Why is the “essential work” of raising children too lonely and expensive?


Fourth grader Lucy Kramer (foreground) does her homework at home, while her mother, Daisley, helps her younger sister, Meg, who is in kindergarten, in 2020 in San Anselmo, California.

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Why is the “essential work” of raising children too lonely and expensive?

Fourth grader Lucy Kramer (foreground) does her homework at home, while her mother, Daisley, helps her younger sister, Meg, who is in kindergarten, in 2020 in San Anselmo, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During the pandemic, when schools and daycares closed abruptly, millions of parents – especially mothers – left the workforce to pick up the slack. Author Angela Garbes was one of them.

Garbes was working on a book in 2020, but was forced to abandon the project when her child’s daycare closed. And although she loves being a mother, the isolation and exhaustion of being a full-time carer has taken its toll.

“I really felt like I was seeing fun and color flowing out of my life,” she says. “I felt like someone who was ‘just a carer’. And while I knew it was valuable work, I had to admit it wasn’t enough for me.”

In his new book, Essential work: mothering as social change, Garbes argues that child-rearing work has historically been undervalued and underpaid in the United States

“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 has no social safety net; America has mothers.”

Unlike other countries, which offer paid parental leave and state-subsidized child care, Garbes says the United States often leaves 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 unrelated to them, who have some patience and who bring something different to their lives,” she says. “We weren’t supposed to raise children in isolation.

Interview Highlights

Essential Work: Mothering as Social Change, by Angela Garbes

On what it’s like not having daycare during lockdown and dropping out of work

If you go back to those early days of the pandemic where we didn’t know what was going on…it became very clear to me that the most important thing I could do was not write. It wasn’t about making a podcast. It was about taking care of my family, taking care of my children and protecting them, and also taking care of my community. And that meant moving away, living in isolation. …

As for my husband who works, he is the person who had a regular salary as a writer. I have deadlines on the horizon. It’s very nebulous, when my work is due and, you know, there were no regular paychecks, there was no health insurance coming from my work. We received them from him. So it was easy for me to say, “Let’s put your work first.

But he always insisted that we have that part of our marriage where we say: My job is not more important than your job. Is equal. So he said, “Take your time. Go write. Go lock yourself in the guest room, put on the noise canceling headphones and do what you can. And my children could not respect this limit. There were practically no boundaries in our house. But also, I felt that my ability to maintain those boundaries was fading.

On women forced out of the labor market

The statistic that has always stuck with me is that in September 2020, 865,000 women were forced out of the workforce in one month, and that’s because schools remained closed. People were basically saying, “I can’t be a mom, be an online school supervisor, and be a working professional at the same time. That’s just too much.” So I think the anger, this care crisis, predates the pandemic. And many of us knew better the financial difficulties of having children in daycare. People had been making these logistical decisions and negotiations for years, but suddenly it was an issue that affected everyone. And that’s when we really saw a lot of that anger.

On how the momentum to change the system has slowed

I felt like there was attention paid. There were articles, including mine, that basically said, “Women are not well, mothers are not well”. And then we saw things like the early child tax credit, which the government kind of recognized, yeah, it’s hard work, having families and raising kids, and so we’re going to give you some l money every month. And that funding for the CLC was allocated for one year, and in December, Congress let that deadline pass – even though the funding had been set aside. Trying to figure out Build Back Better, I guess it was collateral damage or just something we were willing to give up.

I feel some anger at lawmakers and some anger at Democrats and the administration I voted in because that administration also negotiated paid furlough, which the Biden administration did. I feel like we’re losing that momentum and losing some of the energy behind that very righteous anger that so many women and parents have felt.

On how she made decisions about her own childcare

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 it was unpaid work. We did a nanny share with two other families. This woman was a woman from Mexico. She cared for two to three babies at a time in these two other homes. And we made sure we had a meeting where we paid her at least $15 an hour, and we gave her a month off every year. And she was asked to bring her son, who was about 3 years old, to the house where she was taking care of the children. So I make decisions where I feel like I’m paying people as much as I can, as fairly as I can, and giving them time off. I treat this as true collective bargaining. And I must also say that my husband is a union organizer. So these issues turned out to be a priority for us.

On Roe vs. Wade likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court

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


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