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Can Reproduction Have a Place in a Sustainable Life?

Too often, discussions about homemaking are radicalized in one direction or another. It's time to re-imagine family structure with an eye toward environmental responsibility.

When I first began sharing my newest research endeavor— to explore the role of homemaking in healing our current global crises—I spoke with a slight tremor in my voice. I was afraid of what people might think: that I’d stepped onto a slippery path that begins with being a small-scale farmer and ends with a silenced woman diligently serving husband and a vast brood of children in a cloistered household far removed from society. But when I talked about homemakers, I had an entirely different idea in mind. Both sexes were involved, and they were people who used the home as the foundational unit for profound social, ecological, and economic change. Homemakers could have children or be child-free; they could be male or female. My argument to reclaim the home was not a statement about reproductive choices.

Most people got it. But sometimes the message was lost in translation. Two weeks ago, for example, I received a letter from a reporter in Turkey who had not seen my own writing on the topic, but who was exposed to the idea of radical homemaking second- or third-hand, through a language barrier. It was like a game of telephone, made scary for the real world. Her initial interpretation of my argument was essentially this: In order to live more ecologically and socially responsible lives, women (not men) need to return to the home; there, they should bear many children so that they could help with household duties and grow food. This, she had surmised, was my definition of a new feminism. She being a young, career-oriented, ecologically aware woman, I don’t think it sat well with her. It certainly didn’t resonate with me (as was evidenced by the fingernail marks on my desk). But, working carefully with our language barriers, I think we came to an understanding about what I mean by radical homemaking (although I’ll never know for sure, since I can't read Turkish.)

She wasn’t the first to misconstrue my message. Since I’ve begun communicating these concepts in lectures, I’ve been taken aside several times by zealous, rather domineering men who want to have what my husband Bob and I now dub “the talk.” To be blunt, “the talk” is an invasive discussion about my fertility. The lecture starts out with assertions that I think are genuinely meant to be complimentary. These men observe the health of my children—their good eating habits, their resulting “proper bone structure” and robust health, their “stability from being in a home where a loving mother is preparing home-cooked meals.” “It is a pity,” I am therefore informed, that I do not bear more of them, since Bob and I seem to be the “right kind of parents.” These men then typically toss in a few Biblical verses for good measure.

Always alone and unsure of how to respond to these conversations, my skin crawls and I inwardly seethe. They may be well-intentioned comments that are simply grounded in beliefs wildly variant from my own, but I cannot help but hear them as statements of cultural supremacy, as conniving suggestions that a woman’s highest purpose is a functioning uterus. Typically, I use my absent husband as a scapegoat and blithely remark to the offender that “if I had more kids, I’d probably be a single mom,” in hopes that he will conclude that perhaps we aren’t the “right kind of parents” after all.

My argument to reclaim the home was not a statement about reproductive choices.

Truthfully, until that Turkish reporter contacted me, I’d done soft shoe dances around the whole child-bearing issue. I never came forward and stated my opinions on this matter. I dodged discussions with people who think having children makes me an eco-sinner and bit my lip through the “go forth and multiply” lectures. This is, in part, because I don’t think prescriptive proclamations about childbearing are pragmatic. Our world is rich with too many differing cultural views on human reproduction, and our global problems too complex for a single solution to prevail. Also, my own views have been, admittedly, inconsistent.

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