Angela Garbes’s Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change is the book you want to give anyone who has ever spent part of their life caring for another human being. We were thrilled to speak to the Seattle-based, Filipina American author — and mother of two young girls — about signature lipstick, gray hair, and her love of Dance Church…
I cried almost immediately when I started reading Essential Labor. The moment that pushed me over the edge: “If we were to think about work in terms of our humanity — making people feel dignified, valued, and whole — then caregiving is the most important work we can do with our time on earth.”
If you do nothing else in your life but take care of yourself – which is hard – and take care of your people, and maybe extend that into your community just a bit, that’s a lot! It’s dignified work, it’s essential work, and it needs to be celebrated as such. But it’s never given its due and value.
This felt especially true during the pandemic.
I felt that we should, of course, be talking about healthcare and grocery and sanitation workers as essential workers, but I kept thinking: Why aren’t we talking about mothers and parents as essential workers? It was so clear!
You open up the concept of mothering to encompass much more than just “mothers” – you frame it as a verb that can be and is performed by so many different people.
Taking care of elderly, sick, or disabled people is not an individual responsibility, it’s a social one. Raising children is a social responsibility. So much of parenting is talked about as individual choices: if we pick the right baby carrier, somehow that will lead to a better human. But it’s so not that! What makes a difference is if we have healthcare and a village of people to help raise our children. A village includes mothers but also dads, aunties, grandparents, friends, babysitters. Mothers typically still do the majority of care, but this work has to be done collectively.
Pleasure comes up several times even in the intro – I love that you anchored it as a fundamental aspect of being alive. And that it’s NOT about pleasure in mothering in particular. How did you come to that understanding?
I’m a total hedonist! I’ve struggled with this part of me, though: Am I lazy? Is hedonism bad? I just like feeling good! And I don’t know how we’ve drifted away from feeling good. Some people worry: how can we feel good when the world is burning? But the work of survival is something that marginalized people and people of color have been mastering over time. You don’t survive without finding joy or finding hope. I am extremely aware of how difficult the world is right now, but I’ve come to a place where feeling pleasure is my right. I want to give people a nudge to find that for themselves.
During the pandemic, how, in a practical way, did you write Essential Labor?
Number one: my husband, Will. My husband, bless him, is the best and hottest person I know. He pulled up our Google Calendar and said, ‘I know that, in order to write this book, what you need is to NOT be at home. So, every three weeks you’re going to go away, for a minimum of three nights and up to a week. This is my time to step up. Let’s put this on the calendar right now.’ He had our support system: our pod family, my parents. I got to be the beast who drank coffee at all hours, ate spaghetti for breakfast, and had no other obligations except to the work.
Angela and her mom
What did the women in your family teach you about beauty?
What I was taught explicitly about beauty was what the women in my family were taught: colonial standards of beauty. This was not a place that felt good to me, so I’ve spent most of my life rejecting that. So, it was sort of a blank slate in terms of my daughters.
What do you hope to impart to your daughters?
Our babysitter Penelope – who is Lindy West’s stepdaughter! – is mixed race just like my daughters. They’re always comparing their skin tone to Penelope’s. One day, she showed up in a T-shirt that read, ‘You were brainwashed into thinking European features are the epitome of beauty.’ Noli, my older daughter, was reading everything, so we asked: ‘Did you read Penelope’s T-shirt? Let’s have a conversation about that!’ We talked about how Europe is this area of the world, which is really small, and that Penelope’s family is from Nigeria, in Africa, which is a very big continent. And here’s where our family is from, the Philippines, in Asia, where most people in the world are concentrated. We explained that people who look like us outnumber those that fit this unattainable European standard of beauty.
I feel like we have the same beauty routine: gray hair, bold lipstick, earrings. Let’s start with hair.
I dyed my hair for almost 10 years, but kept my gray streak in front because I didn’t want to hide completely, and it was a step toward body acceptance. During the pandemic, I got curious about what my hair really looked like and figured I could always dye it back. The end result is freedom.
Has it made you see anything about aging differently?
The lack of imagination I had as a twenty-something. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I’d survive past 40, I just never thought of it! Middle age was just a cliff. But now I know that some of my most transformational changes will happen in the next 20 years. I don’t have to look the same way!
And lipstick: you have a bunch!
I rotate through signature lipsticks, wearing each faithfully for several years. They’ve grown increasingly brighter and more playful: in my twenties, it was MAC Paramount (reddish brown, my personal homage to Mary J. Blige); my thirties was MAC Chili (brick red); in my forties, I settled on a bright orange red, which sadly seems to be discontinued. Next I want to try Tigress by Studio Tanais, a WOC-owned company I am so happy to support.
How does lipstick make you feel?
I have full lips, so when I put lipstick on, I’m not thinking about what’s wrong with my body. I’m accentuating a part that I’ve always loved.
What about earrings?
These days, my perfect hoops are Laura Lombardi’s Curve earrings. I’m also experimenting with Seville Michelle’s gold leather bamboo doorknockers.
You mentioned that your beauty inspiration is Sade. What do you admire about her?
Sade is it! The gold earrings, bold lip, minimal makeup, and beautiful brown skin. Sade is someone I grew up seeing who was unlike anyone else, a breath of fresh air. I know I don’t look like her, but I did think, here’s a beautiful brown woman.
Dancing is a big part of your book — especially the guided fitness class Dance Church. What has Dance Church done for you?
The way I show up in a dance class is not always how I’ve shown up in rooms throughout my life. I feel free, like I’m dancing just for myself. A lot of my life I’ve felt like too much, but on the dance floor I’m not that.
What is one thing you hope people take away from your book?
It’s easy to call people out, but I’m much more interested in inviting people in. So, how do you do that? How can we encourage children and senior citizens to interact? How do we incentivize care as a thing that gives us things that we are not used to in our world of immediate gratification? I’m talking about an unquantifiable but deeply meaningful and emotional experience.
Could you recommend an action item we could all do right now?
My friend Ai-jen Poo, the president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says we are in a historic moment where she believes that there’s a direct line between caregivers and change, and the next month is critical. She encourages everyone to call their senators and legislators, tell them that care matters. They have provisions of funding care at the federal level. So, call to share your care stories, share pictures on social media and tag your senators; tell them care is important. Everyone can do this as a tangible, small actionable item.
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