By Abigail Lance-De Vos
The recently published Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar (2013) offers an extensive account of Americans whose lives have come to be organized around a ‘from scratch’ or ‘do it yourself’ philosophy. This entails filling days with the tasks of, literally and figuratively, farming, rather than farming out. Rather than working to convert a paycheck into consumption items, new domestics – whom Matchar identifies as a largely middle class set of women — expend their energies making food, clothes, crafts, and cleaning products, while tending home, garden, farm, and children. She also tells us that this group is opting out of getting children routinely vaccinated, and choosing to homeschool. Notably, the group also heavily participates in social media and web-based trade of their homemade crafts.
Matchar spends much of the book persuasively poking holes in some of the movement’s assumptions; she exposes how difficult it actually is to make a living through web-based craft commerce on sites like Etsy, and the biological determinism underlying the positions of some of the most revered ‘locavores’ (thanks, Michael Pollan). Matchar also articulates a more sweeping argument, in which she positions the new domestics as a manifestation of an America that no longer ‘works.’ She says, “New Domesticity is, at heart, a cry against a society that’s not working. A society that doesn’t offer safe-enough food, accessible health care, a reasonable level of environmental protections, any sort of rights for working parents…”
Matchar’s argument is in-step with George Packer’s recent book on America’s unwinding; for her, the “re-embrace of home and hearth” is a reactionary move to re-animate lives made unstable and dead-end. New domestics are not idealists with a calling, but struggling to regain a sense of purpose in an alienating and untrustworthy world.
This critique certainly offers a grim outlook on the political-economic landscape. Whether or not we feel persuaded, Matchar’s book also offers a nice lens to think about the topic of care. It seems that, in fact, care is precisely what is ‘at stake’ for the book’s subjects, as they feel it comes up lacking in a world that is either too heavy handed (eprescriptive vaccines) or not engaged enough (no child care). Care, then, is being re-calibrated by new domestics and so we can ask: what is there to learn about care through its deployments and contestations, in a time when things are ‘coming undone’?
One of the central features to emerge is how care articulates a different arrangement between the individual and the social good. On one hand, self-reliance surfaces as a trope in which subjects focus their energies on making and maintaining their own, individuated standards of responsibility; one of Matchar’s informants describes insurance as not something one buys into, but generates “taking care of ourselves, being healthy, eating organic food.” Home-schooling and vaccine opt-outs appear to be areas where people take particularly strong stands to question imposed notions of what is right for them to do. The ‘stranger,’ ‘the man,’ the ‘school,’ the ‘daycare center’ are referenced by Matchar’s characters as vivid foils for their self-determinations of what is right for them and their families.
Yet, this is not only a story of opting out. The capacity to forge common interests appears very much within the new domestic project. Take the craft-commerce arena and the blogosphere, two areas Matchar explores at length. In both of them, her narrators offer a well-developed sense of an audience for concern and commerce. The various projects to mediate, protect, and enhance life are brought together; food/family/garden/home/creativity/trade represent a continuous framework as new domestics constellate domains they present as having porous boundaries.
Here, claims to belong contain a desire to forge commonalities between people, history, practice, and value. Baking a cake, for example, ties one subject to her past as she imagines sharing a skill-set with her grandmother. This kind of fantasy may be read as a problematic return to dusty gender norms. Yet, it might also be a way to glean a kind of yearning for deep connection through common, everyday practices. But what is shared is not rule-following per se (i.e., we all go to the doctor to get our children vaccinated), but the work of following whatever rules come to be laid out in this new world.
The issue is, then, not to pit ‘take out’ meals versus ‘from scratch’ cooking, and whether we might find some apocalyptic traces of an irreversible divesting from the institutions that have already failed us. Rather, an examination of care through this book shows how embedded in new domestic self-determination is the desire for interconnection. Further, interconnection is not only a concept, but an active endeavor borne of everyday practice; to work on one’s own life can be the way to reach out to others. This paradox cannot be understood through our classical categories of sameness, conformity, and differentiation. Rather, questions should be asked about what it means to imagine and then enact this world in which what binds us is also a site offering the potential for radical departure, in which elevating the everyday is what brings about something hopeful and new.