The New Domesticity

Homeward BoundI began Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity with excitement. Matchar’s book, released in May 2013, reports on the “generation of smart, highly educated young people [who] are spending their time knitting, canning jam, baking cupcakes, gardening, and more (and blogging about it, of course).” As the jacket copy says, “Some are even turning away from traditional careers and corporate culture for slower, more home-centric lifestyles that involve ‘urban homesteading,’ homeschooling their kids, or starting Etsy businesses.” I hadn’t seen myself so clearly described on a book jacket since David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise. Here was Bobos for Generation Y.

While it’s always fascinating to read about oneself, roundabout the fourth chapter, I got impatient with Matchar. Maybe my strong identification with the culture she was describing brought out my defensiveness. About the fourth chapter, she started conjecturing that the new domesticity was reducing women’s financial independence, that lots of these new homemakers were living under a get-rich-quick-by-blogging illusion, and that women were crazy to think that the ability to eat out wasn’t a step up in quality of life. There is also, running through her book, the implication that women have embraced the “new domesticity” because they’ve seen it made cool by others: the Riot Grrrls, or the writers of gorgeously photographed domestic-chic blogs. I realize that I’m only one person and can’t speak for everyone who’s part of this cultural phenomenon, but I felt like Matchar was often missing the point.

My own interest in homesteading goes back to my teenage years, when I used to read about skinning rabbits and building outhouses while waiting for my sisters to get their hair cut at the salon. I don’t know how this interest arose; I just remember reading the books. My parents were not even gardeners, and though my grandparents were, I never set foot among their vegetables. Certainly no one in my family raised chickens or goats. But somewhere inside me was the need to do these things.

I can’t say that media and culture had nothing to do with the development of this desire. I’m sure that some of my inspiration came from movies like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller. And if books like The Good Life and Five Acres and Independence hadn’t been reprinted and available on bookstore shelves, my desire might not have flourished like it did. But I think that, in Homeward Bound, Emily Matchar misses an essential aspect of the experience of the new domesticity. (It is worth noting that she doesn’t identify herself as a member of the movement, though she does love salivating over homemaker blogs.) I’m willing to bet that a majority of people in this movement don’t see themselves as following a trend. They feel that they’re acting out desires and interests they’ve had since they were quite young, and are surprised, like me, to discover that they are far from alone.

Matchar’s book would have been much more interesting to me if she had asked more of her subjects when their love for the home arts began and why they felt driven to can their own tomatoes rather than buy them from the store. Matchar implies that canning one’s own produce is a silly waste of time and effort, engaged in only by people who are paranoid about contaminants in industrial foods. (She reassures us that food today is safer than it’s ever been.) Sorry, but that’s not why I can tomatoes. I admit that canning is a hot, sticky, messy job, but I do it because, in the taste department, there is absolutely no comparison with store-bought products. And I’m sorry, Matchar, but I don’t consider eating out an improvement in quality of life when restaurants serve circles of tasteless pink mush labeled “tomatoes.” No, perhaps delicious food isn’t the most important thing in life. But it certainly helps keep up the morale.

And it’s a sorry testament to the state of our culture that Matchar thinks women can’t afford to stay home and grow decent-tasting food because of the need for corporate resumes in case our spouses leave us one day. I don’t deny that the financial precariousness of homemakers is a problem. But I’m not willing to accept that the proper solution is spending forty hours or more a week doing a job I hate, and then on top of that constantly eating food that’s over-salted to disguise its lack of natural flavor. There was something deeply unfulfilling about the corporate-centered culture of the nineties and early two-thousands, and new domestics are doing the best they can to find meaningful, useful work, even when it doesn’t pay much in dollar terms. A fulfilling life (fueled by good food) should be economically viable. And if it isn’t, well, I guess we see just how much progress modern life has actually delivered.

I don’t doubt that the present interest in all things homemaker is something of a bubble, and that not a few neo-homesteaders will burn themselves out in the next several years. But I think the current trend is nevertheless symptomatic of a deep, unmet need for work that is varied, creative, challenging, and quite visibly productive. And that need is not going to go away.


6 responses to “The New Domesticity”

  1. I have a lot of friends who knit, some who jelly/jam. I have hardly any time, but I wish I could do more pickling. It’s great to know how to do these skills and I commend people who keep them alive in their household.

  2. Excellent post! I’ve had this book on my to read list, but I may hold off for now. From what it sounds like, the author simply judges women and their activities instead of performing a solid ethnography, which as you said it would help to know the subjects better.

    • I think it would still be worth picking up from the library and scanning, maybe reading the chapters that are most interesting to you. I think Matchar was a little too eager to draw political conclusions from her investigation of the new homemaking fervor and that she ended up pointing back to yesterday’s status quo instead of questioning it and reenvisioning it the way so many neo-homemakers and homesteaders are trying to do. Still, her perspective is worth being aware of. And it does provide some food for thought.

  3. You make some excellent points, Sharon, and make them eloquently. I wish I could forward this to Wendell Berry who would surely approve!

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