You must be living on another planet not to know that many American women (and some men) have caught the domesticity bug. They’re cultivating their own gardens (or buying locally grown produce). They embrace crafty projects like sewing, knitting, woodworking, soap making and jewelry design. They are total foodies who can their own fruits and veggies and are experts at making a pie crust.
Some of these people also eschew the public realm by leaving corporate America to have their own home-based businesses, and choose to homeschool rather than send their kids to private and public schools. They practice something called “attachment” parenting. When it comes to political and social issues, these domestic divas and dudes run the gamut from very liberal to very conservative.
But does embracing the new domesticity have a dark side? Well, it could and Emily Matchar focuses on both the positive and negative elements of this phenomenon is her thought-provoking book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.
I was initially drawn to Matchar’s book because in my own quirky way, I’m pretty domestically inclined. I make my own soap and other bath and beauty products. I make most of my meals instead of eating out. I like to bake, and my sugar mint cookies are in high demand. I love my city’s local farmers markets and I’m growing a fledgling herb garden on my window sill. I even made my friend Kristine’s wedding veil.
However, I work for the “man.” My shabby chic apartment is more shabby than chic. I’m childfree so homeschooling and attachment parenting aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse. So just who are these people (mostly women) who have fully embraced the new domesticity?
According to the interviews that pepper Homeward Bound, there are various reasons why so many women are focusing on domesticity. Some do it because they are creative types who enjoy making everything from soup stock to laundry detergent. They also like saving money by making things themselves, especially in a shaky economy. And by focusing on the homemade they know exactly what they and their families are consuming and using.
A majority of these women are highly educated and many of them had good careers. However, they found the workplace lacking. Many jobs are not exactly worker and family friendly. And employees often live in fear of layoffs, outsourcing and other less than progressive corporate practices. And it’s often easier to jump off the career ladder, pack your belongings and head on home rather than try to change the system.
With some public schools in tatters and private school tuition out of reach of some people, many moms are relying on themselves to educate their broods through various homeschool strategies. And by staying home some mothers can practice the concept of attachment parenting, which includes methods like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, extended breast feeding and something called “elimination communication,” an alternative to changing diapers you might want to Google on an empty stomach.
And then there is the “F” word—feminism. Some of these women believe embracing domesticity as another act of feminism, employing the unique talents and qualities of women like nurturing and collaboration and using them at home rather than in the workplace. Other women embrace domesticity as a way to blow feminism a huge raspberry. They believe feminism has opened up a Pandora box of problems, including the breakdown of the American family and society as a whole.
Not surprisingly, many of these domestic divas blog. I’m sure you’ve read quite a few of them, one of the most famous being Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman. Many of Matchar’s subjects in Homeward Bound also blog about their domestic projects, often with beautifully crafted photos of cupcakes, knitted sweaters and adorable children. Though they might not be as well-known ad Ms. Drummond, many of them have sizable followings. And some of the interviewees have been able to monetize their domestic skills via their blogs, Etsy boutiques and writing books.
You might be thinking, “Okay, so far, so good, nothing wrong with cupcakes, knitted sweaters and adorable children.”
Nope, nothing wrong with any of those things; I’m a fan of all three. However, not everything in a homeward bound world is hand-crafted glitter and organic rainbows. There can be a downside.
Amongst Matchar’s misgivings about the new domesticity involved the issues of race, class and gender. A majority of the women interviewed in Homeward Bound are white, come from educated, middle-class backgrounds, and have husbands whose incomes allow them to stay home. They are a pretty homogenous bunch.
Furthermore, a lot of women, no matter their race or ethnicity can’t be homeward bound due to a lack of money and the need to work to support themselves and their families. A single mother working two jobs might not have the time to provide a perfectly made from scratch family dinner. And she’s probably too pooped at the end of the day to start her own Etsy boutique and plant a garden. The act of daily survival is a huge undertaking itself!
And where are the men? Sure, the men provide the paychecks, but if some of these women see themselves as the sole providers of their children’s nurturing does that mean the dads are just cash registers on legs and sperm donors?
Sure, being a stay at home mom is work, but what about financial independence? Marriages end in divorce, men do die and even if your husband is the most amazing man on the planet he can still lose his job or become disabled. Matchar points out it might be difficult for some of these women to jump on the career track after being out of work for so long. And those preserved peaches might taste great but they won’t pay the mortgage or fill up your gas tank.
Furthermore, being fully homeward bound can be a very insular and individualistic. By focusing solely on their own homes and families, some domestic divas can be so solipsistic they ignore on issues that a huge swathe of American citizens face daily—failing school systems, a less than ideal work culture and a lack of access to nutritious, non-processed foods. Not all of them have an “I got mine; screw the rest of you” mentality, but there are a few who seem to be a bit too self-focused, and don’t realize not everyone is as blessed as them. Fortunately, I know plenty of people in the DIY crowd who can focus on their homes and who are still engaged with their communities as a whole. And in the final chapter of Homeward Bound, Matchar wraps her book up in a final thesis of both observations and interesting thoughts on just this very idea. Family and community are not diametrically opposed. They are intermingled.
Ultimately, Matchar doesn’t fully dismiss the embrace of domesticity in Homeward Bound. She fully acknowledges its positive qualities. However, she wisely suggests women look before they leap fully into their “sewn with love” aprons. Baking cookies is good but so are financial independence, commitment to the public good and celebrating the hard won gains our forebears fought for women to get an education, vote and have a voice beyond writing a blog post about your latest domestic project. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the (artisanal) bath water just yet.