Thursday, September 17, 2009


I remember reading in history class that specialization increases as civilizations become more advanced. And on a macro level, I see the necessity of this: if we were all still engaged 24/7 with the means of our own survival, who would be our engineers? our poets? our doctors? No, of course it makes sense that, individually and collectively, we have outsourced a great many tasks in order to be freed up to pursue those tasks for which we are uniquely qualified.

But at what cost? I was raised to believe that it was my hard-earned right to outsource as much of the drudgery of housekeeping to others, freeing me to pursue the high-powered career to which I would surely aspire. But what does it mean to outsource those tasks? Okay, it's true, I really hate to clean. Thankfully, I have machines that can help with a lot of these tasks -- dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum -- and I am infinitely grateful to them. And I am so glad that few women in this country have to waste multiple days a week scrubbing laundry by hand, hand-beating rugs, etc. But aren't all these convenient appliances part of why we are such slaves to electricity now? We're like a nation of junkies who keep rationalizing our need for more juice, rather than ever question whether all that juice is really good for us or not. And what if I, as I have done in the past, hire someone else to clean my house for me? On the one hand, I am providing a livelihood for someone. In Botswana, where I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood, it is considered the responsibility of those who are well-off to help provide a living for those who need work. I like the sentiment. But somehow I can't get over a kind of icky feeling when I pay someone else money to clean up after me.

When I was a single working mom, I was thrilled to outsource the feeding of my daughter and me to others. Whether it was those nice folks at Burger King, or the brilliant food scientists at Kraft and Stouffers, it was one less thing I had to juggle or worry about. Phew! What a load off! But oh my goodness, what is it that we were eating? Would it really have been so impossible for me to spend an hour or two a week preparing some simple, healthful recipes that I could have re-heated and re-configured throughout the week? What would I have lost (an hour or two of veg-in-front-of-the-TV time?), and what might I have gained?

There are so many things I am glad I don't have to do myself. I am grateful to the progress that has allowed me so many luxuries. But when I start to reclaim some of the tasks that I had blindly handed over to others, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways, I start to feel a groundedness, a connection to my own life and to my family, that was missing before.

Last Spring I made my four-year-old a dress out of $2 worth of fabric. She chose the pattern, she chose the fabric, and she was so delighted by the result -- even with its many irregularities. Seeing her wear that dress gives me a joy that cannot be matched by something purchased in a store.

And yesterday, I was going through the box of clothes to give away to our local thrift store, and decided the toddler needed a pair of jeans. So I repurposed an old pair of the teenager's jean shorts, cut some things out, sewed some new seams, added an elastic waist, and presto! A pair of pants, literally out of the discard pile, and they took me all of a half-hour to make. Now that's recycling.

I realize that it's quaint and fun to get to make a few items of clothing here and there for your kids, and quite another thing entirely to have no choice but to make everything your family wears or consumes. But again, getting my hands back into some of these tasks... taking a moment to be aware of how much I outsource and to whom... it has opened my eyes. We have all ceded a great deal of control over our own lives to others, and while much of that is necessary, it pays to be mindful of it.


  1. When I was about 9 or 11 we were lucky enough to be able to go into our local bomb shelter when the army was restocking th shelves. It was all canned and boxed food--that stuff lasts forever!! Did you know a Twinkie could last for almost 20 years? That was 30 years ago--and I've rarely touched an ounce of processed junk food since that visit!! As you said--what on earth are people eating??
    My mom was a seamstress and used to make all our dresses--we used to love the trip to the fabric shop! (I have no clue how to sew--I was raised to 'use my brain and pay others'! poor woman, she's a bit disappointed both daughters just wanted to be moms!)

  2. I love that dress! It's totally cute! I would love to learn how to sew...when I get the time...and I envy those who are so creative when it comes to sewing and recycling clothes like that. Those shorts are awesome!

    I drive by a neighbor's clothesline many days and, while I think it's great they dry their clothes on the line, I love the fact that I have a washer/dryer (and use all that saved time elsewhere.)