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Home Is Where the Revolution Is: Two Fresh Takes on Domesticity

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Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture
Shannon Hayes
Left To Write Press, 2010; $23.95

Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life
Kyran Pittman
Riverhead, 2011; $15.00

I never planned to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband and I always knew we wanted kids, but we weren't particularly realistic about how they would impact our lives. Every now and then, I stumble over an old notebook with our scribbled fantasies about how, for example, Patrick would take our baby to work with him a couple days a week or how I might attend administrative meetings and manage interns while entertaining a toddler. All that was, of course, a pipe dream, especially considering American office culture.

Even so, after our daughter Annabelle was born, we did manage to juggle the duties of dual working parents like so many American families -- until our girl was six months old, and a serious bike accident left me broken and overwhelmed. I sobbed as I gave notice at the literacy nonprofit I had helped to create. Despite my admiration for stay-at-home parents, leaving that job rocked my world and left big cracks in my identity. Before the baby and the accident, I had been known -- to others and to myself -- as "Erin from Open Books." Who was I now? How would I change the world from my apartment? How, in good conscience, could I forgo the needs of the hundreds of children I once taught to focus on my one baby?
Thank god, then, for an unexpected indie book that fell into my lap just when I needed it. Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture helped me rethink my new role as a full-time mother and connect the choices in my home life to the challenges facing the outside world.

Author Shannon Hayes believes homemakers are the key to solving local and global problems. While not quite a parenting manual, Radical Homemakers is an inspiring guide for those of us who take our toddlers to Occupy protests and (or even instead of) ballet classes. Hayes interviewed dozens of men and women of all ages, married and single, parents and not, who endeavor to make the home a unit of production instead of consumption. In cities, small towns, and rural enclaves, they live frugally, grow organic food, barter for childcare, and otherwise prioritize creative living and engaged citizenship along with parenting. Hayes asserts that "most Americans understand the fundamental steps necessary to solve our global crises: reduce driving; consume less; increase our self-reliance; buy locally; eat locally; rebuild our local communities. In essence, the great work we face requires re-kindling the home fires."

Before reading Hayes' book, I was a de facto fan of household outsourcing. I had most of our groceries delivered and considered "making dinner" to be throwing a frozen pizza in the oven and opening some prepackaged salad. I don't regret that. Those habits served their purpose at the time and they still serve many working families a whole lot better than Burger King does. But I have fond childhood memories of home-cooked meals around the family table, and I want my children to grow up with them, too.

Hayes's stories motivated me to examine how my family eats, shops, and connects to our community. We joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization, and I soon found myself stir-frying vegetables I'd never heard of. (A typical Facebook update in 2010 included a photo of me holding something green and asking, "What is this and how do I cook it?") Who knew home life could be so creatively and intellectually challenging, not to mention fun and fulfilling?

Still, I read Radical Homemakers with some skepticism. Surely recycling and watering my back porch tomatoes was not enough to give life meaning, and many parents want to--or must--work outside the home. I was relieved to find that, for Radical Homemakers, home isn't the final frontier. Hayes describes a three-stage trajectory: renouncing, reclaiming, and rebuilding. Radical Homemakers first find themselves becoming disillusioned with consumer culture and the status quo, then work to reclaim and build skills, such as sewing and DIY home maintenance, to enrich their lives with less traditional income. In the third phase, "once we feel sufficiently proficient with our domestic skills, few of us will be content to simply practice them to the end of our days," Hayes writes. "Many of us will strive for more, to bring more beauty to the world, to bring about greater social change, to make life better for our neighbors, to contribute our creative powers to the building of a new, brighter, sustainable and happier future. This is precisely the work we should be tackling."

Whatever the long term goals, Hayes emphasizes that we should shore up our domestic foundation first, and that the reclaiming period may last years. I found this profoundly reassuring, since I had little energy left for revolution after caring for my baby and myself each day. I cut myself some slack for a while, and now, after two years of reclaiming my domestic skills, I've found myself reinvigorated and ready to rebuild my world outside the home -- writing, teaching, and volunteering in a way that fits instead of conflicts with my family life.

Radical Homemakers has an unabashed agenda, and you won't be able to, nor will you want to, implement every idea. (I tried vermicomposting in the basement of my apartment, and everyone -- the worms, my neighbors, my husband and I -- quickly agreed that this was not the best way for me to save the planet.) But even parents who cherish their careers (or their frozen pizzas) should find inspiration for raising kids who "understand their place in healing this world."

Given the downturn in the global economy, Radical Homemakers comes along at the perfect time for everyone to consider how their values are reflected in their domestic life. In the United States, where individuality is held above community, adults are made to feel shame for moving back in with their parents during difficult economic times. Relocating across the country for a "good job" is valued over staying close to loved ones and raising children with the help of an extended family. In addition to its other calls to arms, Radical Homemakers also reframes intergenerational living as a choice that can promote conservation and strengthen relationships.

Multigenerational families may discover that complete financial independence from one another is costly, or perhaps that shared homes, property or resources reduce the costs of housing, elder care, child care or even food and maintenance costs. Young families find that humility enables them to accept help from willing parents without stigma, or vice versa, reducing their duplicative demands on an extractive economy.

I think of Radical Homemakers every time I'm tempted to waste time and oil driving to Home Depot to buy a new ladder or power drill when I could simply borrow one from my in-laws or a neighbor. And the book reinforced my desire to move back to Texas, where my children are now gleefully growing up with the love and support of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Anyone who questions the precepts of consumer culture or wants to model a different path for their children will find constructive ideas in Hayes's book, as well as the critical message that you are not alone.

While Radical Homemakers helped me come to terms with the sudden change in my professional life, like many new parents, I also needed guidance to navigate the changing course of my personal life. (Juggling kids and career is tough, and trying to maintain a social and creative life can be even tougher.) A former bassist and singer in indie bands, I struggled to find the time, interest, or energy for my past nightlife after my daughter was born. Thankfully, a fellow mother's memoir helped me make peace with my shifting interests and priorities.

In Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life, Kyran Pittman tells her three sons, "Mommy's an alien." And she doesn't just mean because she moved from Canada to Arkansas. Pittman is a former wild child who jumped the white picket fence --"not in the way the story usually begins, with the heroine breaking out, busting loose, setting off across the wild world in search of her authentic, enlightened self." Instead Pittman was jumping in, thoroughly surprised to be following the bliss of romantic love into the kitchen and Cub Scout meetings. Her memoir is a reassuring, even life-affirming, read for women like me who have rocked out and then rocked babies.

Pittman likens new motherhood to late-night ramblings made by partygoers on magic mushrooms. "It's pretty much impossible to describe the experience of falling in love with your child without sounding like a dope." So true. Yet I recall zero drug references in What to Expect When You're Expecting. I've also never seen anyone portray a lackadaisical attitude toward housekeeping as perfectly (and sans snark) as Pittman does. She describes changing light bulbs, days after the last one had burned out in the room where her oldest son did his homework.

"Wow," he said, without even a trace of sarcasm, "I wonder why it took so long to change the lights."

"I don't know," Pittman told him. "I don't know why."

It sounds silly, but that scene was like a lightbulb going off over my own head. It helped me kick my limited housekeeping up a notch while simultaneously kicking any shame to the curb. We have a light bulb drawer now for the first time, and I can't count how many bulbs I have promptly changed in recent months. I feel like the love child of Bob Vila and Martha Stewart.

Pittman's book is reassuring to those of us who live the "messy house, interesting life" motto. She doesn't mind the occasional dust bunny, and her book's title, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life, refers to her refreshing take on homemaking: she refuses to see the so-called weeds as anything but charming flowers.

Pittman also tackles the career question, admitting out loud what many of us once thought. "If I had a baby," she writes, "I would take maternity leave and resume my career once that project was launched and running smoothly. But that idea was based on maternity benefits as they existed in Canada, and children as they existed in my mind." Instead she settles into full-time attachment parenting when her boys are young and describes the angst and agony many of us have experienced upon seeing our head-turning attire in the closet next to nursing shirts and (hopefully not) mom jeans.

In the first year after my daughter was born, little brought me down quicker than getting dressed in the morning. Nothing fit and nothing was appropriate, at least nothing I'd want my old friends to see me in, on stage or at work. (Try searching through your drawers, sleep-deprived, on the hunt for an outfit that functions for urban bike-commuting, office work, breast-pumping on the floor of a bathroom, and flinging a bass guitar around on stage. Good luck.)

Pittman's stories, while often hilarious, also ooze empathy for her fellow moms. She knows that accepting the end of -- or at least a temporary break from -- our glam-and-glitter days is not an overnight process. Pittman describes the dress that once haunted her closet. It "is one hundred percent pure vintage polyester. The fabric is flimsy and printed with a psychedelic shooting star motif, in faded rainbow colors. It has long flared sleeves and a halter-style top with a keyhole opening at the bosom. The hemline barely skirts public decency. I always wore it with five-inch stiletto heels."

I'd probably have to contract more than one parasitic disease for some of my miniskirts to fit me again, too. But they're still in my closet, waiting. Thankfully, as Pittman writes, "becoming a mother puts sexiness in perspective. . . . It's not that it doesn't matter, it's that a lot of other things matter more." How liberating to read that in print. Pittman helped me forgive myself for not being on stage at the moment. The music scene will still be there when I'm ready to plug in my bass again.

Planting Dandelions is far more than fashion and frivolity, of course. Pittman tackles a slew of tough topics, including sex after baby, marital infidelity, conflicting emotions over your child's gender and moving your family to avoid home foreclosure, with sensitivity, honesty and the right dose of humor. And she acknowledges a key concept not just of parenting but of life: that we learn the most from our mistakes. She describes her efforts to overcome control issues and let her husband be in charge of the kids without meddling. "The parent being criticized and managed is robbed of the opportunity to figure things out by trial and error, and being a parent is all trial and error." I think of this every time I hear my husband upstairs trying to comfort our daughter as she cries out for me in her sleep. If I can resist the urge to go to her, a few minutes later Annie is sleeping soundly again, Patrick has proudly returned, and I'm still comfy in our bed. Everybody wins.

Thanks to the right mix of message and timing, Planting Dandelions and Radical Homemakers both changed my actions and attitudes for the better. They gave me a new lease on my home life and renewed inspiration to tackle my creative pursuits. What an invaluable gift. These books were just what this mama needed, when I needed them.

Editor's note: Kyran Pittman will be one of the faculty members at this year's Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop.

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Erin J. Walter is a freelance writer and full-time mom who teaches writing workshops for Badgerdog Literary Publishing. A Northwestern University journalism grad, she has been the literacy director of Open Books in Chicago, a public school teacher, and a news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. Her writing has also appeared in the Oregonion, the Morning Call, Bookslut, Drash Pit, Fametracker, Love, Chicago, Chicago6Corners, On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes or Less, and more. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she dreams of fronting a family band with her husband, daughter and son.

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