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.
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."