I'm such a rotten housekeeper that I had to get a job.
Dangerous with a needle or stove, I read the new book by Chapel Hill author Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, with the same fascination as if I were reading about the Lost Tribe of Borneo.
The book examines the phenomenon of highly educated feminist women—and some men—in their 20s and 30s who have rejected the traditional workplace for a home-centered life reminiscent of the early to mid-20th century: cooking, canning, gardening, raising chickens, sewing, homesteading, child-rearing and home-schooling.
These Gen Ys saw their mothers try to balance hard-charging careers and family. As a result, much of Gen Y was latchkey kids raised on convenience foods, the microwave and TV. For the new domestics, this lifestyle is not a repudiation of feminism, but a recasting of it.
The book is an insightful, fascinating read. While Matchar is nonjudgmental, she also provides a refreshing dose of analysis and skepticism. (Don't bet the farm on making millions on Etsy.)
Although there are certainly exceptions, in Matchar's telling, the new domesticity is reserved for white, middle-class people with partners; society tends to view stay-at-home African-Americans and Latinos as welfare. And while some of Gen Y have returned to this lifestyle because of the 2008 recession, one partner usually works full-time to support the family. In other words, it is a post-feminist privilege to have the time to sew your own curtains.
The romanticization of domestic life struck me—a 48-year-old, educated, married, career woman, childless by choice—as naive. My consternation is likely generational and situational: I saw my mother, now 66, cook and clean and can most of her life. (My siblings and I helped.) We attended public school but she, a natural teacher, supplemented our education at home. My father, valedictorian of his senior class whose educational prospects were also limited because of finances, worked long hours at the factory to support us.
Expelled from high school a month before her senior year for getting married, my mother, like many women in rural Indiana, had no career prospects and never worked outside the home. She found domesticity her calling, but I felt I had condemned her to a diminished life.
My grandmother, 88, came from poverty. A talented artist and seamstress, she worked in a factory—a job, not a career—during part of World War II. She also cooked, cleaned and sewed the family's clothes. With my grandfather, a factory worker and part-time farmer, she grew and preserved their food. She adored her five children, but when I hear her talk of the books she yearned to read, the places she dreamed of visiting, I know she wanted more.
While I respect the decision of the new domestics and the allure of a so-called simpler life, I cringe at its preciousness—although none of our roundtable participants exhibited that quality. As the book notes, in some circles, this lifestyle is now considered "cool." Instead of the corner office as status symbol, it is the chicken coop. For my grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles, who had to scoop the manure, slaughter the chickens, pluck the feathers and cook the birds, this scene is not romantic or hip—it is a hallmark of poverty.
The new domesticity is a reaction to what Matchar calls "the age of anxiety": concerns over the environment, food safety, violence. The Back to the Land movement of the 1960s and 1970s retreated—even farther off the grid—over the same concerns. But when many of the members emerged 20 years later, weary of the arduous work of homesteading, they found the same social problems. Little had changed. Their withdrawal from society may have been a balm for them, but it did little for the greater good.
In this way, the Internet distinguishes the new domestics from their hippie counterparts; online, they, their ideas and political activism can connect to the world.
Yet, self-segregation has consequences. As Matchar details in the chapter "Take-Home Points for the Homeward Bound," If women withdraw from the workplace and the political sphere (to be fair, many women are still activists), then who will advocate for those who lack this luxury? Who will fight for equal pay, more humane parental leave policies, reproductive rights?
The downsizing or reframing of expectations, Matchar writes, should not rest only on women. Without financial independence, women are held hostage to their husbands' job, health and commitment—much like the 1950s suburban housewives they spurn.
Their children, the post-millennials, will likely grow up, as I did, with an appreciation and respect for the traditional skills and know-how of their parents. But hopefully the kids will also realize that exoticizing this lifestyle glosses over the immense sacrifices of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, feminists at heart whose choices were few.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Domestic servitude."