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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

Homemaking for the 21st century

The New York Times recently ran yet another article telling us that money doesn’t make us happy. The quipped response, “No, but it sure helps” is doubtless on the tip of our tongues immediately. Because with the rates of under- and unemployment, the debt we are all carrying, the fear that keeps us in horrible jobs, money seems like an escape route. It might not make us happy, but it’ll get us to the place that will.

What should replace these annoying articles, written by and quoting people with jobs they love, should be how to be happy with lowered income, how to live a sustainable life, how to center your world around your family and community instead of your job at a company that does not love you. Something like the lessons in Shannon Hayes’s “Radical Homemakers.” Learning how to set up community gardens to make sure our neighborhood has access to fresh produce and cut down on grocery bills, how to cook, how to sew, how to educate their children outside of our failing schools, will serve us better than learning that a vacation will make us happier than a new couch.

Shannon Hayes and the men and women profiled in her book do have radical ideas: that our families need homemakers, that children need real educations, that people need to become producers and not consumers. Now, these are provocative statements, and every feminist cell in my body freaked at the word “homemaker.” But she doesn’t mean women only, and she certainly doesn’t mean being the suburban mom who drives her children to soccer practice, to ballet class, to karate class, to play dates, to the mall and back again. By her definition, I am a homemaker because I cook almost every meal, I hang out my laundry, I grow my own herbs, I work from home. And so I dropped my reactionary response and listened to the message of her book. Hayes agreed to answer a few questions over e-mail.

There is this idea that if you as a woman have the means, the smarts and the resources, you should enter the work world to help break through the glass ceiling, for feminism and for the sisterhood. But you reject that, for various reasons. Have you been attacked for being a bad feminist?

That’s a really interesting question. Face to face, I have never been attacked. If someone has read the book and written to me with their questions or concerns, met me in person or come to hear me speak, we may have a dialogue on the issues, and we may have different views. But there is no real “attacking.” That seems to be something that happens more online, and most often, under the cloak of anonymity. That can be deeply frustrating, if I let it be… because how does a person have a dialogue with so many invisible people in so many different places? I could make myself crazy trying to attempt it.

Mind you, the book has come under attack for being more than just anti-feminist. It has been criticized for being anti-religion and not anti-religion enough; anti-feminist and too feminist; anti-education and overly biased toward the educated, the list goes on and on. The only thing I can fairly surmise from the opposing critiques is that it seems to find a way to offend almost everyone, and in that way … maybe I’ve been fair in at least I offend everybody in some way!?!??

Actually, I’m not the sort of person who grooves on offending folks. It was deeply painful to write ideas that I knew would be criticized from many different angles. I am asking people to re-evaluate many of the most important decisions they have made in their lives. A very natural first response to such questioning is for folks to get their dander up and attack the book or the writer. I’ve been guilty of that myself, so I try not to be frustrated about it. Maybe in a few years, some of the ideas will stay with these readers, and maybe they’ll make some decisions differently, or at least be more open to someone else’s varying choices.

I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about the criticisms and vitriol that would ensue from questioning so many givens. In the end, I concluded that if humans want to become a beneficent species on this planet, then this was a dialogue that needed to happen. People might have nasty things to say. And I was just going to have to accept that as the price paid for starting a conversation. In many ways, this has been a sort of “coming of age” project for me, because I’ve had to step forward and own up to my beliefs, and accept that if my message was widely read, there would be public criticism.

For people who grew up not knowing how to cook, not learning basic homemaking skills like sewing on a button, let alone how to raise a chicken, there must be an overwhelming fear and learning curve to overcome before they can chuck their current lifestyle. What do you recommend for a starting place?

Jump in anywhere — start hanging out your laundry, make a point of spending more time with family, read “Your Money or Your Life” and get serious about taking control of your finances, or make a point of committing more deeply to your friends and neighbors. Move toward what seems the easiest thing to do, and don’t worry about doing it all. In fact, jumping in and trying to can and garden and live without a job and sew and keep chickens and and and … would result in a disaster. Just start with one or two things that seem manageable, dream about the things that you would like to be able to do with this in the future, and promise yourself that, over time, you will move in that direction. You will.

No matter how many times we hear money doesn’t make us happy, it’s a lesson we refuse to learn. From the sound of your book, you and your family are very happy, although your book appeals more to politics, environmental factors and satisfaction, more than some idea of perfect happiness. Was that a conscious choice? Do you think it’s easier to rouse people’s political spirits than this idea of happiness with limited means?

My family entered on this life path before we were aware of the happiness research. We certainly liked the idea of making money, like most people. We still do, in fact. Being entrepreneurial is fun. Seeing profit from an entrepreneurial venture is double the fun. However, we didn’t choose this path [Hayes and her family run Sap Bush Hollow Farm] for the money-making potential. We chose it because it made Bob and I physically sick to our stomachs to consider pursuing a life that didn’t honor our deepest dreams about family, our farm, our creative ambitions, and our hopes for our community and planet. We liked the idea of money. But we couldn’t put it above these other things. We decided to learn how to manage the money so that we could devote our life energy to these issues that mattered so much more to us.

The book delves into a lot of the happiness research, most heavily in chapter four. However, I do not think there is such a thing as perfect happiness. If asked, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. That doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days, arguments or foul moods. The difference, perhaps, is that none of these things is enduring or chronic. And my formula for this “happiness” is not the same as everyone else’s. There are a lot of Radical Homemakers who would make different choices from me about how to spend their time…

In the book I attempt to cover all the different facets that lead to this life: politics, ecology, personal fulfillment, happiness, etc. It was hard to decide which ideas needed to be presented first. In the end, they are all important. I just hope the prose is compelling enough for readers to stick with it and spend time with all the concepts.

Many of the topics you raise have a stigma attached to them, because of their association with religious separatists. One of those topics is education, going without a college degree or home schooling. Again, this is one of those things we hear about again and again, the dismal quality of our educational system, yet taking the leap to home schooling seems unfathomable. From the families you talked to in your research, I wondered if you could just talk about the motivations and the practicalities of taking that role on as a parent.

First, I think it is important to point out that I spoke with almost as many men as women in the research … I’m always a stickler about that, as I am loathe for this movement to be pegged solely as a female thing. It is really a teamwork movement, where all the adults in a household need to jump on board for it to work.

Indeed, there are a lot of commonalities between RHers and religious separatists … I suppose that’s because one thing that the groups share in common is the intent to live by their truest ideals, and ideals of family, a vibrant earth and well-educated children cross all kinds of religious and cultural lines. Many of the folks interviewed in the book professed a strong faith, many did not. I suppose the way the RHers differed from some of the more extreme separatist religious groups is their broader interest in their community and their insistence on sharing power in the household. This is by no means an exclusive club. The goal is to make a living for all, not a killing for a few. Thus, the hope of RHers isn’t to out-compete or out-survive other folks; it is to create a vibrant life-serving economy wherein everyone around them can flourish — whether or not they opt to take the RH path or not.

Sure, we can all gripe about the schools. But those in this movement who are homeschooling aren’t trying to shut down public schools or turn their backs on them. They aren’t against them, so much as for something else. In fact, many of these homeschoolers have found ways to participate with their local public schools in some way. The intent of those men and women in this movement who opted for homeschooling is basically to stimulate a love of learning in their kids, and a deeper integration with their community and natural world, with the hope that as adults they become auto-didactic, empowered self-learners who can learn anything, and who are deeply connected to the earth and their communities. The folks in this movement have taken great joy in their own ability to spend more time outdoors, to learn new skills and ideas, and they seek to share these things with their children. They feel homeschooling is the best way to prepare them for a future where fossil fuels will be scarce, where we must constantly adapt to our changing ecosystem, and find ways to heal our planet. That said, RHers don’t always commit to homeschooling. Many of the children of these families are enrolled in public school, although a lot are certainly taught at home. There’s no creed that states an RHer family must homeschool or eschew college (I certainly didn’t!).

You mentioned “Your Money or Your Life,” but can you list a few other books to get a person moving from thinking about the issues to making changes and starting to teach themselves these skills?

  • “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz
  • “Ball Blue Book of Preserving”
  • “The Great Turning” by David Korten
  • “Agenda for a New Economy” by David Korten
  • “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
  • “Grassfed Gourmet” by Shannon Hayes
  • “The Urban Homestead” by Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen
  • “Steady Days: A Journey Toward Intentional Professional Motherhood” by Jamie C. Martin
  • “Make your Place: Affordable and Sustainable Nesting Skills” by Raleigh Briggs
  • “Clean House Clean Planet” by Karen Logan
  • “The Encyclopedia of Country Living” by Carla Emery

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut. She currently resides in Berlin.