November first marked the 15th anniversary of Bob’s and my radical homemaking adventure. We didn’t plan it that way. He was fired. We had just taken out a mortgage on the home of our dreams, a tiny cabin up the road from Mom and Dad’s farm.
We cried, we ate, he sat patiently while I stared wild-eyed into an unknown future.
I was at school when he called to tell me the shocking news. He made me sit down before he broke it to me. He made me promise that, no matter what he said next, I would not drop out of my Ph.D. program. I promised, and then wished I could have recanted my words once he told me.
I grew up on my family’s farm, but it was supported at that time by two professional parents. In my family, 9 to 5 was actually 5 to 9, and I learned from childhood that the commitment to one’s job was on par with wedding vows. Nobody in my family ever got fired.
I am embarrassed to admit now that I was filled with shame. For Bob. For myself. The only people I had ever known to get fired were convicted felons. But now, everyone in my family would know. Everyone in the community would know. I assumed we would have to leave to save face. I vowed that I would start sending out applications across the country as soon as I finished my degree. Because, I concluded, the firing of my husband from his public-service job signaled that this community didn’t want us.
I finished classes Thursday afternoon and drove back to be with Bob, running numbers in my head the whole while, trying to figure out how we would make the next mortgage payment. He greeted me by the woodstove with a bowl of homemade soup. We cried, we ate, he sat patiently while I stared wild-eyed into an unknown future.
The next morning the sun broke over the eastern mountain ridge and showed a world blanketed with snow. We climbed down from our loft to watch the land about us turn from blue, to rose, to sparkling white. The radio reported accidents all over as drivers faced slick conditions. But we didn’t have to go anywhere. He poured me a second cup of coffee. I met his eyes and opened my mouth to speak.
I think he expected me, with my compulsion toward perpetual motion and diligence, to ask him about applying for new positions. I think he expected me to hand him a list of phone numbers to start calling. It was what I expected of myself. But what came out surprised us both.
“I could get used to this.”
I had grown up identifying joblessness with shame and failure. But here we were, on the other side of the employment equation, and for the first moment in my grown-up life, everything felt … right. We felt surprisingly safe. We felt creative. We were suddenly intellectually engaged. We were stimulated by our environment and by the challenges ahead. We spent the day tromping through the snow, exploring the forests and fields surrounding our new home, oblivious to time.
The coming days were graced with loving visits from family, neighborly gifts of food and winter vegetables, kind notes, offers of short-term work, tips on job leads, and words of encouragement. My conclusion that the community didn’t want us was wrong. What we soon learned, as Bob continued to seek (but not find) secure employment and I finished school and unsuccessfully sought work, was that the community did want us. But the economy didn’t.
That was an important lesson. As a result, what took hold in our souls on November 1, 1999, ultimately became a choice to take a role in a nationwide radical homemaking movement. For the uninitiated, this is a conscious attempt to live an ecologically responsible life and insist that family, community, and the fair treatment of others govern our daily choices. Interestingly, while on this path, we have endured countless accusations that we are at the vanguard of a movement that is causing women and men to “withdraw from society.” As an advocate of radical homemaking, I have been accused of helping others to live a home-centered life, thereby robbing society of intelligent citizens’ talents and education.
Moving forward without the cushion of a steady paycheck was our first step toward rebuilding a new kind of economy in our community.
The outdated assumption in this critique is that home is separate from society. This separation is an invention of the industrial revolution, when men were the first members of the household pushed out to find work. Prior to industrialization, home was the foundation of society, from the time the feudal system began breaking down in Europe onward. Here in the United States, our nation was founded on hearth and home. The self-reliance of American homesteads is what empowered our forefathers to overthrow colonial rule. It is what built our young nation.
Contrary to the criticisms, radical homemakers are not removing themselves from society. They are removing themselves from the modern extractive economy. This is an economy that outpaces the capacity of our planet, that commands the vast majority of people to clamor for jobs that demand well beyond 40 hours of work per week, and that disregards the importance of family and community as a basic human entitlement. It should not be confused with society.
Bob’s and my choice to stay put, to move forward with our lives without the cushion of a steady paycheck, was our first step toward rebuilding a new kind of economy in our community. What we sought to create was a life-serving economy, one that supported society rather than drained it. If our work in that economy makes us seem to disappear, it is not because we have withdrawn, as critics suggest. Rather, our deep engagement causes us to turn our attention to work that the extractive economy ignores.
The extractive economy may value public volunteer service, but not the private care of family. It may value certain well-compensated career choices, but not the less glamorous work of tilling soil, pulling weeds, tending livestock, stacking firewood, helping neighbors, or even cooking and cleaning (two activities without which no human society can function). Also, the accusation that radical homemakers are withdrawing from society overlooks the entrepreneurial work that many of us do to create a life-serving economy, whether it is starting an online business, opening up a farmer’s market stall, or bartering skills and resources with neighbors.
All of these small entrepreneurial ventures, coupled with the efforts to restore the family hearth and community life, are the work of radical homemakers. The result will be a society where people are secure; where their locally centered daily lives are buffered from the throes of global economic forces; and where “getting fired” is understood as being “set free.”
It’s a place where people like Bob and me, who just want to live close to family and friends, can build lives in harmony with the seasons; where no one has to take a car onto slick roads on the first snowy morning of November; where there is enough food in the pantry and enough logs on the fire to stay warm, eat well, and spend a snowy November morning exploring a sparkling white world, drinking in all the glorious surrounding beauty.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.