Hipster Homemakers and “Extreme Domesticity”

photo by surlygirl on Flickr Commons

Women are taking on burdens their grandmothers rejected: growing organic food, canning, baking bread. Is this movement a way to take care of one’s family properly or a symptom of an overly wealthy and neurotic society?

Emily Matchar, in Sunday’s Washington Post,  explores modern hipster homemakers, women who happily reenlist for the domestic chores which our mothers and grandmothers abandoned with glee.

Is it an advancement or reversal of the feminist movement? Matchar writes:

I recently spent some time with Megan Paska, a 31-year-old Brooklynite whose pixie-cut hair and inked-up biceps make her look like she should be fronting an indie rock band. But Paska’s daily life more closely resembles a 19th-century farm wife’s: soaking beans for stews, feeding her backyard chickens and rabbits, drying herbs, baking bread, keeping bees on her apartment roof.

Most of the urban homesteaders Paska knows are female. “Women find this lifestyle very empowering,” she says. “Some people assume that this is a backlash against the feminist movement, but I see it as a continuation of it.”

Some women engage these tasks as a way of “knowing how to take care of yourself,” Matchar speculates. Others do it out of a mistrust of our food system.

As a young stay-at-home mom in Pennsylvania recently told me, “The only way to know what’s in your food is to make it yourself.” A stay-at-home mom in Iowa said she wants to try home schooling her son because she’s worried about the school environment: the cleaning supplies, the food in the cafeteria.

Or are they just type-A personalities that carry their overachievement to the home front?

As work-life balance scholar Joan Williams tells me, extreme domesticity can be a refuge for educated women who’ve left the workforce: “You’ve been trained your entire life in a high-pressure, high-achievement atmosphere, and you need somewhere to put that,” she says. “So you turn your household into an arena for dazzling performance.”

As someone who sewed her own wedding dress, intermittently gardens, and still has a half finished quilt in the basement (circa 1994), I can tell you…these charming old-fashioned chores are a lot of work. I can’t imagine the responsibility of owning chickens or milking a cow. Heck, we’re lucky if the dog gets walked between soccer and homework and my work and Dancing With The Stars.

I also see silliness in rejecting the most efficient, safest food production system the world has yet created. Those great-grandmothers who butchered hogs and always had bread rising? They saw starvation – real starvation – in their communities, American communities. Hunger was a real threat to them, as it still is in parts of the world. In addition, they suffered food poisoning more frequently than we do when they milked their own cows and butchered meat in unsanitary conditions. I don’t know why we would insist on making food production less efficient or less safe.

Worrying about the effects of red dye and additives is a First World problem, and one for which I see little evidence. Study after study shows that, by and large, the problem with our food supply is that we have too much of everything. Our waistlines and our hearts bear the burden.

In the sense that gardening and canning encourage us to exercise and eat more vegetables, then they are good things. I can buy vegetables, however, in the freezer aisle, which are just as nutritious and beneficial as homegrown. If a hipster mom enjoys the production, by all means, carry on. Just, please, don’t make it a moral imperative.

It is a symptom of great wealth that a nation of educated women have time and money to spend on going back to time and labor intensive tasks. If the safety and provision of their children were truly at risk, they would be back in the workplace providing in the most effective way they could: by earning money.

What do you think? Are the moms Matchar profiles right?

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About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a movie critic. Check out her work on Rotten Tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey


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