Housewife. A dirty word that emerged in its contemporary incarnation, in all its insipid grandeur in the 1950s. Golden June Cleaver, bored and oversexed Mrs. Robinson, and today, high-strung and beautiful Betty Draper. As Betty Friedan identified in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique, an entire generation of women suffered from “the problem that has no name.” Housewife: the foil to the Feminist. And too often the mainstream interpretation of the choice to be a homemaker and stay-at-home-mother has changed little—viewed as an anti-feminist or privileged existence. But a new paradigm is surfacing: women exchanging “traditional” careers to embrace and create a new domestic lifestyle. Beyond the compartmentalized practices of homeschooling, homesteading or crafting. Far beyond the “SAHM” in the vitriolic “Mommy Wars,” these women are creating a life that challenges the norms and ideals—those of Feminism and the American Dream—that have borne the commuter culture, the perceived necessity of the two-income household, the conventional ideas of money, status, parenting, educating and homemaking. What has emerged is a mindful look at the consumer culture and an assertion that mothering and homemaking are not only valuable vocations, but deserving of equal validation with paid work outside the home. Innovative approaches to living that require a change in the collective perception of homemaking and offer a challenge to conventional ideals of home and hearth. We gave up our domestic skills because we forgot the reasons to value them. Now some are reclaiming them.
When the Industrial Revolution took men out of the homestead and into the factory, Americans traded a self-sustenance lifestyle for that of a cash economy. Gone was the long-enduring homesteading model, wherein men and women shared the responsibilities of familial self-sustenance and all work was equalized in importance because all tasks contributed to the flourishing and survival of the family. Then work became separated into the “real world” work of men and the unpaid “women’s work”—although no less necessary than ever—became trivialized, lesser-than. Women became “supported” and “dependent.” With the shift of value to earned income rather than self-sustenance, paid work became inherently more valuable and “real” than the unpaid work of the home. And the women who stayed home to do it became less valued, their important work belittled.
On the impetus of the Second Wave of Feminism, American women increasingly joined men in the workforce outside of the home. As women strove for equality, the home became a symbol of oppression. For feminists, it became imperative that women “escape” the home in order to pursue and secure true equality and freedom, which meant economic independence. In a consumerist society where earning is power, of course that is where women had to go to gain equal footing with those who held the economic power—men. As women aligned with the Feminist agenda, mothering and homemaking were denigrated, alienating women in the home. While we have witnessed the validation of the female presence in the workforce, the same legitimization has not extended to women who work in the home. And in the end, as Susan Estrich noted, “We [women] have done better at playing according to the men’s rules than changing them to our own.” Women have gained respect in the workplace but not the home.
Wendy Priesnitz who founded Life Media in 1976, (which publishes The Alternate Press Books, Natural Life Magazine, Natural Child Magazine and Life Learning Magazine) and writes widely about natural family living asserts: “It seems to me that feminism adopted the dominant idea in our culture that measures of success (and therefore equality) should be based on production, growth, money, and consumption. I believe that this is harmful to everyone involved, probably no longer sustainable, and inappropriate for today’s (let alone tomorrow’s) economy. It shortchanges children and their mothers by not supporting what should be a choice for women to stay at home with children. Many women believe they must hold down a full-time job—preferably a high paying one—in order to be a real feminist, and that alienates those who think differently. I agree with Marilyn Waring who, in her 1988 book If Women Counted, suggests that the GDP sustains the institutional enslavement of women and ignores the value of other aspects of society, including volunteer work, community work, parenting, elder care and the environment/Nature.”
While recognizing the strides women have made in the efforts to gain equality, problems have arisen in the wake of progress. The “Mommy Wars” are a symptom of a bigger issue—that of not validating choices for women, dividing us when we should be working towards an inclusive vision. Taking a wider-lens view, the loss of value for homemaking and the move of both domestic partners into the workforce has fostered a multitude of problems: most Americans are removed from the source of food production; the loss of self-sustaining domestic skills as a result of the commodification of everything of the household; the disconnect of the family as a result of the two-income household and a system that fosters sweeping and widespread economic inequity. Mothers at home are cited as the moral backbone of the country and yet the rhetoric continues to feel empty because there is little value actually attributed to the work of the homemaker. There is much elocution bandied about regarding American “family values” and yet the workings of our culture often do not reflect any sincerity and neither do they truly value the work of making a family—inflexible work environments and expectations that do not value or foster life and work balance being the norm. Work rather than home has become the center of life. We even choose where we live by the availability of work—hence the thriving “bedroom communities” in which many commuters reside. The contemporary work paradigm often does not promote the health and well-being of the family. And the good work of the home has been marginalized.
Those who view the American work and family culture as unhealthy are working towards a new American Ethos in moving from a consumptive to a productive culture and choosing to reclaim the home as the center of the family. As Shannon Hayes asserts in Radical Homemaking: Reclaiming Domesticity From A Consumerist Culture, there are some who “choose to make family, community, social justice and the health of the planet the governing principles of their lives,” and “build security through frugal living, domestic skills and reduced material needs.” Demanding professional careers and upscale lifestyles come with the sacrifices of time away from home and children, nutritive meals and family cohesion. Some are instead choosing a life of slowing down, simplifying and building family around a center of home—honing an authentic definition of what it means to create a home. They are delving more deeply into a lifestyle—a different way of living. They are looking critically and thoughtfully at the normative paradigm, seeking its borders and edges and pushing beyond into new territory. For some it is a simple choice of a reprioritizing and recentering of family and personal life. For others it is also an activist choice involving ecological and political choices. A redefining of quality of life and choosing outside the mainstream social constructs to create a new model of perception.
Renee Tougas, of FIMBY, blogs about “homemaking, mothering, and homeschooling in the context of nature inspired, adventurous, and creative family living.” She and her husband have recently simplified their life down to a small cabin where they work and homeschool their children together. Renee says they wanted to center life at home and characterizes her view of the mainstream paradigm: “[There is a] big disconnect of all going different places on a daily basis and that’s just accepted as the norm, and that is the norm for most people but it’s not what we wanted for our family life. You have these children for really such a short time… and one of the reasons we made the move we made is that it allows us to be home together because we really want to spend our lives together… This idea that everybody goes separate places all the time as a matter of course is something that we didn’t want. But then doing this in a society that’s structured for a whole different model is difficult—to find the path is difficult and to live that path is also difficult. But it’s worth it.” She and her husband share the work—paid and unpaid. She reflects that partners “can combine the efforts in terms of the working. I think some women like that more than pulling out altogether to just focus for X amount of years on raising kids… the ideal for me is ‘how do we share this?’ It’s a high ideal—something to work towards.”
This new paradigm leans towards a certain approach to family. Living on less—altering the perception of need and desire and distilling it down to true necessity. It is at its core a redefinition of poverty and wealth. There is a recognition that we as a culture have defined the pace and the “necessities” of life around the demands of work, and those parameters can be redrawn.
Educating children is another area where the status quo is being challenged, as some parents peer more closely at what has evolved in the mainstream for their children and the problems they identify. Unstructured outdoor play has decreased by 50% since the late 1970s. There is a “green” deficit epidemic in kids—they are plugged-in, their interests have been commodified, all resulting in high obesity rates and a disconnect with nature. School days consist of preordained events in sequence, overseen and coordinated by adults, on a certain timetable; the world broken into units so that connections are lost—blocks of information to be memorized rather than contextualized. In the typical school environment—of necessity to its very structure—there is limited tolerance and nurturing of the individual. Alternatively, homeschooling parents desire to craft an education particular to each child and are interested in fostering independent thinkers and allowing natural patterns of learning to emerge by their own unfolding in time. It is a flow of learning and life and the acquiring of skills and independent answer-seeking and problem-solving rather than predetermined blocks of information. As a homeschooling mother, my thinking is that in changing the paradigm and lifestyle for my kids—the priorities, “necessities” and values of mainstream culture—they will grow to think differently and change the world—or at least their worlds. Wendy Priesnitz agrees: “There are so many misconceptions about home-based learning/unschooling (which I prefer to call ‘life learning.’) Sometimes people come up with such objections out of ignorance or false assumptions, and sometimes because they are afraid to—or don’t want to—explore the alternatives to school and conventional lifestyles for fear of what else will shift in their lives.”
Ashley English blogs at Small Measure and is the Author of the Homemade Living book series (Lark Books) which showcases topics related to small-scale homesteading and some of the diverse ways people are reconnecting with their food and food communities and taking up sustainable food practices. I asked her about the idea that alternative lifestyles are sometimes viewed as privileged and unattainable on a practical level: “I say that couldn’t be further from reality. We all have choices on how we allocate time and resources. Choosing to homeschool, or live an ‘alternative lifestyle,’ is simply a choice in a wide sea of choices. When I opt to work from home, instead of going in to an office, I’m making a number of compromises in so doing. While my paycheck might be smaller, my time with my son and husband is greater. It’s not really an ‘either/or’ scenario, to me. Some people put money and time and passion into commodities, or entertainment. I put less money into those things and direct my time and passions towards the things that satisfy me. People simply need to find the things that drive and motivate them, and then pursue them with passion. If that manifests as an ‘alternative lifestyle’ or in the decision to homeschool their children, great. If it manifests in some other capacity, that’s fine, too.”
Wendy Priesnitz comments about this idea of privilege and homeschooling in particular, “I realize that we in the First World are all privileged in one way or another. However, within that context, homeschooling is not the sole purview of so-called privileged people—white, two-parent families; upper income middle class folks; the well-educated, etc. (In fact, poor minority kids tend to be the most vulnerable to the problems of the system and an increasing number of those parents are keeping their kids home.) Nevertheless, there are many shifts that need to happen so that more people can feel capable of living without school. Those include workplace reform to address school’s important babysitting function (flex-time, breastfeeding on the job, workplace daycare, increased tolerance of telecommuting, support for home-based and indie business, etc.); more enlightened attitudes about children’s place in the world; an understanding that coerced, rote memorization isn’t real education; and of the role of school systems in preserving the cultural status quo.”
The move of these ideas into the collective consciousness indicates a shift—a consideration of the ways in which we have shaped our lives and the ways in which we can reshape them. There is a recognition of the political and practical significance to how we choose to live. In mindfully choosing, we can live the lives of our ideals—if not all, certainly some. And we can create a base from which to grow. A reclamation of the work of the home and the ways in which children are raised are some of the ways contemporary homemakers are choosing to begin, and by doing so they are also reclaiming the value inherent in the work of the home. In The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job In The World Is The Least Valued, Ann Crittendon asserts: “Changing the status of mothers, by gaining real recognition for their work, is the great unfinished business of the women’s movement.” There is something inherently inhuman in equating human value with earning potential, and this perspective undermines the equality of human worth. The new work of feminism is legitimizing unpaid work and the need to validate it—the only way to ensure true social egalitarianism. Any other tract of thought is counterproductive to the Feminist agenda. As Renee Tougas sums up: “People have identified problems and the solution seems to be a fundamental change in how we structure our homes and family lives and work. I mean, it’s huge, and I can’t solve all that, but I can certainly live the life I want to live.”