Kate Payne is a writer and blogger in Austin, Texas, and the author of ’The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking‘. She is one of many people profiled in a new book called, ‘Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity’, by Emily Matchar.
Though Kate says she usually refrains from commentary unless she has something nice to say, she felt compelled to raise a few counterpoints to Matchar’s take on domesticity.
A year-and-a-half ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed teaser by Emily Matchar of her thesis in Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. The book, which was released in May, sets out to examine “what happens to American culture as a whole when our best and brightest put home and hearth above other concerns.”
When the Post piece ran, I didn’t feel directly under siege. What I did note was the unfair portrayal of those making an active choice to reclaim domesticity, and a genuine lack of analysis for the myriad of reasons behind such a choice.
Just a few months later, in January 2012, Slate published an article that explored the ‘paradox’ of the modern DIY movement. Beyond the clique-biased title – “Farmer Groupies and Chicken Coddlers” – I was dismayed at how the author (a female) targeted several people in this movement (myself included) with, among other judgments, the suggestion that there was “not a callused palm in sight.”
To simplify, the article’s author was insinuating that previous generations have a legitimate claim on ‘authentic’ DIY. If the real assessment of that is callused palms, as she suggests, she would be welcome to join me and inspect my hands during the height of preserving season.
The Washington Post and Slate articles were just a warm-up for the real arguments around modernity and domesticity, which reach a crescendo in Matchar’s book.
In many ways, the bar has been raised on domestic achievement. Many women have unreasonable personal expectations and end up feeling defeated when their limited supply of time runs up against those expectations. Personally, and in my book and blog, I say: “you can’t do it all.” So, choose wisely.
In that vein, it would have been nice to see Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity feature real investigation on the subject of modern domesticity and the rearranging of gender roles. Instead, the author takes readers on an extended personal rant highlighting rather extreme actions and beliefs, and using those as representative of an entire movement. In the end, Matchar lumps all of us together into a ridiculous caricature.
In the context of what she calls “hard-core foodism, New Domesticity-style,” Matchar describes herself as “a dilettante hobbyist who bakes bread on the odd weekend and eats Skippy peanut butter off the spoon the rest of the week.” At the same time, she says she adores cooking and that, “nothing is more fun … than sharing a home-cooked bowl of pasta puttanesca and a loaf of crusty bread with friends.” She often straddles the fence, simultaneously criticizing the very acts she herself seems to appreciate.
This schizophrenia runs throughout the book but, to be fair, Matchar paints an astute picture of the societal structures that make it difficult for women to stay in the workplace and simultaneously have children or a domestic life. That we’re all dealing with those structures in our own way should be the real focus of commentary.
What a hollow light Matchar casts on self-sufficiency. She manages to twist genuine personal action into perversity, pegging the fundamental human act of baking bread as reveling in domesticity and nostalgia.
She writes: “New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming yet still struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.” Not only does this sentence sum up my discontent with Matchar’s largely unfair and dismissive attitude toward the movement, it also highlights the irony of a career choice that, obviously, she finds unfulfilling.
It seems Matchar has spitefully lumped me into ‘the problem’ when my book and blog embrace all of her ‘solutions’. These can be summarized as follows: enfranchising men; relinquishing our obsession with all things ‘natural’; not downplaying the importance of financial independence; understanding the class issues involved; and ensuring that we don’t neglect the social good.
I do not, as Matchar seems to contend, find domesticity “natural or instinctual” to women. Even though I now know how to do things better and smarter around the house, I can honestly say I still don’t enjoy the majority of domestic chores. I do them anyway, because I don’t have the money to farm them out to other people. I enjoy working for myself, and in order to do so, I have to make trade-offs. If this means I have to take the time to really know my kitchen or to clean without introducing toxic chemicals into my home, it’s worth it to me.
On the subject of gender roles, I would have loved another mention in the section of Matchar’s book on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the New Domesticity. I am someone who doesn’t revel in domesticity the same way the other lesbians she interviewed seem to. I’m married to a woman and we judiciously divvy up the roles, chores and projects in our household. Neither of us puts stay-at-home motherhood or housewife as the pinnacle of our aspirations, and I’m pretty disappointed to see the LGBT community represented so narrowly here.
Ultimately, I resent the picture Matchar paints of women and the aspects of modern domesticity she finds troubling. On a personal note, I’m working my ass off to make it in this world. I’m full of career ambition and I don’t appreciate Matchar’s armchair look at my career path. If it doesn’t work out I’ll go get another job. But at least I will have the satisfaction of saying I tried.
My last request for Matchar: don’t peg my choice of making a living around your own standard of meaning.
For more from Kate Payne, check out hipgirlshome.com