As a housewife and homesteader (small farmer), I have taken it upon myself to learn a great many things over the past 20 years. I’ve learned to milk a cow, make butter, cheese and yogurt, to can food (pressure and water-bath), to cook from scratch, to garden and endless other domestic skills that, in today’s modern society, seem like a complete and utter waste of time. Why bother learning all this stuff when everything is so readily available in the grocery store?
My husband has learned many skills as well. He can wire, plumb and do carpentry. He can build fences, gates, sheds, coops, stalls and awnings. He can fix nearly anything, cobble together what can’t be fixed and come up with innovative solutions to the unfixable. His creative problem-solving skills are (in my opinion) unparalleled.
Together we’ve learned to run multiple home businesses, raise and homeschool children and run a small farm.
Collectively, these domestic skills have allowed us to get by on relatively little money and, not incidentally, to live our lives pretty much however we please.
The driving force behind these efforts is a desire for independence and self-sufficiency. It also reinforces our aspiration to be a home-based family. To this end we had to come with all sorts of creative ways to earn money … and, just as critically, to not spend money whenever possible. This frugality has allowed us to stay afloat during hard times.
I recently picked up a book called “Radical Homemakers” by Shannon Hayes. Written from a feminist standpoint, I was curious how a perspective that has spent much of its history scorning homemakers would address the issue of domesticity.
To my surprise, the book is sensible and practical despite its feminist leanings. It supports my thesis that a frugal lifestyle leads to light-on-the-feet adaptability in a harsh economy. The author was raised on a farm and grew up with domestic skills, and after their marriage she and her husband wrestled with the issue of whether they should stay on the farm or move away.
“Money becomes a marginal chit when a family can cultivate self-reliance and community interdependence,” writes Hayes. “Bob and I did the math. We could move away [from the farm], take on dual careers, get a new house, own two cars to get to work. By the time we subtracted out what we’d pay for commuting, a new house, professional wardrobes, takes, and buying rather than growing our food, we were only $10,000 ahead in annual income than where we would be if we stayed home and put our hearts and minds to work on our grassy hillsides.”
In other words, Ms. Hayes puts into writing what so many homemakers have already confirmed: that managing a home, far from being the oppressive and burdensome vocation that feminism has depicted, in fact takes intelligence and creativity. Additionally, successful homemaking involves the skills of both men and women.
What this book admits without shame that the key to success “wasn’t necessarily how much money we made, but how much money we didn’t have to spend.”
The trouble with this plan is too many people (of both genders) have lost the skills necessary to live a frugal life. Making a cake from “scratch” has come to mean opening a boxed mix rather than creating something from basic ingredients. “Do it yourself” carpentry means buying pre-drilled kits at box stores rather than cutting and sanding your own wood and constructing your own project.
In short, the “radical homemakers” discussed in this book are not held hostage to the adage that “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Rather, they’ve discovered that “he who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules.” In order to bring back a frugal lifestyle, people must learn the skills that were once widespread. A dearth of domestic skills leads to dependency and less adaptability, but proficiency in these arts allows an amazing amount of independence, even in a harsh economy.
Homemaking embraces both male and female strengths. It’s not a world limited to women. It’s well-documented that few women know how to sew, mend, preserve food, or cook from scratch. But men have lost many skills as well – how to chop wood or butcher a steer or plow a garden or wire a lamp or plumb a sink. Men with “handy” skills are necessary on the journey toward frugality.
Perhaps just as important, the recapturing of domestic skills also allows the recapturing of domestic tranquility. Too many people have houses; not enough people have homes. For home-centered people, there is no place they would rather be. They will look for any and all opportunities to work from home, to play at home, to teach at home, to live at home. A home-centered life creates balanced children who view parental presence as normal (since they’re not spending long meaningless hours at day care, school and after-school activities) and life as calm instead of the hamster wheel of rushed commutes and stressed hasty pre-packaged meals. I know from experience that my most stressful days are the ones in which I must run errands in the city. I far prefer the calmer days in which I can go about my duties, both money-earning and otherwise, at home.
Needless to say, frugality and domestic skills are not limited to rural environments. They can be practiced anywhere. We have some dear friends in a large (and expensive) city whose unconventional careers (she’s a writer, he’s a theatre actor) are only achievable because they are thrifty, creative and home-centered. Frugality and domestic skills allow people to float, buoyant and light, on the rough waves of a tough economy, while many others are desperately struggling to keep their heads above the water.
This implies a mental strength as well. Take it from me, it takes a strong personality to put aside the doubts, concerns and even scoffs of friends and family for bypassing a conventional nine-to-five regular-paycheck lifestyle. In short, domestic families are strong families, able to march to their own drummer and pursue their own private interests.
It’s gratifying to see even the feminists finally come to this realization that domestic skills are valuable. One of the “radical homemakers” interviewed in the book said, “I know I’m not going to starve. … I can be more self-sufficient. And what’s more liberating than being self-sufficient?” Perhaps folks are waking up to the fact that saving the planet doesn’t come from buying “green” products, but rather for doing things for one’s self.
It’s time to relearn and re-capture the skills our parents and grandparents had. In these faltering economic times, you never know when you’ll be called upon to bake your own bread or fix your own car.