Homeward Bound

The 'new domesticity' is persuading many mothers to stay home. But is that really the best answer for moms – or their children?

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    Homeward Bound
    By Emily Matchar
    Simon & Schuster
    288 pp.
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At a time when Sheryl Sandberg suggests that women lean in, a certain segment of middle class and upper middle class women and men are leaning back.

They're quitting the corporate world to stay home with the kids. They're crafting their own art and clothing and selling it on Etsy. They're growing their own fruits and vegetables and canning their own food. They're returning to a slower, less consumer-oriented lifestyle that appeals to those who have grown disillusioned by the economy, office life, and America's weak social safety net. But what if do-it-yourself (DIY) parenting, crafting, and cooking aren't the romantic ideals that one might assume they'd be?

That's where Emily Matchar's new book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity comes in. Chock-full of historical context, strong research, and compelling personal stories, the book uses a feminist framework to examine the fraught issues that give way to and result from what Matchar calls the New Domesticity.

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In part, says the author, this reclamation of traditional women's work is a reaction to the careerism of baby boomer parents. By witnessing how unfulfilling corporate life has been, Gen Xers and millennials strive for more creative work outside the confines of the cubicle.

Unfortunately, the work-from-home writing life showcased on sites like BlogHer doesn't make much financial sense. "While Dooce may make enough moolah to boss Maytag around, only 18 percent of bloggers make any nonsalary money off their blogs," Matchar writes. "And of those, the average yearly salary earnings are less than $10,000."

But what about sacrificing a salary to do more flexible and fun work? As alluring as that sounds, the author says that perhaps home-based crafting-as-business – and its related phenomenon, mompreneurism – have more in common with peddling Tupperware than one might think. These phenomena are "often code for low-wage, pink-collar microenterprise. So at a time when the recession strains pocketbooks, aspirant lifestyle bloggers and artisans find that they don't have the luxury of opting out after all."

This shift to the new domesticity also comes from an anti-corporate backlash against the food industry. Authors like Michael Pollan urge Americans to eat organic and local. But for women in particular, who often bear the brunt of preparing meals and shopping for household items, this emphasis on home cooking and natural foods adds a new layer of stress. Matchar is astute to note that Pollan and others blame feminism for killing home cooking, a myth that's "not just shaming, it's wildly inaccurate from a historical standpoint."

What Friedan and other feminists did advocate for was for women to have more options than homemaking alone. So if middle class and upper middle class households are expected to buck the corporate food system or be "met with a disheartening amount of cultural guilt and judgement," then, Matchar writes, "our outsized expectations of what food can do leads to an outsized sense of guilt among the group traditionally responsible for food: women."

So while eating mindfully and healthfully are noble goals, this extra pressure on women to put on the apron creates another problem.

Which brings up Matchar's most potent discussion, the unique challenges of DIY parenting. Parents worried about the medical and education systems have felt the need to step in as their children's doctors and teachers. As a result, despite medical advice, some parents are choosing not to inoculate their children. This movement is being linked to outbreaks of preventable childhood diseases: "In 2011, measles cases quadrupled in the United States, a situation blamed on vaccine refusal." A terribly unfortunate result, yes – but also an extreme example of how much Americans distrust medical experts and instead put their faith in Dr. Mom.

When it comes to their kids' education, this same mistrust of institutions leads to homeschooling, a practice that was previously the refuge for those with conservative religious beliefs. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with this new crop of privileged parents choosing to homeschool their children, Matchar suggests that negative effects trickle down to less fortunate families: "These options are not so freely available to working-class parents with less time and money. They're the ones who will be left behind if we collectively abandon the effort to push for better social and governmental solutions."

Matchar is a skilled, thoughtful writer, and in "Homeward Bound" she offers not only cultural insights but also empathy for the modern American idealist. She asserts that this New Domesticity stems from our dissatisfaction with our current systems in terms of work/life balance, food safety, health care, and education. And while it is indeed time for women and men to reclaim traditional women's work, she suggests it's also time to reconsider why we feel so frustrated and how we can change the institutions that sometimes give us no choice but to look homeward for answers.

Grace Bello is a Monitor contributor.

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