Above all, it is an argument that care should be public and universal—that the grace and affirmation that women are asked to bestow on their children should not be limited to mothers, or to parents, or to the private sphere. The book is warm, raw, and occasionally scattered; some sections feel inchoate, animated by a diaristic desire to get longing on the page before it evaporates. Yet, as a lived-in argument for radicalized parenting, Essential Labor is a landmark and a lightning storm, a gift that will be passed hand to hand for years ... Garbes bends the narrative trajectory of her lineage with loving, wincing ambivalence ... I have made Garbes’s book sound like an earnest anti-capitalist, anti-racist manifesto—and it is that. But it often reads more like a paean to the strange pleasures of nurturing a young life. Garbes goes straight to the register of the animal and of the erotic, in the Audre Lorde sense—a link between our sense of self and our strongest unexpressed feelings ... serves as a corrective to the kind of dead-end consciousness-raising that flourishes in the mom-centered corners of Instagram, where life-style accounts feature memes about maternal exhaustion and infographics detailing various reasons a woman raising a child might crumble under her several thousand daily tasks.
Garbes swoops from the universal to the personal to the downright intimate, offering an all-encompassing vision of a more socially and economically just way of caring for one another that, de facto, would improve our individual and collective lives ... There is a great deal to digest here, and Garbes’ analyses will certainly resonate with people whose caregiving responsibilities increased during the pandemic. Yet by identifying the inherent power of mothering as a force for change, Garbes makes her message relevant to a broader audience. Indeed, as Essential Labor makes clear, all our fates are intertwined.
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 ... highly interdisciplinary ... 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.