A Return to the Past: Domesticity, Homesteads, and Crafts

I’ve become a little obsessed with ordering books online, especially if I can trade them for books that I own but am willing to part with.  I love having my own copy of a book so I can underline and make notes in it, because almost everything I read now informs my dissertation research.

One result of this book ordering obsession is my owning a copy of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (2013) by Emily Matchar.  It is a nonfiction book that examines mom blogs, knitting circles, and homesteading in an attempt to understand why these activities have become so popular.  They seem to represent a return to or a longing for the past.

homeward bound cover

One reason seems to be the desire of women to control their own work schedules and to be able to spend more time with family.  And this isn’t just a desire of women. Men, too, are sick of being overworked and not spending much time with their children. One woman interviewed for the book make this point: “Why let your company handbook dictate how much time you spend with your family?” (p. 7).  Indeed, and it seems that many have solved this problem by attempting to live more simply through farming or homesteading or by making their money through blogs.

While this discontent with work culture and corporate schedules is certainly one big reason to lead a simpler life and learn to make do and make your own, Matchar also identified other factors.  These include a distrust of the government and/or food system, a concern for the environment, a bad economy, and desire to do hands-on rather than technological work, and the rise of intensive parenting (p. 15).  I can see why all of these factors would lead to a desire for a more crafty or self-sufficient lifestyle.

I particularly enjoyed Matchar’s examination of lifestyle blogs. She quoted Michele Kort (the editor of Ms. Magazine and the reason I started this blog) on the idea that blogs are often an illusion that may promote a subservient version of being a wife (p. 69).  Matchar notes the way blogs are often art-directed, but readers also get “an unintended dose of marketing and commercialism as well” (p. 69).  I’m personally not a big fan of lifestyle blogs, despite the fact that I recently published a research article in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication about them.  I have a hard time seeing the portrayed perfection when my own life doesn’t look anything like what I see in these blogs.

Etsy and crafting also get a lot of attention in this book, and Matchar calls it a symbol of “dissatisfaction with the current job market” (p. 73).  She also examines women who homestead and home-school, noting how labor intensive their lives are, but how important it is to them to have organic food and contribute to the environment by not consuming so much. These ways of living are forms of self-employment and self-sufficiency that appeal to many women (and men) because of the control they have over their own lives.  They might find it empowering to churn their own butter or live off the grid.  A tiny part of me wishes I were brave enough to try this.

Intensive parenting plays a role as well, and I found the ideas interesting because they connected so well with what I’d learned about the culture and politics of motherhood in a class I took a few years ago.  I’m no attachment parent, and I often feel frustrated at the expectations I feel for being the perfect mother, but I enjoyed reading Matchar’s research on intensive parenting in the words of those who practice it.

Overall, this book was enjoyable and accessible.  I got a little frustrated with Matchar’s use of the word “crunchy” (at least a hundred times) to describe people who are striving to live in eco-friendly and authentic ways.  But other than that, I appreciated reading about the perspectives of women who are embracing interesting and dated domestic practices and how they might find their decisions empowering.  Matchar blends their experiences nicely with information about larger culture (especially the workplace).  My own planned dissertation on women’s experiences in the technical and professional communication workplace will benefit from the cultural insights in this book.

29 thoughts on “A Return to the Past: Domesticity, Homesteads, and Crafts

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  1. This is an interesting topic. My niece has gone this route, changing from an urban environment to the country, growing a large garden from which she harvests a good deal of their food, keeping bees and chickens. She also works part-time on an organic farm. Rather than intensively parenting, though, she seems to have reached a better balance by living in the country, something that is more similar to my own upbringing. She has felt safe enough to just tell her daughter, who is now six, to go play outside. They have a large yard and a rim of woods around it that she can play in. It is much less supervision than other kids are getting now, where they don’t have time for free play and their parents are afraid to let them go unsupervised. Her daughter gets plenty of attention from her parents but is also able to go occupy herself with imaginative play, something that they’re finding is very important for children.

    Aside from the environment for her child, she is very concerned about the quality of their food. She grows a lot of their own or makes sure she knows where the rest of it comes from.

    1. This sounds really really cool. I wish I were brave enough to try it, as I suspect there is much satisfaction to be gained. Thanks for sharing her experiences!

  2. What an interesting topic and book. I think this is a natural evolution. Our society has worked hard to give women choices in life and certainly job opportunities for women have increased over the years. However, the question of who handles household and childcare responsibilities is still being answered. I don’t think every husband has the desire or (perceived) time to split these responsibilities in half. Add to this our culture’s constant push for parental perfection and you have many women who are just over trying to do it all. They are tired and stressed, hence the decision to chuck ‘normal’ life. I have worked full-time/part-time at home and away from home. And I can say with all certainty that for me, working part-time from home has been the best option. My husband is helpful but works long hours and life was just too crazy when we were both trying to do it all. No matter one’s working situation, I think it’s important to decide what works for your individual family. Sometimes this means limiting kid’s activities or letting the house go a bit. In our striving we lose sight of the importance of happiness, of enjoying the journey.

    1. Yes, yes, yes. You cover all of the issues and difficulties in the way our economy works and how that usually lands on women, and how sometimes the best choice is what you did. This is a hard thing for a lot of people, and I like your emphasis on individual choice.

  3. Intensive parenting? Is that someone we should guard against or embrace? it sounds likes micromanaging? Of course, I will now be humming the Simon and Garfunkel song the rest of the day.

    1. Most say it is to be guarded against. It is also called helicopter parenting. It leads to children who lack independence and parents who are over stressed, among other things.

  4. I love this post & would love reading the book. It’s an interesting trend – something that parents of my mother’s generation probably didn’t experience. I think that autonomy has a role too – people, parents, wanting to feel more in control of their own lives/careers/children. I think that a lot of the “mommy blogs” have a religious element too – which becomes another element of their platform.

    What are you studying? This is really interesting material to research for a dissertation!

    1. My research centers on professional identities, particularly for women, in the field of technical and professional communication. I would love in the future to conduct a large historical study of domestic science manuals, but my dissertation now will focus on the experiences of women editor and technical writers in the workplace. Thanks for asking!

  5. This is an interesting topic, and one that my husband and I have discussed a lot. Both of us would secretly like to be farmers, but to make the change is just too scary. And, the kids seem happy where we are. It’s hard to rock the boat. We do the best we can while living in town. We get most of our produce from the market, and freeze what we don’t eat right away. Most of pur baked goods are homemade, and made from local organic ingredients. We try not to buy too much stuff, but the older the kids get, the harder it is becoming. We have a garden in our backyard, which produces a lot some years, not so much others. Our motivation is more about trying to go easy on the planet, rather than being about getting put of the rat race, although we hate that too. We also want the kids to grow up knowing that there is another way to live, so they can make better choices for themselves later.

    1. Your version of this sounds more balanced than some of what this book portrays, and it sounds doable as well. I can see why it would be hard to “rock the boat,” as you say, and completely abandon everything to start a farm. Change is hard, and from my perspective, convenience is hard to give up. I admire you! I want to be more like you and your family. 🙂

      1. Thank you, Emily! You’re right about convenience, too. In town, we are so close to everything. It’s easy to walk instead of use the car to get to lessons, the grocery store, and the library. It’s very hard to give that up! And, it’s also good to be able to walk instead of use the car all the time. 🙂

  6. Hmm, this book does sound interesting. I have noticed that there are many blogs written by women who seem to want to turn back time and live a simpler lifestyle. I think that it’s great that more people are becoming aware that consumerism is a major part of a typical Western lifestyle. But it’s also interesting that so many women are choosing a labor intensive lifestyle: perhaps that has arisen out of the fact that most women, at least in the West, can choose whether they want to work or stay or home. While some aspects of the past can seem tempting when viewed through rose-tinted glasses, I’m so glad that I live in this century because I have the freedom to be educated and to choose my own career!

    By the way, on a semi-related note (linked by women’s experiences), did you see the post, The strange duality of being a pregnant professor, that was recently featured on Freshly Pressed? It’s on the Tenure, She Wrote blog, which I am now following. I’m enjoying their posts because it’s a blog written by several women who are all academics; I’m glad it was FPed as I probably wouldn’t have found the blog otherwise!

    1. Ooh, I want to follow that blog! Thanks for the heads up. I don’t pay much attention to FP, unfortunately. And yes, it is interesting that women (and men) would choose a labor intensive lifestyle, but I can see how they might find it more fulfilling than whipping out a credit card and filling a house with plastic stuff. I am definitely too lazy to take on the labor of a farm, but I do long for something more than consumerism. I love your point about it being a Western privilege and that we are lucky to have the choice.

      1. You’re welcome! I thought you’d like the blog.
        I check out FP from time to time and have found many great blogs that way. In fact, I think I found yours via FP. 🙂

        Yep, I wouldn’t want to be a farmer either, but I think it’s possible to achieve a balance between rampant consumerism and going right back to nature. I guess it’s all about finding a happy medium!

  7. Wow, I can’t wait to read this book. I feel like it was written for me! I’m not a homesteader yet, but my life is gradually moving in that direction. The first major step will happen next year, when my husband and I will be building a house in the country. The other major step within view—a step I’m working very hard toward—is building my freelance writing business so that eventually I can quit my day job and work from home: I deeply long to be at home more!

    I used to feel like I was wrong for wishing that I could somehow just be a stay-at-home wife, mother, and leisure-time writer. The influence of the women’s liberation movement seems to have mixed with other forces (such as parental expectations that I would use my intellect to become something prestigious like a lawyer or a professor) to make me feel “bad” for so actively not wanting a day-job career.

    But now I’ve settled into a more positive viewpoint: I am grateful for the freedoms and independence that I have in this modern era, and I see that they include the opportunity to take steps to make my life what I want it to be—and that it’s perfectly okay that I desire a more traditional homemaker lifestyle.

    In subtler ways, my whole mindset this year has been growing toward a quieter, simpler, and more traditional at-home lifestyle. For years I felt “The world is too much with me”—stressing me out! I finally got off of Facebook; that was one major relief. I took my email accounts off of my smartphone, and I started writing snail-mail letters again. I also cut down on the number of local groups I’m involved in, with regret but relief. I’ve started planning and cooking our dinners rather than letting spontaneity feed us Ramen and Spaghettios. Hmm…maybe I’m just growing up!

    Thanks for letting me share. Great review; thank you!

    1. I’m glad I could introduce you to this book! I love what you’ve said about the positive viewpoint: that women have choices, and that choices that include domesticity are okay. Yes! And I’m with you on wanting things to be simpler. I’ve been threatening to get rid of Facebook for a year now. Maybe I should just do it. Should I? I feel some weird fear that I’ll miss out on connecting with somebody because it is my only way of contacting them. And I don’t want to be one of those people who always says, “I’m leaving FB,” and then they come back the next day. Anyway, thanks for a great comment!

      1. I’ve been on and off Facebook a few times in my history with it. This time I just decided to quietly take a break rather than making a statement. I had been feeling stressed out, so I was trying to make things easier for myself; I’ve discovered that as an introvert even just checking Facebook can be surprisingly draining for me. But as time has gone on, I have not missed it at all; in fact, I’ve felt quite peaceful without it. I definitely don’t miss the innane posts and occasional drama that clouded my newsfeed, and I’ve found other ways of staying connected with people–ways that work better for me anyway and feel more meaningful. And no one seems offended or bothered too much that I’m not on Facebook…all my contacts know where to find me! Who knows, maybe I’ll rejoin it someday for some reason, but I’m not eager to anytime soon!
        But that’s just me. Obviously, do whatever works for you!

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