June 2013

Charlotte Freeman


Homeward Bound

If, as Walter Benjamin noted almost a century ago, reproduction is the means by which capitalism co-opts the authentic by making it widely available to the masses while simultaneously draining it of its aura, then what are we to make of the current cult of authenticity manifested by the DIY movement in an era of Pinterest and lifestyle blogs? I ask this as someone who has participated in most of the major trends of the New Domesticity movement that Emily Matchar describes in Homeward Bound. I telecommute full time from a small house in a small town in Montana. I grow much of my own food in the backyard. I preserve fruit off my own trees and pickle my own vegetables and forage for mushrooms in the wilderness surrounding my town. I keep chickens in my backyard. And although I didn't have children, that was mostly by accident. (I'm more spinster than "child-free.") Finally, like so many of the people Matchar profiles (a number of whom are friends), for nearly a decade, I wrote a blog called LivingSmall.

As someone who has been involved in this movement for a decade or more, I've found the recent proliferation of lifestyle blogs and Pinterest boards to be an alienating phenomena. It feels to me like the drainage of aura that Benjamin described, the excessive reproduction and emphasis on artful, staged photography has morphed a movement concerned with the pleasure of growing and making things into a movement concerned primarily with what things look like. I call it the bowl of apples problem. When I start seeing the actual bowl of apples on my kitchen table as "a bowl of apples," when I can feel my actual life presenting itself as a lifestyle, I become concerned.

Matchar, newly married and splitting her time between Hong Kong, where her husband teaches university and her hometown of Chapel Hill, begins the book from a position of trying to define her own lifestyle. As she looked around at her peers, and found herself drawn into glossy lifestyle blogs online, it seemed to her that something strange was happening in her generation. Fashion styles were moving in a retro direction, not only in materials but in the manner in which they were gendered. Men were wearing lumberjack plaids and growing beards while women were extolling frilly aprons and housedresses and it didn't seem entirely ironic. Lifestyle blogs proliferated, many of them lionizing a DIY approach to motherhood with appealing photos of pretty toddlers in handcrafted hats. Attachment parenting and extended breastfeeding were on the rise, as was the number of women not returning to work after having babies. Hobbies like knitting and sewing were growing hip, while the DIY food culture encouraged people to raise chickens in their backyards, bake their own bread, and ferment their own sauerkraut. People were not only leaving corporate life to buy farms and "homestead," but in doing so, they were forming alliances between the far right and the far left in a way Matchar wasn't seeing elsewhere in society. She was fascinated by it all. "In my late twenties," she writes in the introduction, "fairly recently married, and thinking hard about questions of how best to live my life, I was fascinated to watch the rise of this New Domesticity. Was this incredibly modern or a total throwback? Was this sexist or liberating? Or somewhere in between? And where did it come from?"

Matchar is particularly good at dissecting the hydra-headed beast that is our current era of anxiety. The globalized free-market has meant huge corporate profits, but the cost has been a race to the bottom for the rest of us. Wages have been stagnant for decades, layoffs are endemic, and a financialized mortgage market inflated the housing bubble, which crashed and left a wave of foreclosures and insurmountable debt in its wake. The food system seems both unstable and unreliable as industrial technologies have infected our meat and dairy supplies with unwanted antibiotics, and Big Ag fruits and vegetables expose us to an undetectable but deadly risk of E. coli poisoning. Our public schools seem to have sentenced our children to a treadmill of drill-and-kill testing, and they stagger home exhausted after long days without recess, or art, or band, or phys-ed. As Matchar notes, it's no wonder that "we're taking shelter. We're learning to knit. We're embracing slow food... We're fantasizing about ditching the corporate world to run a Vermont goat farm."

This, though, is where she diverges from the usual trend pieces about the movement. Instead of mocking the nostalgia of the New Domestic movement, instead of writing it off as self-indulgence, Matchar looks deeper, and notices that there are several real political, social, and economic forces converging in the movement. It's characterized by distrust of government, corporations, and the food system, all of which are implicated in the alarming environmental and climate changes that are beginning to make themselves known. The gloomy economy has exacerbated discontent with the work culture of corporate life, the increasingly virtual nature of which is also driving the upsurge in hands-on work, including gardening, handicrafts, and the DIY food practices. On top of it all is a culture of parenting, the intensity of which seems to be growing exponentially. All in all, Matchar demonstrates that in an alarming political and cultural time, folks interested in the constellation of activities that characterize the New Domesticity are seeking to take back control of the household, sometimes on a level unprecedented in industrial times, as an act of resistance.

One of the real strengths of this book is the way in which Matchar combines anecdote and analysis. The chapters on the rise of the lifestyle blog and the challenges of home-based crafting businesses examine the ways that blogging and crafting provide crucial outlets for communication and creative expression; however, Matchar doesn't shy away from blunt analysis of how both activities rarely provide the kind of financial return that can replace a real job. Matchar is terrific with interviews, and while she makes ample use of personal stories, she never fails to bring these examples back to a larger point -- that while lifestyle blogs and Etsy stores might fuel the fires of comparison and envy, they also provide crucial communities to connect women isolated by life at home with small children, provide an outlet for feminist self-examination of the stay-at-home phenomenon, and in some rare cases, provide a source of income. She's particularly good on the siren song that can be financial recompense in both cases -- while blogging and crafting can bring in some money, they rarely provide enough income to replace a real job. Her chapter on the DIY food movement hit close to home for me, especially since I'm one of the people who have been yammering on for years about how important it is to cook at home, how it's not harder than buying takeout, and about the evils of the industrial food system. Matchar reminds those of us who are guilty on these counts that not everyone is actually that interested in food, and that takeout doesn't have to be evil. She cites, for example, how Hong Kong, a notoriously overcrowded city, relies on small takeout restaurants that serve good food at decent prices (a phenomena I remember well from a winter spent in Taiwan in the 1980s. If I could get a delicious, cheap dinner box like that I too would eat out more often).

There is a pervasive sense in the anecdotes she cites that despite returning to the home, despite trying to carve out a life that makes sense for themselves, most of these women still spend much of their time feeling that they are doing it wrong. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapters about raising children. Between anxiety over food and the zealotry of some of the attachment-parenting advocates, it seems that just about every mother she interviews is pretty much convinced that she's not doing enough, that she's not doing it right, that someone out there has the perfect recipe for raising the perfect child. Generationally I'm in an odd place with this material. I'm older than Matchar by quite a bit, but not quite her mother's generation. I've got friends who are grandparents already (which is alarming), friends with kids in college, and friends with little kids (sometimes in the same family). And while I have younger friends who found the strictures of attachment parenting movement deeply attractive, I have to admit that I've never understood exactly why. Matchar is quite good on the attractions of immersive motherhood, especially for women who, despite their advanced educations, never found the working world that compelling. I particularly appreciated her exegesis of the ways in which immersive attachment parenting, with its emphasis on gender difference, the "natural" bond between mother and child, and by extension a mother's "natural instinct" as ultimate authority, lies at the root of the most damaging aspects of DIY parenting: the anti-vaccination movement and a retreat into rigid gender roles that undermine the role of fathers who want to share equally in caring for their children. While she's never dismissive of women who practice immersive parenting, she also does not shy away from the ways in which those practices tie women to the home in ways that put them at high risk should they lose their husbands or partners.

The strength of this book lies in the manner in which Matchar investigates each of these phenomena and explains how urban homesteading, attachment parenting, starting a crafting business, and building a lifestyle blog are each reasonable responses to current social and political challenges. And yet, Matchar is also clear-eyed about the pitfalls of these practices, and ends the book with a series of suggestions for using the strengths of the New Domesticity movement to move it past its biggest drawback, the hyperindividualism that characterizes it. If people are tending only their own gardens, then those who lack gardens will be forever left out in the cold. Her first suggestion is to enfranchise young men, bring them into movement and use their own desires for equality to advocate for more flexibility in the workplace. That it is women in the New Domesticity movement who are giving up salaries and years of work experience that cannot be made up when the children are grown is an ongoing concern, and one that can be addressed by working toward a new ideal of equality. Not the old model that posits the best worker as a man with a wife at home, someone free to work 80 hours a week -- but a new model in which both men and women share responsibility for children, and both have the kind of flexibility that will accommodate families.

Her second takeaway is that we must get past this false notion that the "natural" is the bellwether by which we identify the good. The category of the natural is a cultural construct like any other, and the current cult of domesticity, like those that have come before it, leans hard on false ideas about evolutionary psychology that idealize the mother-child bond and a "mother's instinct." This will require that women let go of some of the privilege that comes along with the gendered assumption that only a mother can properly nurture a child.  Her third and fourth takeaway points are related -- don't downplay the importance of financial independence, and acknowledge the class issues involved in the kinds of choices that characterize the New Domesticity movement. Matchar does a terrific job outlining a pernicious streak of magical thinking when it comes to money among some women who have taken up the New Domestics mantle -- planning for the worst is always a good idea. Terrible things happen, marriages dissolve, people drop dead, lives change in an instant. To have positioned yourself in such a way that you're unemployable is irresponsible, no matter how many veggies you can grow in your backyard. Disregard for finances is a position of class privilege that feeds a certain contempt that some practitioners of the New Domesticity exhibit toward those who have fewer choices available to them. Whether or not a person can afford to make certain choices is not a measure of their goodness, in most cases -- it's a function of their class position, and the vehemence with which some in the New Domesticity movement refuse to acknowledge this is another example of movement's biggest failure, the way its hyperindividualistic focus exacerbates a neglect for the social good. Institutional change cannot happen if everyone is at home making jam. "The key to making this all work," Matchar notes in closing, "is to be expansive rather than exclusive. Let's expand our definition of what constitutes work. Let's welcome men into the domestic realm without subtle jibes about their masculinity. Let's make child rearing about more than just being the perfect mom -- let's make it about being a good village. Let's relax our dichotomies about 'good food' and 'bad food'... Let's not retreat into our homes... Let's invite the world inside."

If I have a general critique of this book it is that it doesn't go quite far enough. While Matchar is enormously prescient in untangling the skein of related activities and movements that characterize the lifestyle choices that comprise the New Domesticity, she takes for granted that a lifestyle is something we choose in the first place. It's where the book starts, with her statement that she finds herself "In my late twenties, fairly recently married, and thinking hard about questions of how best to live my life." As Renata Salecl notes in The Tyranny of Choice, one of the realities of current capitalism is that "life choices are described in the same terms as consumer choices: we set out to find the 'right' life as we would find the right kind of wallpaper, or hair conditioner." While Matchar is very good at describing how this anxiety of choice functions among a specific social and cultural class, those young adults who are struggling to define their independent identities as they marry and build families and figure out how to support themselves, she never questions the basic premise. Is the process of figuring out "how best to live my life" only a question of choosing the correct constellation of lifestyle choices? While she is terrific at describing the anxiety that cruising the lifestyle blogs can provoke, while she's very good at portraying the social and economic forces that cause class anxiety (in particular when it comes to the DIY food movement), she allows idea of lifestyle itself to go without critique. However, Matchar is young and clearly talented, with an eye for both the personal and the social issues that face her generation, so a geezer like myself can hold out hope that she will go deeper the next time, and perhaps take on the ways that consumer capitalism has been naturalized and made invisible.