Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

What is householding?

Making the choice to stay home

By
March 12, 2009

Editor’s note: Read about Harriet Fasenfest in a recent Oregonian feature. Also, check out her Culinate member page for her Portland-only food-resource recommendations.

It’s funny, the way I get so cerebral about homemaking. You’d think that, after talking to my mom and her friends — now in their 80s — I’d be more down-to-earth about it all. Certainly that’d be the case when I heard what a chore it was and how happy they were when they could finally stop cooking, cleaning, and raising kids (not all did, to be sure, but enough did). Right?

Having been raised in an era of über-options for women, I might never have looked back, never considered homemaking a thing to be valued. Or, at the very least, I would understand the socio-political consequences of relegating any one gender to a life without many translatable career skills. It’s risky, to be sure.

I mean, how many women found themselves on the short end of the stick after their husbands took off for greener pastures? Or even if they didn’t leave (and many wished they did), how many women found the daily chores of homemaking brain-numbing to the extreme?

Certainly we know the stories of lonely and frustrated suburban women downing cocktails and Valium in their meager stabs at freedom.

Someone needs to bake the cookies.

So why do I keep revisiting this thing called “homemaking” (or, more rightfully, “householding”) in my head? Well, because I believe we threw the baby out with the bath water.

I believe there is much to be found in a life of home stewardship, but to find it, we will have to challenge many of our assumptions and stereotypes. We will have to question our notions of success and how they have been dialed into an otherwise unexamined economic doctrine.

But mostly, I make the case because I am a woman with enough chutzpah to do so. Without a doubt, if this movement gets any traction there will be legions of naysayers to challenge “the right of return” I am calling for. But I am not afraid. I’m butch, and I bake cookies.

I’m a mother and wife, but not because I’m afraid to be otherwise. I am making a case for revisionist gender politics as it relates to homemaking. Some are good at it and some are not, and it has nothing to do with what’s under your skirt (as it were).

Now that I’ve made that clear, I want to connect the dots, or revise the dots:

  1. Householding is not a gender-specific act
  2. Householding seeks to revise small-scale systems of home economics
  3. Householding eschews fast food, fancy packaging, and marketing hype
  4. Householding requires a connection with natural systems
  5. Householding sees value in the domestic
  6. Householding eschews “economies of scale” as maligned systems
  7. Householding seeks a healthy environment, family, and community as a barometer of its success
  8. Householding refuses the commodification of everyday skills
  9. Householding is something I’m trying to understand.

In essence, I am making a call for a return to the home as a political act, an economic stance, and a spiritual movement. I am making a call for a return because we need one. I am making a call because the more creative minds we put to the task, the better the solutions. I am making a call for a return because someone needs to be home when all the “important” work out there is done. Someone needs to meet our children at the door and listen to their stories. Someone needs to create the quiet, safe, and unhurried spaces of our inner lives.

Who shall it be now?

Let me be honest: Sometimes the effort is brain-numbing, but other times (most of the time) it’s infused with the renewed logic of home stewardship and sustainable economics. Certainly our current economic crisis has shown us just how fragile/corrupt the mainstream system is, but we did not need the crash to see it. Not if we wanted to think through it.

These days, when I go to the grocery store I look at products with new eyes. From an anthropological perspective it amazes me to see how effectively they (whoever they are) have turned everything I can do for myself into something they will do for me — for a price.

But what is the price? What has been the price of jobbing out our lives? What has been made of the environment? What has been made of our families? What has been made of our spirits, our economy, and our souls? Those are rhetorical questions, because most of you know the answers.

Certainly some have found themselves returning home for reasons outside their control and are struggling. Others (and their numbers are growing) are making a conscious choice to do so. Whatever the reason, I believe a great opportunity for transformation is upon us.

Creating new economies, home economies, economies based on reasoned and prudent systems of supply, demand, production, and consumption, will take a hands-on, homemade revolution. It will take a stepping-down from the mainstream marketing matrix. It will require a re-evaluation of wants and needs. In the end, it might well require a radical new legion of butch cookie makers to challenge the dominant economic paradigm.

Oh yeah, now that’s what I’m talking about.

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1. by joanmenefee on Mar 12, 2009 at 11:50 AM PDT

“Butch cookie makers”! Brilliant! I think I am one of those and thank you for giving me such an excellent name.

2. by Fasenfest on Mar 12, 2009 at 1:43 PM PDT

Groovy Baby. What the hey....might as well take on the effort with a little bit of attitude.

H

3. by cafemama on Mar 12, 2009 at 3:33 PM PDT

I love the idea of resisting the commodification of everyday tasks. I hate thinking of the time/work tradeoff (“if I pay myself the hourly rate I could make as an MBA, then these canned tomatoes are worth $100 a jar!”) because it’s entirely unhelpful and doesn’t appropriately value the non-monetary benefits of my time; not just the canned tomatoes for winter pasta dishes, but the health of my family, the joy of a full pantry, the fact that I’m spending time in a kitchen with children at my feet, and not in an air-conditioned office eating lunch out of the vending machine and getting carpal tunnel while I churn out spreadsheets on how Dow Chemical can maximize its profit.

as usual, I re-read your post and it says a lot of the things I’m saying through a slightly different lens :) loved the write-up in the Oregonian! I could almost hear you talking as I read.

4. by Patrice on Mar 12, 2009 at 8:48 PM PDT

Greetings from Tacoma, WA. Wonderful blog entry! A few months ago I read an article in Orion magazine that starts with this sentence: LONG AGO the poet and bioregionalist Gary Snyder said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” I think you make a good case for what he was talking about back in the 1970s. Check out the article here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/3628/

Thanks for a thoughtful and well written piece.

5. by Amy McCann on Mar 12, 2009 at 10:28 PM PDT

Harriet - Thank you for putting words around my thoughts and ideas. I resigned from an intense executive position in a software company a year ago thinking I just need a little time to relax and “reprioritize”. Along the way, I discovered many new things - that my idea of what a career looks like was very limited, that we can live on a lot less than I thought, and that I’m not bored at home (even without kids). I am grateful for being blessed enough to be able to make this choice. Unfortunately our society is not setup to allow a majority of our families to make this type of choice. I am hopeful that the changes we are in the midst of will realign our cultural priorities so that we can all make choices like this.

6. by Fasenfest on Mar 13, 2009 at 8:21 AM PDT

Dear Friends,

I am humbled by the response. Sometimes you send these things out without knowing how it will land so thank you. Patrice, I look forward to reading the article. Amy, I absolutely believe kids are not the criteria for coming home and CafeM - It was lovely seeing you last night even across a crowded table.
As for a well written piece - you (and I) can thank my editor for that.

7. by Kathryn H on Mar 13, 2009 at 3:59 PM PDT

Harriet, once again you have expressed my feelings perfectly! Thank you!

Even though our kids are grown and (mostly) gone, I still find enormous value in creating and putting by food that allows us to be healthy and really enjoy our meals. I am grateful for a retired spouse who is willing to take on the scrubbing and vacuuming detail so that I have more time to spend in other pursuits. As much as I thought it was terribly important to be here for my kids, I also always appreciated the time for me to make a home. And as Amy said, we too found we could live well on less than we--and others--thought. This choice of lifestyle is a blessing in so many ways!

8. by Fasenfest on Mar 16, 2009 at 7:54 AM PDT

Hey Kathryn,

Yes, I believe we will have to re-prioritize what we think we need. Many have bought the gay 90’s doctrine of living on credit and are feeling the hurt. Others bought it and, while hurting, see it more of the loss on their 401 K statement then in their purse. They (and I include myself in that group) were attached to a notion of success that needed re-evaluation. If for no other reason then the environment simply cannot support that notion of growth. That’s what I meant when I said we just didn’t want to think it through.

So I do think this is a great moment (after we get over the shock) and hopefully we will not all run out a start buying up stuff again when (and if) the financial markets get going again. Hopefully this will create a lasting wake up call or, at the very least, will bring in a few new people into the “movement” who offer alternatives.

9. by Marcia on Mar 17, 2009 at 12:09 PM PDT

This was a really good post. (Found the link from cheaphealthygood). I have noticed that my generation and my friends (late 30’s/early 40’s) are developing a renewed interest in householding. Even though 60-70% of us are working moms.

Wanting to do the domestics, garden, cook healthy meals is a wonderful thing, whether you want to do it full time or not. (and for me, not)

10. by Rina on Mar 17, 2009 at 10:09 PM PDT

BRAVO!

11. by Storytree on Mar 18, 2009 at 1:04 PM PDT

Love it! Homemaking, or householding, is not gender-specific. It feels darn good to create a home, feed one’s family, and take pride in doing it.

12. by Rachel on Mar 18, 2009 at 1:42 PM PDT

I’m curious if we would all feel this way about keeping house if we were without the many modern conveniences we enjoy. What if you had to scrub your clothes on a washboard and hang them out to dry? What if you had to manage the delicate balance of maintaining a fire and not burnign yourself or your house down while cooking and baking all day? What if you had to beat your rugs instead of vaccuum them? At what point does domesticity become drudgery and how much time do you REALLY want to devote to it? I just don’t see staying home and taking care of the house all day as all that revolutionary when it is still a luxury for most people. Just because we love cooking doesn’t mean we’re meant to spend all day in the kitchen.

I do love cooking, and many modern conveniences that I can purchase make it possible for me to have the time to cook homemade meals. It also means that I have more time to do things out of the house. I have other hobbies other than housework and cooking. I have to work, as does my husband, in order to have my home and my hobbies. I don’t see this as selling my domesticity short.

We look at the past through rose-colored glasses. We forget just how difficult housework was before the 20th century and the rise of the middle class, and how much time really needed to be devoted to it. We watch old sitcoms and believe that’s how life was with Mom at home always cleaning and cooking. My grandmother had a full time job in the 50s and so did many of her contemporaries.

I’m not dissing the idea that there is pleasure in having, keeping, and maintaining a home, but it’s a luxury in today’s world. If we were forced to do it, I wonder how much joy we would find in it.

13. by Marcia on Mar 18, 2009 at 5:59 PM PDT

Certainly it’s easier now than it used to be. Heck, I’m only 38, but I remember hanging all our laundry to dry, gardening, canning, helping the neighbor with her (manual) washing during the summer, push-mowing, etc. I was insulated from the cooking, but that was a lot of work too.

14. by Fasenfest on Mar 18, 2009 at 6:08 PM PDT

Hey Rachel,

You know, one of the things I write about is that all this extra work is, well, extra work. Even if we do not throw out all the conveniences (and I do not suggest that) it will take honest self evaluation to consider whether “householding” fits into our lives or interests. Not being honest with ourself will create a serious reality check since it WILL require some tradeoffs.

For me, householding (and that does not only suggest the home) is an environmental/economic and political stance. Yes, I love the smell of bread baking but I love not throwing out senseless packaging even more. I love the way the clothes smell after they dry on the line but I love the fact that I don’t use the dryer senselessly more. I love working in my garden to grow food but I love the notion that my willingness to do so might be a small solution to our food security issues or, more importantly, that I am doing my part to improve the soil’s tilth. In fact, these issues are the focus of much of my writing. For me, householding is a response to so many things gone wrong in the world that if it means more work then so be it.

Still, others will choose their own reasons and I look forward to the many perspectives. No doubt, however, some will see it as reckless nostalgia and I get that. I think, in the end, you are suggesting balance and I agree with you. I’m not calling for a life of servitude but of intention.

But regardless of our stance or commitment, I think we can agree that not everything deemed “convenience” and “labor saving” turned out to be all that we, and the planet, dreamt it would be either. I think we might all just be searching for a healthy middle ground.

15. by zegg on Mar 19, 2009 at 8:22 AM PDT

I’m just glad I have a choice now - so many don’t even today. I love my paid employment, and I love cooking, playing with my kids, pottering around the garden. I’ve taken up knitting. However, I hate many other household tasks (all the cleaning ones basically, which let’s face it, is most housework), and never liked sewing. And my gardening skills give us perennials by trial and error, but are nowhere near good enough to eat off. So I’m glad that I have the money to buy clothes and food made by people who are better at it than me. I’m especially glad that I don’t have to cook everyday because my husband likes to cook even more than me - cooking 3-4 times a week is fun, cooking 7 times a week becomes a chore. And I’m glad that I have plenty of help cleaning, from my husband and from appliances, and that I don’t live in an era where I will be judged on my domestic skills (or lack thereof)!

16. by Kathryn H on Mar 19, 2009 at 8:26 AM PDT

Harriet, I am with you all the way in thinking that many of the things we choose to do as householders are, or should be, chosen through intention. I also choose to cook, garden and use my clothesline in part because I really like the results, but for the longer-term environmental aspect as well. When I hang out the laundry, or make bread by hand, rather than buy it wrapped in plastic it allows me to look my 20-year old a little more squarely in the eye when she is worried about what shape the world will be in when she reaches mid-life.

I am grateful to have grown up in the 50’s and 60’s as part of an extended family that raised much of its own food and believed in wearing things out through use and repair before buying new. The things I learned as a child are incredibly useful to me now. BUT--there were parts I hated then and still avoid! Freezing enough sweet corn each summer for four households was one hot, messy job and I just can’t do it with any pleasure or much gratitude now!

And yes, I am truly grateful for, and take advantage of, frost-free refrigerators and freezers, self-cleaning ovens, automatic washers as opposed to the wringer machine my mother used, and a husband who vacuums every week!

I have time to spend with family and friends each week, time to read, write and dream, time for walking and talking and reflection. And yeah, I still work half-time, but that’s a choice too. My life feels pretty balanced these days, but I will admit that it was a little more challenging when our two kids were young.

17. by Anne T on Mar 19, 2009 at 9:10 AM PDT

Thanks Harriet.
Your thoughts on the outsourcing of householding reminds me how parenthood and childhood has become commodified. Simple activities have been torn away from us, repackaged and then sold back to us, so we end up paying “experts” to lead us in clapping and singing with our toddlers or teach our seven year olds how to pick berries.
The collapse of this economy holds many gifts. One of them may be the return of simple, common sense.

18. by Rachel on Mar 19, 2009 at 9:45 AM PDT

Fasenfest, I understand what you’re saying, but again, you have the CHOICE to do these things. Much of what you say you love to do is a luxury for many of us.

I can’t garden because I do not have a house or a yard. Gardening implies you have the property to garden on. The same with hanging your laundry out to dry. I can’t hang a clothesline on my apartment balcony and the condo board would be on me like a cheap suit if I tried. Bake bread? Love doing it. Do I have a few hours at home to wait for it to rise and bake? Not so much. Homemade bread is a rare treat in my home.

A domestic life is great if you have access to it, but many of us simply do not.

19. by zegg on Mar 19, 2009 at 10:42 AM PDT

Rachel - (a) clothes can be rack-dried indoors (b) bread machines are a great investment - set the timer to have bread baked in time for breakfast, or when you come home from work!

20. by Fasenfest on Mar 19, 2009 at 12:33 PM PDT

Hi All,

You know, I have been working on a book that deals with many of the challenges and opportunities this movement presents. And to all that see the limitations, I understand what you are saying and think they are real. But while I think some of them are self imposed others are connected to systems we are sadly caught up in. High costs of living, limited time and landless urban living all have their roots in economic models that have not always served us or, the “least of these”. That is part of the politics of this movement. Some of us chose to live a life outside our home but many more simply must. I balk at those reasons and seek alternatives. I think the best way to know if, and how, this way of living my free us up a bit is to live it. And, too, the more people who give it a go the more solutions and creative thought gets put into it. This is not your mothers homemaking. This is a homemaking gone progressive.

Still, I understand the “privilege” I have now. That was certainly not always the case. I spent most of my working life as a single mom in the restaurant industry so I understand how life can keep us way too busy to add more to our plate. That I started this venture at 50 suggests a few things -- My husband’s salary is sufficient for us to live on; we are frugal, I have a backyard, I maximize our budget by my efforts and, I’m willing to do it. I can’t say which is the most important factor in that equation but I know my willingness is a big part. Desire is the mother of invention. If you want to find ways to choose a life closer to home you will find it. If you don’t, you won’t and probably shouldn’t.

Again, I try and tell everyone who reads and considers some of the things I write about that it is not for everyone. Everyone will “show up” as it were, as they see fit. There are many ways for us to express our activism (assuming activism is your thing). Householding is mine and I stand my ground in suggesting it is a very, very tangible opportunity to challenge mainstream economic systems -- systems (as I see it) that have done a world of hurt to the planet, natural resources and people.

21. by Paula on Mar 20, 2009 at 7:19 AM PDT

I enjoyed reading your post and your opinions. I spent a number of years doing what you call householding - staying home while my husband worked, raising the children, cooking, growing things. It was lovely to really be there when my children were small. I left a good and interesting career to do this so there were also some mixed feelings. I would not give those years back for anything. But...(there is always a BUT!) when my husband left me I had few current, transferrable job skills (I had been in a tech field), no income, no money for going back to school...you get the picture. Child support and some alimony didn’t make ends meet. After 9 years out of the work force I could not go back to anything near my previous income. Now, five years later I am still trying to catch up.

Even with a full-time job I still cook from scratch because I believe it’s best for us - breakfast, homemade lunches for school, dinner every day. I still garden just a little, when I have time, and i live as frugally as possible. I still want that cozy, homey feeling!

Choosing to stay at home is a risky choice to make. While the benefits are tremendous, the risk is that you can find yourself unable to support yourself and your children rather suddenly. Now that my ex-husband has lost his job it is even harder to keep things going.

I’m not really complaining, just pointing out another side to the issue. I think that it’s REALLY important to keep in mind that you should always be able to earn a living. It might not be divorce that happens, maybe death of a spouse or disability or illness. I didn’t think about that when I was blissfully householding and revelling in my sleepy children before a nap or the joy they found in playing at the beach. What we really need today is a way to find a balance that allows us to do both.

22. by Fasenfest on Mar 21, 2009 at 6:51 AM PDT

Paula,

You’ve hit on the one topic I do fret about. At least I am aware that some folks might think I am advocating for women to relinquish our ability to be self supporting. I do think one of the answers might come from recognizing this effort cannot be gender specific and, more specifically, should be shared by everyone in the household.

Maybe a return to the 20 or 30 hour work weeks (outside the home) will permit all members of the household to participate. Maybe we will have to sit down with our house mates and get clear about what we are embarking on and set a clear framework of value should the household dissolve. Certainly the notion that all this is just “women’s work” and not to be valued is up for re-interpretation.

Perhaps we need to live in alternative models of households like intergenerational or intentional collectives that offer different ways to share the tasks. But I agree, having one member of the family doing all the skills inherent to this movement without a firm and ongoing commitment by those who benefit from it is frightening. We know what we hope for but reality, like you said, important to consider.

I myself teach classes and write and attempt to hold on to some form of independent income. And while my relationship is solid, I often do so because of the very reasons you mentioned. I think I could translate my skills into the market (so to speak) but who knows to what extent. And I admit that part of our downsizing involves paying off the mortgage, being totally out of debt and saving resources. Having a sound financial ethic is something all members of the household need to participate in and I have never been one to advocating a blind eye and hopeful spirit when it comes to family finance. Knowing which way is up and what you need to know and do for yourself “in case” is just an important life lesson for all of us.

So maybe learning to balance “careers” in a new way is what we are speaking about -- scaling down the time we commit to one to be able to embrace the other. And keeping a sound mind and realistic assessment in case of the in case.

Paula, thanks so much for shinning a light on some of the challenges. Only when we address all of them in a spirit of new visioning will we be able to fashion something reasonable, effective and fair.

Harriet

23. by knifethrower.jen on Mar 28, 2009 at 2:18 PM PDT

Bravo.

24. by Ann Marie Tourtellotte on Jan 28, 2010 at 7:11 PM PST

I found this article because I was looking up the idiom " We threw the baby out with the bathwater.” I am composing an essay on boundaries and How the pendulum has swung too far and we are out of control in our habits. Children Cheating is so common my college prof says it has become accepted in our society as a mode of operation, no boundaries. Children run down isles in restaurants as their parents ignore them and eat, and there aren’t boundaries for adults either. Let’s consider the people who routinely run stop signs, lie to their spouse or boss spend more that they earn and eat more than is required. We are a society that has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

25. by Janet Carpenter on Dec 3, 2010 at 8:57 AM PST

Just found your website and LOVE it. I am a widow, nearing retirement age, holding down two jobs and also trying to be a householder. So much work, so little time, but finally living the dream of producing as much as I can on my small city lot. Thank you for your wisdom and support. Looking forward to reading your book.

26. by Fasenfest on Dec 3, 2010 at 10:00 AM PST

Hey Janet,

Two jobs and householding. Now that’s work. But I am so glad you are figuring out how to balance it all. You are aren’t you? I think the key is to go slowly and to join in conversations and relationship with others that are trying on this audacious notion that we can find the time to work “out there” while working “in here”. My hope is that the conversation about householding broadens to include a larger framework for considering the movement of home processors and stewards working with the good farmers and keepers of the earth. This is a small, home-centered, grass-roots movement. They used to call it homemaking and put it down. Today, and for various new reasons, we are going back to the wisdom of keeping our homes, gardens, families and communities in tact. We can keep looking to institutions, academics, professionals and non-profits to help us find our way but we must also work determinably and honestly in our own homes. For me, that is the most constructive and sure-fire way to usher in the change we are hoping for. As they say....we are the future we are hoping for.

Thanks again and best of luck. Do not hesitate to communicate directly at my website address at www.portlandpreserve.com because I am as much nourished by these accounts as I hope to nourish others. And so sorry for your loss, that must be very hard. But it sounds like you are rocking it (as the kids say) so keep on keeping on. I’m sure the “kids” look to you as a role model!

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