Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (2012)

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This title has been pretty high on my TBR for about the last year or so. Why I haven’t read it is a question for the ages, but eventually I pulled it off the shelf. Written by Emily Matchar (who writes the New Domesticity blog), I was familiar with the general tack of the narrative and the whole book stayed quite close to that, overall. Material-wise, it wore a bit thin in places and there was some repetition (probably to keep a word count up there), but as mentioned, there were salient points in it.

Matcher takes a critical look at the world of what she calls “New Domesticity” – the Gen Y-ers who are embracing back-to-nature “crunchy” lifestyles of urban homesteading (keeping chickens, growing veg etc.) and home crafts such as knitting or making jewelry. This is not that notable in and of itself, but Matcher’s perspective is through more of a feminist lens which studies what this rejection of the workplace in lieu of being a SAHM/F (but mostly mothers) could mean for women in the future. It’s really quite an interesting read to consider this return to domesticity being viewed as a political statement (which some participants would argue it is).

From the book, it seems that quite a few Gen Y-ers (more than 95% female in this particular non-academic study) appreciate the steps that the first-wave and second-wave feminists have taken but blame this early feminism for their retreat from the workplace to the remolded idea of June Cleaver life, saying that their parents rejected domestic life to work and parent, and now they want to reclaim it back (“except it’s different”).

“New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming, yet struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.”

Emily Matcher.

She likens the people in their 20’s and 30’s as being raised by the “I’m OK You’re OK” parents who taught their offspring the lovely (but rather idealistic) idea of everyone being “as special as a snowflake” and thus having unrealistic expectations of beginning jobs once they’re graduated.

Additionally, as a human, one tends to make friends who reflect what you individually believe (“birds of a feather flock together”) which is both strengthening for their beliefs but also adds a great deal of peer pressure. Matcher reports groups of friends aligning very strict parenting behaviors (e.g. intensive attachment parenting styles) with almost a moral quality, seeing peers who don’t follow their way of acting as being “worse” or even “bad” parents at times. (Obviously, not everyone holds that opinion, but it was quite a common occurrence in the book. May have been the sample though which did seem rather limited at times.)

The adoption of this “new domesticity” is also very class-oriented, with only people who have reliable and middle-class working partners to support them and make them able to reject working in a full-time job. As the saying goes, “only those with enough money can say that money doesn’t matter”…)

It takes resources to do lovely but expensive and time-consuming hobbies like quilting or making jam, especially when you add in the common pipe-dream of making a sustainable living from a small Etsy on-line shop. (Most people don’t succeed, but it’s a nice idea. The reality, according to Matcher, is that the majority of these micro-crafting enterprises either don’t sell anything (re: the former website Regretsy) or do sell some but with the owners having to turn into temporary mini-sweat shops to get the orders out. (“I’d like 150 mini jars of home-made plum jam for my wedding please. It’s on this next Saturday.”)

Additionally, other critics and Matchar have linked this withdrawal from working life to the domestic front as changing how society views its community problems and rejects the social good. For example, numerous examples shown in the book report that people want to follow Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” , which is a lovely idea, but when it’s employed in a “my family first and pooey on everyone else” does move the focus from solving community problems as a whole to just solving your own immediate family’s problems (when really, they’re not even “problems”). To wit, parents who may have otherwise volunteered as a PTA leader (or with other vital skills) are now more focused on these intensive home-life choices, which means that the PTA would miss out on this individual’s leadership skills. So it’s a big ripple effect in some ways…

The misguided anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this, along with some cases of home schooling where the parenting “teacher” is in absolutely no position to be teaching science or other subjects and, despite their intentions, are only putting the “protected child” at a disadvantage when they enter public school life. (Not everyone, of course, but I do worry about the more extreme examples.)

There was also some repetition from chapter to chapter, but I think it was because each chapter had been written at a different time with specified word counts (or page counts), and the author was struggling to meet those parameters. (Maybe not the case, but I’m going to give benefit of doubt here.) Oh, and If the author mentioned “crunchy” as a description of the eco lifestyle one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall.

Still, I enjoyed the critical perusal of the world of cupcakes (and more) and I still don’t really get why people try to follow such extraordinarily complicated parenting rules (such as attachment parenting guides describe) which only seem to add an extra unnecessary level of stress to their lives…

I also don’t really get why these (mostly) women force themselves to live a work-intensive home life – “from scratch” is a common refrain like their great-grandmothers — whilst rejecting working life. Why not put that home-focused effort into something that pays good money (like a job) that will be able to support you in the unpredictable future? This lifestyle seems almost selfish in a way.

It also brings to the fore the risk that this New Domesticity population bring to their lives whilst they completely reject the serious side of working life (like having a job). Removing themselves from the workforce places a huge financial risk on themselves – the kids will grow up, their relationship/ supporting spouse could leave or die, and then what happens to the domestic maven? One cannot live on cupcakes and hand-made bread alone forever. (I might be of a more pragmatic bent than others though.)

It might well be that this book was just focused on a very small sample of people and that the majority of New Domesticity fans are well-intentioned and sensible; if that’s the case, then the world can relax, but if this is true to form, then it’s a bit concerning to think about.

Needless to say, if anyone would like me to taste-test any cupcakes, please feel free to send me one. 🙂

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