I want Homeward Bound, Emily Matchar's book about what she calls the new domesticity, to become the feminist rallying point of the under-40 generations. I want it to light a fire under the asses of women. I want it to spark a mass consciousness-raising about the importance of feminism and I want it to force us to look at our decisions not only in the context of our own, personal experience but in the context of our collective role in our greater society. Or, at the very least, I want it to start a conversation.
Matchar raised her feminist concerns about the trend of white, middle-class, educated women retreating from the workforce in the name of domestic contentment (and, in the fairly extreme cases she focuses on, retreating from roles in more general societal institutions like schools, mainstream medicine and commerce). The book certainly isn't entirely about the most extreme practitioners of new domesticity – the hardcore homesteaders and attachment parents – but the group's presence in the book is so salient that my reaction to the book as a crafter and crafts professional has been almost entirely overshadowed by my reaction to the book as a parent, specifically as a mother.
So that's where I've been coming from when I write about the book. In a general way, I've written and talked and ranted and thought about the harsh reality underlying a lot of the shiny-happy-sell-on-Etsy crafty life – topics related to the difference between a job and a hobby, the challenges of earning a living wage from DIY pursuits, pricing concerns, time management, etc. So the book was not brain candy to me because of its coverage of those topics. It was brain candy to me because of the very clear larger societal issues in play that had been hovering at the periphery of my mind for a long time but didn't come into focus until I read the book. So my final post in response to it is about the feminist implications I see in the trend Matchar outlined concerning the most extreme practitioners of new domesticity.
First, I want to say that I don't think any individual family's decision to have a parent stay home with kids is inherently antifeminist, even when that parent is almost always a woman (Matchar cited that though more men are stay-at-home parents these days, they still only comprise about 3% of stay-at-home parents). There are a lot of very practical things families consider when making decisions about lifestyle, income and childcare, some of which are not explicitly related to the gender of the parents. Matchar makes the very valid point that America is not a very good place to be a working parent. Appalling parental-leave and childcare systems force many people to choose between their kids and their career in a way that people in most other developed nations aren't. That's a very big deal, and it's best not to forget it. (It's also best not to forget that the state of American support systems for families is a feminist issue. And let's also remember that the fact that men by and large still make more money than women for equivalent work is a societal problem related to sexism that trickles down into individual family decisions – the lower salary is the sensible choice when deciding which income to jettison.)
That said, I keep coming back to one major way an individual family's decision for a mother to stay home can be very much an antifeminist choice in a manner that is utterly unrelated to institutional and societal sexism: the way many of the women interviewed by Matchar describe their decision as being based on a woman's “natural” role as nurturer. They say that women are naturally nurturing – because of hormones! it's science! – and so they're following their truest nature by focusing all of their energy on parenting and homemaking. This way of thinking is part of why their habit of calling their brand of parenting “natural” is so offensive.
(I'll again play the adoptive-parent card by saying SERIOUSLY? I'm not actually personally offended by the assertion that breastfeeding hormones make women natural nurturers in ways that differentiate their nurturing ability from, say, fathers – the assertion is simply too absurd to get caught in my feel-offended-by-this filter. But I know a hell of a lot of women who suffered mightily because they had trouble breastfeeding, and whose suffering was dramatically augmented by this kind of thinking. I never even tried to breastfeed, and I challenge any “natural” mother to come spend a week at my house and tell me my kid isn't nurtured by me and by my husband, or that he's not “attached” to us. The offense I take at the word “natural” being used in any way related to one particular set of beliefs is on the part of all human beings. Which makes it a fairly intense offense, actually. Not a personal one, but a humanitarian one. And a feminist one.)
These same “natural mothers” in the book say that their mothers, as feminists, fought for their freedom to choose to do whatever they wanted – be it to pursue a powerful career or stay home with their kids. And that's true, to an extent. But it's not true to the full extent, because I'll be damned if feminism is in any way about celebrating gender essentialism and the “nature” of women to stay home.
When I read a draft of this post to my husband, he pointed out that I'm making a fairly subtle claim here, and that people might miss it. So I'll state it very bluntly: It's cool that people manage their domestic affairs according to what makes the most sense for their family. I'm all over that. However, when those decisions are based on beliefs or judgments about people outside that family – say, about all women everywhere – that's not okay. When a woman asserts that her decision to stay home is informed in part or in full by her belief that she, as a woman, is a “natural” nurturer and thus “naturally” suited to devoting her time, energy and education solely to her domestic life, she's being antifeminist. When she says she's making a feminist decision, she's wrong. In fact, she's being sexist.
Let's play this out to its logical conclusion: If an individual woman justifies her decision to stay home by invoking her belief that she, as a woman, is a natural nurturer, then she will surely raise her daughters to squelch their outside interests so they can focus on domestic, nurturing skills. And so obviously her daughters should receive a different sort of education than her sons. I mean, her sons, being of the gender that's not naturally inclined to nurture, must be the ones to make the world go 'round outside of their eventual family home. So they must be educated to pursue those kinds of interests. But girls will only need to know how to grow into women who will mind the home life, and at the most extreme will need to be able to home-educate their own children. So they should be raised believing they can be mothers. And maybe, in the context of homeschooling, teachers. And in the context of retreating from mainstream medicine, nurses.
Wait. Isn't that what women were told in the '50s (aside from the anti-science part)? That they could be mothers or nurses or teachers or secretaries? Weren't they told their delicate female nature made them suited best for domestic life and also unsuited to career life outside the home?
Wasn't a whole women's rights movement sparked by that intense sexism?
Yes, it was.
And so I have a question for “natural” mothers.
Dear “natural” mothers,
I have no doubt you want the absolute very best for your children, and so my question is specifically about your sons and your daughters: What do you want for your sons and your daughters? And is it the same for your sons and your daughters?
Because here's the thing, “natural” mother. If you've chosen to focus all of your time and energy and education on your home and family because – in small or large part – you feel that as a woman this is what you're naturally suited to do, then your answer to my question about your sons and daughters must no doubt involve a desire for your daughters to eventually fulfill their truest natural potential as grown women by staying home and dedicating all their time and energy and education to their own homes and families. So I'm sure you're not raising your daughters to believe they can be and do anything they want; that they can pursue any interest they have. To do that would make them feel so conflicted about their nature, amiright?
Please confirm or deny.
The contemporary resurgence in the perceived pressure on women to stay home, as highlighted in Homeward Bound, has been plaguing me. The pressure isn't coming from a sexist society like it was in the '50s and '60s. This time around it's coming from sexist women who, by saying their decisions are “natural” and “feminist”, are undoing all the progress our mothers achieved in the '70s.
This is the thing about Homeward Bound that chafed me the most. Yes, DIY can be profoundly empowering. But when taken to an extreme, like all extremism, it can also be stifling, toxic, short-sighted and unfair.
My hope is that all women with even a slight inclination toward DIY will read the book, and take to heart the concerns Matchar outlines very explicitly in the last several pages. They are important, valid concerns related to the current and future status of feminism – which means that they affect each and every one of us.
(I'm absolutely desperate to know if Matchar spoke with any of the partners of the “natural” mothers she interviewed. Whether men or women, I'm dying to know if they are as passionate about the nurturing divide as their wives, or if they're just going along with it but have their doubts.)
So thus ends my series of posts about this book. It really made me think about a lot of things both personally and in the grander scope of life. Thanks for joining me on this adventure, and for sharing your own responses. Keep 'em coming!
More Posts in Response to Homeward Bound
Huge high-five to Haley Pierson-Cox for reading a draft of this post and suggesting some very solid ways for me to improve it.
PS Tonight's the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It's a happy time. To my Jewish readers, L'Shana Tova.