Generation Y’s retreat into domestic bliss is all well and good – but it’s only an individual solution to a systemic problem
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that most women will eventually find the work world overwhelming. Perhaps the final straw will come when the boss is less than understanding when the kid is sick and needs to stay home from school. Maybe it will come when you realize everyone in the house is gaining too much weight from eating prepared and processed food from the supermarket because no one has the time or energy to prepare healthy and wholesome food from scratch. Perhaps the job itself is meaningless, tedious, and good only for a paycheck.
An earlier generation might have said, as the 1970s commercial had it, “Calgon, take me away,” and sought escape in a bubble bath. Or, maybe, they would have signed themselves up for a consciousness-raising group and marched up to the boss or husband and demanded action. We live in different times. When we can’t take it, the modern woman’s thoughts turn, not to relaxation and political action but to free-range chickens and knitted caps, brownies baked from scratch and diaper-free children.
We’re going to do it ourselves. DIY, we like to call it. It’s where the current fascination with environmentalism, sustainability and all things small meets our lives. We’ll make our own meals, and sew our own clothes. And we’re going to make money while we are at it too since we can sell and market our efforts on the web. No need to call Sheryl Sandberg. It’s not surrender. We’re still leaning in, but our place of power is the home, not the office.
But does it really work that way?
This is the question Emily Matchar, journalist and fellow domestic traveler, sets out to explore in her admiring yet ultimately ambivalent look at Generation Y’s worship of the home-front, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity. “My generation … is longing for a more authentic, meaningful life in an uncertain world,” she writes in the beginning of the book about the attraction of millennial women to the domestic arts. “Who hasn’t tried canning jam or making their own pickles?”
Matchar’s women talk about the joys and satisfactions of growing their own vegetables, knitting their own sweaters and crafting their own candles. Yet what starts as an organic and holistic updating of the Martha Stewart fantasy is revealed to have a darker side. One of the delights of Homeward Bound is how Matchar refuses to allow her initial sympathies for the new domesticity and its practitioners to blind her to the movement’s not insignificant downsides. Picking your own tomatoes, it turns out, is less about sustainability than it is a search for individual meaning when life isn’t working out.
The numbers tell the story. Women’s participation in the United States workforce hit a high in the late 1990s, before falling back. More mothers of children under the age of 15 were in the workforce in 1994 than in 2008. The salary gap has barely budged in decades, with female earnings remaining at 78 cents for every $1 a man earns.
When things are going wrong for us personally, it can feel like our turbo-capitalist culture is crumbling. Interviewing her subjects, Matchar heard variations of the same malaise over and over again. Maternity leave – six weeks and unpaid in the United States – is inadequate. Our underfunded, test-crazed public schools are increasingly intolerant of learning differences. The food supply is contaminated. Childcare is expensive and frequently unreliable. Clothes are so badly constructed threads are hanging off of them on store racks before they are even worn.
While Matchar didn’t find as many high-end corporate refugees in this world as she thought, it’s still a predominantly bourgeois crowd, and one that cleaves to traditional family arrangements. Cooking three meals a day from scratch takes time and lots of it. It needs a man to support it, in fact. The would-be domestic revolutionaries are, whether they realize it or not, leaning into the past.
Yet no one – or not many – ask why it is a woman’s responsibility to fix the faults of the modern world by fashioning a handcrafted leather purse. Instead, there is indignation when anyone questions the economic viability or political impact of this way of life. As DIY practitioner Jenna Sauers wrote this week in a post on Jezebel entitled Why are Women DIY Entrepreneurs Called ‘Hobbyists’?:
Stories about people’s Etsy boutiques or the home canning project that turns into a profitable small business are always told with a “cute woman does cute thing!” kind of lilt. But what these women really are is entrepreneurs.
Yet their ambition to turn their ideas into money is rarely presented as laudable, and I think that’s in part because of gender.
If canning some jam and selling a few jars at a local farmer’s market is earning a living, so too is stamp collecting. Doing non-remunerative things you happen to enjoy is the definition of a hobby. DIY is presented as a hobby because it rarely makes anyone any money.
The do-it-yourself mentality turns out to be no escape from our increasing economic desperation. Salary.com claims that a stay-at-home mom is worth $112,962. But the truth is despite the sessions offered at BlogHer on how to monetize your website, despite the online websites offering tips on how to market your crafts, most women aren’t earning anything resembling a living from their craftiness and creativity.
When it comes to the domestic blogosphere, like anything else in our capitalist society, there are few winners and many losers and the one percent always seems to end up on top. As Matchar points out, the idealized life on Rebecca Woolf’s Girl’s Gone Child blog is made possible, at least in part, by the possession of a full-time nanny that gives her the time to write all those posts. One thing she misses: yes, Ree Drummond, the superstar blogger behind The Pioneer Woman makes huge amounts of money from the blog and ancillary products, but she also started with a huge leg up: her husband’s family is one of the largest landowners in the entire United States.
These blogs should come with a disclaimer: we’re not middle class, but we play middle class online.
The same is true for the popular online storefront for the artsy, Etsy, where the domestic revolution is revealed to be just another consumer opportunity that leaves would-be female entrepreneurs bereft of funds. Venture capital investors valued the company at $688m in 2012, all but assuring a multi-million dollar payday for founder Rob Kalin when the company goes public. Inc. magazine, however, calculated that the average Etsy storefront operator is likely averaging earning $785 annually. If you need to ask what sex Matchar reveals makes up 97% of Etsy’s sellers, you haven’t been reading this blog post very carefully.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with making your own food from scratch and designing your own clothes. But it’s an individual solution to a greater systemic problem, nothing more or less. When we opt-out of the greater society, whatever our reasons, we lose the power to challenge it effectively, which is something any splinter group from the Amish to the Shakers can testify to.
So as Matchar says at the end of her book, we need to invite the world into our homes. Lobby for family-friendly policies. Remember there is nothing more liberating than financial independence. Engage with the world, don’t hide from it.
The revolution will not be domesticated.