Published on November 3rd, 2022 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura



Dear Angela Garbes,

A few hours ago, I was sobbing, and it felt very good. I was wailing and howling and sliding off the couch to my knees on the floor, and thinking all the while, You need this. Don’t be quiet. Don’t stop.

Many things had to happen first.

Ten months earlier, I applied for a guaranteed income for artists (itself only in existence because of the many hours of labor by dedicated non-profit employees) and then four months ago heard I’d qualified, and then the month before seen that money appear in my checking account. Then I used that money, pushed myself to use that money, not to deal with the cash-poor spring and summer my partner and I had found ourselves in but instead to pay for an Air BnB by the ocean in Queens to take a few days to write. And surf. And then I had to do the leaving, no matter how tired my partner, no matter how demanding our kids.

How can mothering be a way that we resist and combat the loneliness, the feeling of being burdened by our caring?[i]

(all quotes are from Essential Labor by Angela Garbes)

I was exhausted when I got out here, but I went to the ocean. It was high tide and choppy and I was nervous because the last time I was at that beach in high tide choppy waves my friend and I had saved a kid from drowning because the city does not pay anyone to lifeguard that beach, even in the peak of summer. My body remembered and I stayed shallow, surfed the white water because I wanted to feel my feet on sand. But the white water had good push and the waves I rode worked out the adrenaline tension of too little sleep that makes it hard to rest. That night I slept eleven hours uninterrupted. The next morning, I went back to the waves and surfed and only then came back to my little room. I ate a full meal, also uninterrupted, and felt how I was myself alone with no one to ask me to do anything.

In the current whirl of life, when professional work, domestic work, and childcare are all happening simultaneously under the same roof, it is easy to feel defeated by the duties of mothering. To view a child as a nuisance—and to feel guilty for the thought. These sentiments are not indicative of personal failings. According to Andrea Landry, an Indigenous Anishinaabe activist from Pays Plat First Nation, they are the legacy of settler colonialism.[ii]

Yet still, I did not start my writing. On Instagram I came to a post about that couple, the Bensons, and the song that a while back everyone was sharing. Before I’d only looked at their faces while they sang, had not turned on the sound. This day though I tapped the unmute icon and sat with “The Keep Going Song” for the first time and then the woman was looking out at me with her palm open and reaching, singing, asking “Are you Ok? Are you Ok?”

Then, came the tears.

In the shower after, I thought about how crying seems the most natural of responses to these last years in pandemic and global disruption. So why hadn’t I done more of it?

But I do know.

The sorrow has been vast; wouldn’t the tears be too? If I let them come, would they keep coming? (Keep going?) I had (have) people to care for, in particular a kid who was four when my city locked down and a baby born eleven weeks prior. And of course, always, there was just so much to do. An impossible list that got longer with the day, no matter what I crossed off. We all kept going. Who cried?

But now I dream. What if we (the mothers, the caregivers), what if we hadn’t pushed forward? What then? The more we kept at it, the more they gave us, piling caregiving and wage earning on top of ever-shifting guidelines for keeping ourselves, our children, our communities safe. We were the ones who taught our children to mask. We did more and more. No government official said, “Hey, mothers, is this doable? What would make this work better for you?”

No. Instead, in my city, they opened the bars before they opened the schools.

In 2020, mothering, as it did for so many people, became my most urgent and important work. But mothering also led to sense-deadening feelings of boredom and claustrophobia, despair that parents, caregivers, and domestic workers have been abandoned by society, expected to keep everything together without acknowledgement. The rage of mothers in America has been mighty. If we are able to harness even a fraction of the frustration, creativity, ingenuity and commitment we’ve seen over the last two years, it could be nothing short of revolutionary.[iii]

This is where I pause to tell you that I loved your book so much I don’t know how to talk about it. I have no critique. You say so much that I wanted said. Needed said. You’ve gathered these, yes essential, ideas and conversations and distilled them into theory and narrative, a manifesto—for me at least, something to live by and with. Most of my margin notes are exclamation marks. Unbeknownst to you, we’ve been chatting inside my head. One of our recent topics of conversation is the relationship between the words “natural” and “essential.”

Before reading Essential Labor some part of me viewed my mothering skills as natural, or inherent. Even though! I knew, know, how sexist that notion can be. But, stay with me, some of my mothering did feel like it rose in my cells in pregnancy and birthing and especially in those liminal, love saturated weeks of exhausted postpartum giddiness and overwhelm. I was not around babies growing up. I had never cared for one. But when I was passed that brand new human, I felt I knew something of what to do. I discovered I had an instinct for how I wanted to care for that baby and realized that instinct was worth listening to. But that very fact, the way in which I seemed to discover in me knowledge that was already there, is the very thing that made me (deep down) disvalue it. After all, what currency does “unearned” knowledge have these days? Most especially female knowledge.

Then again, perhaps my mothering was unearned in another way all together. Perhaps it was a gift, given to me by my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother, the triad of women who introduced me to the world, and raised me in it, with love, devotion, and respect. Perhaps it is in that initial oversight that I can locate my hesitant parsing of the notions of “natural” and “essential,” which is really my attempt to understand what this work of mothering really is, what it counts for, and how I account for it in my life outside the home. Perhaps I knew what to do when introduced to my baby because I was taught it before I even understood that I was being instructed.

Doing this requires knowledge of the history of mothering and care work—how they came to be seen as naturally female, which it to say, invisible and undervalued. When we understand the origins of this predicament, we can not only reject it, but offer better, more equitable solutions in its place. We can finally, properly acknowledge the role of care in our society and honor its place in our lives.[iv]

Besides, I know one does not have to have a uterus or be pregnant or birth a child to tap into caregiving skills. I have seen the act of nurturing call forward the knowledge of nurturing. For my partner, in his night hours rocking a restless babe on his shoulder. For my stepfather, in being trusted to care for these tiny humans and in that process discover himself a grandfather.

The notion of what is natural, what comes naturally to us, it becomes tricky territory quickly, don’t you think? How swiftly we may enter the realm of prejudice and bigotry. The same prejudices that label care work as natural to women, and as you specify, women of color in particular, have in turn devalued care work as a specific skill set and I was an agent of that devaluation, no matter that I didn’t want to be.

It is white America’s inability—its lack—that gets in the way of progress, of dynamic community building and caring across racial and social divisions.[v]

You live on the West Coast, so maybe you haven’t heard about the sharks out here in the beaches of Queens. But yes, there have been sharks. No deaths, some bites. The beaches have been closed a few times. It’s been big news in an overheated city. I wondered if this was the end of my pursuit of surfing. Fucking sharks! I thought. Come on.

A surfer of twenty years who runs a business out here, one suffering because the sharks have scared off  customers, told me they’re Spinner Sharks, who don’t bother with people but do charge towards the fish that are their sustenance. If the fish come close to people, well, so do the Spinners. And he told me that the other day one came charging at him, chasing a fish. When the fish swam by, the shark hit his leg and flipped him off his board. The shark kept swimming but the surfer paddled into shore. That was a little much, he said, laughed. But even after he told me that story, I went back in the water.         

I remember back in August 2020 when they were saying that schools may not re-open, and I was disbelieving. Well, they’re just going to have to cancel work then because what do they expect parents to do?

Ah, how vastly I underestimated the true monstrosity of capitalism, sexism, our societal disregard for the needs of families. The city did not find safe ways to open schools, we all know, nor did it cancel work. They just left it to us to do it all at the same time and did not mind when we left our places of work in the millions.

And now here we are. 

Women out of the workforce, enduring the brunt of economic hardship, is not a short term problem. Nor is it a recent one. A factor in the gender pay gap is that women over the course of their careers—mothers or not—will step away from paid work to care for family members. They lose money not only in the form of salaries, but also retirement funds and health-care benefits. It takes years to come back fully, often to lower wages. It is destabilizing and demoralizing. At a pandemic scale, it threatens to erase and vanish American women for years, likely decades.[vi]

I made it to the woods this summer too and I watched this butterfly fold its wings to fit inside the narrow purple cup of a flower and I watched my naked toddler pick currants from the bush and eat them warm and one day she squatted in the grass and peed on purpose her face shining with delight and pride and my big kid was calling that we would be playing soccer in four minutes and I wondered, as it was happening, why I couldn’t access the joy. I sat there, thinking, I should be feeling this more. And of course, perhaps it has to do with all that grief and fear that I’ve packed into the tiny spaces of home just as I pack my work (paid and unpaid) into the tiny spaces of my family’s week. 

But now I have cried. Keened?

I decided I’d keep surfing because of another thing that happened in the woods. I was spending a few days at a sweet little family camp. The most placid of settings. A row of small cabins around a big field, on one edge the old wooden rec hall and dining hall, along the other edge the lake with its gentle slope that helped even the littlest of kids feel comfortable in the water, and opposite the rec hall, a view of the trees. It was after dinner, everyone had their popsicles and ice cream bars, and the pack of kids were scattered playing their games, the adults on the steps of the rec hall. We heard a crack. We looked for the sound. A tree, sixty feet, maybe eighty feet, tall began to lean towards the cabins. The moment it took to understand that a tree was falling was the only moment we would’ve had to warn anyone. The tree sped down and landed with a booming crash. It seemed-we hoped—behind the cabins. My kid came sprinting across the field, eyes wide. He told me later he came running because he thought the black bear that we’d been warned about had leaned against the tree and knocked it over and so he was running to get away from the bear. Miraculously (is this what counts as a miracle? A near miss?) the tree did not hit the cabins or cars. We all gathered in units in front of our cabins, the emergency procedure we’d rehearsed the first evening of family camp. Everyone accounted for. No one hurt. That night my kid was scared to go to sleep.  

            “What if another tree falls, on our cabin?”

             “A tree falling like that is rare. This is only the second time in my life I’ve seen it. I don’t think it will happen again,” I said.

But I knew it wasn’t enough truth to help. I decided to say what I was really thinking.

            “We can’t ever know for sure what will happen in a day. We just have to be in the moment we’re in. Right now, me and you and Daddy and your sister are snug in here together and I do feel sure that we’re going to be fine tonight.”

He didn’t say anything but was soon asleep. When I went to the bathroom in the night, I clapped my hands as I’d been instructed to warn off the bear.

How did we get to this place where essential work is so devalued? Two crucial lenses to view care work through are capitalism, the system in which trade and industry are privatized and controlled by owners for profit, and colonization, the action of taking control of the land and Indigenous people of an area. At the heart of both lies the impulse to draw a distinct line between beings with power and beings to be dominated…[vii]

There’s much metaphorical potential in the circling sharks, don’t you think? That I am brave and follow my heart no matter what fears lurk, no matter the predations of capitalism and gun-bearing extremists and a heating planet. But it doesn’t work. Because, as one conservationist said, “We should be more afraid of an ocean without sharks.”

I realize how odd it is that I would consider it a possibility to go into the natural world without encountering predators. That I have become accustomed to “natural” spaces in which a healthy risk or threat has been sanitized away. The papers blazed with the news that sharks were hunting fish in the ocean. Beaches closed. We seem to consider this risk intolerable while we tolerate an economic life that relies on the exploitation of most of us; while we tolerate disturbed individuals buying guns that allow them to murder a room of children in minutes.

What we have come to think of us as natural and not has gotten all twisted up.

But of course, you didn’t title your book “Natural Labor.”

Raising a child requires profound strength and hope. You must believe in your ability to forge a future that is better than the present we currently inhabit, even if you never live to see it… We are raising future community members and leaders—adults who will never put children in cages, never ask someone to choose between their health and a paycheck [viii]

If the labor of mothering is only natural, then there is no separation between it and me. I am conflated with mothering and in that merging there comes the justification to assume that I will do it no matter what. No matter what it asks of me, or how the hours increase into endless. I am mother and it can be all of me. But if the mothering is labor and it is essential than it can exist outside and beyond me. It can be a skill set. One that involves other people. One that earns, good, money. It becomes distinct, existing beyond the borders of my body, and then I can access the space I need to be both mother and me. It can be a thing I do. Which means I can do other things too. Which means I can take pride in it and make mistakes in it and still be me.

It can be hard to get there.

What do I want for my daughters? To be with their pleasure, to not have an idea of what it has to be, an idea to live up to. To know that self-discovery takes time and exploration and effort, and they can both do so at their own pace, because they’ll be doing it for the rest of their lives.[ix]

I have found a wonderful shift since reading your book. Now I can marvel that the decision to care for another human has given me access to an array of knowledge, some of it given, some sought, some sorted through trial and error. I can shift from reckoning with this labor as natural, to naming it as essential. The thought buoys me, gives me permission to be in new relation to all my environments: My body, neighborhood, workplace, city, state, country, planet, galaxy. (Those photos from the new NASA telescope, did you see them? Those majestic starscapes of our own past caught finally by us, the light speeding to us all these millions of years, but we just now figuring out how to see. ) For the record, I’m not such a snazzy surfer. I could justify quitting. But in the water, I get to choose whether to insert myself into a particular relationship to a threat that makes sense. I get to be in right relation to both my body and something much greater than my body. Which is another way to say, that it returns me to myself.

As did your book.

My gratitude abounds. As will, I hope, the tears.


                                    Jade Sanchez-Ventura

[i] p 98, Garbes

[ii] p 98, Garbes

[iii] p 16, Garbes

[iv] p 12, Garbes

[v] p 100, Garbes

[vi] p 40, Garbes

[vii] 53, Garbes

[viii] p 15, Garbes

[ix] p 186, Garbes

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About the Author

Jade Sanchez-Ventura is a writer and radical educator and though she has ties to many far flung countries, she has always made her home in Brooklyn, New York. She works in memoir, and her personal essays have drawn the attention of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast, in which she was featured, as well as earning her the Slice Literary Conference “Bridging the Gap” award. She has been published across an array of online literary journals, and in print with Seal Press. Her work has been awarded by the Disquiet Literary Conference, and she was named a Hertog Fellow. She is a columnist at MUTHA Magazine, where she champions a fiery re-imagining of parenting. As an educator, she is very good at being continually wowed by her students and their words on the page. She does this, and other work, with the Brooklyn Free School.

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