A Critique of the New Domesticity
All in all, I truly enjoyed Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. Her thesis is essentially that women are increasingly getting excited about cooking, sewing, growing (and canning) their own food, attachment parenting, homeschooling, and perfecting other domestic chores our mothers and grandmothers struggled to avoid entirely. Decades after women fought for the right to go work, we find ourselves not even really wanting that privilege, and Matchar has several hypotheses as to why this is the case: a declining economy and job market, the insane cost of daycare, etc. One of the topics Matchar explores is that of the domestic chic blogosphere and the trend toward a romanticization of home life. Pinterest is rife with blogs of seemingly perfect households, such as, for instance the Pioneer Woman, who paints a pastoral picture of homeschooling her four kids on their family’s remote cattle farm in Oklahoma. These blogs all show a sort of simple, domestic bliss that, apparently, is made possible by extra elbow grease. Why trust “the man” to do your cooking, vegetable growing, schooling etc. when you can do it yourself?
I found Matchar’s thesis immensely intriguing… at first. At the beginning of the book, she cheerfully details the movement and explores it’s tangential aspects: women trying to make money off homemaking by starting Etsy stores and exploring the personality of what she’s termed Crunchy Domestic Goddesses, Cupcake Feminists, and Hipster Homemakers. As the book goes on, however, she starts to show a certain level of contempt for the women she’s profiling. The New Domesticity movement has vast political and gender implications, which are impossible to ignore. Matchar, clearly a liberal, shows a certain disdain for the conservative values that almost necessarily come into play with conservative styles. She scorns women for being financially dependent on their husbands, neglecting their responsibility to “use” their degrees and being selfish in the way they pursue more healthier options on an individualistic basis, not considering those in lower income brackets who may not have the choice to stay at home.
Admittedly, I felt like a complete and total cliche as I made my way through her book. I had previously thought that I was independent minded, putting hours of research into things like attachment parenting and cooking. It turns out I’m just exactly like most of the women I graduated college with. We were all raised to think that we were in control of our own destiny, that we could control our futures. Most of us, upon graduating, realized that wasn’t remotely true.
The common thread I traced through the ways women in the book pursued domesticity was an urge, almost a compulsion, to control everything. The contemporary mindset revolves around this sort of perceived control. If people get e coli from cantaloupe, one should grow his own. If a few vaccines have led to children being sick, then one should do hours of online research to, apparently, make himself smarter than the doctors prescribing these vaccines… and opt out. If a baby is crying it must be your fault. If a child develops allergies, it must because you used formula instead of breastfed. We educated, 21st century women, have such confidence and self esteem that we imagine we can control other people, situations, and even children!
Thinking this way gets pretty stressful pretty quickly. It’s also a completely unrealistic, exhausting way to live your life. If you’re in control of everything, where does God fit into your obsessiveness? Sure, all the kids looked darling at Mass in their matching hats and scarves you knitted yourself, but were you so obsessed with perfection that you failed to pay attention to the homily?
Life will never be perfect and there will always be things you can’t control. We live in a fallen world, filled with people who are convinced they know the temporal truths that will lead to happiness. Jesus is the only way, truth and life, and the sooner we acknowledge that and give everything to Him, the happier we’ll be. Spiritual lives aside, the likes of Aristotle and Plato have been seeking to define “the good life” for centuries, it’s unlikely that Emily Matchar would be able to decipher the key to a woman’s happiness (either staying at home or going to work) in the space of a short book.
From a woman’s perspective, the nice thing about the “New Domesticity” is that you can express the trend any way you see fit and it can be a largely apolitical, spiritually neutral phenomenon. There’s not much wrong with the DIY culture in and of itself; I make our laundry detergent, am psyched about cloth diapering and enjoy trying new recipes. I recommend Matchar’s book to anyone interested in why women in the 21st century are becoming more like Betty Crocker than Betty Friedan.
I think embracing feminine hobbies and instincts is good, but I think we’d be wise to be vigilant in regards to where the propensities can lead us. The key to surviving in a time where domesticity is prized is to recognize that obsessing over perfection is silly. Having an open mind is essential. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that, in situations like these, there’s rarely one right way of doing something. No one should ever make you feel bad about not eating organic or not having a chicken coop in your backyard… it’s not sinful to eat frozen dinners! Our relationship with God and our devotion to Him and His Church should always trump impressing our friends in the blogosphere!