Radical Homemaking, Radical Enrichment

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I first heard about Shannon Hayes work through Laura McKenna’s blog nearly two years ago. I was already disposed to like the sorts of localist, agrarian, and traditional causes that Hayes urges us to consider when I first read about her (after all, Melissa and I vaguely aspire to that sort of lifestyle ourselves), but it was Laura’s concluding line–“There is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism”–that really pulled me in. When I finally got a copy of Hayes’s book, Radical Homemakers, I confess it wasn’t what I expected–rather than a serious, theoretically grounded critique of consumer culture, family life, and the structural obstacles that often stand in the way of adopting a simpler, more communal lifestyle, I found an often sloppily researched but nonetheless impassioned instruction manual-cum-rallying cry. A cry and a manual for what? Very simply, for rejecting the economic demands which insist of dual-income households (p. 17), for relearning how to grow and preserve your own food (pp. 78-83), and for refusing the economically and environmentally devastating materialism of modern American life (pp. 93-94). And I thought to myself: now, wouldn’t this make for a great Relief Society lesson?

 

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a panel discussion (at this conference, with the wonderful people you see on the left) which took off, in many different directions, from Hayes’s insistence upon thinking seriously about just what “making” a simple, sustainable, spiritually-edifying “home” truly consisted of. What I wanted to do was plant some seeds of discussion (seeds which grow in surprising directions in Hayes’s book), presenting the “home” as something other than a unit of consumption, other than a place where individuals rest their heads and eat their meals and watch their television shows, all of which require ever-increasing (and often debt-driven) economic participation to keep going. In preparation for that, I asked a Mormon audience exactly what kind of “homemaking” and “enrichment” activities their local congregations still participate in, if any. The answers were, to say the least, revealing. And they should be–for some decades, extending for many years out beyond Mormonism’s 19th-century pioneer period, the ability to live frugally, to share resources and skills with family and friends so as to become self-sustaining, to basically dissent from the pursuit of wealth and growth, was an unstated principle of a great deal that Relief Society did. Enriching the home meant making it more tendable, more nuturable, more amenable to (one might say more “organic to”, but such language is unfortunately foreign to most American Mormons, whether in the 19th century or today) the work and production and play of those who live there, rather than more dependent upon the size of the paycheck brought home and the caprice of the market in general. That distant ideal remains a half-life existence throughout much of Mormon culture (and not just Mormons–Laura McKenna, who confessed herself highly attracted to much of Hayes’s call, has made clear her own disposition to the “pioneer virtues” of “making do or doing without” before as well).

Part of this story, of course, can’t be told without talking about Mormonism’s ultimately mostly abandoned effort to develop a truly alternative–more communitarian, more egalitarian, more localized–culture and economy in Utah. This is part of why I’d love to see Hayes’s book be the centerpiece of a Relief Society lesson: because in the mostly conservative, mostly middle- and upper-class white American Mormon church, Hayes’s righteous attacks on capitalism as an economic system which drives us to debt and competition, invades the sanctity of the home which consumer values and fears, and commodifies and individualizes our most intimate and emotionally connective choices…well, it might not go over too well. But then again, if it was stated by way of quoting 19th-century church leaders and passages of scripture which make essentially the same point, maybe some real enrichment could be possible.

The other elephant that would be present in the room, which any Relief Society taking up my challenge ought to consider, is why should be the Relief Society that thinks about “homemaking” and “enrichment”, as opposed to any of the men’s organizations in our church? It’s an important question–for Hayes clearly envisions to inspire both partners in any family unit to turn aside from the rat race, return to the home, and engage in the sort of practical work necessary to achieve real sustainability, simplicity, and health. When she rants (and she often does) about how “[w]e have lost the innate knowledge and tradition crafts essential to countless functions for our daily survival, with the end result being a disconnection from our communities and our natural world” (p. 83), none of her words pertain to the female partner over the male, or vice versa. But she’s no stupid; she’s fully aware of how her call to reject the rewards of the market will go over with most of the second-wave feminists among us–feminists who, she believes, have traded in the birthright of building freer, cleaner, more beautiful and more just homes for the cash rewards of the workplace:

In running the homemaking banner up the flagpole, I understand that I may garner two different salutes–one with a full hand lifted respectfully at eyebrow level, and a second where only a single finger is raised. For generations now, the homemaker banner has come to represent two primary struggles. In the first, the homemaker is viewed as a subservient loser in the battle of the sexes, where a man has presumably gained power over a woman if she stays home. In the second struggle, woman faces off against woman; the struggle for autonomy, self-fulfillment, and economic independence is pitted against society’s need for nurturers (p. 23).

Tweak a few words here and there, and you can could find words like these coming from the mouth or pen of any one of a dozen well-known female “backlash” authors, including Mormon ones–concerned women who think, like Hayes, that modern American life and modern American feminism are serving the family wrong. But how many would recognize the way in which these ideologies and practices are disrupting the very simple, very conservative, very traditional ideal of the home? Would they see, as Hayes does, that exploring and defending the construction of the home obliges one to stop thinking so much about the behavior of those within the home–which is their preferred route–and instead to contemplate more about the ugly fact that we our complicit in a system which places a price tag on all those behaviors, both good and bad? Well…maybe if the Relief Society instructor was a particularly good one, they would.

My fellow panel participants opened up the discussion of “making” a home to all sorts of considerations–personal, sexual, and theoretical; they talked about church programs, economic resources, psychological growth, and political justice. I think Hayes’s would have been pleased with their “radicalness“, even if she might have wondered about some of their conclusions. Asking the questions she asks is, after all, the first step. Now, getting someone to make Radical Homemakers–with all its sometimes-crazy-but-just-as-often-insightful suggestions regarding transportation (p. 126), home ownership (p. 130), health care (p. 139), child care (p. 154), education (p. 160), and savings (p. 176)–a manual for an Enrichment lesson…well, that would be the next one.

Comments

  1. Kristine says:

    I’d happily do this book with my RS reading group, and I wish, wish, wish that there were some element of this kind of thinking in the Mormon retreat to housewifery, but I think there’s no chance of any resistance to full-tilt capitalism gaining any traction in the American church, no matter how many Brigham Young sermons you line up in support. The problem is that the LDS abrogation of the homemaker role is in support of a particular sort of gender politics, and is modeled EXACTLY after the 1950’s consumer-in-chief, right down to the retro vibe of Mormon mommy blogs in all their aproned cuteness. If there’s any resistance at all to the consumerist version of housewifery, it comes only because of a commitment to one-income families, which means that unbridled consumption has to be deferred to some hoped-for future when hubby will earn more. There’s no ideological commitment to the kinds of economies that serious housewifery (or househusbandry) might enable–indeed, I think most Mormons would find such ideas scandalous.

  2. Unfortunately, Kristine is right. Though, I think the current conception of homemaking has some connection to Aristotle’s concept of household management.

    I do think that this is a possible means of resisting both tradition gender-roles and capitalism within the Church and society. We egalitarians may never win….but he can always resist.

    Chris H.

  3. Oh, and I like that picture. Freak…I am huge!

  4. Natalie B. says:

    “If there’s any resistance at all to the consumerist version of housewifery, it comes only because of a commitment to one-income families, which means that unbridled consumption has to be deferred to some hoped-for future when hubby will earn more.”

    I agree with the comments here that home is currently a place of consumerism (though I’m not sure that is a bad thing). But do we really think that consumerism is at all checked by a commitment to one-income families? I’d argue that the commitment to the one-income family heightens the focus on consumerism, since it places one person in the role of establishing his or her purpose primarily through things that involve consumption.

    Now that both my husband and I are working, I find that we spend very little and want to continuously downsize because we don’t have any time to shop or to take care of lots of things. If I do think about spending, I then always think that we should save because maybe something will happen and we will only have one income in the future.

    By contrast, I spent far more when I was at home because I needed an outlet for my creativity that I fulfilled through decorating, lessons, or lunches with people. In short, I think the activities that create purpose when one is “at home” largely involve consumption–especially if one adds kids into the mix.

  5. Gwenydd McCoy says:

    “relearning how to grow and preserve your own food”

    what if you don’t want to do this, i.e. you don’t like it, you live in an apartment in a large city, you enjoy your job as an IT person, both you and your husband like working because you love your jobs, etc…?

    Gwynedd

  6. I have to echo to comments on Laura McKenna’s post with the Mormon twist: how would the Mormon version of this radical homemaking differ from that practiced by the Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities?

  7. Gwynedd–that’s exactly what I was thinking. I’m no fan of capitalism, but I *am* a fan of me working outside the home. If some women want to engage in this kind of homemaking, that’s fine; but the thing I don’t like about it being presented at church is it gives it the ol’ “doctrinal sheen.” http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/06/the-doctrinal-sheen/

    There are some “radical” aspects to this kind of homemaking, but it is also in some ways conservative. I’m afraid at church this would come off as yet another reason women should be full-time SAHMs.

  8. Gwenydd McCoy says:

    Whitney—i agree. this is radical in that it is radically conservative (not so much in a politcal sense). It almost seems like the age-old fight tradition vs modernity and progess. Sure progess has its flaws, but without it, women wouldn’t be moving forward as they have.

  9. Whitney & Gwenydd, perhaps there is a enforced either/or in your argument. If homemaking is to be discussed I would much prefer this to be the framework from which it draws inspiration than the one that we currently have. The way forward is not to diminish conversations about both working women/mothers and stay-at-home-women/mothers but rather to engage in discussions which include approaches to both. I am not an advocate of any normative expectations which devalues women who work but I do believe there is value in advocating approaches to (m)enrichment that seek to value the earth, diminish our impulse to consume and foster community.

  10. In the literal sense we see man and woman driven out of the perfect nature of the garden of Eden to till the earth. I don’t like gardening more than a hundred things I’d rather be doing but I have seen the wisdom in doing it. I seems to me to be a good thing to remain as close as we are able in some respects to those basic things which sustain life.

  11. Russell very interesting article. My guess is that most women aren’t interested in doing this because to truly be successful it takes WORK. From both sides the husband (man) and the wife (woman). You can’t just send one to work and let the other stay home and have success. She has to do more then clean and take care of kids. You have to be willing to sacrifice for it truly work. (And to most of us anymore that is a dirty word.) That means raising at home what the family needs as well. The woman has to make up for the lost income somehow or the burden of the family falls completely on the mans shoulders and that is not a fair partnership. But in order to make this happen it takes work. Instead of prepared (boxed) meals it means cooking from scratch, it means growing as much of your own food as possible,sewing and mending things, making all you can . From household cleaners to clothing (if you have the talent, which I do not) but it means making money appear where none currently is and that is done through hard work and learning to say “NO” to ourselves and our children.

    Personally being on both sides of this fence I think more women would find joy and satisfaction from what she shares but most aren’t willing to do the “work” that it requires. Our society, our children and our families would all benefit from this sacrifice but the reality is that most of us don’t want to live that way. We like living in homes that cause us to stress about payments, take vacations that only our credit cards can afford and drive cars that make us feel good about ourselves not just take us from point A to point B. We like living on borrowed “credit” thinking that all will be fine until the reality hits. This is the society that we have been raised in “keeping up with the Jones” is a way of life. Not having time to really connect as family, partners and rushing from one form of entertainment to another or one appointment to another that is “way” we live. I don’t think her points are truly radical (though I have yet to read the book) I think that they are opposite of what we are now calling a “normal way” of life. I do agree it would be a good lesson to have is RS. The debate would be interesting anyway! ;) Just my 2 cents

  12. I understand from you post that Hays considers the role of both partners in radical homemaking. Does the author see homemaking and bread winning as a natural or unnatural division of labor?

    It seems to me that organic/green/thrifty/etc lifestyles create a heavier burden on the chief domestic officer relative to the bread winning partner. Julie M made a similar case in a post a while back at T&S. I am imagining a PH lesson or activity in which this book was used to teach men about participating in radical homemaking. I can just see a young father saying, “I’ll change the baby’s diaper. And I’ll use this handmade organic diaper that I created from the cotton growing in the garden.”

  13. The LA Times headline today shows only 23% of CA lives in a Nuclear family and that number is quickly dropping. It does not even state how many of those families have SAHMs. 26% are married_no kids. The rest are single parent, unmarried_ but living together, gay(1%).
    This book does not deal with this. The Church also needs to rethink what a family is today.

  14. Lots of great comments here–thanks!

    Kristine,

    The problem is that the LDS abrogation of the homemaker role is in support of a particular sort of gender politics, and is modeled EXACTLY after the 1950′s consumer-in-chief, right down to the retro vibe of Mormon mommy blogs in all their aproned cuteness. If there’s any resistance at all to the consumerist version of housewifery, it comes only because of a commitment to one-income families, which means that unbridled consumption has to be deferred to some hoped-for future when hubby will earn more.

    And this is where your wonderful paper at the panel intersects directly with Hayes’s arguments: what we arguably have in our YW program in church today is system that trains girls to think in terms of strengthening and maximizing themselves, and finding something divine in themselves, but mostly only through a model which assumes their relative lack of economic independence. The calling they are imagined to magnify is not one that assumes a kind of radical sustainability, but rather a very bourgeois “sustainability”–you can contribute to the home that will be built through your dependence/consumption/participation, not so much through your own (or your family’s) productive capacities. I don’t think the YW program discriminates against women as producers, but it doesn’t create its curriculum around it.

    Chris/Rousseau (nice handle, by the way!),

    I think the current conception of homemaking has some connection to Aristotle’s concept of household management.

    I agree that the connection is there, or at least potentially so–to its credit, the Mormon focus on the home and Mormonism’s pioneer legacy really does communicate this holistic sense of responsibility for home creation, as opposed to its outsourcing to consumer capitalism bric-a-brac. But it would require some serious (and brave) theoretical articulation for that message to be conveyed through Relief Society meetings today, I think.

    Natalie,

    I spent far more when I was at home because I needed an outlet for my creativity that I fulfilled through decorating, lessons, or lunches with people. In short, I think the activities that create purpose when one is “at home” largely involve consumption–especially if one adds kids into the mix.

    Right, that’s exactly Hayes’s point: the modern American household, as a structural creation of a socio-economic world that has so marginalized and/or rendered meaningless home production, leaves almost nothing for a “homemaker” to do except spend money. So to be a radical homemaker, it’s not enough to simply insist of some sort of teeth-clenched frugality; you’ve got to rethink the home entirely. Whereas a dual-income home may well be a less consumerist one, because neither partner is trapped in a late-capitalist “homemaker” (really, buyer) mode, but there a different critique comes up: if both partners are working, who is turning the home into a partner with the broader community?

  15. Bob said, “The Church also needs to rethink what a family is today.”
    By and large the church is focused on improving what “is” into what “should be”. Now we have to accept the reality of our fallen condition in many ways. But that doesn’t mean we just change what “should be” because we’re not living up to it. Interestingly, God does this from time to time, but it usually results in the removal of blessings not gaining additional ones.

  16. Gwenydd,

    what if you don’t want to do this, i.e. you don’t like it, you live in an apartment in a large city, you enjoy your job as an IT person, both you and your husband like working because you love your jobs, etc…?

    I’m not sure how Hayes’s would respond to that; perhaps be sad for you, that you have what she would consider to be such a mixed-up and environmentally and economically unhealthy value system? She does talk to people who live in metropolitan areas (a couple of renters in downtown LA, for example), who have found ways to opt out of the always-on-the-go lifestyle, who grow food in abandoned lots and use bikes and buses to get everywhere, and she has nothing but praise for them. But generally speaking, yeah–if you enjoy the hustle and expense of city life (and don’t mind the pollution and waste), if you really love your work with the latest technology (and are willing to ignore the planned obsolescence on which it depends, if you don’t see anything wrong with not having permanent (literally grounded) roots, then I suspect she wouldn’t really have anything to say to you except “You’re doing your life all wrong!”

    Please note that I’m not saying this, just as I’m not planning on using this book to teach an elders quorum lesson anytime soon. But I think these sorts of challenges–which, also please note, apply to me (an academic living in a Wichita suburb) as well!–are worth throwing at ourselves, especially since part of our own historical practices parallel many of Hayes’s claims.

    this is radical in that it is radically conservative (not so much in a political sense).

    This is absolutely on the money, though Hayes’s herself probably wouldn’t see it that way. “Politically conservative” in America (and really most of the Western world) today just means another version of liberal individualism, only with an economically libertarian and/or culturally traditional Christian spin on it. Hayes’s is presenting something which is radically illiberal, meaning an approach to living which doesn’t take economic growth and success, individual accomplishment, and cosmopolitan enlightenment as either necessary or good; she thinks individuals do best, and are happiest, when tending to their gardens and making their way without the “helping” hands of either big business or the government. You could call that conservative, I suppose, in that it does depend upon the recovery of skill sets and attitudes that modern individual capitalism has allowed us to transcend and/or outsource to the Philippines, and hence is asking us to “go back” to some better way of thinking and living. But you could just as well call it “anarchist” rather than “conservative”. And finally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for her that traditional gender roles be broken down, and that the “homemaker” not solely be the woman, while the man goes off to his job. Some sort of income is probably inevitable in today’s world–money has it’s uses!–but why should it necessarily be the man who earns it? As a committed slacker husband and father, that part of the book resonated with me a lot.

  17. Rachel,

    I’m so glad you commented! I hope you know that, despite our many political disagreements, the example of your and Don’s life choices have been a major part of my engagement with all of these ideas. (For those who are interested and/or live in Wichita, KS, check out Rachel Murphy’s very cool, frugal-minded, very Mormon, pseudo-homesteading blog, From Chasing the Crown to Chasing Chickens.)

    My guess is that most women aren’t interested in doing this because to truly be successful it takes WORK. From both sides the husband (man) and the wife (woman). You can’t just send one to work and let the other stay home and have success. She has to do more then clean and take care of kids. You have to be willing to sacrifice for it truly work. (And to most of us anymore that is a dirty word.) That means raising at home what the family needs as well. The woman has to make up for the lost income somehow or the burden of the family falls completely on the mans shoulders and that is not a fair partnership.

    I agree in principle with what you’re saying, but I think how you’re saying it is a little harsh, and moreover buys a little too much into the idea that being only the man can be the “real” breadwinner. Part of the radical rethinking that Hayes’s would encourage us to engage in–and which I think it Relief Societies and elders quorums would benefit from–is to realize that “breadwinning” and “homemaking” are not merely complementary acts; they are entwined and mutual ones. If it so happens that the father of a family can bring in some cash (or barter for needed goods) by using his skills as a carpenter or mechanic, while the mother of a family help bring food to the table (or sell it to neighbors) by milking the goats and weeding the garden, is it really the case that the man has been the “provider” and the woman the “nurturer”? It seems to me, rather, that both have done both. I suppose that if you choose to read the Proclamation on the Family in a certain way, and embrace that reading, it might seem wrong if you have two parents working in two related roles at the same time; one might believe: isn’t there supposed to be a divine difference realized in art of homemaking here? I would just reply: that’s why I don’t think we should read the Proclamation on the Family in that way.

    Our society, our children and our families would all benefit from this sacrifice but the reality is that most of us don’t want to live that way. We like living in homes that cause us to stress about payments, take vacations that only our credit cards can afford and drive cars that make us feel good about ourselves not just take us from point A to point B. We like living on borrowed “credit” thinking that all will be fine until the reality hits. This is the society that we have been raised in “keeping up with the Jones” is a way of life.

    You’re hitting me and Melissa where it hurts, Rachel! Our level of consumer credit card debt isn’t outrageous by any current average standard, but it’s still embarrassing to us. Still, that’s the point of these sorts of books, and these sort of discussions, and maybe even these sort of Enrichment meeting lessons–to be challenged, and maybe, thanks to being hit by a challenge, to do some rethinking of just what “home” ought to mean along the way.

  18. L-d Sus,

    Does the author see homemaking and bread winning as a natural or unnatural division of labor?

    I think my above couple of responses to Gwenydd and Rachel touch on this: Hayes’s absolutely sees “homemaking” and “breadwinning” as entwined, mutual, overlapping areas of work and fulfillment; she thinks (rather simplistically, but not without a lot of accuracy) that the gendered distinction between the two was primarily a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the consumer world which the wealth that Revolution released ended up creating in Western societies. And, of course, Julie Smith was right in that old T&S post: industrial capitalism has done far more to liberate and equalize the sexes than most feminist arguments ever managed to do, simply because it put economic power into the hands of women. But Hayes’s would likely respond by saying that said economic power is, for the most part, tied up with economically and environmentally destructive patterns of consumption, and so the gains of second-wave feminism will be transitory ones, at best.

  19. Russell you are right. I was perhaps a bit harsh in my first post… But I have to admit I get tired of all the whining we hear about how being self reliant just doesn’t “work for me” or “it doesn’t fit in my life” or “it really creates no better life ” because it can and it does. At least in my experience and perhaps I should have more to go off before sharing such strong thoughts. But I do agree with you completely!!! That it is both husband and wife together doing what needs to be done to make it work. It is bartering, and using your God given talents, it is hard work and sacrifice.

    Russell I understand, we have been there. Remember when Tim used all my credit cards to start to fill the fish bowl , want to talk about embarrassing!!! I wanted to die! But what a great experience that was because I have learned from it and done a 360 and without excess things(debt) I have survived and not only that but found peace. Would really like to borrow the book. :)

  20. “willing to ignore the planned obsolescence on which it depends”

    Children’s toys are designed with planned obsolescence. So is 4th grade and my first summer job flipping hamburgers. My old polluting, gas-guzzling Jeep was unfortunately not so well designed to fail when I needed to move on, and I am still driving it, along with my new all-electric Nissan Leaf.

    The popular Shaker-like meme (on which Hayes’ book sounds like it is premised on) is not merely that we are choosing badly but that it is wrong to outgrow (and really most things do last long enough to outlive their ability to stimulate growth). Eden may have been a paradise, but only the animals were content to stay: Adam and Eve needed to know what was beyond the walls of the gilded cage.

    I admire the verdant garden of suggestions you have cultivated in Hayes’ garden, but today I work so that tomorrow when I get sick, then the day after medicine developed by some Capitalist will be able to extend my life, that I too might one day return to work in your garden when my peregrinations are over.

    May you never find what you are looking for. Only then can you discover what you never knew you always wanted.

  21. MikeInWeHo says:

    You got a Nissan Leaf, Dan? Cool !!!

  22. The problem with homemaking is that it’s no longer seen as valuable or interesting. Of course there will always be tasks that are boring and just have to be done (but who has an out-of-the-home job that’s completely interesting and fulfilling all day?) and there will always be people who are not interested in any of the tasks to be done at home. But, if we could start looking at the homemaking tasks themselves as a way to have a creative outlet and work together with friends to accomplish tasks and have social time together.

    Natalie said, “I’d argue that the commitment to the one-income family heightens the focus on consumerism, since it places one person in the role of establishing his or her purpose primarily through things that involve consumption.” I’d argue that you can switch to establishing purpose primararily through things that reduce consumption. Youdo have to get away from the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality and that may be easier to do here in the midwest where everyone has a garden – mormon or not – and SAHMs are still relatively common, at least while the kids are little. But, if you enjoy and take pride in what you do and enjoy sharing it with others, then people might actually think you’re cool.

    My mom was a SAHM and did many things that I do – gardening, canning, mending, cooking from scratch, food storage, etc. She also tried to convince others to learn, but she always made it feel like a duty, something you do b/c the prophet told you to, but it wasn’t very fun or pleasant. She’s always astonished when I tell her that I had 5 friends over the other day canning peaches or applesauce with me. I think the difference is that I present the task as, “Do you want to come over and can peaches with me? It’s kind of hot and sticky, but it’s much more fun to talk while you work and the result is soooo good tasting, it’s cheaper than buying it at the store, and it’s really not that hard.” And I do enjoy it. As Rachel said, it does take a lot of work to reduce consumption, but why should people be so reluctant to value work if it results in the expense of less money rather than the earning of more money?

  23. Naismith says:

    Well, thanks a lot for this, for helping me to understand why I am such a misfit:) I learned to can and sew and garden at BYU, right after I first joined the church, and that’s pretty much been our lifestyle ever since. We use our food storage, rarely eat out, pay off any credit card bills every month, and have been debt-free for more than a decade.

    I see myself as very much a producer rather than a consumer. I didn’t raise the chicken that I canned this morning, but it was on sale and gives us low-cost emergency food at a fraction of the cost, and better control over what we are eating. My brother did catch the fish we are having for dinner.

    We garden, and kitchen scraps are taken out to the compost each night after supper. I start in the morning, putting fruit cores on a plate on the counter, and everyone else adds their carrot peels or whatever. It’s interesting that we never told the kids they should do that, they just picked it up. It’s a lifestyle.

    I sew when it is cost-effective (living room curtains) or to get something we want that isn’t available otherwise (daughter’s medieval prom dress). But I am glad that I know how to sew, because it helps with mending and altering. I made the children’s training pants out of old cotton garments.

    I don’t see this as a SAHM vs. employed thing, because we didn’t stop doing things when I got a paid job. And I think it does take the entire family. None of us can do everything with our time, and so the choices should be made as partners together, and then implemented by whoever is in a position to do so. My husband taught our kids power tools because he is just better at that. I taught them to sew and cook. Both genders learned all skills. Every bit helps them to be more self-sufficient.

    I ride a bicycle to my paid job (10 miles a day round trip) as part of our commitment to frugal living and the environment. But I’ve been able to take our college-aged kids to Paris and/or London for their spring breaks, and they have/will be graduating without debt.

    I don’t think technology is all bad for the environment. Online banking and billpay helps save a lot of trees. It’s like everything else, you kind of weigh it and see whether it works for you.

    And although I am responsible for much of the necessary purchases around here, we don’t buy something just because it is new or in style. I think shopping is the modern equivalent of hunter-gathering. Know a good price for your prey, see the deal, add a coupon, pounce!

    I hate fulltime employment because for me I did not have time to be a frugal steward. I would let laundry sit so that stains were set in and the garment was ruined. Or I didn’t have time to mend something. I would let our investments slide into proportions and paths that were not wise. We’d pick up fast food for dinner. For us, me being employed part-time is optimal because I can manage the homefront and still save for retirement.

    “I suspect she wouldn’t really have anything to say to you except “You’re doing your life all wrong!” ”

    Um, in a LDS context of course nobody says that to anyone because we all understand that each family has stewardship only over themselves?

    “Right, that’s exactly Hayes’s point: the modern American household, as a structural creation of a socio-economic world that has so marginalized and/or rendered meaningless home production, leaves almost nothing for a “homemaker” to do except spend money.”

    Maybe on Long Island or something. I worked my ass off during my years at home. Maybe it’s a class thing? Or mostly that I would rather take international trips and save for a mission than spend on stuff.

    Personally, I think provident living is going to be even more important in the years ahead, because most baby boomers have not saved enough for retirement and they are going to have to cut somewhere. I suspect that we will form ad hoc retirement communities, where one person has a house with extra rooms, one person can still drive and has a functional car, one can cook, and so on. And they pool their talents and resources to get by.

  24. In this vein, I sometimes think of my grandfathers. Neither was a farmer, but both were self-employed and lived on a few acres which they used for family production.

  25. Also, that probably describes a lot of grandfathers, and but not many of their grandsons.

  26. I don’t see this thinking as any different from Thoreau, or “Living the Good Life” (Nearing, 1954), or the Hippie movement of the 1960s. All ‘Drop Out’ and live! I guess I have 20 books on this. It’s OK for 1,2, persons or a small group. But not possible on a large scale, like 300,000,000 in the USA.

  27. Steve Evans says:

    Naismith, I think it’s cool that your daughter went to a medieval prom. Did you build a trebuchet to launch her there?

  28. I am still driving it, along with my new all-electric Nissan Leaf.

    From Dan Weston’s email to me, dated April 7, 2010 (after discussing my child’s bout with carsickness):

    And shame on you for buying a new car. Clearly the vomit was a sign from God smiting your pride and acquisitiveness. You could have bought a used car and given the difference to the poor!

  29. Peter LLC says:

    if you enjoy the hustle and expense of city life (and don’t mind the pollution and waste)

    Aren’t population-dense areas more efficient than the kind of sprawl that would be necessary for everyone to have their 40 acres and a mule?

  30. Kristine nailed it right out of the gate. Many women that I know who are ‘homemakers’ are actually home ‘presenters’ who seem to think making a home is presenting a perfect looking home (and self and kids) on one-income by shopping at Target/Walmart/Costco. No thank you.

    I also want to address the either/or urban or working mom mentality that seems fairly pervasive. Peter LLC referenced an ongoing trend that suggests sustainable living (financial, environmental, and otherwise) may be more efficient in an URBAN spatial environment than a sprawled one because small houses, small yards, and small commutes decreases consumerism. Further, you don’t need half of an acre for a decent sized garden; you don’t even need a yard if you are willing to search out the nearest community garden. And if that still doesn’t appeal to you, join a CSA (Community Supported Ag) farm; at least then you will be supporting a local, nearby farmer in a way that is more tied to the seasons and place you live than consuming inappropriate food from who knows where.

    I am the biggest urban fan you’ve ever seen. I’ve also maintained at least 20-50 hours of work outside the home for the past decade. Yet I fit the profile of the radical homemaker. I like gardening, sewing, and cooking as a creative outlet when I’m not programming/writing. But part of it is a commitment to living simply and sustainably by doing all of those little things that I can. If this means spending the day at a nearby u-pick farm to come home and can the produce or go camping/fishing INSTEAD of a vacation, then we (and it is a WE thing in our house) do that. If it means learning how to make SIMPLE meals (truly simple meals) from scratch (saving money and increasing nutrition) that can be thrown in a crockpot or whipped up in less than 30 minutes at the end of a workday, then I do that. We clothed diapered (with simple prefolds rather than the crazy mommy consumerist version) because doing 2-3 extra loads of laundry a week really isn’t that much extra work. I have a once monthly regular order from a buying club/coop; it takes no more time to get these things from the coop than the store, you just have to plan ahead enough to make the buying deadline each month. In other words, there are lots of things that can help move us out of consumer to producer-consumer.

    I mourn the fact that my church community of women, generally speaking, do not share these interests with me; those that are have some sort of bizarre 50’s gendered version of sewing, gardening, cooking, childcare in mind. I am so tired of attending enrichment that is a party with junky food mascaraing as some sort of celebration of womanhood; I’m tired of food storage being explained in terms of junky canned and prepackaged food. I wish enrichment night was one where we discussed setting up garden watering systems, how to truly cook from high quality scratch foods, how to decrease our water consumption, how to restore our windows to better insulate rather than just replacing, how to re-purpose my sheets into cloth napkins, weekly meetups at the local library with the kids, etc.

    Wow, far more ranty than I intended. Sorry about that.

  31. I love the rant, Nicole!. And let me reiterate what I said above: while Hayes herself is rather dubious of the possibility of a “radical homemaking” revolution in urban and suburban environments, she by no means is dismissive of those who make it happen; she interviews a length several. As you say, “a commitment to living simply and sustainably by doing all of those little things that I can” is really the key, no matter where you live.

  32. If your cooking is centered around a big pot, and your kitchen sink is clean, you are getting near the simple life.

  33. I spent far more when I was at home because I needed an outlet for my creativity that I fulfilled through decorating, lessons, or lunches with people. In short, I think the activities that create purpose when one is “at home” largely involve consumption–especially if one adds kids into the mix.

    Right, that’s exactly Hayes’s point: the modern American household, as a structural creation of a socio-economic world that has so marginalized and/or rendered meaningless home production, leaves almost nothing for a “homemaker” to do except spend money.

    Not in my experience. Since I’ve become an SAHM I’m busier than I’ve ever been, indeed, so busy that I have little time to spend money, and of course I have less money to spend. Just getting to the grocery store once a week has become a monumental undertaking. My life is consumed neither with consumption nor with production, but with caretaking. I clean and cook as best I can around the caretaking.

    Who and where are these homemakers who have nothing to do except spend money? I’m intrigued, and skeptical. I don’t garden or can. Life circumstances are forcing me to learn to sew. I do cook, passably, and enjoy it sometimes. But even setting all of that good productive labor aside, I’ve got lots of work around my house I’d like to get to but may not until my youngest goes to kindergarten.

  34. “Who and where are these homemakers who have nothing to do except spend money? … I’ve got lots of work around my house I’d like to get to but may not until my youngest goes to kindergarten.

    Eve, I think you answered your own question.

    On a separate note, my suspicion has been that SOME (SOME, not all) moms homeschool for precisely this reason–a conscious or subconscious realization/fear that there just isn’t a lot to do once the kids are in school. At least not enough to require abstaining from, say, 20 hrs/wk outside-of-the-home employment (of course you could always just choose to continue to abstain). You can take the victory-lap “I worked really hard on the babies and deserve me-time” approach–spend the time doing lunches, shopping, getting nails done, going to the gym, etc. Or you can homeschool. Or you can have more kids. I’ve seen all approaches and combinations of approaches. Including, I should add, becoming deeply “employed” in other endeavors of the non-consumer variety–service in the church, service in the community, etc.

  35. Could be, Cynthia. I fear I may have lost the ability to remember or imagine a life not centered on kids 24-7.

  36. Steve Evans says:

    “I fear I may have lost the ability to remember or imagine a life not centered on kids 24-7.”

    Welcome to paradise in the eternities!

  37. Russell – While I haven’t read the book, no doubt Hayes acknowledges that much of this can be accomplished in the urban setting. That came across clearly. As a trained urbanist, I feel the need to stick up for the concept of the urban homestead. I do not think that an expansion of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the 60s and 70s with the Nearings and such is a sustainable route on a large scale; nor does it appeal to everyone. Plus, from where I sit in the Pacific NW, I see a growing movement to make this work in the cities. So it is very possible – and probably more likely for the average American than moving to a 10 acre farm.

  38. Naismith says:

    I was hoping that someone could explain this observation (jes #22):
    “The problem with homemaking is that it’s no longer seen as valuable or interesting. ….why should people be so reluctant to value work if it results in the expense of less money rather than the earning of more money?”

    Why IS such work is ignored and disrespected by many? Also, it’s not just a matter of spending less vs. earning more: A penny saved is two pennies earned since the saved penny is neither taxed nor tithed.

    It’s been a disappointment to me that the homemaking accomplishments of women are not celebrated more by feminists. Instead it is often dismissed as “not working.”

  39. If you leave the politics out of the discussion, you’d win many of my friends over. Many of them are looking at self sustainability. many have chickens (or more), great gardens and can and preserve food. I think it’s more of a 1acre farm ideal. It really does fit the conservative, homeschooler as well.

    the emphasis on money and the productivity of a SAHM of this calliber are two reasons why I’m against the definitions SAHM vs working mom. A productive mom is productive no matter whether that results in money being “earned” or produce and other products being made.

  40. Naismith – I think my own personal explanation is that it’s b/c working at home to save money is perceived as being poor. As I tell my kids all the time – you can’t see how much money a family earns, how much they have in the bank, or how much debt they have. All you can see is their stuff. Unfortunately, “stuff” is what we use to categorize how wealthy someone is and thus how successful they are.

    I think it’s also hard for people to realize how much money can really be saved. In Russell’s first post on this subject (Do we still teach homemaking?), I tried to share a small example of how I save money. I was quickly pooh-poohed by someone complaining about how women “fritter away at the edges” – essentially save a dime here and there and claim they’re saving money. The problem is, saving $600/year by making bread may not seem like a big deal, but if you multiply that by all the other things I do, it does add up to a lot. But then people start talking about how much time it takes and is it really worth my time? I say yes, b/c my earnings are calculated by how much money is saved rather than how large a potential paycheck I could receive.

  41. I say yes, b/c my earnings are calculated by how much money is saved rather than how large a potential paycheck I could receive.

    Well said, Jes. Here’s a quote from Hayes’s book that follows this point:

    “Money is simply a tool. We use money as a proxy for our time and labor–our life energy–to acquire things that we cannot (or care not to) procure or produce with our own hands. Beyond that, it has limited actual utility: you can’t eat it; if you bury it in the ground, it will not produce a crop to sustain a family; it would make a lousy roof and a poor blanket. To base our understanding of economy simply on money overlooks all other methods of exchange that can empower communities. Equating an economy only with money assumes there are no other means by which we can provide food for our bellies, a roof over our heads and clothing on our backs.” (p. 57)

  42. Brent C says:

    Everything I needed to learn about urban sustainability (and hot SAHM’s) I learned from watching BBC’s “Good Neighbors”. Who’d dis- Felicity Kendall? She was Venus in Wellingtons. But then Marie Antoinette had a rep. as a home-farmer, too–dilettante!

  43. What made “Living the Good life” (Scott and Helen Nearing; 1954) the classic it is on the effort in living this kind of life, is they not only made a consideration of money_but more importantly_ their time. They had a firm budget of their time (20 hrs per week toward food and housework, 5 hrs for reading, three hrs for letter writing, etc.).

  44. “It’s been a disappointment to me that the homemaking accomplishments of women are not celebrated more by feminists. Instead it is often dismissed as “not working.””

    Sigh. We have been through this before Naismith. I will let it go.

    Chris H.

  45. Steve Evans says:

    Indeed, Chris. Naismith, you need to come up with a new schtick. Complaining because some people don’t see homemaking as employment is getting old, and needs to be launched from a trebuchet.

  46. I am a #1 consumer. I am exactly the person she is talking about. My Husband and I go from one kind of entertainment to another. I love nice clothes. I know for a fact that I would not enjoy ANY life to the extreme. My Mother did it on a farm and I have very fond memories of it and do find value in it. But then again I drank cows milk as a baby. ;) I want to work outside the home and doing a masters degree does take time. We did a garden about 2 years ago and it was worth the physical pain. We also got a old piece of wood furniture and made it our own. It was a painful process but when I look at it I have the found memories of us doing it together. Even though my Husband used it as an excuse to get every sanding tool known to mankind to do the job. :) When we were first married I got a bunch of solid wood chairs,a rocking chair, a chest. A few weeks ago a few chairs broke and instead of getting new chairs we cut them, sanded them and repainted them. I then took old material from around the house and reupholstered them. I think even a family that consumes the way my household does can at least have a garden and do a few things around their home that in the end take up less energy. I will never live up to a radical homemaker nor a typical stay at home mom. Even though I don’t do girls lunches and that type of thing, I am not about to put another women down for doing things for herself. Though I do see it as a problem for women who can’t really afford to go to lunch and feel pressure to go . Naismith, I think the tithing thing is a really good point. I know my family had no increase as we lived on a farm. I think that is where giving your production to your needy neighbors may come in handy as they would need to use less of church resources at the store house. I think that counts as a full tithe. ;)
    Maybe if the church did a monthly gardening activities/canning/cooking lesson and didn’t exclude one sex I would go.

  47. Peter LLC says:

    you need to come up with a new schtick.

    If anyone happens to be looking for some ideas for a new schtick, this guy has some: http://evbogue.com/

  48. Naismith says:

    “Complaining because some people don’t see homemaking as employment is getting old,”

    I have never claimed that homemaking is employment. It is not. But it is work.

  49. Tulip Tree says:

    Naismith, regarding your first comment, if you are a misfit it is because you are sanctimonious and contrary, not because you are a superstar home maker.

  50. Eric Russell says:

    I don’t buy this sort of boundary blurring between a materialistic/consumerist culture and capitalism. There’s no reason we can’t be anti-materialistic capitalists.

  51. it's a series of tubes says:

    Eric, I like the distinction you are clarifying. There are some clear benefits arising from capitalism that we all enjoy daily – advanced pharmaceutical compounds that sustain health, cure pain, and prolong life; electronic devices that facilitate worldwide communication, helping families stay in touch and facilitating geneological research, etc. These things would never be created under the simplified, communalistic “ideal” some in this thread seem to be promoting – the capital required is far too massive.

    We can utilize, enjoy, and appreciate the benefits of modern medicine, electronic communications technology, transportation, etc without becoming bound to the worship of materialism per se. I view all these advances as blessings from a generous God who is inspiring manto uncover more of his knowlegde and glory.

  52. I like that distinction too Eric.

    naismith… I like what you have to say.

  53. Eric,

    There’s no reason we can’t be anti-materialistic capitalists.

    I’d actually really like to see you articulate how that would be fully possible. Modern (particularly industrial and post-industrial) capitalism depends upon consumerism–on the development and maintenance and expansion of consumer markets that one can sell ever more and every diverse goods to. Without those consumers, without the advertising and social pressures that encourage people to buy, without, in other words, a constant emphasis upon materiality and possession, on marking oneself, much of the modern capitalist world would fall apart. It’s not for nothing that, following the attacks of 9/11, President Bush told the American people that most patriotic thing they could do is take vacations and go shopping.

    Now, if your point is simply that you can have markets without excessive materialism, I completely agree. So does Hayes, for that matter; she rants (sometimes effectively, sometimes not so much–I frankly think the book would have been much better if she’d read a little more Marx) against capitalism, but what she’s really attacking is the enormous role that consumption plays in how we organize our lives. If you cut back on that consumption, despite what the advertisers tell us to do, then what you have are more sustainable, more subsistence-oriented markets…and those have been around as long as the human race has existed (barter goes back a long ways). So yes, you can have anti-materialistic market economic relations. Anti-materialistic capitalism, complete with global trade and specialization and outsourcing and everything else? In those cases, I suspect the consumer attitude and the economic superstructure are a little more closely entwined.

  54. Some of this discussion seems to confuse what are two distinct economic issues: 1) what we consume, and 2) how we acquire that things that we consume.

    I think the gospel might have something to say about what we consume: We shouldn’t consume more than we can produce (i.e., or in monetary terms, we shouldn’t spend more than we make). We shouldn’t consume in a competitive way (i.e., pride-driven consumption). We should share. We’d be wise to consume in ways that are sustainable and healthy for the earth. Etc.

    On the other hand, I think the gospel has very little to say about how we acquire what we consume (i.e., how we produce). If “Money is simply a tool. We use money as a proxy for our time and labor–our life energy–to acquire things that we cannot (or care not to) procure or produce with our own hands,” then why all the negativity about full participation in the modern specialized economy? If some people are more fulfilled by working and using the money tool as a proxy for home production, what’s the problem from Hayes’s perspective (I obviously haven’t read the book yet)?

    I know I have more to gain by focusing on my consuption habits (which undoubtedly require regular critical review) than on my production habits, which mostly involve using specialized training to produce/provide more efficiently than I could do by canning, gardening, cleaning my own house, or any other home-making activity. I’m not sure it will ever make sense to advocate a fight against the overwhelming economic power of comparative advantage and speciaization. Instead, it seems the church could be (and is) agnostic about how to we produce, assisting each individual and family to be as efficiently productive as possible.

  55. Like many things_ Capitalism is both good and evil. I enjoy that which it gives me (as a mid-class American), but I know the evil it has done, and why it is hated by those who have suffered because of it.____but back to the simple life…

  56. Really thought provoking post Russell. Are the panel papers available to read?

  57. “On a separate note, my suspicion has been that SOME (SOME, not all) moms homeschool for precisely this reason–a conscious or subconscious realization/fear that there just isn’t a lot to do once the kids are in school.”

    This might be true, but on the other hand, isn’t homeschooling a prime example of “homemaking”? Of all the household responsibilities that we outsource, child rearing is one I’d like to see restored to the home economy.

  58. #57: MC,
    Homeschooling works for some as does a home garden or canning.
    But it’s never has been core to ‘homemaking’. IMO it should not, nor ever will be.
    There is a movment, at least in CA, to end ‘Homework’ for kids. I favor that because of the disorder it brings into many households. My son’s high school had no homework. The last 20 mins. of class were for doing it. It was then turned in before leaving class. But I don’t feel this frees parents from helping their kids learn or how to learn.

  59. nat kelly says:

    RAF, I love this post. I’m going to share it with a lot of people. Thanks for writing this.

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