Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Frequently, when I see my mother, she tells me that she doesn't know where I came from. It isn't my feminism she questions, or my interest in gender, or film, and it isn't my being a wife and mother. When my mom questions my origin, it usually has to do with my knitting and cooking.

For my mom, when I took up knitting it marked me as not hers partly because she is terrible at crafts. When I was a kid, she had an old fashioned Singer sewing machine -- one of those with iron wheels, built into a table that ran by foot power, not electricity. It was old then, and clearly outmoded. On it, she would occasionally sew a hem here and there, or maybe a dress, but they were awful. She managed to make slipcovers (something of an obsessive specialty of hers) because she could hide the flaws more easily than on clothing.

I have, in fact, proved myself her daughter when it comes to sewing. A few years back, I bought a cheap portable sewing machine so that I could hem my own pants, a modest ambition motivated by the fact that I am 5' 2" (and shrinking) and have to take a minimum of 4" off every pair of pants I buy. But I am terrible with a sewing machine. Every single time I use it, I have to use the handbook to remember how to thread the thing. My hems are uneven, and sloppy. I rarely assay anything more complicated than a hem, and when I do, like when I made my son's Halloween costume last year, the results are poor (let's just say that his monster costume was not quite what we had imagined.) I would probably be better off paying the $10 to have my pants professionally hemmed.

Knitting, for me, differs from sewing. There is no practical reason for me to knit. It costs way more to knit a sweater or baby blanket than to buy one. And it takes a long time. I started knitting to pass the time when my kids were little and I found myself in a room with them when they were watching Elmo or playing but could not be left alone. Now, it supplements my own TV watching, provides an activity on planes, and otherwise fills the void. I like the process, like learning new techniques, and admire the artistry of watching knots become patterns.

Where my mom would sew out of practical necessity, like me, she could never imagine knitting for pleasure. More than just a skill question, my mother's surprise at my knitting registers as a kind of alienation. She simply can't fathom it. To her, it smacks of something too homespun, too old fashioned. For her, feminism meant never having to take the long road again. Betty Friedan diagnosed the feminine mystique as, in part, being about creating unnecessary work. For Friedan, the housewife's move to suburbia represented an expansion of domestic duties, as a way to fill the void (if you have to drive your kids everywhere, and you have to volunteer at school, then it justifies your not working and helps fend off the boredom of inactivity). So, Friedan recommended moving back to the city, getting a smaller place, and, in effect, what could be called good-enough housekeeping. For my mom, who worked most of her life and worked full-time from the time I was ten, with four kids and a husband to care for, domestic duties were full enough, thank you! So she, like many women, treasured convenience. She wanted ready made clothes, store bought knits, and convenience foods. She wanted to make her life easier. She never settled for good enough housekeeping -- though lord knows none of us cared or merited her high standards, though I now appreciate them -- but she took what shortcuts she could.

While Friedan's model could be seen as proto-sustainability (less is more), current feminist practice diverges from hers. Now, as part of sustainability movements and green politics, we tend to seek ways to make life hard again. Rather than shop at a supermarket, we choose to visit the farmer's market, Whole Foods, specialty butchers, and organic bakeries, making multiple trips and stops. Rather than processed foods, we try to cook from scratch, to make healthier and more natural foods. We have live chickens in our yards! We poo poo the convenience my mother treasured. Where she tells a story about discovering the miracle of McDonald's on a cross country road trip with four kids and very little money, we view fast food as a poison, if not a crime. My mother is shocked that anyone would make tomato soup rather than buy canned. To her, it is like hunting for meat when you could just go to the store. We, a la Michael Pollan, tend to think that hunting would be more honest, natural, better.

Third wave feminists initiated the DIY movement as a means of reclaiming craft and the pleasure of domesticity from what they considered an overly rigid feminism. But let's not forget the reasons women walked away from much of what we now fetishize as DIY: for them DIY wasn't a choice, but a necessity. Now, when I choose to make the soup or knit the blanket, I know I can also choose not to, and that the pleasures of post feminist domesticity should not lead us down a path where we imagine that being organic means that those activities are "natural" or "organic" to our role as women.

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