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Radical Homemakers

Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers: Changing the World from Your Own Backyard (Finch Publishing, 2011)

Having just finished my university degree and gone about the grim process of endlessly applying for and being rejected for jobs I don’t want, only to be pushed by necessity into cafe work, it seems like entering the workforce is only headaches over misery. From this standpoint, Shannon Hayes’ Radical Homemakers appears at first to be written for me, and others like me, offering an enchanting alternative to this apparently drudgerous life ahead and examining the dissatisfaction surrounding more conventional paths. Hayes is herself what she terms a radical homemaker, and has interviewed twenty other families and individuals in the United States who have chosen to live a different kind of life―one based on self-sufficiency and extremely minimal consumption around family and community and away from the well-documented phenomenon of the bleak modern hamster-mill.

Hayes spends the first part of the book dismantling the old conceptions of, and stigma surrounding, ‘homemaking’. Her proposed style of homemaking, she is concerned to make clear, is not the same thing as caused the empty depression of the 1950s’ housewife, whose life consisted of consuming products and ferrying her children around. Instead it is about creating and producing in a deeply fulfilling way. Nor is ‘homemaker’ in any way only the woman’s role. The homemaking Hayes describes is a rejection of the idea that consumption and wealth equate with happiness, and a return to a much purer and simpler way of life.

The radical homemakers Hayes interviews have found ways to support their families or themselves and friends on a single income or less and, rather than using all of their time and energy making money to support the homes and loved ones they never see, they spend most of their time growing, making and preserving their own food; building their own houses; learning skills with which to further decrease their consumer and carbon footprint; and spending a great deal of time with their spouses, children and other loved ones, strengthening relationships and enjoying their homes. What money these radical homemakers do make is generally a result of work directed towards some perpetuation of social justice or ethical living. They farm free-range meat, grow and sell organic fruit and vegetables, teach or write books. Naturally these homemakers are no longer living by the accepted tenets of our consumer culture and do learn to live according to a very different financial structure, but for Hayes and others like her, it is more than possible to live a rewarding and comfortable life considerably below the official poverty line.

Hayes writes, ‘[The radical homemakers] were fluent at the mental exercise of rethinking the ‘givens’ of our society and coming to the following conclusions: nobody (who matters) cares what (or if) you drive; housing does not have to cost more than a single moderate income can afford (and can cost even less); it is okay to accept help from family and friends, to let go of the perceived ideal of independence and strive instead for interdependence; health can be achieved without making monthly payments to an insurance company; child care is not a fixed cost; education can be acquired for free―it does not have to be bought; and retirement is possible, regardless of income’.

Hayes goes on to offer some idea of how all these societal givens are bunk: one can maintain one’s health and offer sound child care and education for one’s children and come out the end of a life as a radical homemaker with enough money to live comfortably. All these are more or less answered by ‘do it yourself’, and this is heartening and inspiring, but it is also at times frustratingly vague and occasionally seems unrealistic when the examples given involve considerable luck (or inheritance). Particularly in the case of health care and dropping payments to health insurance companies (though this is not the same concern for Australians), Hayes’ suggestion of simply maintaining a better diet and turning to herbal remedies leaves much to be desired.

The book is divided into two sections―‘Why’ and ‘How’―but in truth the entire book is largely concerned with somewhat facile explorations of ‘Why’, while ‘How’ is an overly repetitive and vague section, mainly calling on quotes and anecdotes from Hayes’ interviewees, which create an uneasy impression that almost all those involved are stereotypical hippies or people who have been wronged by the system and are rather simplistically vengeful about it―outsiders who are not particularly forthcoming on the less idyllic aspects of their chosen abandonment of the system. Hayes has not interviewed anyone who tried the radical homemaker way of life and chose to return to the other. It’s possible that all who try it become hooked, but it seems unlikely. There is no discussion of the pure, physical hard work involved in such a life, or the fairly inevitable distancing from friends and family who continue to work in the system. Hayes herself only raises these two questions in the last paragraph of her book: ‘How will Bob [her husband] and I answer for our own life paths? Did we sequester our children from a domineering extractive economy only to leave them unprepared to fight for a place in it, or did we help to create a world where they, as young women, will find a life of hope, magic, creativity, joy and peace?’

This is not to say that radical homemaking is not a genuinely achievable way of life. Ultimately Hayes’ book is more an introductory argument to consider the options available to us apart from the same double-income no-time consumer lifestyle we see around us. It is encouraging to hear the success stories of people from different backgrounds, and the descriptions of their often idyllic home lives are charming. But Radical Homemakers falls short of being a how-to manual, and as such leaves one with what feels like a hopeful but slightly idealistic dream.

By Anna Thwaites

Anna Thwaites is a graduate of English and Philosophy at ANU and is currently working in hospitality in Melbourne.

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