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The (Real) Reason Trad Influencers are Having a Moment

It’s not just the spectacle that is intriguing to young women.

Vintage,Photo,Of,Big,Happy,Family,Dining,Outdoor,(fifties)
Credit: Elżbieta Sakowska

I recently gave a guest lecture to a class of undergraduate students. The subject was seed oils, but a lot of the students, and especially the women, wanted to talk about healthy food in general, especially where to begin in the colossal task of bringing food back to the local level. They knew about subsidiarity and the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, but how does one find the time to cook three nourishing meals a day? How does one afford it?

These are some of the biggest questions facing the next generation of families. Thanks to social media, most young men and women care far more about their food than the previous generation. Nevertheless, few know where to begin. Handicapped by their parents’ generational lack of knowledge when it comes to productive households, they are unfamiliar with once ordinary tasks, from butchering to food preservation; even the most zealous cast about with little hap. 

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This is especially true in the world of childrearing. My generation was not raised to be caretakers and homemakers; we were raised to be workers, and were assured while we specialized in Mid-Atlantic History from 1700–1800 that someone else would specialize in raising our kids for less than our take-home pay. Like our parents, we were bred with the expectation that children come after a woman’s career is established, and that fertility is a wild horse to be bridled rather than a delicate garden to tend. Unlike our parents, many of us were raised by women who had already done the same. Due more to the water we swim in than some internal fault, the nurturing work of a homemaking mother is at least two steps removed from most of us. We have no real concept of how to do most of it because we have so rarely seen it done.

Where there was once a matriarch, there is now an influencer. So-called “tradwives” and mothers, particularly those with an above-average number of children, are having a moment on social media—enough of a moment that the reporters at Vox noticed and felt the need to explain why. While the average American birth rate remains firmly below two per woman, accounts like that of Hannah Neeleman, the Mormon mother of eight behind Ballerina Farm, rake in millions of views each day. What is the draw?

For Vox, of course, the quiverfull is a spectacle, a cause for gaping mouths. True, when “What My 11 Kids Ate Today” is nachos and almond milk, we can agree that the appeal is something more like ogling than a desire to live traditionally. Yet other accounts are different. Neeleman’s girls, for their part, are often in dresses, as is Neeleman herself, even for the task of morning milking. She makes pasta from her own hens’ eggs, grinds meat from her livestock, makes butter, and combines it all with homemade tomato sauce for the most inspiring spaghetti and meatballs you’ve ever seen, all while gently shepherding her children to help her with the tasks. 

For the over 7 million (almost certainly majority female) viewers watching online, for whom “from scratch” has been used to mean a store-bought jar of tomato sauce and a box of dried pasta, and the word “kids” is associated with chaos and degradation, this is nothing short of revolutionary. How many are wondering for the first time if this work is much more glorious than the drudgery it has been sold as? How many are wishing they had a way to sign up for the job?

This is not what a Vox writer wants readers to come away with. If women are interested in getting off birth control and filling a household with babies and borscht, according to Vox, it is because they have fallen for the aesthetic of “care work as elegance,” when in reality it is unaffordable and unsustainable. Not every mother can be an influencer, and thus care work cannot be economically valuable across society. Instead, Vox suggests women might channel their desire for more kids in “an inclusive way,” perhaps by supporting universal preschool.

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Nevertheless, Americans’ preference for larger families is on the rise. A September Gallup poll found Americans’ belief that the ideal family size includes three or more children had reached its highest point since 1971. That’s not a bellwether for seven children as the norm, but it is not nothing, either. 

Moreover, I am far from first to point out that care work is economically valuable, and was understood as such prior to the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing specialization of labor. The pre-industrial household economy hinged on a woman’s work as homemaker and caretaker, and the fruits that her husband brought into the home were no more valuable than those she produced with them: nourishing food, sturdy clothing, a profitable garden, and children who would eventually help her in this work. 

Today’s influencer housewives are doing things a bit differently than the older matriarchs. For one, they are setting up an iPhone along the windowsill before pounding out the dough. The successful ones are almost certainly making more money selling their lifestyle than they are selling sourdough starters or teaching you how to feed 11 mouths. But at its root, what they are doing is not all that different: They are teaching the tools of a lost trade. There aren’t many other places left to learn. 

Another aspect makes influencers like Neeleman especially attractive. The internet is swimming with advice for moms, organizational tips, cooking tutorials. But seeing Neeleman casually nurse her daughter in between herding cattle and making dinner without any expensive baby gadgets or sponsored paraphernalia is a salve to the feminine soul. Here is work that requires something money cannot buy; here is a job that cannot be automated, or converted to a science. The large family influencers are succeeding because they have captured the aesthetic of caretaking, and yes, it is elegant. Women only need to be reminded of this elegance; nature will take care of the rest.

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