Emily Matchar, a journalist and writer based in Chapel Hill for at least part of the year, published a book, Homeward Bound, on the movement toward reclaiming the domestic arts for women among twenty- and thirtysomethings, which she coins as “the New Domesticity.” When she sought reviewers (meaning my copy was free), I jumped at the chance because I’ve been fascinated by the do-it-yourself attitude of our generation: chicken raising, canning everything, and covering every body part in some form of cable knit. I often feel like I’m the only person I know who doesn’t want to sew her own dresses or make radish pickles. I admit to being amused at the misadventures my friends have trying to keep chickens alive. I get the appeal of gardening and the pride of wearing something you’ve made yourself, but it all takes so much work. And time. And I manage to fill up all my time with work as it is. Why would I want to add more?
Which is what Matcher’s books asks: Why are more and more people spending their time making their own vinegar or sewing their own cloth diapers? Is this a trend backward or forward? What are its roots? Matchar interviewed many women, and some men, who are partaking in the more extreme ends of this movement by taking themselves off the grid, committing to attachment parenting, and/or blogging all about the experience and making careers out of making homes. There’s no judgment in the book, and Matchar deftly handles the irony of a generation of people returning to what their feminist forbears fought to get away from. In fact, many of the women in the book frame reclaiming the domestic arts as an act of feminism, as having the right to choose whether to have a career or a life in the home and to relearn the skills that were taken from them due to being deemed oppressive.
The motivations discussed in the book for making such a big change in lifestyle range from workplace dissatisfaction to resenting absentee parents to distrust of government’s ability to make foods safe. This is where Matchar’s analysis shines strongest, cutting to why, in increasing numbers, people are reinventing their lives with a focus on domesticity and family. She makes clear that the tasks of domesticity aren’t a problem and are often admirable work, but the underlying reasons some people have chosen to devote themselves to them are. And she doesn’t refrain from pointing out the chinks in the armor of this revolution, either. New Domestics, by and large, can afford to withdraw from the consumer culture in the first place, even if they pinch every penny from a single income household after. Women who put aside workplace skills can end up in a bad spot if the supporting partner leaves—and nearly all the couples involved had at least one of them still employed in a traditional workplace. And of course, prioritizing parental instincts over the realities of scientific study lead to things like the anti-vaccine movement and the resulting increase of diseases that had been nearly eradicated in the USA. Most importantly to me, it shows a declining faith in solving problems as a society rather than as individuals.
Matchar also highlights very interesting similarities in language in the ways people talk about their commitment to New Domesticity from both progressive and conservative standpoints. Progressive women who feel drawn to relearn what Grandma used to know talk about doing what comes naturally to them. Replace natural with God, and the arguments are identical to those of women who became homemakers for religious reasons.
I would have liked a little more exploration of how simple rebellion may play a role in the origins of the New Domesticity as well. If our mothers rejected the home because they didn’t want the same lives as their mothers, then maybe we’ve taken up those tasks and focuses as hobbies or a lifestyle for the same reason—because our mothers didn’t. Regardless, “Homeward Bound” is a needed book that does a great job examining the trend, its origins, the motivations of those who devote themselves to it, and the societal problems its existence exposes. It’s well-worth the read.
Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity
By Emily Matchar
Simon and Schuster