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Katrina Alcorn's picture

I spent my 20s writing, doing non-profit work, and traveling the world with a dusty backpack. I didn’t care about money. I always had enough to pay my share of the rent and utilities, and a little extra to get a burrito and a beer with my housemates. I was cash-poor and time-rich. I was having adventures. I was pretty happy.

When I turned 30 and had my first child, my relationship to money changed profoundly. I wanted to own a house. I wanted security. In the high-priced Bay Area, that meant quitting journalism and non-profit work, and finding a place for my talents in the corporate world.

I got a job that paid twice as much as I’d ever made before. My husband also left journalism and re-fashioned himself as a consultant. We were making what seemed like a ton of money to us, but it still wasn’t enough. Our new house needed furniture. My job required nicer clothes. Daycare, diapers, and organic baby food were expensive. As we entered a state of chronic busyness, we starting paying for time-saving extras: a housekeeper, an accountant, prepared food, a gardener.

What about the future? Oh no! We’d forgotten to protect ourselves against unknowable catastrophe! We started retirement plans, and college funds for the kids. We bought life insurance.

Then it started to bother us that we were still driving a 12-year old station wagon with stained upholstery. We needed a better car. Then it started to bother us that we lived behind a car wash. Everyone we worked with seemed to live in a nicer neighborhood. We had to catch up!

At some point, of course, I realized I wasn’t happy. I was trapped. I had money, but not time. It was like being surrounded by food, and dying of thirst.

It turns out that there is a way out of this mess. There are people all over this country–both women and men–who have made a conscious decision to value their time more than their money. Against the formidable current of popular culture, they have decided that this may be the only life they will ever have, and they’re going to live it fully.

This is the subject of Shannon Hayes’ new book, Radical Homemakers [1].

I should mention here that I met Hayes once, about a year ago, although I don’t know her well. She lives near my mother’s house in a picturesque part of upstate New York. She’s one of those people who glows with good health. When she stopped by to pick up some eggs from my mom’s chickens, I remember thinking, “How do I get my skin to look like hers?”

Hayes has a PhD from Cornell, but instead of climbing a career ladder, she’s decided to live a modest life writing books (which she self publishes) and helping her family run their farm. She and her husband home-school their two daughters, take an inordinate amount of joy in growing and cooking their own food, travel for extended family vacations every year, and often have time to take naps. The naps alone make me think she’s on to something.

In Radical Homemakers, Hayes neatly summaries the dilemma mothers face in context of the feminist movement:

In the old paradigm, women chose the gilded cage or the glass ceiling. If they chose the gilded cage and stayed home, they became slaves to the marketplace image of the happy (shopping) homemaker. If they opted for the glass ceiling, they entered the workforce, where they became enslaved to their employers, and hoped they could fulfill their family dreams without getting tossed out like a used Kleenex…

She says that she and the people she calls “radical homemakers” are rejecting those choices and instead, investing themselves “in the support of family, community, and environmental stewardship, so that those things, in return, will pay them lifelong dividends.” They are doing this by giving up conventional employment and instead, embracing the domestic arts and a sustainable home life.

Hayes traveled the country with her family interviewing other radical homemakers. The portraits she paints of their lives are truly inspiring. They don’t make a lot of money–on average about $40,000 for a family of four, which is roughly 40% below the national median family income–but they’re better off than many of us in terms of the quality of their food, their time, and their relationships.

What’s radical about these homemakers is how much traditional common sense they employ. By “traditional” I don’t mean they’re trying to go back to the world of the 1950s. If anything, they’re living in something more akin to the 1750s, (where, for instance, men and women both do household chores, neighbors make up a large part of one’s social circle, thrift is highly valued, and many food and services are obtained through barter) while embracing all the benefits of 200 plus years of enlightenment. They’re also asking some very important questions about the assumptions we’ve made as a society:

What’s an economy for? Isn’t it supposed to serve everyone? Are families really served by an economy where employees are overworked, where families do not have time to eat meals together, an economy that relentlessly gnaws at our dwindling ecological resources?

Sustainability. There’s a thought. As someone who depleted her resources trying to do it all, I’m ready for something sustainable. I’m not ready to grow all my own food and I think our local school is doing a better job educating my kids than I would, but I’m in no hurry to jump back into full time employment, either. I’m grateful to the Hayes and her tomato-canning feminists for offering an alternative to the alienation of modern life.

Crossposted from Working Moms Break

[1] Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes, Left to Write Press, 2010.

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