Reviews of Homeward Bound

“3.5 out of 4 stars” - People Magazine                                                               “The brilliance of Emily Matchar’s new book is that it exhaustively describes what disillusioned workers are opting into: a slower, more sustainable, and more self-sufficient lifestyle that’s focused on the home. Matchar synthesizes dozens of trend stories … into a single, compelling narrative about the resurgence of domesticity….Refreshing.” -The New Republic                                                       "[P]rovocatively explores what the movement says about the role of women in society today.” – The New Yorker                                                                       "I unreservedly loved it…It’s empathetic and funny and thoughtful and smart, and I encourage all of you to read it."– The Hairpin                                                         “Cogently argues that choosing a more hands-on, DIY lifestyle – family farming, canning, crafting, can, without sacrificing feminism’s hard-won gains, improve on an earlier time when ‘people lived more lightly on the earth and relied less on corporations, and family and community came first.’” - ELLE                                                               “[I]ntelligent and insightful...essential reading.” - Christianity Today                                                       “A lively and perceptive reporter… a valuable and astute assessment.”—Publishers Weekly                                                         “A well-researched look at the resurgence of home life…. Offers intriguing insight into the renaissance of old-fashioned home traditions.”— Kirkus Reviews

What is New Domesticity?

This blog is a look at the social movement I call ‘New Domesticity’ – the fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising, etc. Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off? Why has the image of the blissfully domestic supermom overtaken the Sex & the City-style single urban careerist as the media’s feminine ideal? Where does this movement come from? What does it mean for women? For families? For society?                                                                                     My book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, which explores New Domesticity in greater depth, will be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013.

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Why don’t women ask for help around the house?

Hong Kong domestic helper ad

Over at The Atlantic, Alexis Coe takes a look at why high-earning working women don’t get much help with housework, even though they can afford it/should presumably be empowered to ask for it:

People assume that women who earn high wages outsource a good deal of domestic responsibilities, but Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald found this “buying-out hypothesis” to be overblown, particularly when it came to housework.if they can afford it, why aren’t these women outsourcing housework so that they have an organized, sparkling home that creates more leisure time?

Gender norms and perceived societal expectations of wives and mothers may play a role…Housework has a performative quality to it, and conforming to traditional gender norms may produce social and psychological rewards. This is true for Killewald, who said while she and her husband often cook meals together, when her mother-in-law is expected for dinner, she not only cooks the meal, but urges her husband to make it clear that she was the chef. “That’s important to me because I’m showing [my mother-in-law] that I’m a good wife,” she said. “Those expectations don’t fall on fathers and men.”

The article goes on to add that women are loathe to “delegate” housework to their male partners or children, probably for the same reasons outlined above – housework is seen as nurturing, women are socially programmed to have higher expectations for cleanliness than men (though not always, obv – my husband is much neater than I am), women are suspicious of pre-prepared or packaged food options, etc.

But back to the question of why women who can afford it don’t hire paid household help. We’ve discussed before on this blog the tension around the idea of whether it’s OK to hire a maid in the first place. A lot of people were inherently uncomfortable with the idea of giving other people your “shit work,” while I argued that, as long as someone is being paid a decent wage, housework is no worse than any other kind of job.

This tension does not seem to exist equally in all cultures. I’m in Hong Kong now, where many middle-class people have full-time, live-in hired help. Adults – men and women alike – work extremely long hours, and immigrant “helpers” from Indonesia or the Philippines make domestic help affordable. Perhaps because apartments are so small here, or because cheap restaurants and street food stalls make eating out much more common, people seem to feel less a sense of “house pride” and feel less of a moral obligation to cook from scratch. Having a live-in helper is a status symbol – rather than projecting “I’m a bad mother/housekeeper/woman” (as American women fear it does), it seems to say “I’m wealthy enough to afford help.”

That said, the relationship between Hong Kong women and their helpers is not tension-free, as illustrated by this super-creepy milk ad. Basically, the pretty, pale-skinned Hong Kong woman is jealous of her son’s attachment to his darker skinned nanny, and bribes him with milk to love her better.

How many of you have domestic help? What kind? And how many of you would “outsource” work if they could afford it? What would you outsource?


10 comments to Why don’t women ask for help around the house?

  • Hannah Nanna

    I would outsource cleaning work in a heartbeart, half a heartbeat, if I could afford it. And I wouldn’t feel the slightest pang of guilt for a moment. Instead, I would climb on my roof and sing. And I would pay a great wage and kiss his/her toes and put him/her in my xmass cards and name my first child after him/her.

  • I can’t speak for other women, but I don’t ask anybody to help me in the kitchen is because I’m a control freak. I have the Type A personality, and I like things done in very, very specific ways. Basically, it stresses ME out to have someone else do my assigned house works for me; I’d be so stressed out that I’d watch them the entire time, only to bark out, “You’re doing it wrong! What’s wrong with you?” and then hurt their feelings unnecessarily.

    See what I mean?

    I could change my behavior, of course. I could “learn to let go” and let other people make their mistakes, but I really don’t want them to make their mistakes in MY kitchen.

    There are certain things that I absolutely refuse to do, though. These involve raking, taking out the garbage/recyclables, sweeping, and carpet-cleaning.

    • Emily

      I totally get that! I like to vacuum in a certain way, and my husband does it “wrong.” Fortunately he does other things, like the dishes and laundry, which I have no opinion about (though he does!), so neither of us can control freak our way into doing all the work.

  • Nicole

    I responded to this debate in a previous post, but it’s a topic that is very relevant. Here in South Africa having a domestic helper is very common. As a working mom, I don’t know how I would survive without the lady who comes once a week to clean and iron. Most of my colleagues and friends have a helper too and pay a decent wage for their service.

    Sometimes I do feel lazy for not doing more myself, but then with unemployment rates and poverty so high here I also think that, if you can afford it, providing a job is a good thing. I’ve even invented other jobs around the house for some other ladies I have contact with who are looking for work. A bit crazy (or lazy), I know.

    • Emily

      That’s really interesting, Nicole. I have friends who live in countries (like Cambodia, for example) where it’s expected that expatriates will hire help because it boosts the local economy. I had a friend who hired people for fairly unnecessary positions (like a driver) because not doing so was considered really selfish. Certainly not the perspective we have in the United States! And here in Hong Kong, the domestic helpers all come from overseas (Indonesia and the Philippines) specifically to work in domestic service, which makes it a different – and even more confusing – situation all together.

  • Lauren Ard

    I am definitely not “loathe to delegate” housework to my kids! I feel strongly that one of the most important things I can teach them is how to be a responsible member of a community (starting with the family community). So, no pride lost there.

    As for “outsourcing” housework – I’m doing it for the first time next month! It’s a one-time deal – getting some folks to come help clean the apartment right after we moved into our new home. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t offered as a cheap Groupon – but this gives me the opportunity to possibly get some of my rental deposit back. Even with the great Groupon deal I was still reticent to hire help, though! I feel like somehow I’m copping out on my “job” by asking someone else to do the stuff I usually do. It’s an uneasy feeling, that’s for sure!

  • This is an interesting questions. I do not enjoy housework and I’m not good at it. I probably can’t afford to outsource, but I do it anyway. Every two weeks, my cleaners help to restore a little bit of order to my otherwise chaotic house. And it’s worth it.

    I feel guilty about it – not because I feel like I should be more nurturing or be a better homemaker – but because I feel like outsourcing is an extravagance. I was raised in a frugal household and there’s always a nagging question: why would you pay somebody good money to do something you can do yourself? (It was years before I admitted to my parents that my house is cleaned by professionals. In fact, they found out only after I had kids, when it seemed a little more justifiable.)

    I’m getting over it though. I have become more comfortable with the idea that housework is not one of my strong points, so I might as well delegate it and spend my time doing something that I am good at. My husband and I have come around to the same thinking regarding home repairs and some kinds of yard work (though I have not admitted that to my father).

  • Growing up with a stay at home mom coupled with a strong sense of American independence, I was led to believe that taking care of the house is a source of pride for the mother of the house. My parents’ mentality was “why pay someone else to do something I can do myself?”

    Years later, while living in Kenya where almost anyone lower-middle class and up had hired help to clean and cook, I began to view this very differently. The Kenyans I talked to viewed hiring people to help around the house as a way to help out less fortunate individuals who may not otherwise have a job. Hiring others ensure they get a good wage, [in the case of live-in helpers] a good roof, and often good meals. It’s a mutually beneficial situation.

    Right now, I can’t afford to pay someone to come in and clean the house – but the second I can, I certainly will!

  • Amber Sauer

    I can afford a helper, but I don’t get one. Mainly, because I want to teach my kids some important values (self-sufficiency, how to do things right, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to) and housework is my prefered vehicle for that message.

    Also, to the point of paying someone to do my “shit work”- I don’t feel that argument holds water. Just about everyone pays people to do shit work. Do you eat meat? Did you slaughter that cow? Do pay city workers to take your trash away so you don’t have to deal with it? We pay people everyday to do the unpleasant things that we don’t want to do. I think that having someone doing it in your house just holds the issue closer to our faces.