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.