Thursday, August 22, 2013

Homeward Bound - The Introduction

When I first heard about Emily Matchar's book Homeward Bound, Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, I thought that this was a book likely to be relevant to my interests.  And then I thought, if it is relevant to my interests it would also likely interest my readers, as few as they may be.  So I decided to review this book chapter by chapter over the course of a couple days (or weeks).  And so we begin...

2013-08-22 20.50.50.jpgThe introduction gives us a glimpse of what Ms. Matchar has identified as a new modern trend of women (and some men) taking up seemingly out-dated domestic hobbies and then sharing their housewifely accomplishments via "domestic-porn blogs" and other social media.  She states that this "hipster housewife" ethos means that "[o]ur new collective escapist fantasy is more likely to involve a Vermont farmhouse and a cute Anthropologie apron than a SoHo loft and a pair of Manolos."  And here I think she begins to miss the mark.  Now I don't claim to speak for everyone, but I'd much rather wear my Anthropologie apron while baking (gluten-free) cupcakes IN my SoHo loft.  Except the apron wouldn't be from Anthropologie.  If I want a vintage style apron I shall make it myself thank you.  That way it can match the curtains in the kitchen.  In any case, if her fashionable young subjects in "Brooklyn and San Francisco and Austin and Chicago" with their urban gardens, backyard chickens and vintage clothing were actually longing for the countryside they could easily go.  Because despite her claim that this is more than a "whim" of the "privileged hipsters", much of this lifestyle is largely dependant on a certain degree of free money and free time.  Growing and canning organic fruit is expensive.  Attachment parenting and homeschooling are time-consuming.  These things may or may not be beneficial (I think the jury is still out on some of this), but they are also choices that are out of reach for many people who need to work a full time job or two.  So yes, this may go beyond the realm of hipsterdom, but it is still the purview of the privileged. 

Later in the introduction, Matchar introduces a 33 year old PhD candidate who claims that her knitting, baking, rooftop gardening and cheese-making are more than just hobbies. 
These are not just hobbies for her.  She has a deep and committed belief that homemaking is central to a sustainable, socially just society.  She believes that traditional "women's work" like cooking, crafting, and raising children has been devalued and sees restoring this work to its rightful place of honor as one of her most important goals.
  To which I say, what is wrong with hobbies?  I've always been one to have loads of hobbies.  At different times in my life I have knit scarves, drawn portraits, made scrapbooks, built dollhouses, sewn clothing, painted silk, sang, danced, played the viola, acted in community theater and learned to cook.  I have always had lots of hobbies.  The biggest cultural shift to me isn't that people are taking up these pursuits but that crafting is now cool instead of a slightly dorky, shameful secret.  Yes, online communities have changed how we relate to the domestic arts but I think that has more to do with community building and finding like-minded individuals who share our interests than some sort of Pinterest related one-upmanship.  Frankly I think this trend might have just as much to do with the rise and acceptance of "geek" culture as it does political motivations. 

And as for the idea of restoring "women's work" to it's rightful place of honor and respecting it as something more than a hobby?  I would point out that I come by my hobbies honestly.  I sat with my maternal Grandmother for years as she sewed unique costumed teddy-bears for craft shows, tended a gorgeous backyard flower and vegetable garden, painted pysanky eggs, and drew beautiful pastel landscapes.  My paternal Grandmother sewed our Irish dancing dresses and other clothing for several generations, made beautiful quilts and wool hooked rugs, grew African violets, and late in life learned to use the computer.  One afternoon in seventh grade she taught me how to make scones.  At various points these activities brought in money and provided emotional and creative outlets for two of the smartest and most capable women I've ever known.  That doesn't make them not hobbies.  If we have to make this a gender issue, why not ask why men don't feel the need to justify their hobbies as something different or more.  They can just be into cars or woodworking or whatever.  Yes the lucky few get to turn a hobby into a career but up to and even including that point, it's still a hobby and that is just fine.

Matchar also discuses a highly-educated lesbian couple who hope to both work from home so as to dedicate their lives to parenting, cooking and crafting.  This decision is seemingly motivated by one of their Boomer mothers who was a high-powered executive with depression and diabetes.  Apparently this one woman was proof that trying to "have it all" was crazy nonsense and success in the workplace makes you sad and unhealthy (take that Sheryl Sandberg!).  So instead these women want to be "hands-on attachment parents for their planned 'three to six' children.

They want to cook all their meals from scratch like they do now - homemade granola for breakfast, home-canned fruits and veggies, slow-simmered bone broths, homemade sauerkraut - and grow their own veggies ("When we eat out, we're letting somebody else choose the quality of our vegetables," Sammy says). 

But again, my lived experience doesn't mesh with this theory that eating healthy and a good dose of DIY is not compatible with working a regular job (It may be incompatible with the vegetable pretension however).  The beauty of slow-simmered bone broth is that it can be made in the crock pot while you are at work.  The vegetables and herbs can be planted in a single weekend afternoon and will grow just fine without your being there 24 hours a day to watch them.  I just don't understand how one fixes a lack of work life balance by completely opting out of the outside world.  I thought the key word is balance.  Because if I'm being honest here, the least productive I've ever been was when I was unemployed.  Yes, I went to the supermarket every day and bought fresh ingredients and cooked dinner.  I also vacuumed more regularly.  But with more free time I spent a lot less time doing what I loved.  My time was no longer valuable so I no longer valued it.  An entire summer was squandered.  But when I have to squeeze my passions into a few evening and weekend hours?  I make that time count.  When working 8 hours a day (or 10 or 12... I'm a lawyer, remember?) I refinished tables, tailored suits, and taught myself to cook Indian food.  When unemployed, I...kept the house slightly tidier? (And yes, I understand that these particular women are planning to work from home rather than just exist on money that will magically materialize... but other examples seem heavy on the "not going back to work after baby" thing that I find worrying.  Like, Etsy is great and all, but for most people it is not a secure long-term career plan.)

So yeah, I've only read 9 pages and I already have all the thoughts...  As you can tell, my ideas are a bit scattered here.  On the one hand, I am supportive and agree that something is indeed happening here, but on the other hand I think some of this is rubbing me the wrong way because I am part of the demographic she is theorizing about yet her examples don't ring true to either my experiences or those of the people I know.  I largely regard my crafting and sewing and so forth from an artistic/aesthetic rather than political lens.  I do these things because they are fun and rewarding and feed my creative impulse.  I sew because I am picky about my clothes and everything in stores is expensive, short, and pulls across the bust.  I mean, I like the environment but not enough to give up meat or Lycra.  I like to knit but have zero desire to clean up the feces of chickens or children.  And if I ever did acquire chickens or children I would not want them sleeping in my bed!  So maybe there are large numbers of people who attach greater significance and meaning to their domestic pursuits.  That is their right and if their continued support of my pet projects mean more stores carry quality yarn, I'll be a happy camper.  But yeah, these people may exist, but haven't met them. 

One interesting point that she makes regarding this turn toward the domestic is that it is happening at a time when a lot of the world around us seems soooo uncertain.  I am thirty years old and the economy has been terrible for my entire post-education adulthood.  The climate is in crisis.  Every day we hear about how we can't count on Social Security, the government is reading our email and grocery store spinach will kill us.  It's scary out there and I don't think I'm alone in feeling under-prepared.  I agree that among our generation (Millennial?) there is a growing distrust of institutions (the social safety net, large corporations, organized religions) leading to a feeling that we need to do for ourselves.  That we just might be better off if we retreat a bit into our families and our own skills.  But I also distrust a domestic movement that is happening at the same time the right is attempting to roll back reproductive rights.  I distrust the fact that the "opt-out revolution" is still happening at a time when we are also being encouraged to "Lean In."  I obviously don't think that knitting and sewing and cooking and even parenting are anti-feminist.  But sacrificing your financial security and sense of self to accomplish these things to an interwebz approved standard just might be. 

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