INDY Week invited several people to an intergenerational discussion about the "new domesticity"—leaving the traditional workplace for a home-centered life of child-rearing, gardening, cooking, sewing and other domestic tasks. Each participant has a different background. Some worked while being a parent and managing a household; others quit their jobs entirely. They exchanged ideas about their life choices. The transcript was edited and condensed for space.
Mabel Miller Austin, 78: Married, mother of two sons, 52 and 48. She worked full-time outside the home at Cone Mills from 1953–72 and the N.C. Department of Corrections from 1972–92. She has five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, two of whom, ages 11 and 4, she is helping to raise in her home. She lives in Hillsborough.
Susan Barco, 66: Married, mother of two grown children. Susan belonged to one of the first women's groups in 1969. She worked as a lab tech at Duke and as an attorney. She worked while her first child was young but quit her job and became a full-time mother when her second son was born. A filmmaker and volunteer mediator, she lives in Durham.
Jedidiah Gant, 33: Married, father of Oliver, 4, and Nora, 4 months. He worked as an architect until three months after his son was born. Jedidiah is pursuing a master's degree in digital media, co-founded newraleigh.com and is a freelance writer. His wife works full-time. They live in Raleigh.
Summer Kinard, 36: Married, mother of Michael and Ana, ages 2 and 4. An opera singer and a writer—her novel about the new domesticity will be published next month— she has master's degrees in theology and divinity. Summer stays at home in Durham, where she home-schools her children, cooks meals from scratch, gardens and crochets. Her husband works full-time.
Amanda Waldrop, 29: Married, mother of Eleanor, who is 14 months. Amanda, a Durham resident, worked at a coffee shop before her daughter was born. Her husband works full-time.
INDY: Why did you choose this traditional lifestyle? Was it economic or philosophical reasons or something else?
Jedidiah: Three months after my son was born, he wasn't taking to day care very well. We had to make a choice and decided which one was more likely to quit their job. One of us had to do it; it was a matter of who raised their hand first. My wife was a little further into her career and mine was still young at the time. Then Oliver was diagnosed with cancer at 16 or 18 months. I was in grad school and took a year off to get things back to an equilibrium. I stayed at home with him and our family became more home-centered. As he started coming out of treatment, my wife started back at her job. I was embedded in home life. My wife and I have a loose pact that we may switch in the future and she'll stay home.
Summer: I had been in academia until 2007, but I didn't want to get my Ph.D. because I didn't want to talk just with scholars. I want to build community, and that isn't paid. I knew I wanted to have children, but if I were going to pay others to care for my children, those people would be impoverished and minorities. I didn't want other people to raise my children. I crochet and garden; those things are important to me.
Mabel: Once I graduated from high school, I applied for a job at Cone Mills. I worked for six years before my first child was born. I kept working for economic reasons.
We had a lady who lived close by who cared for our children. I can't say that I felt conflicted because I knew her and her values. And later on my husband had an upholstery shop at the house, so he was there.
Amanda: It's beneficial for her and me and my husband. My staying at home was born out of necessity—the expense of child care, which didn't align with what I wanted. I'll send her to school soon, one day a week, and then I'll decide whether to go back to work.
Susan: I worked for some wonderful employers. When my first child was born I could take six months off. I was determined to nurse my child for one year, and I had to go back and forth to nursery school to nurse him. When I got pregnant with my second son, I couldn't imagine how I could do that. I was surprised how much I fell in love with my babies and teaching art to them. I worked off and on while they were in elementary school, but my heart wasn't in it. I was fortunate that my husband supported me financially; it was a struggle for me not to work until he got a very nice job.
Reclaiming traditional homemaking skills is part of the new domesticity. What skills do you have?
Mabel: I recently went to a quilt show and it made me feel good that craft has not been lost. My sewing consists of seams and buttons. As for canning, I especially like pickled beets. My husband planted a garden. If they'd raise the beets I'd can them. I was 5 years old when we got electricity. That was the most wonderful thing, to have a light bulb above the table.
Summer: I can't sew a straight line but I can crochet. Cooking is where my domesticity comes out. We cook from scratch and use whole foods. My parents didn't.
Mabel: I cooked potatoes and beans, salmon cakes, cube steak, hot dogs and hamburgers.
Amanda: I've become efficient at cooking and meal planning. I try to keep it to 30 minutes per meal. I'm obsessed knowing what [my daughter is] getting and where it's coming from. That's why I want to start a garden.
Susan: My mom was a seamstress and taught me a lot about sewing and cooking. I try to cook every day. My dad taught me photography. I like to be busy.
How do you feel about balancing work and home? Or, if you stayed at home, about withdrawing from the workforce?
Mabel: Moms and dads who stay home with their children get something. After working all day, you've given that job all you have. Neither my husband nor I came from a family that had money.
Summer: When I grew up, we lived in poverty. My love of gardening came from that. I want my children to know where their food comes from. I came from a matriarchal family—a very large Catholic family. My grandmother had nine children, but her husband left her when she had her last child. She had to step up with all these kids and get a job. I was raised with a very strong admonition: "You must be able to take care of yourself." So it was hard for me to make that decision [to stay home] at first. But I don't feel like there's a power imbalance in the house.
Amanda: I worked before my child was born. I expected to be working; this isn't what I imagined for myself, but I've grown to enjoy it and want to continue to do it.
Jedidiah, what is it like for you to have embraced this domestic life as a father? How do others view you?
Jedidiah: I try to embrace the fatherhood but not capitalize on it. It's changed a lot in the past five or 10 years or so. More young fathers are taking this road for various reasons. Part of it was spawned by the 2008 crash, although mine had nothing to do with economics. I tried to disconnect from stereotypical—the fumbling dad [portrayed in the movies]. The model has changed and men are more respected in this world. It's almost quaint. Through this I have tried to keep my professional window open. That is challenging but I'm very efficient.
My mother and father divorced when I was 3 and my mom worked 9 to 5. I grew up with a lot of women around me: my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother—a lineage of women influencing my life.
Does domestic life wear on you?
Amanda: I don't always love it. Eleanor is cutting her molars right now. When my husband gets home, I hand her off and go into the bathroom for about 30 minutes. I have to find time for myself so I can be a better mother. I do get bored, but I've been lucky to find a community of young parents.
Jedidiah: We've had a garden for five years; Oliver is able to help. And I can put Nora in a sling and I can cut bushes. The dishes and housework and constantly cleaning up toys is tough. I'm getting more efficient at it.
Summer: Being a parent forced efficiency on me. I don't have a clean house but I do have a nontoxic house. I write much faster now and I can get a lot done.
Mabel: You do what you can do, and what you can't, it's there the next day. When I was working we didn't have as much to clutter the house back then. Two of my great-grandchildren live with us. I attend their church and school functions. I'm taking myself back several years. I am very thankful for the fact we know where they are and we don't have to worry. I can't imagine being bored.
Susan: My husband worked long hours and I would get overwhelmed sometimes. Sometimes I hired someone to do a little housework or to care for my sons while I went for a run.
Summer: I couldn't be a single person and do this unless I shared a house with another single person. I would need a helper, one of those creative living arrangements.
Jedidiah: My wife allows me to do other projects and encourages those things. You have that time away from domesticity. Without that other person, it would be quite tough.
Where do you find community? And for Susan and Mabel, how would the Internet have changed your life as homemakers?
Jedidiah: One thing that I miss, because I'm an extrovert and I'm young, is adult time. I thrive off that. At the same time, the online world, especially Twitter, is important for me to keep connected to friends and professional people.
Summer: When my son was a baby, a bunch of people thought I had become stupid. People stopped talking to me. They thought I needed more time with my baby and they cut me out of things. The Internet was a lifesaver. I was very emotionally vulnerable, and being online, I was able to talk to other mothers. Because of attachment parenting and home-schooling, I found people who were able to see me as a human after pregnancy.
Mabel: So many of us were working that we weren't isolated.
Amanda: People will tell you you're doing it wrong, so it's beneficial being online in making parenting decisions without getting unsolicited advice.
Susan: I was lucky. I had connected with the Durham Voters Alliance, which advocated for racial and economic justice. I was really active with them. I felt connected to the wider Durham community. When my kids were really little, we moved to Trinity Park so they could play with more kids.
If women leave the workforce and politics en masse, who will advocate for women—especially those who don't have the privilege of staying at home with their families?
Summer: It isn't going to happen. Most people aren't going to make those choices.
Amanda: I know a lot of women who don't plan to have children. Even women who are staying home still advocate for things we need. Our partners are also advocating for us. Part of my decision to stay home is that my husband made it possible. He grew up with a stay-at-home father when it wasn't very common.
Do you have any regrets? Do you have any advice for the younger generation?
Mabel: I don't have any regrets because without both of us working we wouldn't have had a home. But I think they're doing it right, staying at home with their children. They're not going to be little but one time.
Summer: I am still a strong feminist. To have an integrated life worth living, I needed to reclaim areas that had been forgotten to draw strength and cultivate it.
Amanda: Kids don't monopolize your life. I am a mother and a woman and I have my own interests.
Jedidiah: It's a challenge. Successful parenting lies in balancing children and the rest of life: professional work, chores, reading, hobbies. While kids come first, they don't monopolize my time. They are just another aspect of life. Staying at home with your kids is only the beginning. A lot of people think you're stuck in a rut, but you can connect to the world around you. You're not just breeders.
Susan: Base your decisions on love. Follow your heart.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Come home to roost."