The Productive vs. Consumptive Household

The short history of the American household in Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes is fascinating. Here’s the 30-second version: Until relatively recently in American history, a couple, and their children, would work together on a homestead, producing what the family needed and often trading for those things they couldn’t provide. The Industrial Revolution made many items easier to produce and purchase, freeing up time. The freed time was then put into work outside the household to fund purchases of more things.

That’s a vast oversimplification and possibly one the author Shannon Hayes wouldn’t approve of, but it was my takeaway. We’ve essentially created a situation in which our need to consume fuels our need to work longer and longer hours. And the eye-popping number of new products on the market keep vying for that money that the work produces. (Seriously? Organic single-serving applesauce in squeeze tubes with lids?)

I’ve been trying to move toward a more productive lifestyle, in which we meet some of our own needs responsibly. Things like a garden, which produces excellent food for a very low price, and has the added bonus of outdoor exercise. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. This past weekend I saw the contrast between producing and consuming, and which made the kids happier.

Sylvie and I started the morning making cinnamon rolls, something I do rarely but that the kids love. After that, inspired by a beautifully written blog post at Sew Liberated about giving kids meaningful work, I made Sylvie some clothes from leftover flannel and some wood butter using this recipe (I halved it), and she rubbed the wood butter into some cutting boards that were getting dried out.

Later, waiting for Tommy so we could go buy him some shoes, I started her on making a necklace out of leftover beads from a beading phase I went through a few years ago. Other than setting the findings at the beginning and end of the necklace, she made the whole thing herself, and was beyond proud. She’s been asking to make necklaces for her brothers, cousins, and Phil, which she’ll do soon. Later in the weekend she and I started expanding a front garden to hold rhubarb and blueberries, and she loved laying down the newspaper and carrying buckets full of composted soil from last fall’s leaves to lay on top.

Contrast all that activity with our trip to the mall to get Tommy some new shoes, which was frenetic, tiresome, and highlighted the sheer number of products that we can buy if we’re willing to work more to buy them. At this point, I’d rather live simply and invest or donate the overage.

We’re never going to be a fully self-sustaining family. First, that’s not us; we still like things. We don’t aspire to live off-grid. We live in a suburb of a major midwestern city, and no matter how big the garden grows or whether or not we get backyard fowl, we’ll never really have what you’d call a homestead. And regardless of the skills I’m trying to master, cobbling isn’t one of them, so there will always be trips to the mall for shoes. The point isn’t that we have to do it all, but that we can move the needle a bit. That’s what we’re moving toward.

Sylvia's masterpiece.

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4 thoughts on “The Productive vs. Consumptive Household

  1. How timely for me (us). We wanted something from JCPenney this weekend and ended up parking on the wrong side of the mall. While we were making our way through, I remarked to Tom that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually done mall shopping, or walked through a mall. On our way across (on a Sunday) I started experiencing an interesting feeling I’d not felt in a long time. There’s something created by the set up, the offerings, and of course, the energy of many people in one place that actually sort of ramps up your own energy. It’s like some kind of consumer ‘party atmosphere’ that made me actually get a twitch for the aimless shopping I once did. After we made our way out with our purchase (a hat for Tom) I remembered a story the Dalai Lama told about the atmosphere of of shops and malls, and that even he got caught up in that energy after a little while and started seeing things he “thought” he needed. It made me think of people (families and individuals) for whom hanging out at the mall is weekend entertainment. I imagine it just builds on itself and in families it’s teaching the kids that mindless buying is a past time. I didn’t need a shower afterward, but a good strong coffee when I got home made things a little better.

    • Wow, Johnna, what a thoughtful response to the shopping culture. When I was single and had time to kill — “time to kill”; imagine — I shopped recreationally most weekends. And you’re so right… just being in that environment makes you start to crave things you didn’t even think about at home. I’m so hoping to teach my kids how to entertain themselves without the ritual shopping-for-nothing.

    • Wendi, she *loved* it. (As did I — best hand cream ever.) Thanks so much for posting this recipe, and the blog is fantastic, by the way.

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