The Domestic Arts

Several months ago, Salon published an article by an atheist woman obsessed with reading Mormon mommy blogs. This article got a lot of attention but seemed to strike a chord with many Mormon women I know. My facebook page was overrun with links to this particular article with friends commenting that although the author didn’t know it, it was really the truthfulness of the gospel that attracted her to these blogs. I personally found the article patronizing and infuriating in its reduction of Mormon women to one particular genre but at the same time, oddly validating. You see, I’m a little obsessed with Mormon housewife blogs myself.

I’ve analyzed this particular obsession of mine and arrived at the conclusion that I am attracted to the image of control that these women present to the world. They have the perfect family, home, clothes; they seemingly live a life full of simplicity and beauty that is intoxicating.  I can’t help but compare my hectic and chaotic existence with those pictures of domestic tranquility. Whether that is what’s really going on behind the scenes is beside the point, their lives look more beautiful than mine.

What’s remarkable to me is that the popularity of these blogs could be considered a feminist victory. Twenty years ago the lives of housewives was seen as unimportant, just silly women leading silly, unimportant lives. Ursula Le Guin addressed this in her 1986 commencment speech given at Bryn Mawr:

In our culture [homemaking] is not considered an art, it is not even considered work…People who make order where people live are by doing so stigmatized as unfit for “higher” pursuits; so women mostly do it…That our society devalues it is evidence of the barbarity, the aesthetic and ethical bankruptcy, of our society.

As housekeeping is an art, so is cooking and all it involves–it involves, after all, agriculture, hunting, herding…So is the making of clothing and all it involves…And so on; you see how I want to revalue the world “art” so that when I come back as I do now to talking about words it is in the context of the great arts of living, of the woman carrying the basket of bread, bearing gifts, goods. Art not as some ejaculative act of ego but as a way, a skillful and powerful way of being in the world.

I think it is a fair to say that many of the Mormon housewife blogs have figured out a skillful and powerful way of being in the world. These Mormon women have turned homemaking into an art that is appreciated by thousands.

Of course, Mormon mommy bloggers aren’t the only ones who have figured this out. Indeed, some have taken the cult of domesticity to new levels by assigning deeper, more progressive meaning to their domestic arts. Nigella Lawson stirred up a whole lot of controversy when she declared that her book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, was really “an important feminist tract.” And the whole Radical Homemakers movement is dedicated to the idea that child-rearing and homemaking is a subversive, political act.

Part of me really wants to believe this. I want to believe that the birthday cakes I bake from scratch or the booties I crochet for my baby somehow make the world a kinder, more beautiful place. I know that utilizing my creativity to contribute to my home, whether it be by blogging, crocheting, decorating or baking, makes me feel better about being at home. But in the end, I am left wondering if this glorification of domesticity isn’t just another way for those of us with the time and resources to engage in the domestic arts to rationalize our privilege?

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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25 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    I use to have this conversation with myself all the time especially when I was working as a nanny and my employers would ask me,” What did I do all day?” It would really infuriate me. ” What the hell do you mean what did I do all day? Can’ you see your kid is happy, well adjusted and runs to either of us when he needs comfort.” And then I realize it was because I didn’t have a clear cut work product that I could hand in to my boss to make them understand what was exactly that I did do
    So, I don’t look at it as glorification per se, I look at it as a skill set that some of us are better at than others. Just like some women/men are better at their jobs and have certain skill sets that make them more valuable. For instance, I have a friend who is a lawyer, however she has a specialty because she does Nuclear Regulatory work. Its’ something that I don’t even pretend to understand, but, I appreciate. Much like a pediatric doctor who specializes in pediatric ophthalmology.

  2. Beatrice says:

    I have been reading “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” by Gail Collins. One thing that she talks about is that after the industrial revolution, children were not at home as much as they used to be as they entered school and modern inventions made housework a lot easier. Thus, housework was no longer backbreaking work that took all of your waking hours to do.

    Women and children in the home used to do work that the very survival of the family depended upon. I think one of the key differences today is that the modern domestic arts are an expression of creativity instead of an issue of survival. So, yes, I do think that women who have time for extensive photo taking and blogging do have a position of privilege. However, if they are happy and their kids are happy, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    This is a real point of contention in my soul.

    I know, from having worked in the financial industry, that a wife’s life insurance needs to encompass all the tasks you could reasonably hire out ( cook, housekeeper, nanny, chauffeur, etc.) and what you would expect to pay for those services per year times how many years your youngest has yet until s/he leaves the home and then double or triple that amount. The wife’s life insurance policy is always far larger than the husband’s, as the wage earner. So at least financial planners can tack a value on that (or at least, they make an attempt).

    However, I’m extremely driven by money. I have to have some tangible evidence that I actually worked, because my memory skates from one done task to the next and never gives the finished one a second thought. (This is especially problematic if I enjoyed the task.) Add on to that tasks that must be re-done several times a day, every day, or even once a month, and it becomes soul-destroying (for me). I can’t even barter effectively because I need to see the product of my labor (but that “seeing” fades with time and I can’t remember the value of what I have) and I hate watching it go down the hatch (i.e., food).

    So to me, my only emotional reward for my work that I can hold on to is watching my bank balance go up. That represents security. It represents being able to have the little pleasures that lubricate one’s passage through mortality. It represents one less thing I have to stuff in my brain to worry over. It means time to devote to my daydreaming (aka writing) and other creative things I want to do. It means pretty things around me to look at because I love pretty things. It means freedom.

    In essence, I’m buying my independence. I need to know that my work is contributing to my independence.

    It’s probably a character flaw, but it’s a deep-seated need borne of much money frustration in my childhood when I pretty much wasn’t allowed any money at all.

    No money, no freedom.

  4. Janna says:

    So much to say! What troubles me is the presumption that full-time working women do not engage in the art of homemaking. Moreover, particularly, single, childless women are rarely associated with homemaking, even though many of us, including myself, do so every day. I make beds, clean my bathroom, decorate, make cookies, etc. I don’t have children or a husband, but I enjoy the fruits of these labors. My home is a refuge and is so because I “home make”! I love doing it and joke that my homemaking skills are my dirty little secret.

    My problem with using Nigella Lawson, whom I adore, as an example of radical homemaking is that she is a business woman. She supports herself financially; stay-at-home mothers do not. Yes, she cooks and bakes, but she also has a paying job. I understand that stay-at-home mothers can artfully manage the budget in creative and beautiful ways, but they are not producers of cash. So, I disagree that Nigella is an example – at all – of a radical homemaker, even if she insists she is. She is an example of someone who homemakes and works – just like me.

  5. When I was a SAHM, it annoyed me that the only excuse ward members would accept for saying no to a church project was if the scheduling conflicted with a paid job outside the home.

    Spending time with my family was not considered a legitimate reason to turn down the opportunity to decorate for RS luncheons, substitute in a Primary class, provide transportation to Church meetings, sew stockings for the ward Christmas party or anything else involving the “ward family.”

    If Mommy blogs give dignity to caring for your own family, more power to them.

  6. MJK says:

    Course correction – I love you. Of course we have Family Home Evening! It’s important to squeeze in that ONE night a week when you’re mandated to spend time with the family since the rest of the week is full of obligations that take you away from it! Wait, what do you mean you want to skip Enrichment to do something fun with your family?

  7. z says:

    Great post. Tracy at Dandelion Mama has some good ones on this topic as well.

    http://dandelionmama.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/shifting-tides-shifting-seasons/

    I admit I love the pretty, fun mommy blogs too, and admire the photography or cooking or design whatever skills– those are real skills– but blogging ain’t homemaking, and I think the points you make about privilege are right on. Of course people are entitled to a frivolous hobby or two, but I can’t really get on board with the claims that it accomplishes much for feminism. It seems very narrowly-focused, like making everything cutie cute cute for your upper-middle-class family is the #1 priority. Should it be? Is that feminism? I don’t think so.

    Here are the homemakers I admire most. Stretching financial and emotional resources over that many kids, figuring out the systems to make it work, now that’s homemaking.
    http://www.azcentral.com/news/azliving/articles/2011/05/02/20110502gay-dads-ham-family-12-adopted-kids.html

  8. Caroline says:

    Mraynes, this is a terrific subject, and one I’ve thought a bit about as well. I wrote a post a few months ago that touched on this subject when I brought up the idea that women at home used to be producers — of food, clothes, etc. They were vital to the survival of the family. However, as another commenter mentioned, when machines came into play that lessened domestic labor, these skill sets (knitting, sewing) became largely the hallmark of privilege and homemakers trended toward being consumers, rather than producers.

    I totally sympathize with Moriah Jovan’s comments about money. I too admire and respect women who create order and beauty around them — but at the end of the day, unless they can turn those skills into something marketable, they are in a vulnerable position, IMO. So I hope that while these women specialize in fabulous homemaking, they are also keeping their resumes up to date, taking classes, and preparing themselves to jump into the marketplace and support their families if the need arises.

  9. Emily U says:

    I find the idea that home making could be subversive and progressive intriguing, but haven’t quite convinced myself about it. I think it has the potential to be those things but certainly is not inherently so.

    The Salon.com article made me think of a talk Elder Uchtdorf gave where he said “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.” And that it is good to “take the normal opportunities of … daily life and create something of beauty and helpfulness.” I think the Mormon housewife bloggers are doing that in their way. Yes, they are doing it from a position of privilege, but the fact that some people are privileged relative to others isn’t something we can make go away. The important thing is to be grateful for one’s resources and make conscious, regular efforts to share them.

    Incidentally, when the Salon article came out, I blogged about it here:
    http://www.patheos.com/community/mormonportal/2011/02/04/why-are-mormon-homemakers-so-creative/

  10. Naismith says:

    Part of the joy and problem with homemaking is that we each get to define what it is and what we should be doing with out time. That makes it very hard to compare our situations or make generalizations.

    I never felt the least bit “privileged” as a homemaker, and I resent when people imply that I am somehow a lady of leisure. I pulled my weight. Sure, I didn’t bring in money per se, but I kept money from bleeding out the door, bigtime. I never did stay in my pajamas all day, except when I was sick during pregnancy, which was my job at that point. I did a lot of canning, sewing, home repair and renovation projects (painting with a baby in the backpack). Yes, my family couldn’t manage without the income my husband brought in, but he couldn’t do his job without me handling the home front. So we are equals in that way.

    I agree that I also need to see some tangible proof of my efforts. Yesterday, I was at the grocery store and noticed that boneless pork chops were going for $5 a pound. I carve up my own port loins for $1.79 a pound. So the difference between the two is tangible proof. As is produce from the garden, investments that I selected, and so on.

    But of course doing what is best for your particular family at a given point in time are going to change over the seasons of our lives, tilting towards being at home when children are little due to the cost of high quality daycare. And then shifting to favor paid work and retirement savings when children are older and those concerns become more pressing.

    Having an income “of my own” is a non-issue, because all our finances are shared.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Having an income “of my own” is a non-issue, because all our finances are shared.

      All of ours are shared, too. Not making actual money makes me feel like I’m asking for money from my husband, and that, again, hearkens back to my childhood when I was restricted from money (even money I earned) and keeping me trapped. If I make my own money, I don’t have to justify what I spend.

      One time I thought I’d get into extreme couponing. I admit, it was a serious thrill to get a basketload of stuff we needed for 85c (Saved something like $40.) But the hourly on that $40 was abominable. I’m sure that, like any job or skill, you’d get faster and more savvy at it, upping the ROI, but I wasn’t interested enough to see how high I could get it.

      • Naismith says:

        “If I make my own money, I don’t have to justify what I spend.”

        Seriously? I think this is such a destructive attitude that could lead to bankruptcy in a heartbeat.

        And in saying that, I am not rationalizing spending money that my husband earned. I have had a cash-earning job for most of our marriage and could easily support myself financially if he was no longer here.

        But it is all still our money, and I wouldn’t think of making any purchase over $80 or so without checking with my husband. And he wouldn’t do so without checking with me.

        “Not making actual money makes me feel like I’m asking for money from my husband, and that, again, hearkens back to my childhood when I was restricted from money (even money I earned) and keeping me trapped.”

        I can understand that pain when you explain it so clearly. But in a marriage, it shouldn’t be “asking for money,” it should be a joint decision of equal partners. My husband’s job affords the opportunity for bonus pay, and when he gets one, he turns to me and says, “So how do you want to spend your half?”

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        When I say “justify what I spend,” I’m talking about a $3 ebook or two. My husband would look at me like I’m crazy if I asked, but that’s how it is for me. So if I have my own money, I don’t feel compelled to ask, even though he HATES that I would. It makes HIM feel like HE is a controlling ogre, so it’s no better for him.

        If I’m bringing money into the household, it solves my problem AND doesn’t embarrass him.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      “If I make my own money, I don’t have to justify what I spend.”

      Seriously? I think this is such a destructive attitude that could lead to bankruptcy in a heartbeat.

      Now that I think on it, though, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

      • amelia says:

        Moriah, I think Naismith thought you were suggesting that if it’s your own money you can spend it willy nilly without accountability to anyone other than yourself. And that such profligate habits are a direct road to bankruptcy. Do correct me if I’m wrong, Naismith. And let me acknowledge that I am exaggerating the interpretation here for effect; I don’t mean to imply, Naismith, that you were thinking in such dismissive terms. I’m sure you were not.

        I think, however, that what you’re getting at is much more to do with psychology and relationship dynamics than to do with spending habits and wanting the freedom to just spend whatever amount of money with no accountability. Again, correct me if I’m wrong.

        I have to say, as a single woman who controls her own income, I find the $80 dollar upper limit before discussing a purchase a little astonishing. I’d be hard pressed to find a dress for less than that unless it was discounted (and many of my business clothes would have to be *seriously* discounted before they hit the $80 threshold). And if I needed a new suit and shoes and blouse to go with it? I guess the idea that I would have to discuss with my husband providing for my own clothing needs onerous and unnecessary. I’m all for discussing major purchases in theory. I was just a little surprised by that dollar figure.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Amelia, that makes sense and Naismith, if that’s what you mean, then yes, my husband and I do discuss major purchasing decisions together. That’s not at issue.

        I DO have issues about money. Amelia, one thing you said, about your clothes and how much they cost: One of my childhood money issues begin and end with parents who required I spend X on Y necessities without having a CLUE what those Y necessities cost, leaving me in the hole and on the hook for asking for more money and having to account for what I spent–and being reprimanded for profligate spending. They NEVER would see that what they required me to do with my money simply was not possible.

        Add to that my innate entrepreneurial streak and that the one business venture I attempted, I had to sneak around for (imagine having to sneak around to buy yarn–not alcohol, not drugs, not sex–yarn). I had money! For the first time in my life I had money! And then they found out. I had to justify my yarn stash. Goodbye money.

        I was required to work for free. Babysitting jobs–didn’t matter if the family was willing to pay me for them, my father would forbid me to charge. Lawn mowing–didn’t matter how well I did, my father would forbid me to charge. Spending my time on domestic arts without having any money to show for it takes me back to that trapped place, and would simply crush my soul.

        It would be that way even if he were a gazillionaire and I could be a lady who lunches. It would be his work product and I simply a moocher.

        I know that my relationship with work and money and having to depend on my husband for our income (and what I can spend on my necessities, much less wants) is truly effed up. I cope as well as I can.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        It would be that way even if he* were a gazillionaire…

        He, meaning my husband.

      • Naismith says:

        “I think Naismith thought you were suggesting that if it’s your own money you can spend it willy nilly without accountability to anyone other than yourself.”

        Yes, I don’t fully understand the need for one’s “own” money or why the fact that a person’s name is on the paycheck entitles them to spend it without accountability, if they are part of a larger economic unit (family).

        I think it is great that Moriah Jovan knows herself and what she needs, and isn’t pressured into a mode that doesn’t work for her.

        But Shannon Hayes’ RADICAL HOMEMAKER raises some important questions about the validity of the “money=freedom” paradigm. She writes, “For there to be true social egalitarianism, then the work of keeping a home must be valued for its contribution to the welfare of all.” This is exactly why I don’t feel the need to ask my husband’s permission before buying an ebook. Because my work has as much value as his, anything in the bank account is just as much my money as his, and we expect to each spend some small amount of money on such frivolity.

        And the other side of this is that we have to reach consensus about how to spend/invest money, even if it is a small percentage of the salary that I happen to earn. A few years ago, we disagreed about whether to purchase a prepaid college plan for one of the children. I was tempted to just buy it. Since I manage the finances, he would likely never have known, and I justified it by thinking of all the women I know who view their salary as “their money.” But for us and the way we had always done things, it was better to wait until we reached consensus about using our money, and it is proving to be an excellent investment.

        “And that such profligate habits are a direct road to bankruptcy.”

        I am not sure that I would put “direct” there. But it certainly can lead to bankruptcy. A lot of the needy cases that we have worked with at church came about from two-income families who didn’t agree or work together to make the most of their combined incomes. This is why Ben Stein’s financial planning books stress the importance of getting and staying married to the right person.

        “I think, however, that what you’re getting at is much more to do with psychology and relationship dynamics than to do with spending habits and wanting the freedom to just spend whatever amount of money with no accountability.”

        It is getting at relationship dynamics and psychology, which is exactly what is being expressed here. Wanting the “freedom to just spend whatever amount” is a psychological issue.

        “I have to say, as a single woman who controls her own income, I find the $80 dollar upper limit before discussing a purchase a little astonishing. I’d be hard pressed to find a dress for less than that unless it was discounted (and many of my business clothes would have to be *seriously* discounted before they hit the $80 threshold). And if I needed a new suit and shoes and blouse to go with it? I guess the idea that I would have to discuss with my husband providing for my own clothing needs onerous and unnecessary.”

        Of course we are all different, and have different needs. When we first got married 30+ years ago, it was a $5 threshold. It was at $20 for quite a while. Nowadays, we actually don’t have a formalized threshold, but as a practical matter, that’s the limit above which we discuss things. We both need to buy textbooks and software for work, which is usually in the $50 to $80 range, and my shoes and clothes are never more expensive than that. My suits are all Sag Harbor or Liz Baker or Jones New York, mostly purchased at outlets and all machine washable.

        I don’t have to maintain the more upgraded couture that you do. It just shows how we are all different.

      • amelia says:

        It is getting at relationship dynamics and psychology, which is exactly what is being expressed here. Wanting the “freedom to just spend whatever amount” is a psychological issue.

        True. But my point was that Moriah is not talking about the same psychology of spending habits you were. She’s talking about pretty deeply seated psychological and emotional responses to her upbringing. As reasonable as your, Naismith, position is for people without the kinds of responses Moriah is dealing with, it’s really unlikely that it would work in a healthy fashion for someone with Moriah’s background and responses.

        As you point out, each of us is in very different circumstances. I’m glad that for you having only one income or significantly imbalanced incomes works well because both you and your husband understand the economic value of your contribution and have come to an agreement about the communal nature of income earned outside the home. I also think that it’s just as wonderful that Moriah and her husband understand that such a situation wouldn’t work for them and have figured out an alternative. What bothers me (and I’m not saying this is happening here) is when one approach gets freighted with moral superiority, which I think happens far too often in the church with its emphasis on stay-home motherhood.

    • Janna says:

      I don’t think anyone is arguing that being a stay-at-home mother doesn’t require work or is staying at home in her pajamas and eating bon bons. However, if a stay-at-home mother did stay at home all day in her pajamas eating bon bons (let me be clear, this is metaphorical, just trying to convey leisure), she would still have a roof over her head and food to eat. For a single woman who is required to provide financially for herself, she would not. She would lose her home and starve. It’s that simple.

      • Naismith says:

        If this were true, then no married woman would ever be in a homeless shelter. Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way.

        What Janna says seems to make sense, so I was surprised that several of the women interviewed in RADICAL HOMEMAKERS were single, divorced, one widow. But apparently it’s all about making a decision to use some of your time for non-monetary providing.

        My single brother does this by canning quite a bit of venison each fall, and learning to bake bread. Those skills and storage saw him through many bouts of unemployment (he lost jobs when he was activated by the nat’l guard and served year-long tours of duty).

        Certainly the possibilities for two-adult families are more varied and complex than for a single-adult family. But the basic decisions about earning vs. producing are still the same.

  11. Mike H. says:

    At fMh, that1girl is spotlighted, and she mentions getting a PhD making her feel great about herself. Yet; “…I once had a RS sister tell me that getting a PhD (when I was still in school) was making Heavenly Father sad. ”

    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=4855

    I also have 2 “classic” images along these lines:

    http://www.myconfinedspace.com/2009/03/02/dreams-and-goals/

    http://curiousmisskris.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/housework2.jpg

  12. Stella says:

    I rarely cook at home. I don’t sew, but I do order things on etsy! Etsy is the way I’ve made my home look like a homemaker lives here. But I’m single and work 14-18 hours a day.

    However, I would really love someone who would cook and clean for me. I’ve gotten more and more lately just what a great situation that is. I could pursue my dreams, my ambitions, make my money, and I could provide for a spouse and child at home even! I just don’t want to be the one to stay at home all of the time.

    However, I love how much the new thing seems to be equal parenting. This, to me, is the ideal for everyone.

  13. Janna says:

    Naismith – Interesting point about married women being in homeless shelters. However, I am making the comment in reference to women whose husbands have paying jobs. I am not making the comment about women whose husbands have lost jobs, etc. In summary, women who have someone else to pay the bills CAN, in fact, stay home and eat bon bons all day and the the bills will still get paid.

    To your point about your single brother, of course, that makes perfect sense (see my first comment earlier in the thread). Single, childless people homemake AND work for money.

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