Homeward Bound with Emily Matchar

In recent months as I plough through a research grant application at the office I have been thinking more and more about what I would rather be doing. During a similar period of existential crisis last year I came across a fascinating book by journalist Emily Matchar. Homeward Bound (Simon & Schuster, 2013) examines many of the themes of voluntary simplicity, permaculture living and radical homesteading that have occupied so much of my attention lately. I composed most of this post last year but never managed to finish it so I am bringing it to you now. Hopefully its better late than never!

Like many friends and acquaintances in Wollongong, Japan and elsewhere, I have joined the popular movement to reclaim hearth and home as a form of escape from the capitalist workplace. A few years ago my partner and I read Shannon A. Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers and experienced a real sense of awakening having finally found an author who was able to link the popular resuscitation of the domestic arts with a systemic critique of capitalism. Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound is an insightful and thoughtful reflection on the work of Hayes and others and of the movement of which they are a part. She coins the term New Domesticity to bundle together a variety of cultural practices such as food gardening, attachment parenting, home-based micro entrepreneurship, mummy blogging, homeschooling etc. I have given an inordinate amount of time to thinking about these topics in recent years and engaged in various practical experiments in voluntary simplicity and self-sufficient living. In this book, Matchar explores the class and gender dimensions of these practices. This approach sets it apart from most of the literature by practitioners (although Matchar insists she is influenced by New Domesticity in her own life) which tends towards the celebratory and gives little consideration for the potential limitations of this often highly individualistic approach to social change.

Matchar focuses on women and their relationship with New Domesticity because the vast majority of Etsy shop owners, homesteading bloggers and attachment parenting advocates are women. She highlights some of the contradictions of a philosophy based on the reclamation of domesticity on feminist terms in the context of a society where gender inequality is deeply entrenched. Matchar does not reject the claim of some New Domesticity advocates that their practices are feminist, but she is highly critical of a certain type of New Domesticity discourse on feminism as a social movement which blames second-wave feminism for women’s abandonment of hearth and home, highlighting the long history of women’s role in the household economy throughout the industrial period.

One of the most poignant critiques in Matchar’s book is of attachment parenting. This parenting philosophy celebrates the maternal bond with the child and is popular among many parents who see themselves as progressive. Its appeal in a cold-hearted world is obvious, and I have been influenced by this movement in various ways as I have struggled to figure out how to be a parent. As Matchar points out, however, attachment parenting tends to place enormous responsibility on mothers and tends to naturalise the maternal role as an instinctual one rather than a product of social conditioning. She also points out the philosophy’s origins in Christian conservative circles in the United States, highlighting the conservative ideas about women and their social roles that are coded into its foundational texts. Matchar also mounts an economic critique of the widespread uptake of attachment parenting philosophies by progressive, educated women. In a searing passage, she notes how the embrace of attachment parenting by professional women who have left work to take care of their newborn children seems to coincide with a structural problem: the lack of flexibility at work to accommodate working mothers and the general shitty boringness of many of the jobs these young professional women were doing anyway. The result, a philosophy which validates motherhood appeals much more than juggling childcare in order to return to a job which devalues the female worker in the first place. Matchar thereby criticises both attachment parenting and liberal feminist ideas about the liberating nature of paid employment, noting that it does not necessarily lead to an undermining of patriarchal norms and social structures. Unfortunately, while she raises these contradictions in her own liberal feminist conceptions, they are never interrogated decisively.

Some issues in this book appear to an Australian reader in Japan as quintessentially American. Health care is one example. Matchar cites more than one example of a family that has given up on maintaining any form of health insurance because they simply cannot afford to do so. In Australia and Japan, relatively comprehensive public health systems make rejecting the private health insurance market and living on a low income much less risky. Here I see the potential of a radical homemaking that is not confined to the home but that links up with other homemakers to demand shared access to public goods. However, there is an ongoing tension here within New Domesticity and permaculture practices and philosophies. Libertarian ideas are an important part of the social philosophy of these movements, something which Permaculture for the People addressed in a recent review of David Holmgren’s book Retrosuburbia. Presenter Rebecca Ellis takes Holmgren to task for his emphasis on individualistic and household level solutions to problems such as transport, where abandoning the struggle for accessible public transport means privileging the transport needs of certain types of able bodies and offers little in terms of solidarity with the differently abled.

An obvious hole in this book is its lack of any real critique of capitalism. Matchar’s critique of New Domesticity is primarily posed in liberal feminist terms. There is no discussion of how socialist or Marxist feminist approaches, or perhaps most importantly ecofeminist ones, might relate to New Domesticity or to ideas of radical homemaking. Sylvia Federici’s recent work on commons and commoning provides provides us with some of the tools to connect the dots between the radical potential of radical homemaking and a broader critique of capitalism. In her recent book, Re-enchanting the World, Federici observes of the destruction of local food systems by capitalism:

‘by undermining the self-sufficiency of every region and creating total economic interdependence, even among distant countries, globalization generates not only recurrent food crises but a need for unlimited exploitation of labor and the natural environment.’

Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World, 2019, p. 21.

For Federici, as for many ecofeminists, women working the land as subsistence producers are actually guardians of a kind of autonomy from the wage relation. If women can rely on the land to feed themselves and their families then they are not beholden to the job market for their own re/production. It seems to me that the radical potential of the New Domesticity movement is the attempt to create new ‘outsides’ to capitalism that permit autonomous re/productive labours. It remains to be seen whether the growing experiments in backyard food production, networks of community-sufficiency and the rejection of paid work can provide the basis for liberation or by combining with conservative notions of individual self-responsibility and the abandonment of public goods the New Domesticity-style rebellion can actually provide a kind of grassroots accompaniment for the politics of neoliberalism and the far-right. Matchar is right to point to the dangers of New Domesticity. It has the potential to simply reinforce patriarchal relationships in the home and isolate women from relationships of solidarity outside it.

One question that might prove important here is whether men are willing to give up some of the privilege they derive from our gendered place within the capitalist division of labour and join women in forging an alternative both in the home outside it. While Matchar’s focus is on women and feminism, she does talk to some men who have embraced aspects of the movement. What she misses, however, is the sense of liberation from gendered hierarchies that men can derive when we embrace roles that are coded as feminine. For me, cooking meals, assuming an equal responsibility for the management of my household (sharing the mental load) and sharing the work of raising my children is an embodied critique of male gender norms. Since having two small children, however, my partner and I have struggled with the fact that our family structure has started to look more and more like a traditional heteronormative one, with me at work while she remains at home with the children. This situation, which has been difficult to avoid so far, has only reinforced the importance of my doing my share of the housework in the attempt to maintain an equal balance of power between us. Of course, stepping up to the plate to do one’s fair share after centuries of male dominance in the home is really the least we can do. Nevertheless, wearing an apron is for me its own form of new domesticity and I find it to be a powerful way to perform my rejection of the skewed gender ideology that continues to cause me and the people I care about nothing but pain.

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