Raise your hand if you’ve ever made your own pickles or jam. Do you bake your own bread? Have you ever bought something on Etsy? Sold something on Etsy? Picked up the knitting needles and purled out a scarf? Let’s face it, the idea of being an urban homesteader, hipster homemaker, or even a domestic goddess is no longer subversive, it’s the norm. We all could be poster children for the new DIY economy, and it’s this almost-inescapable collective ethos that makes Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity required reading.
As someone who ditched the corporate world for the wild-and-wooly life of freelance writing four years ago, I found Homeward Bound a captivating, humbling, and inspiring read. No matter your position on the political and social spectrum, if you’ve even fantasized about going off-the-grid in some way—from making a tiny batch of strawberry jam on a Saturday afternoon to going full-on Laura Ingalls Wilder—you’ll likely self-identify with a number of scenarios and points made in the book.*
Matchar attributes the rise of New Domesticity, her umbrella term for the (mostly) female-led DIY crafting, food, and parenting culture, to a number of factors, which mostly boil down to a lack of trust in external systems and solutions. The recession has laid bare many of our underlying worries about health care, environmental hazards, factory farming and GMOs, and our shaky financial underpinnings. DIY is in the end about a sense of control and reclamation. We can’t trust anyone to take care of us, the thinking goes; better to do it ourselves and “lead a simpler life” in the process. As Matchar writes:
“Though baking your own bread may only save a few dollars a month, the domestic DIY movement provides a sense of control over a very out-of-control situation: we may not be able to cover our mortgages or keep our jobs, but we can streamline the grocery bill by using white vinegar instead of pricey cleaning gels. We can’t control what’s outside the home, but we can control what’s inside.” (20)
Matchar talks to a number of women (and a few men, though she frequently brings up the point that the homemaking, crafting, child-rearing tenets of New Domesticity are still very much considered “women’s work”) who assert that their new careers as are more empowering and successful than the disillusioning corporate jobs they left behind. Of course it’s appealing to find an autonomously fulfilling path when the promises of a steady career and job security seem empty. It’s easy to rationalize your decision to leave the rat race by saying the system has failed.
And yet there’s a new system in place for success even in the work-at-home sphere; it’s easy to judge and be judged when you’re laying your life bare on Instagram. That’s not just an exquisitely styled bowl of fruit placed on a rustic wooden table in an immaculate house. It’s an expression of your “authenticity” and an emblem of the new work-life balance that often replaces the struggle of office hierarchies with a sense that you’re still not good enough or you can’t “have it all”—unless you have the successful blog, Etsy shop, artisanal chocolate business, or other external validation of your lifestyle choices. (“Getting down on the floor with a lemon and a bucket of vinegar does not make me a better person,” Matchar writes.)
And it’s just as hard work to truly make a career out of being a self-sufficient, self-employed entrepreneur (whether writer, knitter, farmer, or jam-maker) as it is to scale the corporate ladder and bring home the bacon. While I agree with Matchar when she writes, “Many bloggers write their opt-out stories into the narrative fabric of their blogs in a way that suggests careers are overrated,” and later in the book, “when you take on domesticity as a lifestyle at the expense of your moneymaking abilities, you’re making a dangerous choice,” I don’t think all of us are eschewing ambition for cozy partner-funded stay-at-home bliss.
Sure, I have an opt-out story; I decided to work independently as a writer* after making it through two post-recession rounds of layoffs at my former company but not surviving the third. My life is simpler in that I no longer spend 90 minutes commuting into the city five days a week, that I’m woken up by a super-affectionate cat every morning instead of a bleating alarm, and that I can take my office outside on any beautiful blue-sky day instead of waiting for an approved “summer Friday” to do so. (And, yes, that I have my husband’s health insurance. I concede that point.)
But I’m more of a workaholic now than when I reported to a Manhattan office every day. I’m tougher on myself than any boss I’ve ever worked for, and find myself more ambitious than I could have imagined. In terms of professional accomplishment, I’m more proud of my output as a freelance writer over the past four years than almost anything I did as a staff editor or public relations account gal in the eight years prior. I complain a lot about the vagaries of my life as a freelancer, but truth is, I’m pretty damn happy. (And I eat pretty well too.)
It’s easy to get behind New Domesticity when it helps you take stock of your priorities and rewrite your definitions of success and fulfillment. The danger in this path is, as Matchar rightly points out, in retreating from struggle under the guise of returning to home and hearth. Homeward Bound makes a strong argument for all of us to examine the choices that define our work-life balance and what it means for individual happiness, as well as how it helps or harms institutional and social change.
*(Lest this review be 2000 words long, I’m not even covering the arguments of second-wave vs. third-wave feminism, “natural” parenting and the greater discussion of gender and class arguments related to New Domesticity here. Suffice to say that Homeward Bound covers an awful lot of ground.)
*(And, mind you, this blog constitutes a very small percentage of my annual income.)