Burning Down the House: Resisting the Commodification of Motherhood and Domesticity

By Debra Thimmesch

Were I to catalog my belongings, the things that I have retained through the years, most all of them would be classified as artifacts of motherhood and family life. For me, their value is purely sentimental. Perhaps excluding objects that might be regarded as “ephemera” such as photographs and letters, most of the items that comprise my personal archive are reflective of capitalism’s explicit gendering of consumption, its conflation of the accumulation of material goods specific to the maintenance of the home and the private sphere – “reproduction,” in the parlance of Silvia Federici – with the feminine and, moreover, ideal woman­, wife­ and mother.

It goes without saying that the market value of these objects as commodities, negligible at best, is quite secondary to their worth in terms of their use-value irrespective of function. Indeed, when even emotion is susceptible to commodification, the encoding of specific material goods related to domesticity and motherhood creates a class of objects that function as embodied and sensuous products of material culture. In acquiring goods in this way, one attempts however unconsciously to manufacture sense experiences and to invest the objects with the power to shape emotions, memories, desires.

In her book, Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-­Century American Literature, Lori Merish makes the connection between explicitly gendered consumption and the accumulation and preservation of domestic­ and motherhood­-oriented material goods. [1] “This consumer ethic” of feminine domestic sociality and aestheticism, she writes, “emerged out of a synthesis of Protestant and liberal discourses about the social significance of the family, the status of women, and the importance of mediating structures–­­economic, social and aesthetic, ­­in ‘civilizing’ subjects and in promoting what eighteenth-­century theorists termed ‘civil society.’” [2] According to Merish, consumption and what she refers to as “sentimental ownership” are grounded in a “fantasy of intimate possession” that is “constructed as an autonomous response.” [3] Women’s largely impuissant consumption constitutes, she suggests, “a passional investment in property” in which a narrative of aesthetic and sentimental ownership unfolds outside of the context of potential capital appreciation.

Recently, the results of a study examining consumption patterns by mothers of older children were published. The study found that, overall, the “intersection between consumption and mothering beyond the years of childhood dependence” and “performances of mothering enacted through consumption” don’t actually end when adult children leave home. [4] The researchers concluded that the commodification of motherhood and the conflation of “good” mothering with a form of feminized consumption is in some ways nearly as strong as the mother-­child bond itself. Further, the study found that mothers whose identities remained bound to nurturance even after their adult children had left home found recourse in transforming themselves according to market dictates and social pressure into variations of the “ideal” consumer-mother. Importantly, the extent to which women are drawn into the explicitly feminized market depends on factors such as ethnicity, class, and marital status. [5]

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Gendered consumption and domestic labor, rather than operating in opposition to one another with consumption regarded as a leisure activity, are inextricably linked. “Consumption is also closely bound up,” argues Rosie Cox in her article, “House/Work: Home as a Space of Work and Consumption,” “with necessary activities and work, particularly in the home.” [6] Cox points out that products that were “aimed at reducing the drudgery of housework” were among the “first mass-produced consumer objects.” [7] Advertisers targeted homemakers in an effort to convince them that shopping for the home and the family was an important new component of their domestic labor. Injecting sentiment into advertising campaigns provided the necessary emotional impetus for female consumers to regard everything from buying a layette, purchasing the best cuts of meat, and acquiring the most up-to-date handmixer to selecting cleaning products and matching paint chips to slipcovers as loving gestures demonstrative of ideal motherhood, wifehood, domestic order. One need think only, for instance, of advertisements for laundry detergents with smiling, exasperated but good-humored mothers rescuing the muddied garments of playful toddlers and dutiful wives fretting over the limp, sweat-stained collars of their hardworking husbands to make such a connection.

Of course, gendered domestic consumption extends far beyond the purchase of items related directly to meeting the basic needs of the family but even the acquisition of non-essentials, from wallpaper to school pictures, toys to decorative objects, remains predominantly the responsibility of the mother, the wife, and thus merely another aspect of unpaid domestic labor. One little discussed component of unpaid domestic labor linked directly to housework, to the maintenance of the family home, is that of preservation. In other words, beyond ensuring the health and well-being of the family, it has historically been the task of the mother to function not only as a consumer in the domestic sphere, but to accumulate and preserve objects that affirm the family’s place in the larger context of capitalist society first by provisioning and then by archiving material goods that lend themselves to the compilation of an evolving history of family life.

From the outset, marriage and family life are contextualized by consumption. For example, wedding showers and gifts celebrating the ceremony fix the couple in a cycle of marriage- and family-related consumption. Baby showers confirm that the couple is proceeding appropriately along the trajectory of cyclical and exponential consumption — quite literally producing a fresh generation of consumers. Indeed, In the process of sorting through and whittling down my own largely unconsciously compiled and curated archive of motherhood and family life, I’ve wondered whether this activity might actually be regarded as a form of resistance to the commodification of motherhood and, more specifically, maternal emotion or sentiment.

In terms of domestic and emotional labor, despite their entry into the workplace and their comprising of nearly half of it today (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor), women are still performing 83% of the housework and child­-related care or, as Silvia Federici refers to such work, “reproduction.” “When I speak of reproduction,” explained Federici in an interview for Reimagine Journal, “I don’t speak only in the sense of procreation, although that is part of it, but of all the activities necessary for the reproduction of human life­­–from housework to subsistence agriculture, to the production of culture and care for the environment.” [8] Not only is women’s labor essential to the nation’s economy, if incorporated into the GDP, the larger picture of contributive labor broken down by gender looks very different indeed. For instance, a 2010 study that examined nonmarket activities like domestic labor that have productive value between 1965 and 2010 found that “incorporating the value of nonmarket household production raises the level of nominal GDP 39 percent in 1965 and 26 percent in 2010.” [9] The notable decline is reflective of a decrease across the board in the number of hours an average household put into domestic labor or home production aside; but it also emphasizes the unacknowledged impact of predominantly unpaid domestic labor (there’s no equivalent study on emotional labor just yet) on the nation’s economy. The study also concluded that, while both men and women were gradually doing less household work from 1965 to 2010, by 2010, women were still spending twice as much time doing household work as were men — 26 hours to 17 hours. In fact, the only domestic activity men gradually began doing more of was cooking. [10]

Given that domestic and emotional labor are either unpaid or poorly compensated monetarily, the commodification of motherhood, single and partnered, has created a framework in which reproductive work is both prescribed and rewarded; ironically, the reward or compensation is almost wholly emotional; in short, one has the knowledge of a job well done. So, many of us essentially hoard sentiment. In that respect, I’ve considered whether or not material goods abundant in sentiment or “use value” but devoid of market value might function in aggregate as a form of compensation for otherwise unpaid domestic and emotional labor, the crucial reproduction on which the capitalist system relies yet actively devalues. Our caches of sentimental objects may well function as a counterpoint to property in the capitalist marketplace. Indeed, in her book, Women and Personal Property in the Victorian Novel, Deborah Wynne discusses women’s “intimate relationship” with what she calls “miniature property,” which she identifies as “portable objects rather than real estate.” [11] Such objects, she goes on to argue, are in a sense salvaged from the pyre of Marx’s “bad fetishism” insofar as they function as what Laura Mulvey sees as, argues Wynne, “an armor of fetishistic defence against taboos of the feminine that patriarchy depends on.” [12] In short, both sources of fetishism, “repression of the mother’s body” (Freud) and “erasure of the worker’s labour as value” (Marx) in their different ways “conceal,” says Mulvey, “structures of sexual difference and value.” [13] The “armor” is also camouflage.

Wynne explains the distinction between “good” and “bad fetishism” in relation to the concept of sentimental materialism:

In a society, then, where a valued social identity depends upon the ownership of property, the fetish-substitute for women takes the form of any object which can be possessed as property.

Such objects are, she points out, “unlikely to be directly named as ‘property’.” Unlike Freud’s definition of fetishism, however, women’s fetishism, suggests Wynne, is as much a social as a psychological strategy. Apart from the potential of such collecting or amassing to counter feelings of dependency (upon a spouse for material support), the objects and the act of accrual itself promote a sense of agency and situate the collection in opposition to and outside of the capitalist market economy. By preserving specifically only those items that in one way or another fundamentally resist commodification and are instead the fruits of the socially and economically necessary but unpaid labor of reproduction, the woman, the wife, the mother, asserts the objects’ inviolability in the context of capitalist consumption. Ironically, they are then both inviolable–safe, beyond corruption–and essentially valueless.

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Therefore, this transformation to fetish-substitute is arguably an act of subversion and resistance that declares: “These are the only material goods worth preserving.” Not unlike the objects of Walter Benjamin’s “collector,” who rejects the use-value of a given item (refusing it commodity status and, instead, situates it within an allegorical realm of displaced, constructed meaning, of sentimental materialism) maternal objects, including those in my own collection, are transformed or rescued from banality and given a new story: not an allegory of maternal sacrifice but rather of resistance. [14] Far more than a challenge to the commodification of sentiment, of emotion and intimacy, this act of resistance functions as a rejection of the process in which, as anthropologist Nicole Constable puts it, “intimate and personal relations­­–especially those linked to households and domestic units, the primary units associated with reproductive labor” are “explicitly commodified, linked to commodities.” [15]

The Personal and the Portable

I have considered at length my own archive of motherhood (single motherhood) and family life in relation to a specific incident from my family history: When I was about twelve-years-old, my paternal grandfather died, leaving my grandmother with the modest, two-story farmhouse that had been his childhood home. Throughout their life together, as they raised their seven children, saw them leave home, welcomed grandchildren and great­-grandchildren, and settled into old age together, my grandmother accumulated things.

After the bedrooms on the upper floor of the farmhouse were no longer in use, my grandparents converted them, probably more by default than in a deliberate, methodical way, to storage. In those rooms, an assortment of objects burgeoned into a nearly unmanageable collection. In the days following my grandfather’s funeral, mostly male family members began the process of clearing out the farmhouse (it had been decided that my grandmother would be moved to a much smaller house in a little town a few miles away from the farm). On the day of this remorseless purge of so much of the material evidence of my grandparents’ life together accumulated primarily by my grandmother, box after box was transported from the house to a makeshift fire pit–a concrete feeding trough in the farmyard. Items that had been deemed to be of no particular value were incinerated in a matter of hours. As the fire burned, my grandmother stood at the kitchen window facing the farmyard, watching silently, stoically.

That image of my grandmother–­­her back to me, framed by the window, the fire across the farmyard forming a heartbreaking mandorla­­–has haunted me for much of my life. I’ve often wondered how she felt: Who decided what would or should be salvaged? What were the criteria? I’m sure nobody asked for her consent before they began; for better or worse, my family wasn’t inclined to extend themselves emotionally much at all.

Over the past nearly ten years, I’ve methodically, incrementally been actively dismantling the so-called “nest,” the remnants of a 20-year-long homelife with my now-adult son. As I began the process of personal divestment, of sorting through my own belongings, I have given a great deal of thought to my own criteria for either retaining an object or letting it go. My purge has not been preceded by the death of a loved one. Part pragmatic and part ideological, my concerted effort to reject consumerism has prompted me, long after I left my last rented apartment and most of my possessions carted off to storage, to reduce my belongings to an acceptable (to me) minimum.

After a series of attempts at downsizing, what remains of my material possessions can be contained in seven or eight 18­-gallon, plastic storage bins, a dozen or so boxes, and three large suitcases, all contained either in a small storage locker or my sister’s basement. With the exception of clothing (stored seasonally), few if any of the items I’ve retained could be regarded as essential to daily life: family photographs, a few articles of my son’s baby and toddler clothing, his baby books, homework and art he produced through the years, some of his favorite stuffed animals and toys, for instance. I have tea pots from my maternal grandmother’s collection, the majority of which came to me as rejects (by other family members)  However, since for me they had been fixtures in my grandparents’ various homes for so many years I wanted them for their familiarity and the emotional link they provided with my grandmother. This is the stuff of ubiquitous steamer trunks in dark attic and basement corners.

In their inherent portability, these objects and the collection they comprise are not tied to a particular place but, rather, to the experiences they memorialize. As I dismantle the twenty-year-old nest I constructed–quite literally from bits and pieces (thrift-store finds, inherited cast-offs, etc.) in keeping with my single mother’s budget–I have negotiated my release from the complex social, political and economic expectations of me connected with the departure from the family home of adult offspring; in this way, I am, I suspect, forestalling the socially mandated grief that’s supposed to set the tone for the remainder of my life.

It hasn’t escaped me that, to some extent, the ambivalence with which I regard my archive has a great deal to do with my resistance to amassing materials objects, of acquiring goods, to the never-ending cycle of conspicuous consumption. However, I am aware of that fact that, as a counterpoint to my avowed anti­-materialism, there is the conviction that the objects I have saved are significant to solely in terms of their “use” or “utility” value and their their capacity to conjure memories of experiences: They are the substance of sentimental materialism. Of course, the story that I’ve constructed of my collection of fetish-substitutes as it were is acutely personal, as was the story of my grandmother’s own collection. How I would have loved to have been privy to my grandmother’s story. With a child’s curiosity, understanding also that it was forbidden, I secretly picked through pieces of it when I snooped in the rooms on the upper floor of the farmhouse. Much of it was, of course, inexplicable to me and ultimately erased by her own offspring. Perhaps in the end I hold fast to my own things, my collection, because I simply want to have the option of burning it myself.

Works Cited

[1] Lori Merish, Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth­-Century American Literature, Duke University Press, 2000, 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Juliana Mansvelt, Mary Breheny, and Christine Stephens, “Still being ‘Mother’? Consumption and identity practices for women in later life,” Journal of Consumer Culture, September 2, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rosie Cox, “House/Work: Home as a Space of Work and Consumption,” Geography Compass 7/12 (2013), 821.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Silvia Federici, Lisa Rudman, and Marcy Rein, “The Means of Reproduction: An Interview with Silvia Federici,” Race, Poverty and the Environment/Reimagine Journal, vol. 19, no. 2, 2012, 55.

[9] Benjamin Bridgman, Andrew Dugan, Mikhael Lal, Matthew Osborne, and Shaunda Villones, “Accounting for Household Production in the National Accounts, 1965–2010,” Survey of Current Business, May (2012), 23.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Deborah Wynne, Women and Personal Property in the Victorian Novel, Chapter Two: “Circulation and Stasis: Feminine Property in the Novels of Charles Dickens,” Ashgate, 2010.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Perspectives), Indiana University Press, 1996.

[14] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, foreword by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968, and Walter Benjamin, “Edward Fuchs, Collector and Historian,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and E. Gebhardt, New York, 1982.

[15] Nicole Constable, “The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex, and Reproductive Labor,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2009, 38, 50.

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