Raise your hand if you have planted a vegetable garden during the quarantine? Taken up baking (maybe you’ve even gotten your hands on some sourdough starter or Amish friendship bread)? How many of you have been sewing cloth masks? Maybe you’ve organized and redecorated a space in your home (I’ve seen some lovely new home offices on social media)? Maybe you have focused on parenting, helping children with online learning, or creating your own educational activities for your kids? I bet many of you are making snacks, potty training and picking up toys. Maybe you have started a new hobby like knitting, beekeeping or raising backyard chickens. How many YouTube tutorials have you watched on how to can and preserve food, cut your spouse’s hair, or build a raised garden bed?
Keep your hands raised. Now look around. How many of those with hands in the air are women? And how many of you also have full-time jobs you are trying to do from home?
I am not pointing fingers; I am 100 percent in the same boat. I’ve baked zucchini bread, started a garden from seeds, reorganized the playroom, and repainted my front door. And I will confess that I have taken on these arguably unnecessary tasks even as I stress about parenting and online schoolwork and working from home. This essay isn’t intended to convince you that all the things we are doing to cope with this pandemic are wrong, it’s meant to start a conversation about why we are trying to do so much.
Throughout modern American history, we have tended to see a resurgence of traditional gender roles and a celebration of domesticity during and after times of crisis. For example academic papers have noted that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was a marked upswing in the portrayal of traditional gender roles in the media. Women were more likely to be portrayed in movies and on television as pregnant and in a home setting. What is happening now, though, is new. Women are suddenly facing the pressure to live up to stylized and romanticized notions of domesticity while also working full time from home and homeschooling our kids. This phenomenon of idealized household labor, known as “the new domesticity” (a term first coined by journalist Emily Matchar in her 2017 book “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity”), is a documented trend in modern American life. But the new domesticity becomes especially complicated and stressful when it requires modern women to “do it all” without the support structures on which we usually rely.
It makes sense that, especially during times of economic uncertainty, we romanticize women’s unpaid household labor. Following the 2008 economic crisis, the United States saw a huge trend towards a more agrarian, rustic, DIY ethos. How many thousands of “lifestyle” blogs popped up seemingly overnight featuring calming, washed-out photos of scratch-made baked goods, breezy cotton curtains, farmhouse decor and smiling barefoot children? From The Pioneer Woman to Fixer-Upper, Ina Garten to Real Simple magazine, entire empires have been built on the idea that Americans really just want to slow down and live simpler, more beautiful lives at home with our families. Websites like Etsy flourished on our newfound desire for authentic handmade items — and our desire to make things ourselves. Raised garden beds became a hot commodity, and everyone from lawyers to pharmacists to financial advisors started to chalk-paint their old furniture, whip up their own household cleaning products, and make their own bone broth. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, these forces have shaped how we feel we should spend our time at home.
What, exactly, is the new domesticity? Cooking and baking from scratch are increasingly viewed as badges of honor after decades of convenience products and boxed mixes dominating the grocery industry. Meal subscription boxes like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron are premised on the idea that making your own food is superior to buying it. Gardening, especially the tedious work of starting plants from seeds, is trendy now, as is raising backyard chickens and bees. There is a resurgence in learning skills like canning and preserving, sewing, quilting, knitting and crocheting. And of course, home-schooling has suddenly taken center stage for most families.
Another example: the trending searches for April 2020 on Pinterest (a platform which is itself a testament to the power of the new domesticity) reveal that searches for “yeastless bread recipes” are up 4,400 percent. While store-bought bread isn’t sold out in most grocery stores, women across American are searching out labor-intensive ways to make their own at home. And make no mistake, we are definitely talking about women. More than 70 percent of Pinterest users are female, and a recent report shows that 8 out of 10 American mothers between the ages of 18 and 64 regularly use Pinterest. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that searches for “victory gardens” and “healthy kid lunches” are also way up.
And while it may seem like it has always been this way — part of the appeal of the new domesticity is, after all, that it feels traditional and old — what we are experiencing is a cultural shift. It has been compared to the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and there is a religious component at play too (just google “Proverbs 31 Wife” and start browsing all the blogs that pop up). And speaking of blogs, Matchar makes clear that the new domesticity is undeniably linked to technology. It is fueled and shaped by lifestyle bloggers, social-media influencers and the proliferation of DIY resources on the web (recipes, tutorials, patterns — everything we need to do it all is right at our fingertips).
Need more proof that the new domesticity is a modern trend? Just ask your mother and grandmother whether women who had full-time careers outside of the home in the ’80s and ’90s spent their precious free time canning jam, growing okra and sewing curtains. I’m sure that there are those of you reading this who are vehemently disagreeing with me, shaking your head, arguing, “No, my mom worked, and she grew tomatoes, too!” Of course she did. But did she try to do it all? At the same time? Or did she understand that building a career often meant store-bought birthday cake and cheap plastic Halloween costumes? We grew up in the age of Lunchables; the new domesticity is all about elaborate bento-box school lunches.
Today, women make up the majority of the U.S. workforce. More women are working outside the home than ever before. So why are we also seeing a huge cultural push for women to embrace so many of the labor-intensive domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers were happy to shrug off decades ago? My goal with this piece isn’t to discourage anyone from performing these tasks — there are economic, environmental, educational, and mental-health reasons for participating in activities associated with the new domesticity — but I think we need to talk about the types of household labor we are taking on, exactly who is doing all this work and most importantly, why we are choosing to do these things.
Before I go any further, I want to offer a couple of caveats. First, I may not be the best person to reflect on gendered divisions of household labor because, unlike many of my friends, I am lucky and proud to say that the workload in my home is fairly well balanced. I am fortunate to have a spouse who does a huge share of the childcare, cooking, cleaning and domestic labor and who understands and values my career, even as we now have to compete to carve out work time amid the parenting responsibilities of quarantine. Some days, I do all the childcare so he can work, and some days he bakes biscuits from scratch with the kids and helps with online schooling while I sneak upstairs to work. I will add that I am also extremely lucky to have a stable job that I can do at home and an employer that is flexible and understanding. None of that makes the almost impossible task of parenting and working from home easy, but I want to at least acknowledge how fortunate I am.
Second, there is no way around the fact that my writing is tied to my perspective and experiences as a privileged middle-class white woman. In this piece, I talk about how the pandemic is currently preventing us from “outsourcing” tasks like childcare, cooking and cleaning. Clearly, there is a deeper discussion to be had about the fact that “outsourcing” often simply means shifting the burden of domestic labor to poor women of color. So, while this piece is an exploration of how the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing (and shaping) gender roles, I want to acknowledge that there should absolutely be further exploration of the ways in which white women’s professional advancement has been built on the backs of women of color. Even the concept of “domesticity” is itself a cultural construct that carries with it concepts of race and class. We would do well to remember that, especially as we navigate the new domesticity at issue in this essay.
So, with that in mind, here we go. My major concern is that, instead of viewing these tasks as what they are — work — today’s working moms often view household labor a part of their identity (“I am the kind of mom who bakes with my kids”) and an unwavering societal expectation (bringing store-bought cupcakes to the bake sale is definitely frowned upon). The cultural shift toward a curated, stylized home life may be why so many moms carefully create “sensory bins” for our toddlers, steam and puree homemade baby food, hand-smock church dresses and spend hours crafting unique and adorable birthday-party decor for oblivious children who would be just as happy with something we picked up at Party City. And we are doing all of this while working full-time jobs and volunteering in our communities. Although many of our own mothers were content to send us outside to play in the water hose and throw us birthday parties at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut (and we felt just as special as the kids with eight-layer rainbow cakes feel today), the new domesticity often makes it feel as if crafting and baking in order to manufacture Instagram-worthy moments of childhood magic are essential parts of our job as mothers. As Matchar discusses in her book, we are possibly the first generation of American women to try to juggle both high-pressure competitive careers and idyllic Instagram-perfect domesticity at the same time. Now, COVID-19 has stripped away the support systems that previously made it possible.
The pandemic is laying bare the precariousness of modern American working motherhood. For most of the women in my social circle, the norm is that there is not an adult in the household whose full-time job it is to care for children and the home. Instead, like so many other American families, my friends and I have relied on a system of outsourcing (daycare, babysitters, grandparents, pre-k, school, summer day camps and endless extracurriculars for the kids; grocery delivery, meal subscription boxes, lawncare services and housekeepers to help keep our households running), lowered expectations (no one I know was routinely baking soft pretzels and croissants from scratch prior to the pandemic) and exhausting second-shift work (even before the current pandemic, women statistically put in about 4 hours of unpaid household work per day, compared to about 2.5 hours for men). Now, without the ability to outsource many of these tasks, things are falling apart. But, oddly, instead of rebelling against the new domesticity that is making them feel bad for serving their kids pop-tarts for breakfast, women are buying up all the flour and yeast in the land.
A recent article outlining the items that are suddenly in short supply during the pandemic reads like a beginner’s guide to 1950s housekeeping: seeds to start a vegetable garden, ingredients to bake bread, baby chicks, dried beans, lumber and sewing supplies are all selling like hotcakes. These purchases all reflect labor-intensive pursuits. Who is doing all this work, and why?
So, like any amateur journalist, I polled my friends. Some said they always wanted to have the time to do things like tend a garden and that this quarantine is a much-welcome break from the professional rat race. Some suggested that the new domesticity is simply a normal and predictable reaction to our current situation. Everyone is stuck at home and many of us are worried about money, so it is natural that we would focus on things like cooking, gardening and home improvement as our sources of entertainment. Others have worried that even if these domestic pursuits are being used as a welcome distraction from our current fears and stress, they may end up perpetuating unmeetable expectations and gender roles that hurt working women in the long run. A friend predicted that we will see more women “off-ramp” out of promising careers because trying to juggle work and home responsibilities during the pandemic proves too difficult. A single mother I know worried that women may become stretched too thin trying to keep up with working from home, educating their children and performing all of the tasks we can no longer outsource, while our male colleagues who are not similarly distracted may end up outperforming us during the pandemic and may then be more likely to keep their jobs during a recession or be promoted after it is over.
A wise woman I know pointed out that some of the new domesticity is based on real and urgent concerns about the environmental impact of our consumer culture. I know that is a part of it for my family. And I personally wonder whether there is another, much more surprising upside to this new domesticity: Could it end up being defined by more equal participation in household labor by men? After all, while this is traditionally “women’s work,” we can all see that it isn’t just women baking bread and canning home-grown tomatoes these days. There are new trends in how we view masculinity, too, that are developing right alongside the new domesticity. Men today are also feeling the push to garden, bake and spend time with their children. In the same way that the new domesticity has seeped into our identities as women, many men now pride themselves on their ability to cook, care for their children and be supportive partners in their relationships. Maybe the surprising outcome of all of this will be that, for the first time in modern history, men are forced to come face to face with the often invisible and unpaid labor that women have traditionally done to keep our households running. And maybe for the first time we will redefine this work in an ungendered way.
The truth is, I don’t begrudge anyone their homemade cinnamon rolls or basil seedlings, and I am grateful to all of those who have been sewing masks to donate to health care workers. If composting, crocheting and making your own soap bring you joy, by all means please keep doing it. But I think that working moms could benefit from taking a more critical view of the cultural forces that are shaping this new domesticity and the unrealistic pressures it is placing on us, especially during this pandemic. If you feel guilty that your home doesn’t look like it was professionally decorated by Joanna Gaines or that you fed your children frozen chicken nuggets instead of making them from scratch, please remind yourself that those expectations come from a commodified version of romanticized motherhood that has been designed to sell you things. Joanna Gaines, after all, has a line of home goods at Target.
In the same way that we have all had to learn not to let airbrushed models on the covers of fashion magazines make us feel ugly, we also have to learn to tune out the hazy pastel Instagram images of household bliss. You don’t have to be a domestic goddess. Maybe you’re an investment-banker goddess or a school-librarian goddess or an elected-official goddess instead, and that’s OK!
The new domesticity is wrapped in the myth of the “good old days,” but this modern-day trend could actually use a big dose of old-school pragmatism. Call your grandma. Ask her if she ever juggled professional conference calls, a stressful career, homeschooling her kids and whipping up made-from-scratch meals, all while keeping a beautiful house and trying to grow tomatoes. I bet she’ll laugh. “Calm down,” she’ll say, “you’re doing just fine.”