Not everyone is cut out for ‘radical homemaking,’ not even me

No idea what this lady's doing, but she looks like a radical homemaker to me! Image via the Google LIFE photo archive.

Folks, the backlash against “radical homemaking” (also known as ‘new agrarianism’ or ‘locavorism’ or ‘those damn hipsters going on about their Etsy and ramps and baking and whatnot’) has begun.  I remember reading a piece about “The Femivore’s Dilemma” on Jezebel back in March.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, KJ Dell’Antonia wrote “Radical Homemaking is More Fun when it’s Optional” at DoubleX.  And today, via Salon, I see this: “I am a Radical Homemaking Failure” by Madeline Holler (it turns out that the Holler piece was posted around the same time as the DoubleX piece, which responds to it, but I missed it back in my days before we got internet turned on at our house).

Dell’Antonia really hits the nail on the head in her piece.  Holler moves to the midwest so her husband can follow his academia dreams on $36k per year with a couple of kids in tow.  She becomes a “radical homemaker” just to make ends meet on that low salary, and she discovers she sorta hates the drudgery.  And Dell’Antonia points out what should be obvious to anyone who’s even heard of “The Feminine Mystique”: drudgery is not so fun when it’s mandatory, actually.  (Though, I’d point out that Holler’s husband *chose* to leave a more lucrative field, and he had the privilege to choose a more lucrative field by the end of the piece, as well.  Many people have no before and no after– “radical homemaking” as a way of making ends meet is just reality, period.)

Image: "American Housewife" Mrs. Gilbert Ambert, Kankakee, IL, 1941, via the Google LIFE Photo Archive.

Here’s the thing: if you’re reading my blog, you know I buy into a lot of the “radical homemaking” stuff.  I don’t make our clothes or even my own yogurt, but I’m really committed to local, natural, homemade food.  And in addition to my ethical choices about food, I straight up enjoy cooking, most of the time.  But here’s a secret: the minute I start feeling like I’m the only person in my house who cares about what’s going onto our plates? The minute I start to feel like cooking our food is more my job than my choice?  That’s when I start to resent my kitchen.

I think a major reason so many people roll their eyes when they read yet another essay by an upper middle class white lady who has found God in free range chicken farming and home meat curing and knitting is that so rarely do the writers recognize their own privilege.  For one thing, they’re doing all this stuff for funzies, and for another, so many people are doing these things because they have to, even though they’d rather not.  So here’s my revelation: yes, I think eating local, organic, homemade food is a good choice for our planet and our bodies. BUT: I realize that my choices are not for everyone. In fact, they’re not even always for me!

That said, I really have to take issue with this part of Holler’s piece:

Even baking all of my own bread sounded dreadful. For me, kneading dough was the physical manifestation of pushing and pressing all of life’s ambitions into one yeasty ball of carbs.

I’m not sure why all the anti-homemakers have to go after bread baking, but YOU NEED TO LAY OFF THE BREAD BAKING, Y’ALL. I bake my own bread. Even when I had a full-time day job, I baked my own bread. The combining of ingredients into the bowl of my stand mixer (privilege alert: I have a stand mixer, received as a wedding gift) takes all of 5 minutes, and the mixer does the work. 6-24 hours later, I preheat the oven, put the bread into a pot, and I bake it for 30 minutes. Then I take the lid off and bake it for 15 more minutes. Then I take it out of the pan. It’s hardly a soul-crushing commitment, and it’s cheaper, tastier, and healthier than most of the bread available at the store. Even I have my limits, but when there are entire cookbooks dedicated to Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes Per Day, maybe you should be picking a more onerous task to target with your ire, like, I don’t know, those crazies who use washrags instead of toilet paper. (I use the crappy recycled toilet paper, but I have toilet paper, dammit.)

The bottom line: they call it “radical” for a reason.  Just because you’re not willing to go whole-hog into the pioneer program doesn’t mean you can’t make a few changes that might be better for you and the planet. BUT, always, it’s worth remembering that just having the ability to choose these choices is an immense privilege, and even things others consider hobbies can be drudgery to people who have no choice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a hunk of my soul-crushing homemade bread.

"Housewife Marjorie McWeeney w. broom amidst symbolic display of her week's housework at Bloomingdale's store incl. 35 beds to be made, 750 items of glass & china, 400 pieces of silverware to wash, 174 lbs. of food to prepare." 1947. Image via the Google LIFE Photo Archive.

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8 thoughts on “Not everyone is cut out for ‘radical homemaking,’ not even me

  1. Until these radical-by-choice homemakers start carrying water on their heads every day because the only nearby well is 4 miles away, they have no credibility.

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  2. Holler is just using bread as a symbol that she wants more than homemaking. Bread is tasty and good. Even I can make it. I’m a “bless her heart, that girl could burn water” type of girl so if I can make it, anybody can.

    If you like homemaking, then great for you. If you don’t, then get a job you like and don’t worry about it.

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  3. I’ve heard endless stories of radical homemaking of the non-optional variety. In fact, they were radical homesteading stories of my mother’s youth. While there were upsides(like not knowing how poor they were because other people were poorer), I wouldn’t trade my central heating, access to a supermarket, and luxury of sleeping past 6 am on weekends for any amount of “back to basic” ideology.

    Of course, I do make yogurt and mozzarella sometimes. And bread. And jam. I’ve got 40 hills of potatoes out back. And I thank God that I am not dependent on my wits and the weather to feed my family.

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  5. I must look into this radical homemaking business. I may be showing my ignorance here, but where is the line drawn between “regular” homemaking (a term I hate with an unbridled passion), and becoming radical?

    We make our own laundry detergent.
    We put our baby in cloth diapers- half of the time.
    We’re growing some (for the moment, pitiful) veggies and herbs in our yard.
    We’d rather buy local food than shipped in.
    We (Ok, *I*) will be homeschooling our kids this fall.

    That sounds awfully prarie to me, but then again, it’s what we’ve chosen, and we don’t particularly FEEL radical.

    I need to do more homework.

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  6. I guess none of it seems all that radical to me. We make our our bread, we hang our clothes on the line, we grow much of our own produce on our 1/5 acre lot. I sew some of our clothes, the rest are from Goodwill. I bike instead of drive when weather and distance permits. We don’t have TV or cell phones or video gaming systems. When things need fixed, we fix them. I have always lived like this, just because I like being home more than I like being at a job. Other people may have different preferences, but really, what is there to backlash about? For that matter, Amy B., what is there to have “credibility” about? If I have running water, I am a hypocrite unless I also have cable? Silly people. Find your own ways to contribute to the solutions instead of attacking people who already are.

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    • The thing to backlash about is the smug self-satisfaction of so many of the essayists you read writing about these things in the New York Times and Salon and other media outlets. It’s one thing to choose your own choice. It’s entirely another to act like things you choose for yourself will work swimmingly for everyone, or like the things you enjoy aren’t also drudgery to other people.

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  7. I don’t really see the need for a “backlash,” but I agree that the smuggery of it all is obnoxious.

    I started growing food here in SoDak because I had to in order to eat food that actually struck me as being edible (and yes, it’s a privilege to make that distinction).

    We’ve got a nice little local food scene now, and helping to grow that movement isn’t just about feel-good idealism–it’s also about me not having to grow all of my own all of the time. Don’t forget that radical homemaking is also about community. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

    To me, radical homemaking is about having at least a few basic skills (and the willingness to learn a few more)–even if you don’t use all of them all the time. Maybe that’s not “radical” enough for some.

    It’s sad to see so many people who have zero know-how when it comes to making, fixing, growing–doing anything at all. Doing (and being good at) all of it isn’t really the point in my mind–it’s more about having a skill set that makes you at least in some part a producer rather than a consumer.

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