Jen’s Library: Radical Homemakers – Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture

Radical Homemakers – Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture
by Shannon Hayes

This might be a long post, because it was a long book that got me doing a whole lot of thinking. I may revisit some of the big ideas in later posts. It’s a great book with utopian ideas and clear guidance towards getting to that ideal world, but it’s advocating a very different lifestyle than most of us are used to, and it’s a little unsettling.

Slowly, over the decades, the household has gone from being a unit of production to a unit of consumption, and that’s why we’re all unhappy. We need to become more self-sufficient, aiming for interdependence instead of independence, make and create instead of purchase, and give back to our communities while keeping good guardianship of the natural environment through our actions and choices. In a very tiny nutshell, that’s what this book is about.

In Radical Homemakers, we get a look back through history at how families and households gradually changed from being contributing members of a local community, to consumers in a global economy. First, as the world shifted from farming and small towns to manufacturing and cities, things became available to the housewives of the day, to make their lives easier. You could buy shirts instead of make them, and send them out to be washed or mended instead of doing it yourself. You had grocery stores bringing in produce from all over, so you could use tomatoes any season you wanted, and get fresh eggs without raising your own chickens or getting to know your neighbors and helping them on their farm. Then it was a move to the suburban, two-car garage, soccer mom lifestyle, where the creative spark all but died and people were left unfulfilled and needing Prozac and Chardonnay.

The author defines these “radical homemakers” as “men and women who have chosen to make family, community, social justice, and the health of the planet the governing principles of their lives.” So, in a sense, she seems to be advocating the hippie commune lifestyle, which is definitely a little extreme. But she does go on to discuss the ways that various people (women and men) have dedicated themselves to this radical lifestyle, and not everyone does it the same way. All have a lot in common – they recycle, compost, garden, cook, buy local and organic, buy used, and volunteer and share as much as possible. Some homeschool, some bike to work, some live on farms, some in cities, and some live completely off the grid.

She describes some skills that are essential to the lifestyle, and while I can understand why these are all good things, I can’t see myself realistically implementing all of them in my own life.

Nurturing relationships
Building stronger bonds with family, friends, and community. Spending time with them, getting to know the neighbors, finding friends with skills you need and who can use the skills you have, and striving for interdependence. Work part-time or stay home, so you can be with your kids. Teach your neighbor to bake and she’ll teach you to knit. Give-and-take.

Working with the life-serving economy
Minimizing waste, bartering, making the best of available resources, becoming a net producer instead of net consumer, and knowing when to say “enough”. Repair things instead of throwing them out, buy used, grow your own food, trade with other producers, and only buy what you need. She’s very much against the conventional consumer lifestyle and a huge advocate for buying local and organic, and not supporting companies that aren’t eco- and worker-friendly.

Learning new things, finding teachers, and not being afraid to mess up. Homeschooling seems to be a big part of the radical homemaker lifestyle, in part because many of them don’t think the current school system, with its structure and memorization, is really helping prepare kids for life, and it also doesn’t teach them enough critical and independent thinking. To a certain extent, I agree with this, but homeschooling is a huge step to take, and I think that some school programs are better than others, and you can supplement your kids’ education at home. but I don’t have kids yet, so I could be way off.

Setting realistic expectations and limits
This is a big one. To survive as a radical homemaker, you need to accept imperfection. You can’t want the granite counters and the new car and spotless produce. The home is a living organism, according to the author, and it’s going to be inherently messy and a constant work-in-progress. I’m guessing that I’d have a very hard time with this, since I find myself easily frustrated by clutter, even though I’m the worst offender here.

Anyway, after all that, I can say that it’s an interesting lifestyle, and while it’s probably not for me, I can consider putting some of it into practice and make the world a slightly better place as a result. I won’t be putting in a chicken coop in the yard and switching to hemp clothing, but I’m thinking of growing some veggies, and I want to learn to sew, and cook from scratch (I’m talking bread, here), and I may even put up a rain barrel for gardening. There’s some green living for you! Baby steps, I guess. I have friends who are much, much closer to this lifestyle than I am, and I find that I admire them for what they’re doing. Knitting, sewing, canning, aiming for a local and organic diet, car-sharing and shopping at Goodwill. I also look at all that and think there’s no way I can do all that. But maybe just doing some of it is good enough.

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