So there are opportunities for solidarity. And I actually think that if we, as people who are privileged enough to outsource care, work in domestic labor, if we can, you know, join that movement and support living wages for essential laborers and workers rights, you know, that’s a huge win. And it also I think we’re a ways off from this, but it does bring us one step closer to asking for those things for parents and mothers.
Speaker 3: As I said, like, I really believe collective action is important and solidarity. And I think it is great to have solidarity with your peers, you know, and the people who form your community. But realizing that your community is also made up of the people who work for you and who you employ, and feeling that sense of responsibility to them and that solidarity with them is a very that’s a very rich vein for political work that I think we have not yet tapped.
Speaker 2: Well, that’s so interesting that you talk about that, because that’s really what I want to dig into. The you know, the idea of mothering is social change, like you talk about in your book. And we know things are hard and they need to change. And how do we get to that change? You know, it’s so interesting that you talk about the importance of solidarity, because one of the things that, you know, feminism, I think very rightly has been criticized for is that, you know, you think about Lean In. That’s a very white kind of corporatist kind of view. I get to lean into my corner office. Who’s helping you do that and how are they having it all? How are they combining work and care?
Speaker 2: And so, in a way, I do feel like the pandemic has sort of kind of taken the blinders off of people that you can’t have and you should never have had, just that kind of like rarefied, elitist kind of argument that it’s a much stronger movement when you see that everybody is in it together and that the goal is that everybody gets to find their own way to combine work and care in a meaningful way, because that’s what gives our lives meaning. And so sometimes I do despair that we’re really far from that. It does feel like there was a moment or there is a moment that we can at least build on in those informal networks.
Speaker 3: Yes. And actually, you know, I’m so glad you said this, because I actually if I felt like a heart swell as you were talking about that, because it’s what gives me like warm, fuzzy feelings because. Yes. Like it is about lifting everyone up. Right. Old enough to remember, like when Barack Obama was running for president and we were talking about a rising tide lifts all boats like that was not that long ago. And so we I want us to go back to that moment, you know, like I think about how I’m so sorry to do this, but I saw a tweet, I saw a tweet on Instagram and said how it said, there is no radical left. It’s just people caring about other people. And I you know, that really hit me even in my like mindless scroll. I’ve held on to that idea.
Speaker 3: And when you talk about feminism, I think it’s worth saying, like the feminism that you’re talking about is mainstream white feminism, right? And we hear a lot and I talk I take this up in the book, so we hear a lot about Betty Friedan. Right. And The Feminine Mystique in the idea that was preached was women find meaning outside of the home. Right. Which is which is a great thing to encourage people to do. Right. Like we are complex individuals, but white feminism at that time never reckoned with. Domestic labor never goes away. And, you know, there is something that you said at the very top of like, why is it that we are comfortable, like not valuing this and keeping it invisible? And I mean, I think the larger issue here is that our country, the wealth of the United States, was built on slavery.
Speaker 3: Right. The home has always been a site of work for black women in America. And so in the 1960s, when, you know, white women were like, I’m going to go lean in, even though we didn’t have that name for it yet, we brought black women back into the home, you know, and then we brought Latin X women and then we brought Asian women into the home to do this work. Because in America we’ve never reckoned with like we see this work as being less than. And it’s the work of women of color. I mean, that’s that’s the truth. Right. But when you’re talking about, like, how do we solve this? One of the great things that I learned in my book is that there is a long standing tradition of feminism that we just don’t hear about that is inclusive, right? That is solution oriented. That is about like being a true rising tide to lift all boats.
Speaker 3: Right. And I’m talking about the National Welfare Rights Organization led by black women like Johnnie Tillman, who when faced with the same circumstances as Betty Friedan, like they were working to, you know, welfare at that time was called AFDC, Aid for Families and Dependent Children. And it was a very like punitive system, like it was mainly black women who were the beneficiaries of it. So National Welfare Rights Organization was really they were successful in lessening those punitive terms of AFDC and welfare, and they also made it possible for more people to access these benefits.
Speaker 3: But their answer to the so to the situation they were in was actually something that almost also happened under Nixon, which is to have a guaranteed annual income for everyone, not just for poor people, but for everyone in America. And then that way you could do whatever you wanted and women in the home would be paid for the work that they were already doing. Right? So this is like that was already happening, right? And then there’s wages for housework, which was happening in the sixties and seventies, and that was like to pay women for the housework that they were doing and to really recognize, again, that the the home is not a private refuge, it’s a worksite. These ideas are here. I think they are very ripe for revisitation and reconsideration, because if black women and women of color in America were to get free, we would all be free.
Speaker 1: The tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
Speaker 2: That’s our show this week, The Waves. It’s produced by Shaina Roth. Shannon Paulus is our editorial director. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com. The waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic. Same time. Same place. Thank you for being a Slate Plus member because you’re a Slate Plus member, you have access to this bonus material. And we are going to be talking with Angela Garbus about her new book, Essential Labor, particularly the subtitle of Mothering as Social Change. So, Angela, how is or can be mothering social change?
Speaker 3: The reason why I kind of came up with this idea, I mean, I think it’s existed in me for a while. The way I wanted to name it as such and put it in the book is because in the pandemic, when I was doing nothing but caregiving and mothering, I felt kind of guilty because I was like, This isn’t enough for me. Like, I miss my creative work and being out in the world. And I knew that mothering was like the most important work that I could be doing at the time, like keeping my children safe, keeping my community safe. But even as someone who enjoys caregiving or certain aspects of it, I felt like, Oh, the pleasure. Just like just running out of it. And it felt really monotonous and sort of asphyxiating. Claustrophobic, right? But but I kept saying, you know, like, but this is I know this is important work.
Speaker 3: And that’s sort of where the social change aspect came in, because I was thinking about how, you know, like I was raised by immigrants in America, I knew like I’m first generation Filipino-American and I kind of grew up knowing like we were different, right? We were other. And the way for me to be successful was to, like, prove my worth by being smart and assimilating and being white. And I’ve had to, like, unlearn a lot of that and know that, like, I’m enough as who I am. And when I think about it, I want my daughters to not have to unlearn any of that. And I’m I’m guessing that you feel that way, you know, about your children. There’s stuff that we were raised under that I want to let go of. Yes.
Speaker 2: Oh, so much. Yes.
Speaker 3: And that’s what I think. You know, mothering really is day in and day out. Again, it’s not glamorous, but this is the place where we can teach them like, you know, things like I grew up hearing my mom say that she was fat. She was not fat. She’s like five feet tall and very small, petite, you know? And it’s where I want to teach my daughters, like, you’re so much more than a body. Your body is so good because it keeps you alive, right? Like you are enough as you are. And also showing them, you know, I say this to them and I don’t know, maybe some people might think this is harsh, but I’ve been known to say you should thank me right now. I’m making you spaghetti and I love you and I’m never going to stop doing this for you. But this is work. And I like the way we get to a place where the next generation of humans understands that domestic labor is essential work is by naming it as such. So I think that that’s that’s that’s part of what I’m trying to do here.
Speaker 2: You know, one of the things that I love, you know, in your book and and when you’re writing about this mothering is social change. And I and I love that aspect. You know, we think about parenting or the parenting culture or the parenting literature. It’s all child focused and sort of to be a good mother. There’s this this weird, sometimes unspoken mythology that you need to be selfless, you know, and that somehow if you take time for yourself, you are selfish, you know? And in my generation, it was like, Oh, you’re the mean, bad, selfish, working mother. Oh, you terrible person.
Speaker 2: And one of the things that’s wonderful about about you writing that and naming that, that this is work. I’m doing it and demonstrating I love you and choosing to do it, but recognize it’s work value that’s work. You’re bringing like a, like the human aspect of being a parent, being a mother. It’s sort of like so it’s not just child focused, but it’s also, you know, it’s almost like widening the lens and including like the personhood of mother or the, you know, the personhood of care in that wider lens. I really love how you do that.
Speaker 3: Thank you. I really love the way you.
Speaker 2: I guess it wasn’t a question.
Speaker 3: No, but I think you’re right. Like we are through pregnancy. Like we are like, you know, like, why would you drink coffee? Like, why would you take that risk? Right? Like, why would you have sushi, right? Like, we always. Like we encourage, like, the sublimation of the mother and the idea of, like, being a parent is about sacrifice. And I just. I just reject that. Like, I just think, like, if I need to be as whole a person as I can be, to be the parent that I want to be. And that’s, you know, like I’m still in the work of, like, mothering myself. But I think that I really do believe that that makes me a better parent. And, you know, if I seem selfish, then like I’m okay with that because I want my girls to be selfish in a world that’s going to ask them to give themselves over and over to other people.
Speaker 3: And, you know, the other thing I think about is I think that, you know, mothering actually gives me a lot of hope, like I have to have hope. And this is part of social change, too, right? Like, look. Forward like I. We were talking about, you know, how we in this country, we don’t guarantee basic body autonomy for people. Right. And that makes me so angry and it makes me so sad and like, I want that for myself. And I don’t I don’t know I don’t know if it’s going to happen in my lifetime. I honestly don’t.
Speaker 3: Right. Like. And but I do think how it’s possible in my children’s lifetime. Right. And I think about how they could be part of making that happen. And even if I’m not here, like I can contribute to making that happen by by instilling in them that this is non-negotiable. Right. That this is something that’s really important.
Speaker 3: And I think, you know, I think about parenting work as like legacy work. Right. Like, what do you want? What do you want to do with your life? You know, like in the end, like, I don’t need to be remembered as someone who wrote books, you know, like, I want to be someone who, like, loved and cared for my people and who my daughters were like, Oh, she taught me that, like, I can do whatever I want. Right. And like, I’m I’m great just as I am. That, to me is the most important work of like my life and of being a parent.
Speaker 2: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think just about everybody would say that, you know, and one of the things that always strikes me in all of this happiness research, you know, that that was sort of a big trend for a while. Maybe it’s still out there. You know, basically what they found is sort of what we knew all along through common sense that human happiness comes with from our connection with other people, from caring for other people, you know, from having for having the time to connect and build those relationships. You know, and what I love about what you’re talking about and sort of mothering is social change by instilling these kinds of values and a different way of looking at it, you know, into our children. It’s almost like you’re playing the long game.
Speaker 2: You know, we’ve talked about, you know, the Biden administration and I do have to put a plug in. I think that they worked really hard to get a lot of, you know, paid family leave and child care through. And it was really Congress work got stuck was really the Senate where it got stuck. It was really, you know, Joe Manchin where it got stuck. You know, so the political failure might have been in negotiating it all. But the short game is frustrating. But there is hope in the long game, you know, because, you know, there is real joy and value and meaning in care and leaning into that. You know, maybe that’s what gives us hope.