Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

Each of us enters into this world of punk DIY housewifery from different angles. It’s easy enough to look down the street (or more likely, through the screen) at Ms. Jones’ new chicken coop, the handsewn banners in her window, the pie cooling on the sill, and compare straight across to our own shamble-stead. Assuming we ought to be even.

But there’s no reason whatsoever we should be ‘even.’ Everyone started in a different place, and took a different road in. People say this all the time. Start where you are. But I feel like we don’t give this fundamental truth the credence it deserves.

Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader? It’s yet another sign of how we devalue the work.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been, perhaps uniquely, well trained for this job. I grew up with hippie parents who fixed rather than bought, valued healthy food, believed in responsible action. They started me out with the values and the basic skills of the DIY lifestyle. When I left home, instead of going to college, I spent 3 years traveling around in rural areas, doing interesting, unusual and eminently practical work, and generally learning everything I could about the possibility of a more simple life. I spent the next 4 years with my partner on a friend’s land, building a sort of practice homestead, testing out everything we had learned. In the world of DIY/homesteading I am, I think, unusually well educated for this day and age. As far as more the classically ‘domestic’ skills go, I grew up in a restaurant and as an adult have cooked in professional kitchens where speed and efficiency rule. Cleaning and kids were my big blank spots (very big, very blank), the rest I had pretty well covered.

I don’t mean to gloat about it, but rather to say, look– I’ve had all the training a person could hope for considering the times, and I still think this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, still feel like I’m falling short every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you mamas who are just getting into all this stuff. I know the excitement of first love is heady, and hopefully it will carry you through, but damn you must feel overwhelmed! I just want to remind you to consider your training, or lack of it, and give yourself a break.

If you went to college and then spent your twenties working an office job, and now you are home with two kids trying to change the world one household at a time, you have just weathered an abrupt career change! Think of it as if you had lost your entire field of work and had to find and train for something radically different. Maybe you knew nothing about this new job. Maybe your family growing up rarely cooked, and a housekeeper scrubbed the bathtub. Gardening meant watering the rhodedendron. Maybe you hadn’t been around kids since you were one.

This is no small matter to brush carelessly aside, this is the crux of it really, because we have lost vast stores of knowledge about how to run an efficient, thrifty, coordinated home. It used to be that girls would learn this stuff before it was their responsibility, they would leave their parents home into their own new home having ‘apprenticed’ with their mothers and grandmothers. Not that those old days were so glorious, and I surely don’t want to be mistaken for saying women shouldn’t go to college, but what would it look like if an education in homemaking were a respected choice? Or perhaps available as a double major? Anything beyond a laughable elective in high school would help.

We have run in such panic from our past that now that we consider homemaking knowledge non-less, demeaning or even hateful. The cruel irony is that many women nevertheless continue to bear children, keep a home, run a budget and even cook for their families! But instead of proceeding with the confidence and success of training, we have to plunge in clueless. Without any real idea how to go about these jobs we all have to re-invent the wheel. What a waste of our (limited) energy! It’s sad, and as anyone reading this blog can identify with, it’s damn hard!

Several months ago, Harriet Fasenfest asked what we would look for in a “nuts and bolts” book about householding. The question has revisited me many times, partly because it was the bug in my rug before I had ever even heard of Harriet. What is it that would make our training? What exactly do we need to know? Is it the practical skills of cooking, preserving, cleaning and gardening? Or the less tangible skills of budgeting, time management and community building? But recently it hit me that whatever the knowledge base, information is only a part of training. Reading books and watching experts is valuable, but at some point everyone just has to dive in and get their hands dirty.

At the Foxfire Museum, on our trip to mountains last week, we got to watch the resident fiber artist for a while. She asked my girl how old she was, and then went on to explain which part of the process would have been her job at that age. “At four girls started carding, at five they made rolags, six they learned to spin, by seven they were using the loom.”

The beauty of a traditional “education” in homemaking arts was that it took place over ten or more years, under the direct tutelage of one’s instructor, and involved every day practice of a skill set which built on itself. How frustrating not to be able to use the loom till you’d put in three full years of fiber arts, but then again, how comforting really. Imagine if all the basic housewifing/homesteading skills were so viscerally ingrained in us. Imagine what we could accomplish!

My Man and I had a good long conversation on the train back from our trip. I am so envious of his ability to be flexible. He started out chaining himself to trees, and yet feels no regret about the way his life has changed since, no regret about his new vocation of paper-wrencher. He has this fantastic way of taking a distance perspective.

“It’s not a revolution right now. I wish it were, but it’s not. All we can do in a single generation is work for some degree of change in the right direction, and then trust that our work will be carried on by the next generation. Trust that eventually it will add up to something significant… Or just see us through until real revolution comes.” He added with a grin.

So, if you started your path in a mainstream, consumer household, spent years in the career world and are just now carving yourself some kind of responsible homemade life, take heart. Start small. Remember you are training on the job, with probably no teacher. Give your kids the values of thrift, simplicity, respect, conscientious living. Do what you can, as much as you can. Then trust that the next generation will continue our work.

Or start praying for revolution.

26 thoughts on “Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

  1. Yes! This was enormously reassuring for me, a decidedly over-educated gal who has a hard time accepting defeat.

    Interestingly, my grandmother graduated from Howard University with a B.S. (I think it was science) in Home Economics, back in the mid-40s. And even she, with a degree in home ec and a youth spent at her mother’s knee learning how to make a home, had failures: lettuces destroyed by slugs, terrors for kids. By the time I came along, she had started farming out a majority of the work around the home. Really, all I learned from her in the kitchen was a few Southern staples. But if I think about it, I can do those really well. Maybe we’ll have corn fritters for dinner. With syrup.

    Off to heave a sigh of relief as I stand in front of a splattering cast iron skillet and say thanks to my grandmother for being a mentor.

  2. “So, if you started your path in a mainstream, consumer household, spent years in the career world and are just now carving yourself some kind of responsible homemade life, take heart. Start small. Remember you are training on the job, with probably no teacher. Give your kids the values of thrift, simplicity, respect, conscientious living. Do what you can, as much as you can. Then trust that the next generation will continue our work.

    Or start praying for revolution.”

    Or Both. Great piece sistah girl. And just the thing I have been thinking about. Big time. We will get there. I’m sure of that. Its a very logical way forward and I think it will be just that, logic, that keeps dangling the bait. No doubt it is an entire curriculum with few, even in the past, managing it within our rural idyllic. But some were kick ass and so shall we be again, despite the learning we got to do. And if not exactly kick ass then definitely full of heart.

  3. This is another great piece.

    Oh cleaning. Help me, help me with cleaning. I know how to clean, I like a clean house…I don’t even mind cleaning throughout the day. But it’s like non-stop…

    This is a swearing-friendly place. I’ll say it just how I think it on a bad day:

    “JHC, why won’t my house stay fucking clean for five fucking minutes? Where in the job description does it say I need to clean fucking CONSTANTLY? And, no, I don’t know what the hell is for dinner, but why do you need to know since YOU’RE STILL EATING LUNCH. And In 15 minutes, DO NOT come and tell me you’re still fucking hungry. No, no you cannot have any more bacon. You haven’t eaten anything EXCEPT bacon. Because we’re having it for dinner. Yes, that’s right – hah! Score one for mom – I just figured out what’s for dinner, and it’s bacon. Unless you eat it all right now.”

    But from my mouth:

    “No honey, I think we need to save that bacon so we can all have some with dinner. I’m glad you like it so much, but it’ll be great with tonight’s dinner, don’t you think?”

    Cook and clean, cook and clean – no wonder women thought going to office jobs would be a liberation. What if I went on strike and stopped cleaning. In how many days would the floor be invisible under the accumulated food, toys, etc? In how many hours would my son have food poisoning from rooting around in his own diaper for a snack and splashing in the toilet for some fun summer cooling-off time? (Among other things, I wiped wet toilet paper from out of the toilet off of three of the bathroom walls today…the forth was spared because it’s behind a cabinet.)

    The little guy just went down for his nap and my daughter (who is awesome, by the way) said: “Perfect day to build a pillow fort!” and I said: “No! I have 30 minutes while he’s sleeping and nothing will be done that involves making a mess I have to deal with until he wakes up.”

    Yes, I just shut down pillow fort because I’m at my wit’s end today.

    I think I need iron. It’s one of those “I need iron” kind of days, if ya know what I mean. Maybe I’ll cook me up some chicken livers for dinner.

    Sorry, my comment just turned into a big ol’ bitch session. ::sigh:: well, thanks again for your awesome writing, which clearly encourages people to open up.

    I hear the little guy crying now. I guess I don’t even have those 30 minutes while he’s napping…..jesus.

    1. Erica, I was just thinking like this the other day, and wondered, What will happen if I just stop cleaning up after them and feeding them? Would they notice? This goes for the man too (though admittedly he has a good excuse with the workload he has at the moment). They can live in their own mess and eat baked beans from the tin. I will read, potter about the garden, maybe paint my toe nails, watch a ‘mummy’ movie in peace, go op shopping by myself, eat salad and soup to me heart (and stomachs) content.

      Hope you are having a better day!

      1. Thanks Bec. :) Harriet has a line in her book – something like “I’m the farmer and the farmer’s wife.” This is what it feels like some days. I want a wife. I want to be able to go out into the garden and sow the crops and look after productive stuff and have someone else follow little people around cleaning. Of course, the littles are the most important thing I’m growing, but sometimes you just want a solid chunk of time to focus on something a wee bit simpler. Like collard greens and cucumbers. Like you I can’t complain about my husband – he more than pulls his weight. I just want more time to pull mine in the way I want to pull it – does that make sense?

    2. oh sweetie. wish i could pop over for an in-person bitch session.
      guess i need to finish up that ole’ zine, which has an article just for you, called, ‘Kids and Messes: A Match Made in Heaven’ as well as just the general opinion that if you’re house is a wreck, you’re doing something right.
      but, wow. wet toilet paper on the walls. was that clean tp dipped into a clean bowl? or, ummm, used?
      sorry for the napping situation. is he still at 2/day? i hope so if they only last 30 minutes.

      1. Well if you’re ever rolling thru Seattle on your way to Alaska or anything, you should come say hi. You and the family are totally welcome. I’m a stickler for kids using polite words and not being little assholes (age appropriate expectations of course), but other than that we are pretty chill around here. Yes! Zine! Finish. But no pressure, cause God knows I understand having things “on the list.” I tell people all the time: “It’s on the list…but you should know it’s a long list.”

        Yeah, the TP….well, at the very worst it was urine, so that’s…um…less bad, I guess? But he’s also been caught gnawing on the business end of the toilet plunger (my rule about ALWAYS closing the bathroom door after you use it being frequently forgotten by my daughter, along with dropping the lid and flushing, I might add). And I’m horrified to admit that I wasn’t joking about him fishing for snacks in his used diaper. All I can say is that the little guy will have a phenomenal immune system if he survives to adulthood.

        Total minutes of nap today: 27. 20 while I was writing my original comment; 7 in the ergo while I was vacuuming up at work tonight. As soon as the vacuum stopped he woke up. He is theoretically at 2 naps, but in practice we just take what we can get. At least he’s sleeping thru the night now so I’m not certifiably insane anymore.

  4. There you go again, speaking to my heart!! I wish for a mentor, to be an apprentice, to have learned ‘at the knee’ all these things I am now attempting to incorporate into my ‘everyday life’ in my own ‘great reskilling’.

    I just had an article posted on this blog/ website about similiar issues, and I will surely add a link to this fine post of yours, because people need to read this:

    I think it is a revolution right now, so rock on good people!

    1. great article, dixiebelle. wow, we really do share a brain sometimes.
      i knew someone would catch me out on the revolution bit. especially since i often refer to this thang right here as a “revolutionary housewifery.” it’s fun to think of it as a revolution, but in a literal sense, this is just a ‘resurgence’ as you said in your article. we are a big margin, but a margin, nevertheless. real revolution, like my man years for, is the kind that truly Fucks Shit Up, turns the whole damn world on it’s head, involves everybody by default.

  5. You know I was just talkin with my husband the other day about how most women don´t even know the basics of cooking anymore. My mom didn´t teach me how to cook and I had to learn on my own. It´s basically taken me 20 years of trial and error and building skills to be able to say I can make a meal out of anything. I am not so great at homemaking. And I have no idea how to use my sewing machine. But I´m working toward it. My garden is pretty much hit or miss (I can´t stand to go out and do things in 100 plus heat). So that´s wehre I am. <here are my three rules: Keep the dishes moving, keep the laundry moving, keep the paperwork moving. These seem to be the basis of everything else.

  6. I grew up in a Wonder Bread house (BARF!!) with a mom who–bless her heart–opened a can of Ragu and tossed it over pasta with ground beef and called it dinner. Fortunately, I figured out early on that was NOT how I wanted to eat, and–after a brief, but misguided, stint of vegetarianism in high school–turned to cooking from scratch. Not to brag, but I must say I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Even got some chickens in the backyard.

    Next on the list: growin some veggies (which I SUCK at so far), learning to preserve more stuff, operating power tools (and actually building something that doesn’t require duct-tape to be functional), eliminating cleaning products with toxic chems (pretty much done, except for the shampoo/soap/lotion), and learning to sew (or at least retro-fit my *hurting* Goodwill wardrobe). Piece of cake? Whatever–I do enjoy a good challenge :)

    Just wondering, though: I want my kids to grow up understanding that there is more power in producing–than consuming–what they need to thrive. But how can I make sure that they don’t grow up envying the kids whose parents drop a can of soda into their lunches and let them watch cartoons all day? What if they rebel against the whole idea of homesteading in favor of the comforts of consumer culture?

    Your ‘rents obviously did a great job with you! It’s easy for someone like me to see the post-consumer DIY life as revolutionary or glamorous, since I feel like I’m rebelling against my upbringing. And I’m sure plenty of kids who grew up with hippie parents are running as fast as they can toward the nearest baby Gap or Junior Armani. So what’s the secret?

    1. i’m glad you brought this up, i wanted to get to this in the post, but as always, i had more words than space/time. it’s a separate post really. but i did want to emphasize that by “the next generation” i don’t mean our particular kids. obviously i would be satisfied beyond belief if my kids wanted to continue mine and My Man’s work, but raising kids with those kind of expectations doesn’t seem to pan out at all. i followed in my parents footsteps to a shocking degree, and it has certainly made them proud, but i think they would have supported many different kinds of decisions.
      also, let it be known that i adored Barbies, make-up, Tiffany, candy bars and everything else girls of my growing up generation did, in my time. my parents stayed quiet, probably prayed after hours, and waited. eventually I came through.

  7. D’s Ego – I don’t know that there’s a way to ensure that your kids won’t run for the Gap when they get to make their own choices. I see it all the time… parents who strictly eat healthy food to the complete exclusion of treats… and the kids end up being big adults who eat processed foods. In my opinion it’s all about the middle road… and then letting them grow up into who they’re going to be. Certainly easier said than done (as is most everything associated with raising kids). Parents can offer their perspective… but at some point we have to let go and let them walk their path. That’s all just me… others will likely have different opinions and comments for you.

    CJ – You rock sister. This post gave me a lot of compassion for myself and where I’m at. I did grow up in a house where my mom never cooked, didn’t sew, and didn’t teach me anything about fending for myself. She was a mom full of love, but was single and had a career… and that meant something had to give. And, that something, apparently, was my homemaking education. I realized while reading this how far I’ve come, how much I’ve learned on my own, and how much I wish my grandmother was still on this earth to share with me what she knew. And it does take time… and persistence. Thank you for reminding me to be kind with myself as I learn… this wasn’t what I learned in all of my college decades.

  8. Loved this post, and now I have something to fill in the “occupation” blank with next time I have a form– punk DIY housewife.
    This was a good gentle kick for me, though, to give myself a break. I’m not going off the grid and hunting my own moose anytime too soon (unless the revolution gets here sooner rather than later….)– and that’s okay.

  9. Totally love this post — great insight.

    Like some others, I am a city girl who grew up with the other Rice-a-Roni and boxed meals. My mom hadn’t necessarily taught me to cook (think she was afraid of any potential mistakes seeing how when SHE, as a child, was asked to clean the chicken, she went and put it in the sink and used dish soap and a sponge….maybe she thought that type of thinking was genetic…) and I learned “home ec” from one class in junior high.

    But even with all this non-housewife background, I am now completely interested in the homesteading/DIY lifestyle. Taken up canning, making my own bread, gardening and other housewife/homemaking arts.

    This post was a good to remind us of where we started. Best lessons from this post:

    1. Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader?

    2. I just want to remind you to consider your training, or lack of it, and give yourself a break.

    Oh and yes, it is very true, homemaking isn’t a skill that is taught anymore….yet, the results are still “required” or demanded by society, yes? A great blog about training our children is Raising Homemakers:

    – ellen

  10. Yeah, you know, I had never thought of it like that. It’s okay that I’m crap at so much of this stuff. You and a few other dear bloggers are my surrogate Mum/Grannie/whatever. I do feel like I’m at your knee, and it’s nice. Thanks.

  11. I am finding hard to trust that I have got it right with my kids. My eldest is just starting to be more independent in the world and I see all these distracting things that look so bright and sparkly and I worry he will forget our family values. I don’t really have the confidence to trust that I have got it right. He will view the world in his own way but build his own world through what he wants and not be influenced by consumerism.
    I am still trying to build a vocabulary for what I am trying to say so if it does not make sense then just ignore!

    1. I think I know what you mean. But whether you did it “right” or not, life is just full of hard stuff. Hard choices, hard times. They will meet all kinds of challenges, and succeed or fail in our eyes, and in their own eyes. Life’s a big jumble of somethings.
      I do believe we have the biggest single influence over our kids, but that doesn’t mean we can (or should!) shape them to our image and value system. Who’s to say we have anything right, anyway?

  12. Holy shit! (Can I say that here? Surely yes but my autocorrect seems tirelessly trying to convince me that I meant to say ‘whit’. Not so, my friend, not so.) So again HOLY SHIT! Your blog is amazing. I just found you via Renegade Mothering. I want to be you when I grow up. I’m 25 with a 5 year old and a 4 month old and a dream. To be this, you, this bulk-buying, preserving, housewifery-in-yo-face-ing, produce expert who says things like, “hold over your chicken bucket and squeeze,” when talkin’ tomatoes. And bread? Ahhh the glorious, glorious bread. (I’m in a bread phase, clearly.) But seriously I. VALUE. THIS. Value so much, in fact, that I can hardly contain myself. I have no skills short of a killer lemon bar recipe that I know by heart and knowing how to use vinegar to clean (some stuff), but damn I value this and want these skills that I was never taught. I’m nearly in tears over how freaking much you get what I’ve been trying to say to….everyone….and the fact that I have an amazing resource now. I’m here for good. I’m making that evangelical bread TODAY. Not now, it’s 4am. Thank you thank you thank you. For the go-to place of my dreams, but mostly for allowing me to be ok with not automatically knowing this stuff, no matter how much I wish I did. Thanks for treating it like a skill worthy of learning. I’m gonna housewife my effing little heart out.

    1. Welcome new friend! Oh yes, you are in good company here. Funny, I was just ranting to a friend about how that fucking autocorrect always tries to rob me of my beloved curse words. Fuck you iPhone! I DID mean that!
      I don’t do that much how-to here. Well, some I guess. But there’s better how to blogs, like Ericas Northwest Edible Life (sorry, can’t link from my phone, but a search will get you to her post-haste) and… And… Hmmm, maybe there’s not very many how-to blogs out there. Check out my Good Reads page for lots of great books though.
      Feel free to email me your life story. I love knowing something about my readers. scarletfevir at yahoo.

  13. I found your blog after half-jokingly searching for “Master of Housewifery”. I am a medical doctor who dreams of being a housewife one day. I’m also Roman Catholic and had always assumed that aspirations of housewifery were limited to women of religious or ethnic backgrounds. It is a great encouragement to see that the truth of what it means to be a woman, which we know in our hearts, cannot be squashed by a society who thinks we should be different.

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