Sunday, December 01, 2013

Emily Matchar: Homeward Bound

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When I took up gardening, I did it because I inherited (from the landlord) a beautiful garden, complete with pre-made raised beds and lovely native plants. Although I resisted the term "urban pioneer," it's true that I was very excited to eat my homegrown chard and kale and fussed over my tomatoes that first year like I imagine some people fuss over their children. I've tried my hand at an artistic endeavor or two, but know my limits: I'm not a crafter and I certainly don't even try to cook. In other words, I'm not into Emily Matchar's "New Domesticity" and if I am honest, I kind of scorn it. Put simply, new domesticity is the "re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject these things." Though there are a lot of push and pull factors leading people (read: women) to this new domesticity, it's not always obvious why people are taking up knitting as their extracurricular when they used to be reading, writing, going back to school or playing sports. New Domesticity is an even bigger phenomena: it's not just people like me who garden like weekend warriors motorcycle, it's people dropping out of "normal" life to craft as a full time job, hoping their earnings on Etsy will be enough, moms who decide that attachment parenting is the way to go, and that working is incompatible with natural mom-ness, and that food is so unsafe that the only way to live is to grow your own. All of it.

This is kind of creepy to me, and Matchar does a decent job problematizing it. Betty Friedan and other second wave feminists worked hard to get women out of house and to demand that men do their share. Many of these new domestics are "reclaiming" feminism saying that the workforce is oppressive and that it's more natural for women to be in the home, with their kids. Some of these new homemakers blame feminism for forcing them into the awful, stifling position of needing to work and sending their kids to daycare. As Matchlar writes, "feminists certainly believed in women's rights to have careers and financial independence, but they did not, as many today suppose, invent the two-career family. The economy did that." New Domesticity doesn't really answer this problem: It's a nice thought that women can drop out/opt out of the workforce to raise kids because they're feminists, but it's a daily life that depends on privilege, especially in tough economic times. It relies on a financial situation of inherited or passed-down wealth or a partner with a large and stable enough income to support the wife and kids. And this privilege comes with a very backwards sense of dependence: If mom stays home because dad is earning the money, mom is once again dependent on dad, who has many more options than mom. The dad can leave (he's got the money), the dad can change jobs (he's got the skills and experience), the dad can opt out of taking care of the house and the kids (he's got the job as the legitimate excuse, and hey, didn't mom embrace homemaking as her life's work?).

There's another part of this "return to the home" bit that has a creepy underside which Matchar touches on but doesn't dig into a whole lot. It's a nice thought that by opting out and line drying our clothes and raising our own food we can save the environment, but it's a very simple and, honestly, not very effective form of activism. I'm certainly not going to argue that people shouldn't eat locally, drive less, buy Prius(es) or make their own bread- lots of Matchlar's subjects seem to be obsessed with making bread and canning things. But it's when they do this because they don't trust the government or the American food system and decide to opt out entirely that I start feeling a little bit like I've been transported to Idaho. As Matchar writes, "this intense focus on what control the individual can have on their food is a mark of today's DIY culture in general. Progressive food politics lauds individual action, having largely written off government regulatory agencies as hopelessly ineffectual, even corrupt." The government may be ineffective, and I'm also not going to argue that lobbyists are out of hand, but really, if all of the people who care opt out, where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those (again we get back to privilege) who *can't opt out? Basically, eating out of that horrible, governmentally regulated food supply, which, to be honest, has given us some pretty awesome things, like chlorinated water and pasteurized milk. Before you think I'm just a total grinch, I'll give you another example. These same opt-outers are often the same people as the anti-vaccinaters, and maybe now you'll agree with themacinator in saying that yeah, opting out can be pretty selfish. Kids are dying because mom's don't trust the government- educated, smart moms don't believe that the government can/should/is doing a good job/has the right to regulate what goes into their kids' bodies. Individual activism can be a) shortsighted b) ineffective and c) dangerous. This DIY thing is going a little far, and it's all wrapped up together. I'd much rather that these back-to-the-home people banded together to fight the real systemic problems underlying our food supply, thus making the entire food system more healthy and equitable, so everyone could benefit from their beliefs. As much Michelle Obama's priorities are not my own, they're certainly not a feminist nightmare, and I believe that new homemaker-feminists have a lot to learn from her.

Matchar writes a lot about the new DIY parenting, and tries to explain it by breaking feminism into two: "liberal feminism" and "cultural feminism" (I think this is sort of a ridiculous dichotomy, but I'll let that stand for this purpose). "Liberal feminism," according to Matchar "suggests that most gender inequality is culturally based" while "cultural feminism is the idea that some gender inequality is actually just 'gender difference' and that we should honor women's (and men's) natural, inherent natures." I'm not exactly sure how this is feminism (and I don't think that Matchar thinks it is) but it is the way that people advocate for this return to the ideal of womanhood as mother and housekeeper. I find it disgusting and essentialist. It's not good for women, it's no good for men who may want to be dads, it's no good for queers- um, I guess all same sex couples have to pick a role, right?- it's no good for anyone who identifies as anything else- and it's totally retrograde about race. Once again we're back to idealizing that white, middle class housewife who is respectable and does respectable things and wouldn't want to do "unladylike" things like work, achieve, be competitive or otherwise do the things that most poor women have to do.

Which leads me to my final point: While Matchar is decent on class (she acknowledges that this return to the hearth is a primarily middle and upper middle class pastime, and then works hard to show examples of people who are struggling to make ends meet with one income), she completely whitewashes the issue. Although she doesn't ever explicitly mention race, I'm pretty sure that her subjects, or at least the vast majority of them, are white. Do you know a lot of nonwhite knitters, canners, return to homeschooling mothers? And really, is this an ideal that a lot of people of color you know aspire to? The ethic (or maybe aesthetic is a better word) that Matchar comes back to over and over is that of the 1950s, which, if I recall right, wasn't a particularly great time for women of color. Women of color are *still fighting for equality and might laugh at the idea of opting out or complaining about the freedom that their mothers fought for. The life that Betty Friedan et al said sucked wasn't the life of the woman of color in the 50s, and it certainly isn't the life of most women of color now. This discussion of race in this new (sub)culture is entirely missing from "Homeward Bound," making an otherwise insightful look at a slippery new phenomenon disappointing.


mamagotcha said...

It's hard not to take some of these comments personally, because at first glance, I seem to fit this white, educated, stay-at-home mom model pretty well. But I don't opt out of (most) vaccines because I don't trust the government; I opt out because two of my kids have had severe reactions to immunizations (instead, they get delayed vaccines once their immune systems have matured). I don't bake bread, make yogurt, and garden for some sense of domesticity or back-to-the-earth feeling; I do it because it saves us a crapload of money each month. I don't knit to make money on Etsy; I knit to save money on gifts and to make beautiful and useful things for my friends and family. I stay home and homeschool not because I think public schools suck, but because my career path as a daily newspaper editor vanished and after looking at the costs involved, staying home saved more money than sending me back to school for a new career and paying someone else to raise the kids. My three older kids have 4.0 gpas in college; two are headed to grad school, and the third to travel overseas, all with their own earnings, so attachment parenting and homeschooling didn't seem to hurt them much. We have a pretty wide range of ethnicities and incomes in our homeschooling group; I'm more concerned that single parents and gay parents aren't very visible in our homeschooling community. Maybe a large number of hearth-returners are doing it as a leisure pursuit, but not all of the homeschooling moms I know... we don't take vacations, we don't have a retirement plan, we have one car (or none), we shop at thrift stores. Did I seem "creepy" to you? I know we discussed this somewhat in Glitch... I got the sense that you were curious about the reasoning behind some of my lifestyle decisions, but not that it creeped you out. Not sure if I should read this book... it sounds more like it feeds the fuel of the Mommy Wars rather than building any kind of actual understanding behind each woman's agonizing decision regarding careers and children. Still, thanks for reviewing it and giving me a chance to spout off!

themacinator said...

mama- thank you so much for responding! no, you're most definitely not creepy at all. in fact, i think you're wonderful. you touched on a lot of the things that i didn't in my write up of matchlar's book (and she's a LOT less critical than i am). for example- the job issue. one of the reasons matchlar explains many gen x/gen y'ers are inspired by nontraditional (or extra traditional??) lifestyles is because the current job situation SUCKS. i even wrote about this last week, but forgot to include it- i hate sitting behind a desk and feel like i'm doing exactly nothing- i can hardly fault others for the same thing! the other part of this is that the jobs simply aren't there. making another economic path isn't wrong! Matchlar talks at length, though, about how it isn't always feasible- many are convinced by the few successful bloggers and etsy sellers that they can actually make money, as opposed to your example of saving money.

the point about homeschooling is also well taken- matchlar has a chapter at the end of the book about unlikely allies. i loved our conversations about why you chose to homeschool because, as i think i told you, my perceptions of those who homeschool are those who fall pretty much opposite of us on the political spectrum. it's an interesting and new point for many of us urban, (over)educated people who think that all homeschoolers are rightwinglooneys.

i think it might be worth reading- another thing i probably left otu is that this book is about a specific population- genx/geny (really geny) women (and the token man that matchlar throws in), so even a little younger than me. i think what you do is really quite unique, while the women matchlar describes- again, not as critically as i do!- really seem to be testing out a trend, many in the name of (what i see as) misguided feminism.

mamagotcha said...

I probably took a lot more umbrage than I needed to... if you check the timestamp, I was up WAAAY too late! But I've been mulling it over in my mind all night... why exactly DID I take this path? I think every single step I've taken has been guided by an insane amount of research and interviews (which, as an investigative journalist, I actually know how to do) of people who, in my view, succeeded at childrearing; a project I began when I was first pregnant and knew very few parents, much less parents I wanted to emulate.

(Oh, hey, look, I can make paragraphs! I wasn't sure and just let everything run together in that other comment; apologies for the previous imposing unbroken block of text!)

The other thing that came up in my musings was the sense of discomfort I get when people say that I've inspired them to stay home and raise their kids in a similar way, mostly because of how well my kids are doing academically but also because of their health, self-confidence, and independence. I'm afraid to be part of a trend that you describe... I don't want anyone to follow my path because of a whim, but I'm always happy to discuss my choices (pros AND cons!) with people seriously exploring their options.

This feeling comes up in a real and powerful manner when it comes to homebirth... I knew for a fact that larger women are given pretty horrible treatment in medical situations (and this is not just from my own experience; it's been studied) and my chances of a nonsurgical birth were practically nil. I also knew that the long-term costs, both to baby and mother, of a surgical birth were something I wanted to avoid if at all possible. I did TONS of research and interviews (in the age before the internet!) and gradually came to the choice of homebirth. But it's not like homeschooling, where you can change your mind midstream... it's a pretty major commitment, both for the mom and those around her. In some states (like MO, where my last child was born), you are not only searching for a good caregiver, but one who is actively breaking state law and putting their own lives and family at risk. In that situation, I may not have chosen to do my first homebirth under those conditions (in CA, it wasn't legal yet, but my midwifery practice had been in operation for over ten years with the full blessing and support of the OB director of the nearest hospital, who I also interviewed in the process of my research). Now I use my experience to fuel my activism and work to legalize midwifery (we did it in both CA and MO... next up, IL!).

Fortunately, most of my other choices aren't so controversial, at least legally. Culturally, choosing to step outside of the social view of normal can be pretty alienating; I've been lucky enough to land in three areas that each have good support groups for such families. And even within the groups, there's a wide variation. The reverse discrimination felt by moms who choose to bottle-feed these days is an example of the way things have shifted... I sometimes feel unsettled by the mob mentality of some of these "crunchy granola" moms.

mamagotcha said...

(part II)

The vaccine thing is really, really hard for me. I have two kids who have had two long-term reactions to vaccinations, and the propensity of the general public as well as doctors to just wave aside these potentially fatal risks really chaps my hide. Yes, vaccines do great good, but they also do great harm, and it is up to the parents to do the research and weigh the consequences. The vilification I am subject to when I reveal that I reject the recommended vaccine schedule is far beyond the pale (the most recent comparison was to a person wantonly swinging a running chainsaw around me on a rope). It's another kind of mob hysteria that does no good. I will never jab my kids because of social pressure; I will do it if and when I deem the potential risk to them is less than the potential benefit. Here's a place where my education really is a plus; digging through PubMed and CDC studies is not for the faint of heart. And this is a situation where money really does speak... drug companies will fund and publish studies that promote their wares, while government research funding has been drying up at an unprecedented rate. I'm not saying it's a government plot or a secret evil plan; it's pretty clear that drug money drives the research, and doctors are getting their education from drug reps more than the CDC or WHO. As Jessica Mitford, my muckraker heroine, once wrote: "Follow the money." It's very difficult to find balanced research out there on vaccines (and there are so many of them, as well!). If I can't find solid info one way or the other, I go with "first, do no harm." That's what I tell other parents when they ask me... I don't say, "No, I don't vax" or "I delay vaccines" because I don't want them to just follow me. I say, "Do your homework, and vax if and when you are convinced of the benefits and willing to accept the risks, and at peace with accepting either outcome when you commit, because you cannot undo it."

Dang. Maybe I should just write my own blasted book! But it's definitely good for me to revisit these decisions... it's easy to get caught up in the tide and relax, rather than question my own motivations and decisions. I can and do change my mind (I used to be a VERY vocal vaccine and hospital birth proponent, believe it or not!), and appreciate your patience with my meandering here.