Book Review: Homeward Bound

I have just finished reading Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar. I thought it was a really interesting book, and during the time I was reading it I would talk about it to anyone who would listen. Basically, it explores trends and attitudes as far back as the 1880s regarding homemaking, and she interviews a lot of individuals currently involved in urban homesteading, attachment parenting, blogging about cupcakes, and selling scarves on Etsy. I definitely find myself very low on the spectrum of DIY compared to most of these people, and I have to say right now that I think reusable toilet paper is gross. A big part of the desire to return to the home as the author lays it out, is that the workplace hasn't really been that great for women, especially mothers. When you're unsatisfied with your job, it is a lot easier to glorify ways of doing things that were left behind decades ago for good reasons.

I don't really fantasize about living on a farm. We were at Millbrook Winery a couple weeks ago, and a girl behind us said she wanted to work in a vineyard. Her boyfriend was like "You know it is like bending down in a field don't you? Its not what you think it is." And I thought that was pretty funny. If you were actually raised on a farm, most likely you would think it was hard work and be really excited to be able to buy bread at the store, and have your life not be filled with back breaking labor at some point. But the book doesn't just feature wannabe farmers, it features wannabe full-time homemakers too. I guess if I am going to sound totally retrograde for a moment, maybe we can talk about Porsha Stewart from the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Last season, she would sleep in, walk around her beautiful house, do her hair, go out to lunch with a bunch of her friends, sit in the hot tub with her husband for a bit, and organize a charity event for civil rights. She was nurturing her friendships and her passions while having the time and money to make herself look totally fabulous. If that was similar to the life of a 1950s housewife, who wouldn't want that? Well, fast forward to this season, and Kordell Stewart divorced her out of the blue, and she found out about it on Twitter! Now she is living with her mom, and that right there friends is the real problem. Technically Porsha was working at her civil rights charity, and I am sure she makes money from Bravo, but for most people filling your days with whatever you want at any given moment often means you aren't contributing to your long-term stability in any way. Even if you are making your own proscuitto in your basement or have your backyard filled with a vegetable garden, I'm not sure what happened to Porsha Stewart couldn't happen to you. If you are at home full-time, you aren't contributing to retirement savings or out in the world making connections that could turn out to be important mentors or friends. So while I don't fantasize about living on a farm, when I saw the movie The Help with their bright floral dresses, big hair, and cat eye glasses, and their playing bridge with their girlfriends in the middle of the day, I did weirdly think there was something nice about that lifestyle, but anyone who read the Feminine Mystique knows the cost was financial independence, and that cost is too high.

As far as farm-fresh, from scratch food, of course that is what many of us aspire to be eating. This summer, I was making smoothies for breakfast and gazpacho for lunch with ingredients mostly from the Troy Farmers Market and usually from The Berry Patch of Stephentown. It was all delicious, healthy and local. But you know what? For breakfast this morning I had one of these poptarts that have holiday images printed on them. Whatever. We like Stewart's Eggwiches, which I mentioned to some coworkers who looked at me like I had just said I ate from dumpsters. Even if you want to eat healthy, local food, it is unrealistic to expect that all of the time, especially in upstate New York in winter. The author points out that eating from scratch food made completely from ingredients from the farmer's market is the new upper middle class status symbol. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort. Sure, I'm a girl who makes my own English Muffins, pasta, and things like that, and who once wanted to make homemade candy corn (to which my former boss said "Why would you do that when you can buy it for a dollar?"), but I am an amateur compared to a lot of the people in this book.  And whatever, am I an expert at everything? No. Maybe we should put more pressure on people who's jobs it is to prepare our food to follow our values more? The author mentions a woman who grew up with a lot of canning in her family who thinks the current mania for canning is hilarious. She says: "I remember my aunts' summer canning days, boiling all those tomatoes in the kitchen with the windows closed. It was so hot, and so much work!" And yet somehow, I think there seems a lot of competition among people I know to DIY the most. I felt this way with wedding crafts too. I won't name names, but when my friend was making hundreds of tissue pom-pom peacock feathered napkin rings, and I said to my husband "I need to make tissue pom poms!" he said "No, you don't!". People thought I made my own dress, and I didn't. It was madness. If you had to pay someone for the hours I spend working on my wedding, it wouldn't have been affordable for anyone. And yet, think of all the books I wasn't reading, all the time I wasn't exercising, or talking on the phone to people. Why do we feel like we need to do it all ourselves? I think it was because I really wanted a homemade aesthetic, but why does it feel like a competition? And, also how funny since in some circles homemade aesthetic would just mean you couldn't afford store-bought things. I actually really like making chicken stock, but I'm here to tell you a Stewart's Eggwich won't kill you. All these things are only actually fun if you are choosing to do them, and doing them to keep up with whoever is its own form of oppression.

There's also a chapter called "Knit your own job". Making a living off your crafts isn't really promising. Say you spend even a low amount on craft supplies from Michael's and you had a coupon - maybe $10 per piece, you spend $25 to rent a booth at a craft fair, you drive $10 worth of gas, you spent a lot of time on your crafts and driving there and sitting there. You have to charge a good amount to make it worth it, and you have to end up finding the right person for each piece (maybe you won't). Even if you sell a few things, you could have probably gone to work at McDonald's for the day and made more in the end. You have the satisfaction of knowing those people will look at your artwork in the houses and enjoy it, and that's nice, but its not as easy as you think. It isn't like you whip up something cute and stylish and all of a sudden don't have to go into the office anymore. That chapter was good, especially pointing out that the internet makes it so someone who is selling their crafts in New York has a much higher cost of living than someone in rural Nebraska, and yet they are competing for the same customers. Also, someone who is trying to make a business out of it is also going to be charging for their time, whereas someone who is doing it for a hobby might not. Are you going to buy the $60 scarf or the $20 one? The Etsy business is an attractive dream, but just a dream for most.

I think lastly I'll address the anti-consumerist attitudes by people interviewed in the book. This is tied in with the anti-corporate feelings, and  downsizing their lives to focus on people more than things and time more than money. The author points out how in the 1980s and 1990s women were encouraged to go into the workplace and serve grocery store rotisserie chicken to their children and try their hardest to climb the corporate ladder, and how young women of today are thinking there may be other ways of doing things. In my own family history, my maternal grandmother stayed home and baked and raised six kids, my mother was around a lot (even though she has said that she remembered encountering some people who thought that was weird in the 80s and 90s), and my childhood had a strong emphasis on work and productivity. I always thought I would be someone who would be really focused on their career. When you have a childhood filled to the brim with piano lessons, soccer, French club, AP classes, summer jobs, and the strong expectation to be great at everything, you are raised to be a person who wants external validation. The author makes the argument in the book that one way New Domesticity is different from Old Domesticity is that highly educated, modern, and creative young women aren't content to sit and wait for the kids to be done with school and bake a cake from a mix. They are making cheese and laundry detergent because they left their unsatisfying jobs, and yet they don't know how to stop being overachievers. As a person working in a really competitive field where advancement opportunities are few and far between, and some museum directors only make $40,000 a year (!), I get this. But I have to admit to something awful: I tend to like consumerism. Sure, I love thrift stores and repurposing objects from the flea market, but its because the vintage charm reminds me of my grandmother. My coworkers were making fun of me for having gone to a restaurant at the mall for my 30th birthday. My coworker said "Your husband is a hip, happening professor, and he took you to the mall?!" and I said "Uh, I am secretly the girl from Clueless, and I secretly love the mall". When I lived in New York City and something was bothering me, I went and walked around Queens Center Mall (sure, I moved to NYC because it had things other than malls, but when I was upset that was what I wanted). I was a teenager in the Midwestern suburbs in the 90s. I go to the Burberry store at Woodbury Commons and see trenchcoats marked down from $1600 to $800, and I think "Oh, maybe one day!". I definitely don't think "I should quit my job so I have more time to sew a trenchcoat myself."  I love Instyle Magazine - the slickness, the fun, and the optimism consumerism sells you. When I watch The Real Housewives, what percentage of it is hate-watching and what percentage is a tiny bit aspirational? I don't actually know, but what I do know is that I totally copied a hairstyle the bridesmaids wore at a wedding on The Real Housewives of Miami when I went to work the next day.

To say, "Go back to the home! Raise Chickens! Downsize! Real feminism is being empowered to do everything yourself!" goes against my entire upbringing. It goes against the materialism of the Michigan suburbs in the 1990s, it goes against the strong competition I felt for grades in high school AP classes and college, it goes against wanting all the things that millions of dollars in advertising have kind of made me want, it goes against everything I felt when I read The Feminine Mystique when I was 16, and it goes against the satisfaction I feel when I open my TIAA-CREF statement and think that despite what a hard field museums are and the fact that I don't make much, I might be ok in the end. The New Domesticity, despite representing so much my friends and I are interested in - blogging, baking, aprons, from scratch everything, creativity and self-reliance - also goes against almost everything I've been raised to do, and everything I've ever really wanted.


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