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.