Radical Homemaking? Would You?

Yesterday, the newsletter from MOTHERS (Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights) came. Worth signing up for, BTW. They pointed to a blog post on radical homemaking that was part of a recent Work-Life Blog Carnival (remember blog carnivals?).

The author, Kelly Coyle DiNorcia, discusses a new book by Shannon Hayes, entitled Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture (I couldn't find it on Amazon). Hayes advocates opting-out not only from the workforce, but from the entire capitalistic culture. And the guy drops out, too, and they jointly raise the kids and tend the farm and avoid spending money on stuff. 

In these Radical Homemaking families, carework generally is shared among
the adults in the family (as well as the children), sometimes along
traditional gender lines but not necessarily, and if so only because
that is where the members’ inclinations lie. Hayes, for example, has a
Ph.D. from Cornell University and supports her family as an author
while her husband does most of the house- and care-work. Her family
also has a farm which they tend with her parents, the products of which
they sell for additional income. For these "radical" families,
concentrating on the home and family instead of a career outside the
home is a political statement. Hayes says, "He who has the gold makes
the rules, but if you don’t need the gold you can change the rules." In
other words, these people are choosing to protest against against a
workplace culture that frequently forces them to put money-earning
above all else by simply opting out of the whole capitalist system to
the extent that is possible for them.  They are deliberately,
explicitly, and thoroughly choosing to make caretaking their priority.

Yes, I do have my occasional fantasy about moving to upstate New York and raising the kids and chickens, but my fantasy always involves Internet access and my Cuisinart coffee maker and a subscription to the New York Times.

It's funny how rural life is being glamorized by myself and Hayes and the stream of BMWs heading upstate out of NYC every Friday afternoon. I went to college in Binghamton and I remember the poor slobs drinking $5 pitchers of Matt's beer in the bars on Telegraph Street. Egan talks about the meth problem and how Obama had it right. (I think Obama got it right, too, but that's for another day.) 

Still, Hayes makes some good points. Work and life can be be balanced more easily, if work doesn't eat up the lion share of the day in a office 40 minutes away, if there aren't stressful deadlines, and if there isn't a huge panic to pay off crazy credit card bills every month. There is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism.

14 thoughts on “Radical Homemaking? Would You?

  1. “Opting out”, or going from two incomes to one, is only a viable option for a minority of families. Kelly Coyle DiNorcia makes this point early on in her post, and I think that it is even more true for families where both parents “drop out”. What do they do for health insurance? Living off the grid sounds fun until you get breast cancer, your kid breaks his arm in the woods, or your spouse cuts his arm off with the scythe.


  2. “your spouse cuts his arm off with the scythe.”
    You can have my scythe when you can pull it out of my cold dead fingers. So, probably about an hour or so.


  3. But those folks aren’t, right (like Hayes). They participate in the economy (by writing). I’ve never glamorized the rural life style, and it’s been an awfully long time when it was self sufficient (except out of the desperation of not having any money to buy anything).
    “He who has the gold makes the rules, but if you don’t need the gold you can change the rules.”
    I think this is true, but that the solution is not “opting out” of the capitalist economy, but thinking hard about what specifically you need the gold for. I do think that we’ve become very materialistic, and that it’s worth thinking hard about what you’re trading for the extra bathroom, the bigger yard, the salad spinner, or the Cuisinart (as well as the private school, the tickets to broadway musicals, etc.). Being able to change the rules depends on knowing that you can live on less.


  4. This is where hippies and the Christian right meet up, isn’t it? Cities and capitalism nests of evil, and true meaning found on the farm. It makes me nervous. It goes along with anti-science stuff, too, often.


  5. It is where hippies and the Christian right meet-up, but that doesn’t bother me. Farming, even in a hippie gardening + chickens way, is too much work if you aren’t committed to something.
    (Related: I know a guy who wanted to move away from the city to someplace safe to raise his kids. The city in question was Lincoln, Nebraska.)


  6. Radical homemaking sounds interesting, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who decides to live that lifestyle, but it really isn’t scalable to point where it could be an option for most people. It is sort of like people who convert their cars to run on vegetable oil and think that it is the energy trend of the future. It’s great as a personal project but really isn’t a solution to the country’s energy woes.
    Farming/living off the grid takes just as much work as does working in an office, probably even more work, it just means you can organize your life in a way that is less structured (ie, dad can come in from the fields and take an hour lunch). I’m skeptical that this lifestyle, if it is to be sustained over a long period, would translate into more parent time with children.


  7. “Don’t the Amish manage?”
    Paging SamChevre!
    I think medicine is where the thing breaks down. You either need insurance or to be making big capitalistic bucks to afford 21st century American health care.
    There’s a quasi-Amish religious community (some say a cult) called Homestead Heritage in Texas that I’ve visited several times. They are super crunchy (Rod Dreher has written about them), have a spectacular yearly craft fair, a gristmill, a smithy, a pottery workshop, and run a “School of Homesteading” along with woodworking classes and a cafe (it’s almost worth a separate trip just to have lunch there). They are famous for their woodwork and did some of the work on Bush’s ranch. I love the handmade crafts and furniture at their giftshop, while at the same same time recoiling from the price tags. That’s the irony of artisanal this and artisanal that–the only way that the American artisan can have a decent standard of living is that somewhere out there is the evil capitalistic world that has people in it who can afford to spend several thousand dollars for a dining room table or $5 for a bar of soap.


  8. This sounds very funny to my (German) ears. I call the US the “Land of -er” — bigger, faster, louder, greater… everything seems to be a superlative. Same thing with the radical homemaking – it seems totally over the top.
    We are currently living in rural Germany and the people here (which include my mother) do lots of the things described. Most have a vegetable patch, either in their backyards or in one of the (typical German) veggie patches that ring the village walls. People grow potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, apples, beans and peas, cabbages, lettuce, dill and other herbs, cucumbers and lots more. There is a lot of canning and I have to say, I do like to see my rows upon rows of currant jelly (with homegrown berries!), tomato sauce, quince jelly, pickles, and other goodies in the basement. It does give a sense of achievement and satisfaction that is hard to describe.
    But none of my neighbors refuse themselves to society. On the contrary, it’s important as you might just not have enough currants for your jelly but more than enough apples. So you barter your apples to the local juicer and get coupons for juice in return, and you go and buy the currants you lack from someone who has more than they need. And then you go to work and when you come home you check your email and buy an iPod, have your lungs checked at the family doctor down the street and buy your cough syrup at the local pharmacy.
    I really like this lifestyle. It combines lots of both worlds: a low-impact life with lots of walking and biking, baking and canning and living with nature, and the conveniences of modern life. Laura, maybe you ought to come live here!
    (And our town is small enough not to have serious problems with drugs or crime. And the food is great! And the air smells nice! :-))


  9. J’arrive, j’arrive!
    On the easy question—how do the Amish do it? Most importantly, they are a community, not individual families. Large medical bills are paid from offering money—so they are paid out of a large pool, not just a single family’s resources. That works well, although it’s becoming harder as medical costs rise.
    It’s also worth noting that this kind of lifestyle tends to be capital-centered, not spending-centered. The Amish and Mennonites spend much less than most people; they don’t necessarily earn that much less. It’s just that the earnings go into buying farms, running their own schools, and so on, not into consumer spending. But this means that the saving levels are high, which is one reason that large amounts of money can be raised quickly to pay medical bills.
    Home-centered life (I prefer that term to ‘radical homemaking’) is pretty scalable; it just isn’t something most people want to do. It does really enable a lot more parent time with children; of course, it largely does that by making children part of the workforce (something I think is good, but I’m distinctly in the minority). To put it concretely: I was working at least 1500 hours a year when I was 9. (Four hours a day of chores, seven days a week, and lots of additional work in the summer.) And it means being poor; if you want to separate poor from dysfunctional, it’s actually a good place to look. Diets can be healthy, but aren’t very varied. (We spend about as much on groceries as the food stamp challenge allowed; I think that level of spending is hugely luxurious.) Eating in restaurants is an incredible luxury. (I cannot remember ever eating at a restaurant, even a McDonalds, until I was well into my teens, except one time with my (non-Mennonite) grandparents.) Medical care in the formal sector is a last resort, so you see more crooked teeth, and more scars, and more knowledge of home remedies and nursing.
    The big obstacles are health care, taxes, and exhaustion. Health care because just basic costs have gotten so high. (Costs for a normal pregnancy and delivery, or for getting a cut stitched up, are probably 10x what they were in 1980.) Taxes because they have to be paid in cash; also, because they have gotten hugely high, especially property taxes (which matter a lot to farmers); schooling costs 4x as much per child as it did in the 1960’s; that makes a widespread lifestyle of low-income/high-time trade-offs is not compatible with it. On a community level, schooling costs are probably the biggest driver of most of the policies that make high incomes a necessity (zoning/land use planning, property tax levels). Exhaustion because being around small children all day, and working physically all day, are brain-frying.


  10. Just a quick follow-up to a jumbled comment. Claudia could be describing the world that the Amish aspire to live in (except for the IPod.)
    Which is very entirely unsurprising. (The Amish are very German.)


  11. I would say that “home-centered life” can happen anywhere-city or country it just takes a great deal of attention and intention.
    Attention- where does the money go? what is a need and what is a want? what does the locality offer that enables me to spend less or spend on things that are important to me (fresh foods etc.) how can I use the resources available in ways that support the life I want/need?
    Intention- what is the purpose of having children and a family? how does my/our lifestyle support that? what do we do in order to help our children become whole persons?
    “Home-centered life” seems radical to a lot of people because most people have not thought through their lives in terms of intention, purpose or vocation. When you start to think that way it changes the way you live and can/does look radical to others.
    We make choices that enable both of us to spend more time with the children and work and play with them, there is a trade-off in income but honestly the children don’t know or care that their shoes are used and only cost $2. Actually since its summer they aren’t wearing shoes right now anyway…
    They do care that Papa is there to give rides and build towers and that they can help make bread etc. They are learning to be happy productive members of their community and that is part of the ultimate goal.
    This lifestyle makes sense for us- but will be different for everyone as each family unit seeks to find and fulfill its purpose


  12. Huh. I left a comment on this thread a few days ago and it seems that Typepad ate it.
    I just wanted to say thanks to everyone for the great comments, esp. Claudia and SamChevre and now SamChevre’s wife. I really admire your lifestyles and have to figure out how to import elements of it into our surburban/urban lives.
    Over the summer, we’ve made a concerted effect to downscale our lives. I’m not working as hard, so that’s freeing up time to cook and to shop at farmer’s markets for local produce. I’m growing my own herbs, tomatoes, and peppers, but we don’t have enough backyard to do much more than that. We’ve stopped going to Wendy’s. It’s just baby steps, but I’m pleased with how it’s going.


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