Extreme Housewives
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Extreme Housewives

A small but passionate group of women all across America have embraced the kind of back-to-basics homemaking our grandmothers did -- from scratch, by hand, grown in the backyard. And they've never been happier.

Suburban Simplicity

The word "housewife" is a funny term. It used to be a label a woman wore proudly -- to be a housewife meant you had the good fortune to stay at home and focus on your house and your kids. Later it became an insult: You weren't a serious or accomplished person if you were "just a housewife." TV has done its own riff on the word, making Real Housewives a bit of a cultural joke (and a national obsession). But now a new group of women is giving the word a makeover. The goal? To embrace domesticity and take it back to its roots.

These women value a simple lifestyle that's healthier and less threatening to the planet than the one most of us live. They grow or raise much of their family's food, not just because it's more nutritious but because doing so also limits their carbon footprint. They may grind their own flour, make their own soap, or hang their laundry out to dry, partly to save money and partly because they believe that a more sustainable existence is a more fulfilling one. The three women profiled here are typical of "real" housewives across the country. You might say that their happiness, like their tomatoes, is entirely homegrown.

Suburban Simplicity

As a brand manager for Johnsonville Sausage, Carol Christensen rode in private jets, chose from a closetful of designer shoes, and pulled down a six-figure salary. Though the Wisconsin mother of two thrived on her high-energy, high-paying job, she had some nagging misgivings. "I was so busy when I was working I was just throwing money at my kids to keep them entertained," says Christensen, 43, of her teenage son and daughter. "And we weren't eating healthy either. As a food marketer I knew better, but I didn't live better."

At work she was involved in developing new food products. It was an eye-opening experience, one that made her aware of where the food on her plate came from. It inspired Christensen to seek alternative sources, so she began visiting small organic farms. "The food they grew always tasted amazing," she says. "The farmers were probably making less than $25,000 a year, but they still looked so happy. And their wives seemed content, too, even when they were outside hand-washing laundry."

Christensen and her husband, Brian, a corporate insurance manager for the bath-fixture company Kohler, decided they wanted more for their family than just the spoils of big paychecks. So in the spring of 2009 she quit her job to devote time to her kids and to carve out a life that would be more meaningful and self-sufficient. Her first order of business? Planting a garden. Now she grows numerous kinds of organic salad greens, peas, fava beans, herbs, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and what she can't cultivate on her one-acre property she buys at local organic farms. "The land and the soil are really God's creations," Christensen says, "and I believe that taking care of the land in this way is a spiritual act. It makes me feel more in tune with God."

Cooking was the second major change. She prepares meals from scratch -- even rolling out and shaping her own pasta dough -- and uses only in-season vegetables. The family rarely dines out anymore, "a huge change for us," Christensen says. "Whether it's gardening, cooking, or visiting farms, my family now spends much more time together and we're a lot closer."

Inspired to spread the bounty, they began volunteering at the local Sheboygan Salvation Army, preparing healthy meals at home and taking them to the shelter for families in need. One evening they made what they thought was going to be way too much salad and figured they'd have plenty of leftovers. "The greens were the first thing to go," says Christensen. "That's when I realized there was this need for good, healthy food." She began to think about how she could use her business skills and in the spring of 2009 cofounded a nonprofit called Nourish, which connects local organic farmers and volunteer chefs with local low-income and homeless families.

Christensen admits that the transition to a less-processed life hasn't always been easy. Since she left her job the family has had to cut back on expenses. They now line-dry their laundry and follow a new rule -- anyone who leaves a light or appliance on does 10 push-ups. They also bike to their destinations during summer months (her son rides 13 miles each way to football and guitar practice, while her husband rides his bike to work). As for those former weekends spent at the mall? They're a distant memory. "It's been nine months since I've bought any new clothes for myself, and it sounds ridiculous but it's been hard!" she says. "But not buying is the ultimate in sustainability, so if I just keep telling myself that, then it's all good."

The Urban Homesteader

Kelly Coyne and her husband, Erik Knutzen, have a chicken coop, two beehives, and a produce section's worth of vegetables behind their home. It may not sound like much until you consider that the couple's backyard is a mere 1,800 square feet in downtown Los Angeles. "We couldn't have predicted this when we moved into our house 10 years ago," says Coyne, 43. "It started with one tomato plant. But as many gardeners know, tomatoes really are the gateway drug to more and more vegetables. We realized that whatever we grew would taste better than whatever we bought."

Today their small lot is crammed with a bounty of vegetables and fruit trees, which they irrigate with runoff from their washing machine. A chicken run stretches along one side of their yard, most of which is dedicated to growing edible or otherwise-useful plants. The sloping front yard is terraced and is home to fruit trees and edible cactus. There are also four vegetable beds out front. Hops (which the couple use for brewing beer) grow next to the front porch and grapes cover the arbor off the back one. What they can't grow themselves they get at local farmers' markets. But even those purchases are limited because Coyne also makes her own bread, yogurt, and cleaning products. She even makes jelly out of the cactus fruit and fashions her own lip balm out of beeswax and olive oil.

The husband-and-wife team say their decision to live the pioneer lifestyle is as much about healthier living as it is about a healthier planet. It's more time-consuming to grow their own food, for sure -- in addition to the daily garden chores, they must compost, irrigate, tend the chickens, and replant for each of their two growing seasons. But the couple say they don't want to support companies that sell genetically engineered foods or give their money to corporate farms that treat animals inhumanely. "Every day I'm voting with my actions by not buying foods from irresponsible companies," says Coyne. "I think the more we make these kinds of choices, the better the world will be."

Coyne, a former administrative director for the Museum of Jurassic Technology, now makes a living by writing about her urban homesteading life. With Knutzen, who left his job as a researcher for an arts organization two years ago, she's written books on living simply (The Urban Homestead and Making It) and cohosts the blog Homegrownevolution.com. The site is a go-to spot for like-minded families, and there you'll find conservative Christian homesteaders and off-the-grid liberals posting comments on everything from pickle crocks to peat moss. "In the past we would have learned these homesteading skills at our grandmothers' knees, but that's not the case anymore," says Coyne. "We now learn from books and other people. We advise each other on sick chickens and the best seedlings, and help one another out on big projects."

There's another component to the couple's unorthodox lifestyle that drives Coyne. It's that sense of exploration -- and accomplishment -- that comes with living somewhat off the grid. "This is a way to keep learning throughout life," she says. "I don't believe this kind of in-home labor is demeaning. I believe it's the most important labor that can be done. Sewing, fermenting, these things are all arts and it's their inherent nobility that keeps life interesting."

Down on the Farm

The Weldon family used to live in a quiet Cleveland suburb, where Laura was a social worker for a nonprofit, Mark ran a home-based computer business, and all four of their kids attended local schools. But their lives changed drastically in 1996 when their oldest child called from a pay phone at his high school to report that a fellow student had shown him a gun.

Traumatized, they pulled their children out of the public system and began their journey into homeschooling. That life change required Weldon, 50, to cut her hours at the nonprofit so she could stay home with the kids. Though the family benefited from all the newfound quality time together, they struggled financially. So Weldon and her husband made another bold decision: They moved out of the suburbs and into the country. They'd always dreamed of living on a farm. Weldon loved growing things and already kept a garden behind her house. And she was attracted to the possibility of being closer to nature and living more simply.

So in 1997 they moved to a rural Ohio township with a population of 3,000 and no traffic lights. With the help of how-to books and new neighbors' guidance the Weldons slowly learned how to live off the land -- manning a chicken coop, planting and harvesting their own crops, and keeping a cow and bees. "We've made a lot of mistakes along the way, but nature teaches you lessons if you pay attention," Weldon says. Now the family has three cows, 60 chickens, and some 100,000 honeybees. Mark, who gave up his computer business eight years ago, is employed as a bee inspector for two Ohio counties.

These days Weldon cultivates her own cheese and yogurt from cow's milk, cans her own sauces, and grinds her own flour. She also makes cleaning and personal hygiene products out of ingredients many of our great-grandmothers used. Her laundry soap includes borax and her tooth powder is made of baking soda, sea salt, and a tiny pinch of stevia for sweetness.

Over the years the family has also learned valuable lessons on how to live frugally. They keep their old cars and tractors running with constant tinkering. "For me, staying farther away from the consumer-driven lifestyle is liberating," says Weldon, who has recently published a book called Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. "I'm not saying I never go out to dinner or never buy clothes. I'm saying happiness is not hidden in what can be purchased."

Chopping wood, baling hay, and tending livestock isn't easy and it's hardly making the family wealthy. But living large was never the point. "We haven't had a family vacation in 14 years, but we eat meals together every day and work together to keep our homestead running," Weldon says. "We laugh and talk even while we're stacking firewood. We enjoy the fresh air -- and a shared sense of accomplishment."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2011.