26 January 2014

Homeward Bound (Emily Matchar)

Homeward Bound hit my TBR courtesy of my friend Alana Chernila, food blogger at Eating From the Ground Up, author of The Homemade Pantry--in other words, a committed member of one of the many related subcultures Matchar talks about in this book. I, too, have been embracing domestic tasks of late, cooking from scratch, keeping house, knitting and mending; partly because my bundle of chronic illnesses makes it difficult for me to maintain a steady work schedule, but also because I enjoy the role of "housewife" in my partnership (though I prefer the term châtelaine, because I'm also the designated spouse to deal with The Man, i.e. insurance companies, banks, government offices).

And I feel really, really guilty about this, about my contentment with staying home, about my utter lack of ambition regarding a career. Sure, I love books, and I love writing, but I don't want to manage or own a bookstore, and it seems foolhardy to believe I could support myself through writing alone. I'm college-educated, though, upper-middle-class, feminist--so aren't I wasting my life and my talents being a homemaker? Aren't I letting my husband down as an equal partner, since he's the one who has to work to support us? (I'll admit, I feel less guilty since I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a compelling medical reason not to work too hard. Or at least less rationally guilty.)

So Matchar's book, which observes and critiques various aspects of the phenomenon I find myself part of, i.e. educated women choosing not to work outside the home and/or immersing themselves in traditional "women's work," appealed to me immediately., and my friend Molly (an associate editor at Simon & Schuster) hooked me up with a copy. Matchar terms this phenomenon "the New Domesticity," defining it as "the re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject those things." That last clause is super important, of course, cause if you're a Colonial woman who sews all her family's clothes because there's no such thing as store-bought garments, well, you're far less likely to enjoy it. Whereas I dropped $60 on merino/alpaca yarn to make myself a sweater, and it's a delightful leisure activity.

Matchar begins with a historical overview of American domesticity, starting with that toiling Colonial gal; crediting the Industrial Revolution with the establishment of "work" as something one left the house to do, which necessitated the parallel sphere of homemaking; the enshrinement of women as spiritual and moral keepers of the home (see Virginia Woolf's Angel in the House, and see also Mallory Ortberg's "Virginia Woolf: Angel Hunter," because it's hilarious); the rise of convenience foods and automation in the mid-19th-century, which had the side effect of giving housewives less to do--and she argues cogently that this unstructured free time led to boredom which led to rebellion which led to second-wave feminism. (I simply cannot back her play when she keeps insisting said feminism didn't help devalue women's work. I can agree that some of the blame should fall on economic factors, some on the fact that women's work was never really valued in the first place--but stay-at-home moms and non-working women are still regularly vilified or at the very least viewed dubiously by some of the very feminist scholars she cites in the book, and by comment sections everywhere. Otherwise I wouldn't feel so darn guilty about not working!)

She then examines different threads of the New Domestic movement, with chapters on lifestyle bloggers, Etsy/craft culture, the DIY food movement, attachment parenthood, rejection of mainstream corporate culture, and homesteading, and it's all fascinating. I love the mix of skepticism and envy that comes through when she talks about these women's lives, and I love that she talks about the strange overlap of left- and right-wing that happens in many of these subcultures. And I extra extra especially love that she draws conclusions, and comes up with some potential lessons that acknowledge the good she finds in the movement while suggesting ways in which it could improve, without yelling at anybody. Seriously, when was the last time you read an opinionated non-fiction book that did that?

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