A return to a life of domesticity


I knit. I can food. I garden. I cook, and when I’m not actively cooking, I’m thinking about what I’m going to cook next (as I write, I have just finished the alchemy of turning two pounds of onions into a sweet, jammy sandwich condiment, while contemplating recipes for scones and lemon curd). What’s gotten into me? I couldn’t really say, other than an insatiable appetite. I didn’t grow up doing these things and as a middle schooler pooh-poohed even the idea of home ec class. So you can see why Emily Matchar’s new book sounded as if it could be a mirror into my soul.

“New Domesticity is the embrace of the domestic in the service of environmentalism, DIY culture, personal fulfillment,” Matchar proclaims in her opening chapter. “Though it may resemble your grandmother’s homemaking, it’s not — this is something new, different, perhaps even revolutionary.” I can live with that. I am a revolutionary.

Matchar introduces the women she holds up as representative of this phenomenon. They home-school their children. They don’t buy processed food. One woman “even tried to stop using paper products like toilet paper, instead having her family wipe with reusable cloth pads.” (Sorry, you will be able to pry the Costco mega-pack of TP only out of my cold, dead hands.)

Matchar examines an entirely plausible array of reasons why these 21st century women, raised on the can-do careerism of their mothers, are focusing on the home in extreme and mundane ways. The economy is one factor. Those unable to find jobs believe they can fulfill themselves at home — and save or make money while doing it (see: Etsy, the online marketplace for all things handmade). Others have discovered that the working world isn’t friendly toward the needs of mothers, an insight that makes the jump to stay-at-home parenthood easier. There’s also the modern skepticism of authority and the confidence in individual judgment. The food system can’t be trusted: Grow your own. Doctors don’t always know what’s best: Why vaccinate? You can’t control what kids eat or learn in school: Teach them at home.

Nostalgia and a belief that the old days were better or simpler are prevalent feelings, too. “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” is the well-known aphorism from Michael Pollan cited by Matchar. Thus arises the from-scratch ethos that has prompted wives and mothers to become their own bakers, gardeners and butchers.

A particular strength of Matchar’s book is that she has interviewed so many women that their feats of resourcefulness and laser-like dedication to their families are hard to discredit. But she also talks to plenty of skeptics: mothers who returned to work and shopping at the grocery store; a food historian who points out that food today is much safer than in the past; and an anthropologist who suggests that “attachment parenting,” which includes extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and closely monitoring a child’s cues, is a “ ‘secular religion,’ based on a confused interpretation of mid-twentieth-century attachment theory.”

At the heart of the conflicting world views in the book is the f-word — feminism — and how it plays into the new domesticity. Some of the new domestics think that feminism isn’t about being in the workplace; it’s about also being able to choose to not be in it. Or, Matchar says, it’s about reclaiming for the hipster set what used to be symbols of drudgery, such as the apron. Others rebuff the word entirely, blaming feminism for eating away at family life and demeaning the home arts and those who stay home to practice them. Matchar cites at least one critic who says that the feminism appropriated by subscribers of the new domesticity isn’t new feminism at all; instead, it’s just a rebranded way to oppress women.

Matchar’s dissection of new domesticity raises other, larger issues of race, class and gender. White women who stay home are praised more often than their black counterparts, who risk being called “welfare queens.” Impoverished women with less disposable income and time can’t cook every meal from scratch or stay home with their children. And when women assume much of the housework and child-rearing, their husbands may be left feeling superfluous. Also jarring is the notion, articulated by some of Matchar’s subjects, that it’s only “natural” for women to be in the home. That belief is unsettlingly close to the perverse use of “nature” that justifies discrimination.

Matchar maintains a chatty tone that makes for easy reading. She’s funny and self-deprecating, measuring herself against her interviewees with enough gentle sarcasm to hint at her skepticism toward some elements of new domesticity. That skepticism is brought into better focus in her final chapter, where she lays out lessons gleaned from her research.

Matchar’s work left me with a better understanding of other women’s motivations. I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding my own. But I do think I’m ready for that onion-topped sandwich.

Becky Krystal reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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