The other day, I heard a really good podcast interview of Tiffany Dufu, the women’s leadership guru and powerhouse author of “Drop the Ball.” Because Tiffany is, like me, an African American working mom with a Ghanaian husband, I wanted to feel camaraderie. Her message – that modern women should learn to do less and delegate more, to rely on their “village” so that they can focus more energy and attention on achieving their highest visions – was solid. I wanted to support the work that she is doing to help women and girls, so much so that I quickly hopped over to my local bookshop and grabbed the bestseller off the shelf in order to get a closer look. Thumbing through each chapter, I searched desperately for a hook. I wanted badly to relate. But the truth was that in many respects, I couldn’t.
While Tiffany prescribes ways that women can focus less on household chores and child care in order to achieve more greatness in the world, I have been feeling a strong shift in the opposite direction. As Tiffany elaborated on how important it was for her to attend evening and weekend work events, but no longer a priority for her to keep up with her kids’ social calendars, I bristled. And when she described leaving her children for three days in order to work on her book and travel to business meetings, she lost me. No judgment on her (her professional accomplishments are amazing), but I couldn’t imagine a worse nightmare for myself right now. The whirlwind schedule of back-to-back meetings and cross-country jaunts in order to make this connection, attend that conference, present this paper, or start that project…I have been there, done that. It was fun, but exhausting. And I do not have an urge to return to the period of my life where I sought my sense of inspiration, accomplishment, and excitement from the world outside of my home.
The most recent chapter in my own life has brought a move away from the buzz of a downtown apartment nestled conveniently between the kids’ schools, my university job, and a bustling corridor filled with shops, boutiques, museums, and chic cafes. At this time last year, that apartment had been a dream come true. I could walk my rounds to the public library, the coffee shop, the co-working office, and the health food store in less than 30 minutes (a REAL plus for someone like me who loves pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods). Every day, I would stroll 10 minutes away to the metro station and catch the bus to work, to avoid having to pay the dreaded $700/year fee for a university parking permit. And whenever downtown held its colorful music or cultural festivals throughout the year, my family and I had front row seats. It was like hosting thousands of guests in our yard without having to send the invitations, pay for the food, or clean up the mess.
Downtown life served us well, but when we got an invitation from a friend earlier this year to check out a cabin in the woods, something told me to give it a shot. The owners were a young couple with a daughter the same age as our twin girls, and they were looking to cultivate an intentional community. The cabin was one of five cradled within 30 acres of eucalyptus and redwood forest, and the whole place was off the grid. In the 10 years they’d owned the property, this couple had set up solar power for all five cabins, built a geo-dome to accompany the cabins, converted a large house on the property into a community room, developed a shared garden space, started a cooperative chicken coop, turned a huge ditch into a swimming hole, and layered the whole place with family-friendly diversions like a swing over the creek, a zipline, a climbing wall, a giant trampoline, and a cob pizza oven (my personal favorite). Not to mention that they began hosting monthly music concerts in a cave located in the center of the property.
But the best part, when I went to go check the place out, was the quaint little two-story cabin that would become ours, with its wood-burning stove and built-in bookshelves and balcony overlooking the treetops. It was small for a six-person family (500 square feet), but felt spacious because of the lofted bedrooms and the huge windows that let bright sunlight pour right into every corner. The back door led straight to the communal garden, and the front one right into the woods.
One day it was raining, and I was feeling on the fence about whether to give up our sweet downtown digs for this “backwater shack” (my mom’s words) where we would have to chop firewood to stay warm, use compost toilets (which are basically buckets with sawdust in them), and share a bathhouse with six other households. I took the 15 minute drive toward the property, turned into the long wooded driveway that seemed to serve as a portal to another realm, and headed the half mile up the windy road where the cabin sat perched atop a hill.
“Why would we do this?” I kept asking myself, as I anticipated what my family back in Ohio would worry about. A Black family moving out into the middle of the woods with a bunch of White “hippies” to go poop in buckets and live the way slaves did – growing food, washing clothes by hand, and living without electricity. Why the hell were we going backwards? Is this why I got a PhD? Was this my California dream? Who the hell uses a landline phone anymore, anyway? The kids would hate me. I’d turn into an Ewok. I’d starve and freeze to death, simultaneously. Our neighbors would murder us with axes used for firewood, and then feed us to their chickens. We’d never be heard from again.
Then I parked the car and walked up the hill, past the chickens squawking in the coop, through the lily-laced garden and past the bee hives, down the stone steps and around the plum tree where someone had strewn ropes of tiny, shimmering mirrors through the branches to reflect the sunlight. The rain was rushing into a ravine along the hill and created the sound of a babbling brook as I arrived at the back of the cabin. I stopped and stared at the simple wooden structure, rustic but warm, it’s double-doors trimmed in an earthy brown that instantly spoke to me of home.
“Yeah, this is our place.” I heard myself say. How could we not do this? It was unmistakably us. It would require some transition, but it was us. I resolved to head back downtown and slowly break up with the apartment.
And so that is how, over the course of the past four months, we have come to be forest-dwellers. The learning curve for living off the grid is a little steep but well worth it. The community of folks here – a combination of couples and singles, entrepreneurs and non-profiteers, men and women, natives and transplants – have pitched in to help us get settled and feel welcomed. The cob pizza oven was put to good use in our honor. Although I still have some boxes to unpack, this place is now officially home for us. And even though it feels like a world away from our old life in the heart of town, we’re actually still close enough to the city to be talked into frequent outings and obligations, which is what leads me back to my point about Tiffany Dufu.
Perhaps like Tiffany and the executive women she coaches, I do feel a strong urge to actualize my gifts and make a meaningful impact in the world. I certainly believe that I could use some clarity on what matters most to me, and how to best direct my attention and energy toward that (while letting go of less important things). But for me, the things that I want to let go of are not the household chores, child care, and daily survival tasks like cooking (these types of things, Tiffany recommends outsourcing so that women can focus on professional goals). For me, these are the very things that feel like they are leading me closer toward what I care about most – creating a loving and orderly home for my children which affirms them, provides them space and opportunities for enrichment, and helps them develop into healthy and happy adults with a strong identity and sense of belonging. I can’t do that if I am constantly leaving the house to go pursue some work in the world and try to make an impact upon other individuals and institutions. I CAN do that by focusing on my immediate sphere of influence and on the four little people over which I KNOW I can have a major influence.
I grew up with a fully employed mom and in fact, I didn’t know of any women in my family who didn’t work at least one job outside of the home. African American women have been working “outside of the home” since our arrival to this country and there was never a doubt in my mind that I would have a career of my own. I remember, though, observing that my mom was always tired and I secretly wished that she would take more days off to hang out with me and be more present in my school and community life. She did the best that she could, given that we were a working class family highly dependent upon her income and insurance benefits (my dad, the entrepreneur, made decent income but could not provide good deals on our health and life insurance like my mom’s government job could).
As a teen, I didn’t have household chores because I was too busy working and volunteering outside of my home, earning money and collecting that resume-building work experience that I was sure would eventually lead up to a worthwhile adult life. When I later worked as a psychotherapist at college counseling centers, I noted that despite their privilege of higher education and having had all the enrichment and recreational activities money could buy, many of my young adult clients were miserable people who whined and complained mainly about a lack of connection with others. They had relationship problems with peers and significant others that more often than not traced back to a lack of being fully seen, heard, and supported by their busy (and professionally successful) parents. I wondered if these college students’ parents had any idea that they were suffering so much, and I hoped to heaven that my kids would not one day be sitting in some therapist’s office struggling with these same deep-seated issues.
So while I have had fun working in community organizations, building businesses, earning degrees, and designing my custom career path, my latest aspiration is one that seems so mundane and so un-sexy that in the age of “Lean In” and “Do You,” it seems almost heretical. My latest aspiration, passion, and purpose is to simply STAY HOME, CLEAN MY HOUSE, AND RAISE MY KIDS.
And before I lose my Woke Card…yes, I am still a feminist and a womanist and an activist. I still believe that women should have the right to do whatever the hell we want, whether we wish to be in the boardroom or the bedroom or the forest or the fields. I believe that developing ourselves as well-rounded and whole human beings is the first task of every person, especially those that wish to go on and raise other human beings. So I am not arguing that I, or any other woman, should be relegated to positions of servitude in order to make life convenient and comfortable for other people.
What I am saying is that for me, in this stage of my life (just turned 36, thank you!) is that I am feeling a call into my home. I can’t actually say “back home” because I’ve never been a homebody. And I actually believe that this fact, that I have spent most of my teenage and adult life attempting to find my Self and my Purpose “out there” in the world of academia, activism, and business (and busy-ness), is exactly why this latest chapter feels like such a new frontier to me.
Being a child of the early ’80s, I am at the forefront of the Millenial generation, and I watched classes like “Home Economics” and “Wood Shop” disappear from school curricula right before my eyes. I never learned to sew from my mom, or fix a toilet from my dad, I just figured I’d grow up and pay for other people to do those things for me. But now, saddled with student loan debt and a housing market that makes it increasingly hard for me to outsource anything, I feel a deep longing to go back and reclaim those basic life skills like cooking, cleaning, mending, making, and creating that were simply a given in almost every prior generation.
I’ve started growing some food in the little garden outside of our cabin, and helping my neighbors to care for the chickens so that we get fresh, organic eggs for free each week. Pretty soon I will make my own bread and start preserving summer fruits for use throughout the winter months. These are basic things, but there is a learning curve to them that I find new and challenging. I know how to write a dissertation and design a website, but I’ve never learned to make my own jam or pickles.
My husband has been apprenticing with the property manager, who lives in the cabin a little up the hill from ours, and hopes to make a table for the kids from a scrap piece of lumber they came across in the woods one day. We’re both learning a ton about solar power and how to conserve water, energy, and money by using less and sourcing differently. The kids are still wrapping their minds around the fact that our uneaten food scraps from the kitchen will compost over time into soil that will help the veggies and flowers grow in our garden, producing more food for the kitchen.
When my job asks me to stay late or friends ask me to go out, I know that they don’t quite understand how our rhythms have had to change as we adjust to our new home. Coming home too late means that I miss my opportunity to interact with the hens and collect eggs without disturbing them. It means not starting the fire in enough time to heat the house by sundown and keep us warm throughout the night. It means not being able to see our way up the wooded path to our home without a headlamp. It means missing a community dinner or casual check-ins with our neighbors as they check their mailbox or bring out their recycling. Leaving home on a Saturday for an away soccer game or a birthday party means missing crucial daylight time in the garden and losing critical hiking time with the boys. It means not getting the wash up to sun-dry or the dishes scrubbed and ready for dinner prep. It means not having enough time to work on that new recipe, or that carpentry work, or that crochet project I told the girls we could do today. The boys going to a friends’ sleepover disrupts our entire family flow the next morning, when there are a number of household chores to be done and we need all hands on deck. Even the workshops that I was offering for my own business, which require tons of prep time and mental space, have become a burden. Me staying out late on a Saturday night means sleeping through the next morning’s dawn chorus of chickadees and stellar jays, and missing the sunrise over the garden with my hot cup of coffee. I don’t want to miss that. So I don’t want to go out, or stay out, or be off the property for any longer than is necessary for me to pick up the kids from school, some chicken feed and a few library books. It’s a glorious day when the sky is clear and so is my Google calendar.
I also have no desire whatsoever to hire other people to keep my house looking and feeling like I want it to. Tiffany Dufu’s remedy for what she calls women’s “Home Control Disorder” is to hire help. I’d rather save the money and actually increase my sense of ownership over the state of my home (since this hasn’t been a priority for me up until now). I actually crave long stretches of time to devote to dishes, laundry, cooking, tidying, reading, gardening, and meandering around the woods collecting flower petals (for the girls’ new flower pressing kit, of course).
So anyway, this entire post is just a long way to say that I am staying home. I love my friends, my work, and my community, but as spring comes into full bloom I find myself celebrating a new beginning in a new home with a new set of interests and guiding principles. And by “new,” I mean ancient and perennial. I mean the abiding and enduring need for a sense of connection, mastery, and freedom that comes from learning to establish order and purpose within our own spheres first. I mean the sense of grounded-ness that comes with having our lives dictated by the rhythms of seasons and biological needs rather than by the ticking of clocks, ringing of cell phones, and demands of institutions.
It’s increasingly hard for me to care (even a little bit) about when I’m supposed to be at work or if there’s a festival going on somewhere downtown. And although that feels dangerous in a culture that wants us all increasingly networked and plugged in, it also feels right. Maybe my parents’ morbid prediction wasn’t so far off. I will disappear into the woods and never be heard from again. But it will be because I’m spending my hours mesmerized by the way the sun’s rays filter through the oak leaves like golden streams, and following my kids as they trudge through endless fields of sweet-smelling wildflowers.
An AfroGranola like me wouldn’t have it any other way.