The New Domesticity vs. ambition

Emily Matchar writes about the New Domesticity in her new book
Emily Matchar writes about the New Domesticity in her new book. ((Simon and Schuster)

The last time I cooked something other than my usual quick and completely uninspiring fare, like stir-fry, pasta or roast chicken, was about a year ago, when I gave gazpacho a shot. My “garden” consists of a few basil plants still in their plastic containers on the steps outside my backdoor with crispy leaves because I keep forgetting to water them. I don’t can. The thought of homeschooling my children never once crossed my mind. Ever.

Stew was about as exciting as my mother, a 1960s, middle class, stay-at-home mom, got. A curving slab of beef tongue, plopped in a pot of boiling water for hours while she read the newspaper, was top of the culinary line for my Irish grandmother. Though she did have a flower garden.

So at first, I confess I was confused about the New Domesticity movement that Emily Matchar reports about in her new book, “Homeward Bound,” that’s been generating so much buzz this summer. (The Washington Post’s Becky Krystal, who does knit, can, garden and cook, recently wrote about it here.)

I was confused — not that a younger generation would want something different than racing through life like your hair’s on fire, which is how it has often felt for Baby Boomer women like me. Struggling to compete in demanding workplaces that expect Total Work Devotion, keeping up with the intensive expectations of modern American motherhood that require Total Selfless Involvement, and having spouses or partners who, thank God, do far more with kids and around the house than their fathers did, but still aren’t quite the egalitarian dreamboats we’d hoped for — Who wouldn’t want something different?

I was confused because Matchar writes that some young, college-educated, middle-class women are choosing to eschew careers to stay home and cook, bake, can, garden, raise chickens, sew, knit, homeschool and make crafts to sell or blog about on the Internet — a sort of glorified return not to the 1950s, but to the 1850s. Yet surveys of this same Millennial demographic show that young women are increasingly ambitious.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that not only are young women today more ambitious than they were 15 years ago, they’re now more ambitious than men. At the same time, an astounding 94 percent of young women and 91 percent of young men surveyed reported that being a good parent is one of the most important things in their lives.

How can a young woman both want to be more ambitious, eager to Lean In, sit at the table, speak up, stand out and be an active and involved parent and want to live a simple life of manual labor scrubbing poop out of organic cloth diapers and keeping bees, raising rabbits and tending vegetable gardens on the rooftops of their urban apartment buildings?

Homeschooling? “Career Girl Gone Green Acres” as Matchar puts it? Wasn’t it just last year we were talking about the End of Men and The Richer Sex? Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago all people could talk about – or in some circles, wail about – was that married and single mothers now make up 40 percent of family breadwinners?

As I was puzzling about the seeming contradiction, I came upon a new study by Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University. Taking the “Opt Out” narrative to new heights, Hersch found that women who have the smarts, drive – and money – to get into and graduate from the nation’s elite and most prestigious universities are also dropping out of the labor force at a greater rate when they have children than women who attend less “selective” institutions.

The gap is widest for MBAs, with mothers from the most selective schools being by 30 percentage points less likely to be employed full-time than mothers from less selective schools.

Evidence shows that the more women sit on corporate boards, the more top female executives there tend to be. The more top female executives, the more female mid-level executives.

“Thus,” she writes, “lower labor market activity of MBAs from selective schools may have both a direct effect on the number of women reaching higher-level corporate positions as well as an indirect effect due to a smaller pipeline of women available to advance through the corporate hierarchy.”

Some argue that women don’t opt out, but instead are “pushed” out of inflexible workplaces. But, Hersch writes, that doesn’t explain why she found such wide variation between mothers who’d graduated from elite vs. non-elite schools.

And that’s when “The New Domesticity” began to make perfect sense.

Some defenders of the return home insist these women are living the full flowering of feminism, where each woman gets to make a choice of the life and lifestyle that best suits them and their families. Amen to having choices, I say.

But we have to ask, what kind of real choices are we giving young women?

I would argue we aren’t.

Let’s stick with the cultural and academic elites, since that, in all honesty is largely who we’re talking about with this New Domesticity “trendlet,” as one writer put it, and who Hersch found dropping out at higher rates.

Let’s look at that “inflexible” workplace. American workers put in the longest work hours of all the world’s wealthiest nations, international studies have found. American workers, particularly those in the elite, white-collar corporate world of MBAs, put in the most “extreme” hours of 50, 60 or more a week. And they willingly give up among the most hours of vacation of anyone in the world.

At the same time, Americans have ratcheted up expectations of what a Good Mother should be and do, fostering what some have called a crazy “Mompetition.” Status is earned, the theory goes, the more hours one spends arranging piano and trumpet lessons, making herculean efforts to drive the carpool to soccer games, often held, inconveniently, at 3 p.m., and worrying about college admissions practically from the moment of delivery.

So unless dual-career parents – which two-thirds of all children under 18 have – want to line up an army of expensive child-care providers, or, as Japan proposes, mechanical nanny-bot 3000s, and outsource their home lives, one parent typically has been forced to dial back, take the lesser paying “flexi-track” job or drop out altogether.

With the intense pull of the Perfect Mother, and cultural conditioning that women are the “natural” caregivers, it’s hardly a surprise that the ones opting out are women – or at least the women in elite families who are more likely to be able to afford to and often feel more intense pressure to show status and conform to the impossible ideal. (Some even argue the New Domesticity is taking intensive mothering and status to the next level.)

Throw in a child-care system that is more a catastrophe than a system and non-existent family and gender equity policies, and it’s not hard to understand the attraction of running to the nearest quilting bee.

But what often gets lost in all the talk about inflexible workplaces with family friendly policies on the books that everyone knows is the kiss of death to take, is that they not only keep women down and out of them, they trap men in them.

The 91 percent of young men surveyed who said being a parent is one of the most important things in their lives won’t have much time to be one if they’re expected to give body and soul to work. They’ll have to give even more if they’re the sole breadwinner supporting a New Domestic at home.

That gets us right back to the stuck place we’ve been as a country for more than 40 years. What to do?

Encourage women to Lean In, despite the costs at home, until there are enough women in power to change the system, until the day that, finally, both men and women can have time for both meaningful work and the timeless, sacred space that we’ve lost with our families at home?

Or if you simply can’t keep waiting for that day to arrive, lean out now, if you can afford it and career be damned, crack open the cookbooks, plan the homeschool lessons and puree the home-grown carrots for the baby because your children are only young once, this is your one and only life.

I was hoping that by now young women – and men – wouldn’t still be facing such an either/or choice.

Brigid Schulte is a reporter for The Washington Post who writes about work-life issues and poverty. Her book, “Overwhelmed, Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” will be published next spring.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Mary C. Curtis · July 22, 2013