Why are smart women swapping boardrooms for bunting and bake-offs? Alexandra Carlton looks at the hunger for all things domestic.
Tumbling over each other like puppies in a basket, four children play on a rug while their mother Corrie Sebire, in a patchwork skirt and bare feet, works on her latest knitting project. Her rustic, dark-wood table is home to an elegant vase of lilies and a sour cream and passionfruit cake is cooling in the kitchen (the recipe will feature on her blog, Retro Mummy, before it is eaten). Later, she'll pick up her eldest girl from school.
If you had met Sebire 10 years ago, you would not have foreseen the life she has today as a fully-fledged domestic goddess. At 26 she was working long hours as the credit analyst on a $1 billion portfolio with a leading Japanese investment bank. Today she shares baking, knitting and sewing projects with her 37,000 readers and the front room of her large, airy home has been converted into a sewing den piled high with pink, blue and green fabric samples and other crafting supplies. You could call it Stepford-esque.
But in a busy world, it has a strangely calming effect. Call Corrie Sebire a retro housewife and she won't be in the least offended. "I [love] life at home, baking, knitting, sewing, going to Tupperware parties," she writes on the blog. "It feels so '1950s housewife'."
She hasn't made her lifestyle choice – and it is definitely a choice – in a vacuum. Around the country, tertiary-educated women who grew up steeped in girl power and feminism have turned their backs on a career. They are pulling fresh scones from ovens, setting up backyard chicken coops and planning lessons for their home-schooled children.
They are posting their menu plans on lifestyle blogs, Instagramming their hand-picked flower arrangements and birthing crafting businesses from their spare rooms. You could call it retro, a retreat, or, depending on your cynicism levels, a regression. But indisputably, it's a slow but certain shift of consciousness towards valuing the home and the cosy, often nostalgic activities that take place within it. It's the new cult of domesticity, with a new breed of housewife at its helm.
US journalist Emily Matchar has chronicled this trend and the reasons behind it in her new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. Some women may be choosing the home as a response to the broken promises offered by the workplace: the onsite childcare and family-friendly flexihours we were all assured were just around the corner in the 1990s. Women's pay is still not equal to men's, with Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released in 2011 showing that women earn 83¢ for every dollar earned by males).
The Australian Work and Life Index 2012 reveals a bleak picture for women working full time: their dissatisfaction with work-life balance rose from 15.9 per cent in 2008 to 27.5 per cent in 2012. While Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, author of the recently released Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, urges us to simply strive harder, many women are discovering they just don't have the scrap left in them. At least in the home they can set their own hours and agendas and control outcomes. That has an empowerment all its own. Pass the oven mitts and pinking shears.
The retro housewife may be motivated by a growing unease about consumerism and materialism. Or it's a distrust of the food system or destruction of the environment that acts as the catalyst for bringing a family's food production in-house. Some see themselves as the best – if not the only – people qualified to teach their children. Many may think the world of pastel aprons and home-made biscuits – aka "lifestyle porn" – glorified on social media and blogs, is simply very appealing.
"I loved my job but I loved baking and cooking," says Sebire. "I really wanted to get married and have a baby "My job was so inflexible and you had to be seen to be at your desk. I know that I'd be sitting at my desk thinking about what was going on at home and either my job or my family life would be sacrificed. Jobs and a career will always be there, but my kids will only be little for so long."
She doesn't feel that her tertiary education has been wasted and says she is frustrated when people say she's turned her back on everything she learnt at university. "It's all education," she argues. "Education is important in itself."
Matchar's point is that pottering around at home and making something tangible is an emerging leisure pursuit – not just for stay-at-home mums like Sebire, but for everyone. Where Carrie Bradshaw's generation found fun at the bottom of a martini glass and a shopping spree, there are a lot of people now finding pleasure in a Saturday night with a muffin pan or a pot of paint. "To say that these phenomena are 'just trends' or to snark at them as the whims of privileged hipsters is to ignore this emerging bigger picture," writes Matchar. "Our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania speaks to a deep cultural longing and a profound shift in the way we view life."
On the north-west outskirts of Melbourne, far from her previous life in the inner city, former preschool teacher Kate Fairlie is tending her beehives, replanting her vegie garden for winter and trying out her latest craft project with her four children. "We didn't move with a plan to become self-sufficient or any great lofty ideals," she says. "[But we love] that our kids grow some of the food they eat and that they are growing up with lots of space and freedom."
In Sydney, US-born stay-at-home mum April Palmerlee has finished ferrying three of her four children to school, has put her youngest down for a sleep and is baking apple pie for the family's dessert. Everything in her home, from the family portraits and breakfast menu on the kitchen walls to the craft room, revolves around the children. Even adult dinner guests eat from a trestle table set up among the kids' stuff. For Palmerlee, it's all about providing round-the-clock face-time with her children aged two to 11, "teaching them our family's values".
In her previous life, the Ivy League-educated Palmerlee worked as the senior co-ordinator for International Women's Issues under Colin Powell in the Bush administration, building schools in Afghanistan and setting up programs to combat honour killings in Jordan. She was on a golden trajectory. But she will not accept that her new life as a housewife has any less value. "There's an expectation that a woman who is capable and educated and connected should be working professionally," she says. "And teaching your children how to be whole people is supposedly a lesser pursuit than contributing to the workforce."
Where could she have ended up if she'd stayed working in Washington? She gives a self-effacing smile.
"I might have become president."
At first pretty-as-a-picture glance, it's difficult to see a downside to this new enthusiasm for everything hearth and home. Slow food, devoted parental attention, a gentler imprint on the environment, a hazy Instagram filter washing over every vignette. Kate Fairlie's blog, Picklebums, as well as others such as A Beach Cottage, Meet Me at Mikes and Fat Mum Slim are filled with happy children collecting acorns, pastel baking projects and sunny paint-your-own-furniture DIYs. They make you want to move into the spare room. "The part of this movement that's about searching for authenticity is a really good thing," says social researcher and director of Ipsos Mackay Research Rebecca Huntley.
But it's hard to ignore that much of the new drive towards domesticity – save the odd bloke home-brewing beer – tends to cement gender stereotypes: husband working, wife keeping the home fires burning. Certainly neither April Palmerlee nor Corrie Sebire – both extraordinarily well-educated, successful women – considered staying in the workforce while their extraordinarily well-educated, successful husbands stayed home.
"I worry that this movement suggests a downturn in ambition for women," Matchar confides. "It's important that young women still see the workplace as a desirable option and fight for things like affordable childcare rather than retreat into the home."
Where our mothers and grandmothers saw paid work as the ultimate luxury – one that was often denied to them – what does the retreat to the home signal for feminism? Do we need to start worrying about the potential for this to impact on the way businesses feel about hiring and promoting women? If so, we're busily creating a very pretty monster.
There's also the suggestion that the neo-traditionalist women spearheading the domesticity movement hide a creeping pity for their career-driven contemporaries, still slogging away at what they see as a comparatively empty, and dated, Sex and the City existence. The stay-at-home mums and working mums have always eyed each other with faint suspicion, each fearing the other is living a more fulfilled life. Add home-made bread and a chicken coop and the battle lines are drawn deeper.
"There can be a lot of moralisation," says Matchar. "There's an idea that doing things around the home is a morally superior way to live; it's more authentic and more in line with how things were historically."
Sebire is familiar with the so-called "mummy wars" and is wary of entering the arena. "I'm well aware that a lot of women can't afford to give up work – I get emails about it all the time, so I have to be really careful not to make it sound like this is a choice for everyone," she says.
One of the women Matchar spoke to for her book speaks of an almost religious transformation that occurred the first time she baked bread: "The fact that I did that with yeast, water and flour ... was like getting a merit badge towards being a real person." Her voice, Matchar writes, was misty with wonderment.
When an "us" (the real people) and "them" (the imposters who don't knead their own sourdough) mentality starts to pervade a society's collective conscience, women start to feel they must choose sides – between home and work, home-grown and supermarket, using your hands and using your wallet. "The stresses," says Rebecca Huntley, "make them feel like they have to choose, where realistically most women do both and are reasonably pragmatic about what they can achieve, succeeding some days and not others."
Feminist and author Anne Summers is exasperated by the domestic revival. "If women want to quilt and craft and sort out their linen cupboards on a weekly basis that is their business. But don't claim it is a superior way to live," she says.
In her book The Misogyny Factor, to be released next month, Summers writes scathingly of a new generation of middle-class "yummy mummies": "How could it have come to this – and so quickly? Not even a generation after the women's movement fought for the right for married women to keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men, scores of women are walking away and saying, 'We'd rather be Mummies.'"
Writer and feminist commentator Clementine Ford agrees, and adds that while cupcake baking in and of itself is a blameless pursuit, giving up everything to devote oneself to unpaid domestic work is "self-sabotage". With one in three marriages ending in divorce, a woman who has cut herself off entirely from the workplace faces financial disadvantage and an uncertain future if she suddenly has to enter it again.
The reality is that a life of ladylike leisure is an economic impossibility for most women anyway. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the proportion of working mothers in Australia has risen from 77 per cent in 2006-07 to 79 per cent in 2010-11.
Most aren't buying into the domesticity movement entirely: it's more often expressed in piecemeal fashion – a sewing project here, a herb garden there. And that can be a wholly satisfying way to live, a happy antidote to the office. "A lot of aspects of domesticity, especially the parts that involve working with your hands instead of at a computer, are really fun," says Matchar.
What, if anything, will stop the domesticity movement dissolving in the manner of the peace-and-love ideals of the '60s or the power suits of the '80s, to be replaced by whatever is coming next? "I think elements of it will be long lasting," says Matchar. "The focus on sustainability is probably here to say, and I think this anti-consumerism sentiment is permanent."
But, she says, for the new domesticity to become more of a revolution than a regression, it needs to better build a base of equality – the day when it's just as common to see a man cooking a meal from scratch or stirring a vat of jam while his wife brings in the primary income.
But it's important to remember that the new homemaker is a very different breed to those who came before her. Betty Friedan's zombified housewife in The Feminine Mystique, shackled to her broom and benzodiazepines, is not the same as today's Housewife 2.0. She wasn't connected to other women via the web. She didn't have the opportunity to sharpen her tech skills by managing a multifaceted website, like Corrie Sebire, or discussing US policy developments via email with her former White House colleagues, as April Palmerlee is doing. You can take the skilled woman out of the workplace but you can't take the skills out of the woman.
The '50s housewife didn't choose to look for satisfaction in a frilly apron and flower arranging; that was her only choice. Now she has options. In fact, today's housewife may even find an unlikely champion in Friedan. "The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own," she said.
Do cupcakes count?
Lead-in photograph: Snapper Media. This page: hair and make-up by Wayne Chick; apron from Ici Et La, icietla.com.au.