I recently read The Nesting Place, by Myquillyn Smith, and went through various frames of mind about it. The one sentence review: it’s got a lot of great decorating ideas in it, and some seriously gorgeous photos of what can be achieved on a slim budget. If you are not into a discussion on feminism, gender roles, economics, and the upsides/drawbacks of the "imperfect narrator" in literature, you can stop right now. Seriously, I'm giving you fair notice. Skip down to the Papercraft Lab link at the bottom!
Now here’s the much longer run down. I bought The Nesting Place on Modern Mrs. Darcy's suggestion, and brought it along to read on a plane ride to Boston last Thursday. In the first few pages I got a pretty strong sense that this was Not My Sort Of Book.
Why? It didn’t start off with decorating advice. Instead, it started off with the saga of Smith’s dozen-plus homes, and the trials and tribulations of her and hubby Chad’s real estate journey.
The saga sounded familiar in its overall arc because, well, there’s this certain narrative that is warmed to by a reader I’ll call Zondervan Woman (The Zondervan publishing house put out The Nesting Place, and knows its market well). Here’s how it goes: We married young and the babies just kept coming, and my husband had rough times in his career journey, but all of this was God’s way of teaching me to be grateful for the gifts I already have.
I am all in favor of gratitude (and babies!), but reading Smith’s version of this narrative in the beginning of The Nesting Place did not make me feel close to her. It made me think that we are living on different planets. I am sympathetic to financial woes, and the Smiths had plenty. She goes on about the trouble her husband was having building a career, the debt they took on, how they kept having to move (14 times!) meaning their children had little stability, and they even had to get rid of the children’s dog once because they were broke and the free place they were staying couldn’t accommodate the pet.
But in all this there was no discussion of how Smith herself tried to land a full time job with benefits to give her children stability. It’s all about Chad’s jobs or disappearing jobs. She mentions once that a neighbor gave her a design job, but there’s no sense that as they faced financial troubles, she decided to focus on ramping up her decorating business, perhaps using the time while the kids were in school or even during nights/weekends when their dad could care for them, so she could help out with the immediate family finances. Maybe she did do these things. I don’t know. But the fact that she doesn’t write about them, that they are not considered a central part of the story, obvious questions she needs to answer, speaks to a fundamental tenet of this narrative: a mother is not supposed to work in a way that isn’t about hearth and home.
Through big chunks of the narrative, it’s almost like Smith hasn’t even thought about it. There’s this: “Chad worked extra jobs in the summer months, so I was able to scrape together money to spend on the house.” Yes, they made some money on selling the place, but a decorator working for clients who like to buy lined, custom window treatments can make a lot more. She talks about a friend who seems to have it all together, and this is the description: “She was the prettiest friend I’ve ever had, her husband had a fantastic stable job, and their two children were darling.” Did you get that second part? Her husband had a stable job. The woman who has it all together is not the head of a department at a hospital, the principal of a thriving school, the pastor of a growing church. No, she has it together because her husband has a fantastic stable job.
Indeed, no matter how bad the finances get, Smith, representing our target reader, needs to keep hearing how lucky she is to stay home, and how other women think she’s lucky too. When working mothers appear, it’s a morality tale. In The Nesting Place, there’s a sidebar called “Renting With Purpose.” Smith writes about being a new stay-at-home mom when “another mom with a newborn, a full-time job, and a pretty house said to me, ‘You are so lucky. I wish I could stay home with our baby.’ I remember thinking, But I think you’re lucky because you bought a house. And then I realized that she called me lucky.” Leave aside that, per the Pew Foundation’s 2012 poll, of mothers who work full-time, 9 percent say that not working outside the home would be ideal for them (the rest say part time or full time). Smith stumbled upon one of the 9 percent! Beyond that, this paragraph deserves a closer reading because, remember, Smith’s kids will eventually need to move a dozen-plus times, and lose their dog due to family finances, while this other mother is able to help her family afford a pretty home. But in our morality tale she must be seen as unhappy. Kids don’t really need money from their mother. They only need time. We must believe this. No matter what!
Anyway, all this was annoying me a great deal. But, alas, I was reading this on a wretchedly bumpy flight to Boston, in which no one could pull anything out of the overhead compartment for the entire duration of the flight. So it was either The Nesting Place or US Airways' inflight magazine from the seat back pocket, and Smith won that battle. And when I read a little more, I started to feel different things. First, there was this little discovery, buried in the midst of a block of text, not highlighted at all like our working mother morality tale: “If something isn’t working for you, reevaluate. Right now, my husband is homeschooling our boys, and I run a business out of our home.”
Yes, it took a while, but eventually the Smith family figured out what a casual reader could conclude from their biographical saga: that Mom would be quite good at making money — probably more inclined to it than Dad was. The Nesting Place is a profitable blog, and this book is flying off shelves. Moms can work! Moms can support their families quite well — sometimes earning enough to provide stability, home ownership, and the upkeep of the family pet. Perhaps all the lessons life was teaching Smith earlier were actually pointing toward that reality. I’d love to see a Zondervan book on that.
But that is what it is. I was more happy to keep reading because the decorating advice is superb. Smith notes that people who are good at thrift store shopping are really just more diligent than other people. She gets something one out of 10 times she goes, which is a ratio I am glad to have learned. One thing she does buy there? Feather pillows, because you can buy cute pillow covers on Etsy, and then fill them with the good old fashioned stuff on the cheap (brilliant). Don’t pay a lot for end tables, she notes, because you can always find small tables and paint them. Spray paint random objects white to make them look like high end sculpture rather than junk. Duct tape can make wall patterns. Painting two pieces of furniture the same color makes them look like a matched set. Plants perk up any space, as do mirrors, which can often be found cheap and prettied up. I love the wreath she made of plastic spoons (p.168). Seriously, she made a wreath out of plastic spoons and it is amazing.
Smith is a hard working, brilliant decorator. She's also a very smart business woman (a side note: Is she as skilled as she is because she had to decorate 14 new places on little money? Were her trials and tribulations necessary? They may have helped. But if she'd hung a shingle all that time, she could have worked with ten times as many homes for clients. I imagine lots of folks would be intrigued by a decorator who charged $100/hour for her time, but didn't work on the normal to-the-trade cost plus mark-up model, which encourages designers to push pricey furniture). Which brings me to another issue that’s been bothering me about this book. It’s celebrating “imperfection” and how we’re all imperfect, and she’s imperfect too! And we’re supposed to like her more for all her flaws. I know people love this narrative. People have written me that their favorite blog posts are ones in which I’ve talked about my struggle to lose weight, my falling off the wagon with running, etc. This sometimes makes me feel like an anthropologist studying a culture, because I really don’t understand why people find these low moment narratives as compelling as they do. It’s not just my belief that life isn’t lived in epiphanies; non-fiction cannot always contort itself into the hero’s journey. The issue is that I’m more drawn to people’s talents and achievements. I want to get to know Smith because she’s an incredibly creative designer, not because she and her husband got into 6-figures of debt. I want to learn from her decorating ideas, not feel better about myself because hey, she has flaws and I have flaws too.
In other news: Did you read down this far? Good for you. Over at Papercraft Lab, Anandi (known here as commenter ARC) writes about her decision to incorporate paid work in the software field back into her life, and how she thinks it will help her creative business too.