The other day my Triscuits came with a package of basil seeds glued into the box. According to the instructions, these could be used to start my very own "home farm" (sic): "Let’s all join in and help grow the Home Farming movement together. It can all begin when you plant your free basil and dill seeds from Triscuit today!" It's ironic that the distant manufacturers of the most highly processed food in my cupboard are exhorting me to get back to the land. Something to think about as I plow the window box...
Writer Peggy Orenstein recently discovered that four of her friends have started raising their own chickens to ease the tedium of their domestic lives. You see, Orenstein's friends dropped out of the workforce to raise their kids and they're going a little stir crazy:
"All of these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper." [NYT]
Apparently, getting back into the kitchen is much more romantic when the kitchen lacks running water. Orenstein dubs her friends "femivores"--a hybrid of "feminist" and "locavore." She argues that they are at the forefront of a new movement to infuse homemaking with personal meaning and political significance:
"What’s more, though today’s soccer moms may argue, quite rightly, that caretaking is undervalued in a society that measures success by a paycheck, their role is made possible by the size of their husband’s. In that way, they’ve been more of a pendulum swing than true game changers.
Enter the chicken coop." [NYT]
I'm sorry but the chicken coop is not a game-changer. Orenstein's argument is condescending to homemakers and farmers alike. Our society loves to romanticize mothers and farmers, but we prefer to keep the mundane details of their work in soft focus.
Either raising kids at home is an inherently worthwhile pursuit, or it isn't. Adding retro chores isn't going to change that equation. Yes, caregiving is undervalued, but shoveling chicken shit isn't inherently more ennobling than driving kids to Little League. If the latter doesn't do it for you, the former isn't going to magically imbue your life with meaning.
Farming is a real job. A backyard chicken coop is a hobby. Hobbies are great. But why exalt chicken coops above water colors or martial arts or ballroom dancing? On this point, Orenstein succumbs to wishful thinking. She tries to convince us that raising a few chickens is a serious investment in the future:
"There is even an economic argument for choosing a literal nest egg over a figurative one. Conventional feminist wisdom held that two incomes were necessary to provide a family’s basic needs — not to mention to guard against job loss, catastrophic illness, divorce or the death of a spouse. Femivores suggest that knowing how to feed and clothe yourself regardless of circumstance, to turn paucity into plenty, is an equal — possibly greater — safety net. After all, who is better equipped to weather this economy, the high-earning woman who loses her job or the frugal homemaker who can count her chickens?" [NYT]
I am willing to bet my entire basil "crop" that Orenstein's friends aren't really subsistence farmers. And if they are, it's probably the worst economic investment they'll ever make. I grew up listening to my grandmother's stories about growing up on a subsistence farm in Alberta, Canada. If my grandmother were alive today, she'd be quietly chortling about Orenstein's new math.
As Amanda Marcotte points out, play farming is less lucrative than a part-time job. When you take into account the cost of the land, the supplies, and the time to grow a few meager veggies, the local farmer's market doesn't seem so expensive. The underlying assumption seems to be that women's time isn't very valuable. The New York Times has little interest in exhorting men to spend their spare time weeding.
Busywork for housewives has a long an ignoble tradition. For some reason, we're uncomfortable with the idea that stay-at-home parenting is less that a 24-hour-a-day mission. Call it the chicks with schticks phenomenon. Each generation invents some kind of totalizing lifestyle to reassure women that they're realizing their dreams instead of sacrificing them. In the old days, it was the cult of home economics and scientific childrearing. Today, it's poultry. If we really valued parenting and housekeeping, we wouldn't feel compelled to constantly rebrand this work as something more "meaningful."
A lot of stay-at-home parents are frustrated because they feel like they don't have any time to themselves. Orenstein's not doing them any favors by laying on expectations about how Good Moms protect their families from pesticides by cultivating heirloom tomatoes. How about figuring out how to share domestic labor more equitably so that SAHMs have more free time to spend as they see fit, even if their hobbies don't fit the stereotype of maternal perfection?
Orenstein thinks her friends have found the Holy Grail--a lifestyle that will allow women to make home and hearth the center of their lives, and yet not be stultified by such a narrow focus. The more interesting question is why women should aspire to occupy their entire lives with home and hearth in the first place.
Photo credit: Flickr user Olaf, licensed under Creative Commons.