I have a confession to make: I don’t really understand the appeal of what author Emily Matchar terms the “New Domesticity.”
It’s not that I have a problem with homemakers—my mom was one, as are some of my dear friends. I understand the appeal of staying home with young children. I mean, I understand the appeal of staying home from work, period, with or without children.
But if I’m able to afford to stay home, whether or not I have children, am I going to spend all my time knitting things to sell on Etsy and making artisan jam from heirloom fruits and hanging the laundry on the line and feeding my backyard chickens and taking artfully lighted pictures of everything and blogging about it all? Hell, no.
I don’t want to live on a farm or handcraft baby clothes or needlepoint anything, ever. But obviously a growing number of people—mostly women—do, which I find fascinating. So when I saw the press material for Matchar’s new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster), I was kind of excited. Finally, I thought, an in-depth analysis of this baffling (to me) movement!
Yet as exhaustive (and exhausting) as Homeward Bound is—its 250 pages felt much longer—there’s surprisingly not much analysis. Nor, unfortunately, is there any presumption that the reader might not be a person very different from Matchar: not Gen Y, not a child of a working mother who didn’t teach her homemaking skills, not female.
Matchar writes on the second page of the book, “Who hasn’t tried canning jam or making their own pickles?” Well, me, for one. My mom, for another. A solid majority of my friends, for a third.
But Matchar’s assumptions that her readers all make pickles and have a fantasy about making a living selling cross-stitch samplers on Etsy—“If you’re not at least a tiny bit jealous at this point, you might want to check for your own pulse,” she suggests after describing one successful Asheville crafter’s lifestyle—aren’t even the most irksome thing about Homeward Bound. The book reads like the worst kind of news-magazine trend piece, with quotes from assorted bloggers, crafters, and “hipster homemakers” from all over the country, one after another, supplemented with thoughts from this expert and that professor.
For example, in the chapter “DIY Parenthood,” there’s a two-page subsection on homeschooling and “unschooling” that has anecdotes from 25-year-old Claire in Chicago; 41-year-old Sheryl, who runs a “natural-parenting” website; Jen, a 38-year-old mom in Boulder; Courtney, “a thirty-one-year-old crafty, gardening, from-scratch-cooking stay-at-home mom in Iowa City”; and Janelle, from Pennsylvania, who’s not only anti-school but anti-vaccines. Two of these women’s children aren’t even old enough to be homeschooled, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fact that they’re even considering it is proof enough of the trend for Matchar.
And that’s the problem—Matchar spends so much time documenting the proof that all these trends and micro-trends and micro-micro-trends exist that she neglects to provide any insight into them. It’s swell that Courtney from Iowa City thinks that when the time comes, she’ll probably keep her son home from school because, she says, “I’d worry about what my son was eating at lunch, and the advertising at schools, and the pop in the vending machines, and the cleaning solutions they use on floors.” Every family should be able to make their own decision about what’s best for their children, and if a parent has the patience to homeschool her children, more power to her.
And it’s to Matchar’s credit that she portrays these women’s non-conventional outlooks neutrally, even when they’re dangerous, as in the case of the anti-vaccine movement. But when you only spend three paragraphs with someone, or, at most, a page, you don’t come away with any understanding of anything—you just know that some women are homeschooling their kids, or selling stuff they made on Etsy, or obsessed with scrubbing the floor with vinegar.
Matchar says over and over that the economy is behind a lot of the appeal of the New Domesticity, but I’m not totally convinced. She talks to twentysomethings who started cooking or crafting or gardening because their entry-level jobs were so tedious and soul-crushing, and I’m sure those women do find fulfillment in their DIY ethos.
But tedious, soul-crushing jobs have always been a staple of the workplace. I don’t think secretaries in the 1960s found data entry any more fulfilling than Matchar did at her first job out of college, which spurred her to start making fancy candy and paint stencils on her microwave. (Talk about a weird craft.) That’s why people have always had hobbies and activities outside of work, because most jobs aren’t fulfilling (and even the fulfilling ones have tedious, soul-crushing aspects).
Yet even though Matchar herself admits to hating to clean and being too busy and tired most nights to cook a healthy, all-natural dinner from scratch, and even as she questions aspects of the New Domesticity—is it hurting feminism? is it leading to outbreaks of measles?—she still seems to privilege the essential good of homemaking. At the beginning of the book, she weirdly implies that the dissatisfaction of the 1950s housewives chronicled in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was partially caused because “[h]omemaking had become boring,” as supermarkets and washers and dryers took the “skill” out of keeping house.
In the last third of the book, Matchar belatedly tries to address issues of class, and she occasionally mentions race, but these aren’t her main concerns, even though most women in America don’t have the option to drop out of the workforce and sell artisan jam. (And, as she points out barely in passing, black women who stay at home with their children are often derided as “welfare queens.”) New Domesticity is very much about white middle-class privilege, and it’s a disservice to the reader to not have spent more time examining this.
Although she does point out that most bloggers and crafters don’t make enough solely from advertising or selling their wares on Etsy to live on, Matchar still claims at the end of the book that “New Domesticity is, at heart, a cry against a society that’s not working. … New Domesticity comes out of a deep desire for change in the world. We don’t want to trade our souls for our careers, and we don’t want to live in a culture that encourages us to do so.”
Maybe so. And maybe there is a thoughtful, insightful book to be written about the rise in homesteader mommy bloggers felting owl pillows. But Homeward Bound isn’t it.