How to value mothering for the hard work that it is : Life Kit Raising kids is among the most essential work humans do, and yet it's rarely valued as skilled labor. Angela Garbes, author of Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, guides us through a shift in mindset to help give mothering the value it deserves.

Raising kids is hard work. The way we think about it can shift how we value mothering

Raising kids is hard work. The way we think about it can shift how we value mothering

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Simone Martin-Newberry for NPR
Illustration of a mother caring for two children while supporting a platform above her head that people are walking on, symbolizing holding society on her shoulders.
Simone Martin-Newberry for NPR

When we think of being a mother, we often think of motherhood: a noun. But what if we thought of it as a verb?

Angela Garbes, author of Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, says the shift to thinking of mothering as a verb can help paint a more vivid and accurate picture of the daily work — the thousands of small actions — involved in raising children. And this shift creates space for people who don't see themselves as mothers to be part of the caregiving conversation.

"The terrain of mothering is not limited to the people who give birth to children; it is not defined by gender," Garbes writes in her book. "While 'mother' is an important identity for many women who still provide the majority of care to children in America, no one cares for children entirely on their own. My perspective has grown to consider the work of raising children as Mothering, an action that includes people of all genders and nonparents alike."

It's a collective social responsibility to raise children into adults. However, we often expect people to do this work alone and fail to recognize how valuable their contributions are. Garbes spoke to NPR's Asma Khalid about mothering, and what we can do to better recognize and celebrate caregivers. These are highlights from their conversation.

Y0u can listen to the full interview at the top of the page, on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify.

Angela Garbes is the author of Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy and Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change Left: Photograph by Elizabeth Rudge; Right: Harper Wave hide caption

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Left: Photograph by Elizabeth Rudge; Right: Harper Wave

These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On increasing the visibility of caregiving

This is the work that makes all other work possible. This is something we saw in the pandemic when our infrastructures of child care, when babysitters, nannies, child care centers and preschools closed. We were all scrambling. We were lost. So I think insisting upon its visibility is the first step.

And I think finding solidarity with the people who do care work for us, and saying, "these people deserve a living wage and these people deserve basic worker protections." When we are able to give that to the people that we hire to do those things, then we can start to think about how mothers, and the people who are unpaid to do that work, deserve those things as well.

Recognize those doing the heavy lifting

Most domestic laborers and child care providers are women of color and they are mothers. And child care workers are three times more likely to live in poverty than any other worker. Which is really a shameful statistic. The onus is on people with social power to share some of that power, to be in solidarity, to be in true allyship with people, which is to share space, to share material resources and to listen.

How sharing the load can increase our capacity

We need to ask for help. We need to offer help. We need to, from the ground up, insist on our interdependence and do as much as we can to shape our communities the way we want to see them. If we are taking care of each other at the individual level and the community level, if we are helping each other feel more dignified and whole, I think that also gives people more energy to then engage in community work, which may lead to organizing work, which may lead to advocacy. I think that when you receive care from other people, you find, actually, that as depleted as you feel, you might have a little extra something to give.

On being disappointed by a lack of policy support for caregivers

I personally am disappointed and angered by [the lack of paid leave and the expiration of the child tax credit] The thing that I don't feel let down by is people and by my community and individuals. And this is something else that I saw in the pandemic — the natural human instinct to take care of each other. We saw pods. This is people saying, "I can't do this alone. I need another family to help me." We saw people talking about mutual aid, giving money directly to people who have needs.

And pre-pandemic, that's what people with limited resources, people who could not outsource child care, marginalized populations have always [done]. This is the work of survival. We have always been taking care of each other. And we will continue to do that.

Teach your kids to respect the work of caregiving

I love taking care of my children, and I love cooking for them. I love reading to them. I love cuddling them. But there are days when I think there is nothing wrong with saying to my child, "You should say thank you to me. I'm cooking you dinner, and I love you, and I will never stop doing this, but this is work. It takes time, and you should say thank you. And now that you're getting older, you can set the table. You can get your own water glass."

If you want to talk about how you value domestic work, it's by showing the next generation that this is important work. Like maybe we can't convince every adult that this is work that should be compensated. But maybe we can show our children that, and they can start to insist upon that.

Stay present and humble. Mothering is a journey

My daughters are 7 and 4. They are very different from each other. Like, children are who they are when they show up. And I think our job is to not do damage.

When you're raising young children, you are just drowning in the details. But sometimes, I say things to myself like "No child ever died from crying, right?" I say things to myself like, "What's the worst thing that could happen if my daughter went into the lake wearing her shoes?" You know, I don't think these little things we do are going to make or break their spirits. I think loving them, giving them attention, providing for their basic needs, that's the work. And if that's all you do, you've done a great job.


This episode of Life Kit was produced by Sylvie Douglis and adapted for the web by Michelle Aslam.

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