In the Whirled: The radical Mormon mother, Part II

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the second of three articles. Read Part I here.

One day, as a young child, I broke the law.

Or so I thought. While making my bed, I accidentally pulled the tag off my pillow. This is the tag that reads: UNDER PENALTY OF LAW THIS TAG IS NOT BE REMOVED EXCEPT BY THE CONSUMER.

I was horrified. I didn’t know who this "consumer" was, but I pictured him as a little man in a tweed jacket with glasses and a mustache. I hid under my bed, expecting that any minute there would be a ring on the doorbell and the consumer would have arrived to remove all his tags. My crime would be discovered and I would be off to jail.

I can look back on this particular story with humor now, but it turns out I was correct in one thing: I was right to have been frightened by the idea of the consumer. It turns out the dangerous consumer is not a man in a tweed jacket, but a mother of two children trolling through Target, trying to find life’s meaning somewhere between the shoe and linens aisle. It’s the rise of this consumer culture that has brought Americans firmly into the rat race and essentially sucked the lifeblood out of the art of homemaking.

In “Radical Homemakers” by Shannon Hayes, she writes about the very deliberate targeting of homemakers. In 1929, Christine Frederick, a home-economist-turned-marketing-expert, wrote a book titled “Selling Mrs. Consumer” in which she writes, “ ‘Consumptionism’ is the name given to the new doctrine; and it is admitted today to be the greatest idea that America has to give the world, the idea that workmen and the masses be looked upon not simply as worker and producers, but as consumers. Pay them more, sell them more, prosper more is the equation.”

Frederick sold the idea to advertisers that in order to create consumers, they needed to target the female gatekeeper, the homemaker, a sort of pseudo-intelligent creature who would eagerly gobble up new devices, fashions and packaged foods for the family.

The idea worked. It bred a cultural idea that shopaholics and retail therapy were synonymous with being female, and it perpetuated the idea that to be a homemaker was to be something of a simpleton who could do nothing more than bake a cake and iron a blouse.

Consumerism, along with increased opportunities for women, brought homemakers to a crossroads. With women receiving more education, and with machines and pre-packaged foods displacing a woman’s role at home, there was more spare time. Then along came Betty Friedan’s landmark book “The Feminine Mystique,” which sent droves of women to the work force. This was supposed to be their shining moment.

So now you had two groups of women: those who fought to find their place in the work force and those who fought to stay home, only to find themselves weeping from loneliness and boredom in their tidy tract home.

I don’t intend to break open the Mommy Wars. Some women find incredible fulfillment from traditional jobs, and others find incredible fulfillment from staying home. But for those who feel as if something is missing, who wonder why we stand in our suburban homes, staring out the window and feeling “lonely as a cloud,” or who feel the same discontent in a desk job, it’s because there is a third way.

That third way is to bring back the radical homemaker. This is not the homemaker that we think of, with a Swiffer in one hand and a basket of laundry in the other, but the type of homemaker who truly makes a home.

Of course, none of this is revolutionary in our Mormon culture. We’ve held this secret for a long time. We are, as a collective whole, incredible homemakers. The popularity and notoriety of the Mormon Mommy blogs attests to that every day. We know how to design, cook, craft, write fantastic witticisms, publish best-selling books and promote deliberate motherhood.

But even in our culture we’ve strayed from understanding what a homemaker is supposed to do. We’ve outsourced our domestic skills, whole-foods cooking, a great portion of the teaching we should give our children and even our own ability to create.

I’ve long been an advocate of giving moms the time and space to create. Part of that lies with the husband (more on that in my next column) and part of that lies with the mother who is willing to say, “True fulfillment won’t be found in any store, but in gathering community and creating.” That is the part of themselves that women need to guard fiercely to avoid selling their souls (and their happiness) to consumerism.

Is it regressive to say that mothers will find great fulfillment in baking, canning, making soap, sewing, gardening, writing and photography? Couched in 1950s terms, it sounds antiquated. But the new radical mother is riding the wave of the “maker” culture and is a revival of the lost arts that hearken back to the days of our great-grandparents.

It may be hip and trendy, but for once, it’s a trend we’d all be good to follow.

Part III in two weeks: the radical Mormon father

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com.

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