I recently read Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, by Shannon Hayes. Like any good eco-chick, I borrowed mine from the library, but I am tempted to buy the darn thing just so I can take notes. Radical Homemakers is about a movement idealized by both domesticity and the environment, taking both to higher levels.
Hayes is conundrum, as are the other families interviewed in the book: a farmer AND a PhD, a feminist AND a housewife. She spends a great deal of time analyzing the second wave feminist notion of domesticity = Satan, and argues that housework need not be drudgery, but rather an all-important task of raising families, saving the environment, and fighting the corporate man.
Hayes main argument is that both women and men are slaves to corporate greed, and as long as we insist on maintaining time-consuming jobs to pay for things that we really don’t need (but that corporations and advertisements insist we do), we will forever be held in its chains. Feminism, she argues, failed both men and women by focusing solely on women in the workplace. Women in the workplace is hardly a bad thing (I am a working mother myself), but whereas advertisers once catered to the male-breadwinner/female-housewife, they jumped at the dual income couple and convinced them that they needed yearly vacations, massive houses, expensive cars, prepared meals, and other “necessities.” Two incomes became twice the buying power. We are forced to send our kids to unregulated day care, spend money on oil and expensive cars, and work 40+ hours a week in cubicles just so we can afford these “necessities.”
The irony is this: we work long hours away from our families so that we can pay for the houses/cars/belongings that we really can’t afford, yet these items sit vacant nearly every day while to go to work to pay for them. It’s a vicious cycle, and frankly, an unsustainable one. It’s a situation that has taken its toll on our families, our health, our stress levels, and our earth.
Hayes thinks that there’s another way. Radical Homemakers grow their own food, so they don’t have to spend as much at the grocery store. They drive one car or sometimes none. They live in small farms, shacks, or renovated apartments in poor neighborhoods. They homeschool and don’t use day care. They don’t pay health insurance and instead spend their money taking care of their health and diet. They work with their communities instead of isolating themselves. And they do it all for under $40,000 a year, on average, or even less.
I love the anti-corporate passion in Hayes’ book, and I do think that the ridiculous cycle of stressful jobs just to buy more stuff is a sad product of American culture. However, is this the path for everyone? I wasn’t raised on a farm like Hayes, so I wouldn’t even know where to start building an organic garden. I killed a cactus once, people. I have no green thumb. And I just don’t see myself gardening, canning, sewing, or making my own yogurt. I just don’t possess those skills. Although keeping chickens does sound like fun…I’m sure my cats would love it.
But perhaps, rather than dwelling on the gardening, chickens, and canning that these Radical Homemakers do on a daily basis, the real message is this: you don’t have to buy into “normal.” Normal is not sustainable, for our families, our health, or our planet. You can do something different, but you have to give up the overidealization of cars, houses, clothes, and other meaningless things.
Take hubby and me. At 30, he’s still in college and just got his first job. And yes, people look at us weird and yes, we haven’t bought a house yet or even settled down yet, and we’re broke. We never go on vacation, and buying our clothes at Old Navy is our luxury. But, we both have flexible schedules and careers that allow us to spend more time with our son and less time commuting and sitting in a cubicle. I’m proud of my PhD hubby, because he’s doing something that he loves and that will make a difference in the world. And I love working in a non-profit library where I can take time off if my kid is sick and no one bats an eye. Maybe we don’t have a lot of money or status symbols, but we’re living and working outside of what corporate America deems “normal.” Which I think is radical.