If someone had asked me what my highest ambition was as a twenty-year-old, I would have said, “To be a wife and mother.” I had it all planned out—I was going to be a flawless, well-heeled, stay-at-home mom of six who ran errands in my immaculate SUV, prepared glorious dinners, and enjoyed fancy date nights with my husband once a week.
Needless to say, it didn’t turn out that way. I wasn’t married until I was twenty-nine, and I have two children, not six. I run errands in a tidy sedan, my dinners are occasionally glorious, and my husband and I enjoy fancy date nights about every six months. I don’t mean that my domestic dreams were shattered, just that the reality of my married life turned out to be quite different from what I envisioned as a single woman. I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to care for an energetic two-year-old after having woken up twice in the night to feed a newborn. I didn’t understand how much work it would be to prepare fresh vegetables for dinner, and I definitely underestimated the toll that doing all of that—all day, every day—would take on my physical and mental health.
It turns out that I’m not alone. There are a lot of women who have experienced the rude, comical, and heartwarming awakening that comes with motherhood, and they have done what our generation usually does in times of emotional upheaval: Post it on the Internet. In fact, young mothers have taken to the blogosphere in such numbers that, according to sociologist Emily Matchar, in 2013 they accounted for one-third of active bloggers.1 A 2017 report released by ConvertKit shows that those numbers have risen slightly, with 62 percent of bloggers as female and 52 percent of those bloggers as having children, with the primary motivation for starting the blog being a means of creative expression, and the primary blog category being “personal development.”2 In studying these trends, Matchar learned that the majority of these bloggers are college-educated, career-oriented women who gave up their careers in order to be stay-at-home mothers.
This was perplexing. Why would someone with an MBA from Wharton give up a lucrative job as a stockbroker to cook every single thing (from tortillas to yogurt to beef) from scratch? Who sets aside a PhD from Cornell to become a farmer in upstate New York? In her book Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity, Emily Matchar identifies six reasons: (1) a rising sense of distrust toward government, corporations, and the food system; (2) concern for the environment; (3) the gloomy economy; (4) discontent with contemporary work culture; (5) the draw of hands-on work in a technology-driven world; and (6) an increasingly intensive standard of parenting. Since the purpose of this article is to discuss mommy-blogger culture and its reflection of a broader cultural nostalgia, my explanation of these reasons will be brief.
THE NEW DOMESTICITY
During the early 2000s, an aura of distrust began to settle over the United States. Books such as Fast Food Nation examined the food industry and its deleterious effects on the diet, economy, and well-being of America. The World Is Flat explained how globalization would change the economic and social systems of developed nations. This generated considerable anxiety among thoughtful citizens, so when the financial crisis of 2008 erupted (resulting in mass unemployment and a severe economic downturn), it was the last straw for Millennials—the food industry was killing them, the economy they were training to work for was changing right before their eyes, and the government bailed out the very banks that all but created the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It seemed clear that the system was broken, so they took the only option available—go home and start from scratch.
Thus began what Matchar refers to as “the New Domesticity”—that is, the return of (primarily) women to home and hearth to reclaim the fine art of homemaking and create a lifestyle that’s more ecologically and personally sustainable—one where they wouldn’t be forced to choose between a fulfilling career and a stable, loving family. In many respects, it resembles the life of the June Cleaver/Betty Draper 1950s housewife, and these self-proclaimed “radical housewives” are fine with that. They’re proud of their ability to grow their own tomatoes, care for their own chickens, clean their homes with baking soda and vinegar, all the while wearing their six-month-old in a sling purchased from a fair-trade organization that supports mothers in developing nations.
But there’s one crucial difference Matchar says distinguishes them from their grand-mothers—the Internet. Unlike Betty Draper, these women don’t just sew their own baby clothes; they create a modestly lucrative media platform around those clothes (and other aspects of homemaking) that allows them to cultivate a community of like-minded and devoted followers. Unlike Depression-era homemakers, who sewed their own clothes because they didn’t have the money to buy them, these lifestyle bloggers sew their own clothes as part of a brand centered around their thrifty, creative, locally sourced organic lives. While 1930s housewives were socially praised for their industry and economy, successful Millennial bloggers receive direct, personal affirmation in the form of likes, comments, messages, and endorsement deals from companies looking to promote their products.
It doesn’t end there. Matchar writes that this devotion to a sustainable, natural lifestyle extends into how they raise their children, with many mothers forgoing traditional medicine and vaccination schedules for a natural homeopathic approach. A paper written by British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998 describing the connections between vaccinations and autism was incredibly influential among young, educated mothers. Despite the fact that Dr. Wakefield’s findings were not reproduced by subsequent research—and that his license was revoked by Britain’s General Medical Council—the damage was done, and the medical industry (lumped in with government, economy, and educational institutions) is still regarded with deep suspicion among young upper-middle-class mothers.3 As a result, some mommy bloggers’ “health insurance” takes the form of preventative care: buying organic clothes, BPA-free bottles, extensive breastfeeding, making their own baby food, and delaying or omitting vaccinations altogether. The popularity of The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby, a book by (Roman Catholic turned evangelical Christian turned Roman Catholic) William Sears, M.D., with his wife Martha Sears, R.N.—which promotes (among other things) extensive breastfeeding, bed sharing, and baby wearing—has established itself as a touchstone of twenty-first-century parenting philosophy, so much so that Matchar says it’s impossible to be a new parent without being influenced by it.
When these three elements—the allure of healthy, carefully prepared organic meals and hand-knitted sweaters; the rising levels of anxiety about the failures of previously trustworthy institutions; and the higher standard of parenting that has morphed from concern over our children’s welfare into a status symbol—are filtered through beautifully shot high-resolution photographs and the feeling of collegial intimacy, which characterizes many of the bloggers who dominate the industry, the result is a strong sense of confidence and trust in a romanticized image that has little basis in actual reality.
MOTHER KNOWS BEST
Matchar’s overall assessment of the mommy-blogger culture is critical but sympathetic. She understands the disillusionment and frustration her peers feel with the institutions that raised them. She herself is frustrated with corporate America’s refusal to implement a comprehensive leave plan that allows families with dependents to have social and job security. She readily acknowledges that many of these women wouldn’t be at home blogging if the workplace they trained to enter hadn’t effectively compelled them to choose between working seventy-hour weeks and having a family.
She willingly owns up to the many hours she’s spent clicking down the rabbit hole of beautiful lifestyle blogs, admiring the hand-built wainscoating, pots of homemade jam, and pictures of the dimple-cheeked baby gnawing on a BPA-free food-grade silicone teether. People are attracted to the New Domesticity because (surprise!) it’s attractive—a powerful and beautiful expression of the value of a life that balances thoughtful, meaningful engagement with your environment and a stable and healthy family.
New Domesticity is, at heart, a cry against a society that’s not working. A society that doesn’t offer safe-enough food, accessible health care, a reasonable level of environmental protections, any sort of rights for working parents.4
For Christian conservatives who have long been engaged in the culture wars, this seems like the win we’ve been waiting for—a popular censure of the feminist agenda to get women out of the home and into the workplace, combined with a resounding affirmation of the noble art of caring for a family. However, there are aspects of Matchar’s criticisms that Christians would do well to consider.
THE REALITY BEHIND THE FANTASY
Matchar is quick to emphasize the benefits of the mommy-blogging community: the ability to speak frankly with like-minded women who share similar experiences in navigating the waters of new motherhood, the appreciation and affirmation they receive from fellow homemakers on their newly reupholstered furniture or first attempt at canned salsa, or the instantaneous advice and suggestions they can receive on everything from teething pain to ADHD medication.
Young people are ready to push aside the 1980s- and 90s-style notion that domestic life is inherently uncool, the purview of the unintellectual, unambitious woman. We want to see images of women knitting or baking or raising kids not to please a husband or live up to some societal notion of proper femininity, but because they find it personally fulfilling.5
Many of the bloggers Matchar interviewed were honest about wanting to promote a certain lifestyle and showing the sunny side of stay-at-home life. The difficulty, she says, is that there’s much more behind the folksy wife-and-mom personalities than some highly paid bloggers let on. Ree Drummond (the woman behind the wildly popular The Pioneer Woman blog and Food Network show), wife of an Oklahoma cattle rancher and mother of four, is her prime example. Women the world over (myself included) have smiled at Drummond’s comic descriptions of cattle-branding, delighted their friends with dinners composed entirely of her recipes, and laughed at pictures of her husband’s chaps-clad bottom (she devoted an entire blogpost to it). The picture is one of a decidedly sweet, down-to- earth woman enjoying rustic life on her family’s ranch as she homeschools her children and makes meatloaf and steak sandwiches.
But Drummond’s upbringing bears little resemblance to the salt-of-the-earth Midwestern lifestyle she represents. She was raised in the affluent town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the daughter of a surgeon and a social worker, and graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in gerontology. Her husband’s family members are third-generation cattle ranchers who own 433,000 acres of land across Oklahoma and Kansas, and who receive $2 million a year for allowing the US Government to use some parcels as a sanctuary for wild horses and burros.6 Combine this with income from Drummond’s store (The Mercantile), her Food Network show, ad revenue, best-selling memoir, cookbooks, and Walmart kitchen line, and the picture that emerges isn’t one of a down-home country woman but of a wealthy and privileged celebrity. For all her quirky blogposts and self-deprecating humor, the self-described “desperate housewife” is actually an incredibly astute businesswoman whose highly produced and heavily edited world bears almost no resemblance to the ordinary life she projects—a fact that Matchar says goes either unnoticed or disregarded by fans.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
I’m not saying that Drummond is a duplicitous con artist. She’s wealthy, to be sure, but she’s used a significant portion of that money to revitalize her small hometown of Pawhuska and pays each of her employees a living wage.7 The universal opinion (from The New Yorker profiler who interviewed her and the employees at her store) is that the kindly, unassuming personality on the pages of her blog closely reflects the character of the woman behind it.8 She’s selling a fantasy, but it’s the inspirational fantasy of Disneyland—a beautifully curated world that envelops the reader with the comforts and nostalgia of vintage Americana.
What I am saying is that while it is the purpose of the blog to entertain, and that the narrative of the blogger’s life is, of necessity, partially fantastic, ethical lines are uncomfortably blurred when the fantasy is literally sold as reality. When a blogger deliberately downplays her actual wealth and influence in order to maintain (and thereby capitalize on) her salt-of-the-earth persona, one questions the ethical probity of marketing oneself as “an ordinary housewife plowing through life in the country.” Matchar writes:
For bloggers, blogs are not necessarily just an outlet to vent or a source of community. Frequently, bloggers are deliberately painting a highly controlled picture of their lives in order to make money, sell products, or promote certain lifestyles or political agendas. Readers, who look to these blogs for community, are often getting an unintended dose of marketing and commercialism as well. But more worrisome than the semi-hidden advertising is the fact that, by painting idealized pictures of their “real lives” in order to make a living, bloggers are selling fantasy but calling it reality.9
There’s nothing exactly wrong with a blogger combining real life with a carefully curated image—provided that they’re not deliberately deceptive—but we must remember that this is relatively uncharted territory on the frontier of Internet culture, and so discernment and caution should be exercised.
Granted, in this Snapchat-filtered, Facebook world, it’s slightly petty to accuse someone of marketing the glossy version of themselves as their “authentic” self. Since when has anyone—actor, homemaker, public servant, student, or professional—not cared about presenting their best face to the world? It’s not artifice or duplicity to keep the nitty-gritty details about your personal life private; it’s tact. There are appropriate and inappropriate times and places to share our less-than-savory aspects with people. But when the glossy photographs are interpreted as the day-to-day reality, when the spheres of happy memory and actual history become indistinguishable, then we’ve succumbed to a false ideal that’s unhelpful and counterproductive. The polished image of the lovely young mother with three beautiful children and organized closets may entertain, inspire, and encourage—and that’s a good thing—but when we’re tempted to compare her image with our reality, then it’s important to bear in mind that the story we see isn’t the whole story.
It’s natural to yearn for “a better, simpler time,” to mourn for a way of life that seems to be disappearing, to want to preserve the best of our past as we continue into the future. But when we ignore or minimize the complexity of the truth for the nostalgia and romance of the fantasy, we are perpetuating a myth about the world we want, instead of engaging with the world we live in.
Brooke Ventura is associate editor of Modern Reformation. She lives with her family in Ontario, Canada.
- Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 51.
- See https://convertkit.com/reports/blogging/topic, accessed February 22, 2017.
- Other researchers were unable to reproduce Dr. Wakefield's findings or confirm his hypothesis of a link between the administration of certain vaccines and autism. His medical license was revoked after an inquiry by Britain's General Medical Council ruled that he had violated ethical procedure by subjecting children to unnecessary medical tests without the referral of their general practitioner. See https://www. theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/28/andrew-wake-field-mmr-vaccine, accessed March 20, 2018.
- Matchar, 248.
- Matchar, 66-67.
- See http://www.landreport.com/2017/06/2016-land-report-100-drummond-family, accessed March 20, 2018.
- Khushbu Shah, "Pawhuska or Bust: A Journey to the Heart of Pioneer Woman Country," https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/ree-drummond-interview-pioneer-woman-saved-oklahoma-small-town, accessed March 20, 2018.
- Amanda Fortini, "O Pioneer Woman!" https://www.newyorker.com/ magazine/2011/05/09/o-pioneer-woman?irgwc=1&source=affiliate_ impactpmx_12f6tote_desktop_Skimbat%20Ltd., accessed March 20 2018.
- Matchar, 69.