One Overly Analytical Mother's Obsessive Musings about Raising Small Children

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is "Radical Homemaking" Really All That Radical?

Picture this. My son wakes up in the morning, and, in the course of getting dressed and eating breakfast, he asks me: "Mommy, what are we going to buy today?"

Preschoolers ask the darndest questions, don't they? This was one of those questions that really made me sit back, rethink my daily activities, and what messages my actions were sending to my children. Did my son really think that a mother's job is to "buy stuff?" I knew something had to change, but wasn't sure what or how to effect any change, which is why I was so excited when Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (published 2010 by Left to Write Press) came out. After waiting forever for my turn in the  interlibrary loan line, I received it this month.

Here's Hays's central argument: The home has always been a place of mutual production, where family members worked collectively to produce the things they needed to live. The industrial revolution changed this, and men left homes to work elsewhere, and women stayed home to do the rest of the housework and childrearing. By the 1950s, the home had become a place of consumption, rather than production. Female homemakers increasingly had appliances and gadgets to do most of the work for them, and filled their time by--guess what--buying stuff. In time, homemakers stopped doing creative things like gardening, sewing, knitting, canning, or making preserves.  Many even stopped cooking and baking and ate processed foods full of artificial ingredients with whose detrimental health effects we are now only starting to reckon. Childcare became an industry in and of itself--instead of children helping with the work of the house (and playing around as well!), or being watched by neighbors, friends, or family members, homemakers gave over their days to chauffeuring children from one activity to another, in an attempt ot keep them happy and entertained. This shift from production to consumerism" (of food, childcare, child activities, and "stuff") proved to be mindless, soulless, and downright depressing for most women who found themselves at home.

Hays believes that reclaiming the home as a place of creative production is the most radical thing a person can do. Radical homemakers range the gamut from people who live on rural farms, produce their own food supply, and barter for anything else they need to urban families who garden in their balconies. Most of us do not have the know-how, abilty, or land to become farmers, but Hays seems to leave the definition of "radical homemaking" open to a wide interpretation. It seems that you can be a radical homemaker if you do any of the following:
knit, sew, or mend your old clothes;
garden, can, or make preserves;
cook, bake, and eat as many homemade meals as possible with your family;
repair and maintain your house, appliances, and car(s) yourself;
limit your consumption and produce as much as you possibly can yourself;
take care of your children yourself (with occasional relief, of course!), which may include homeschooling;
foster a sense of community in your neighborhood;
live your life in a way that is in accord with environmental sustainability and social justice;
resist the urge for the family to be an independently functioning unit in favor of interdependence;
do not feel the need to buy into the insurance industry "just in case" something might happen.

Obviously, you'd need to be a superwoman to do all of these things, so people have to pick and choose what they like, and are good at. I garden, cook, bake, take care of my children, and knit. Ok, so I've been knitting the same sock since my daughter was born, but I pull it out from time to time and would love to knit more. In the future I'd love to learn how to sew and can things I grow in my garden. And bake a loaf of bread that's NOT like a doorstop.

I certainly did not agree with all of Hays's points (with one asthsmatic child I cannot fathom not having health insurance), but she did give me plenty of food for thought, and challenged many cultural assumptions about what it means to be prosperous and wealthy.

But, I wondered, just how radical are radical homemakers? Hays's formula seems to rely on the mutal efforts of all adults in the household and a supportive community of like minds. How possible is this, in actuality? Perhaps therein lies the most radical thing of all--transforming the home into a place of labor for all, and not just women.  For many women that I know, adopting the tenets of radical homemaking might sound good in theory, but in actuality it will just pile on more work--and guilt--in the home. Most days, it's all I can do to keep my chidren in clean clothes and put a homecooked dinner on the table. (And I'm a very laid back, non-structured kind of mom who sits around reading stories, playing Legos, and making homemade play-doh with the kiddos, and not the super-scheduler type who Does It All!)

I think that Hays's ideas are interesting and noble but I feel a strange mixture of feminist guilt and nostalgia for eras bygone. Something in me is not quite sure about this. There might be a radical homemaker in me (I love the cover with the woman wielding the rolling pin like a raised fist!) but it's one that has to work out a few of the contradictions first.

What do you think??

Hays has a wonderful web site, full of useful resources. Visit:   for more information!

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