Over the past few months, I’ve watched my neighbors pour thousands of dollars into the expansion of their turn-of-the-century house. Built in 1895 as a modest, wood frame cottage on what were then farmers’ fields on the outskirts of Washington, the house must now meet the demands of late  twentieth-century life. While my neighbors have attempted to preserve the house’s style — copying old roof shingles, moldings, high ceilings, and adding a neo-Victorian porch that looks as if it should perch over Long Island Sound but only overlooks my kids fighting in our backyard — they have otherwise gutted the inside. The parlors have been knocked out to create an enormous kitchen/family room with a computer center, two Sub-Zero refrigerators, and a TV that pops up from a counter.

As I watch the workmen come and go, I realize that my neighbors are trying to achieve architecturally what so many of us are hoping to do in our own lives: reconcile traditional structure with modern convenience. My generation of conservatives, who came of age after virtually every institution from marriage to religion had been left a smoking ruin, has often been accused of wanting to “turn back the clock.” It is said that we naively yearn to return to simpler times and simpler values. Feminists in particular will reflexively reply to all dissenters, “you want to take women back to the 1950s,” a charge that is supposed to be self-evidently horrifying. (Although these days the fifties don’t look so bad: crime rates were low, the economy was booming, teenagers didn’t talk back, and Eisenhower was in the White House.) The many critics of young conservatives seem to believe that “old-fashioned values” — as they call garden-variety morality — are incompatible with modern life. And they consider any attempt to salvage bygone institutions as a pointless exercise in nostalgia.

While it’s obviously true that you can’t go back in time, it’s not true that the teachings and principles that have guided humans since the beginning of civilization have suddenly become irrelevant. You don’t have to be a wistful conservative to wonder why it was that previous generations were willing to give up their lives for their country while today few will give up their seat on a bus to a pregnant woman.

The real problem facing us is that anyone who attempts to revive the so-called old-fashioned values still wakes up in the morning as a modern person. And as modern people, even as modern conservatives, most of us are glad to be spared the wars and depression that so brutally taught character to our grandparents.

So, like my neighbors with their house, we preserve what we like of the old while adopting what is convenient of the new. Often the results are incongruous, and even hypocritical. We may reject reformed, squishy religious services in favor of more rigorous worship, but we will also usually reject religious restrictions on diet or personal conduct. We may believe strongly in marriage, but we would never impose social sanctions upon those who fail or betray their vows, or even upon those couples who refuse to take those vows in the first place. We may believe in tougher discipline for our children, but still blanch at what now seem the impossibly strict standards of our grandparents. And as women, we may accept most of the duties of child care, but we certainly won’t take sole charge of the housekeeping, and we snap at our husbands if for a moment they expect otherwise.

It’s easy to ridicule us New Traditionalists, just as it was easy to sneer at the Babbitts of the 1920s or the Harriet Nelsons of the 1950s. Domestic life — particularly bourgeois, home-owning, child-rearing, domestic life — must always appear stultifying and unaesthetic to those who imagine themselves living sophisticated, modern lives. Then, of course, these same critics get married and have babies. Suddenly they find themselves walking up and down the appliance aisles at Sears, two screaming children in tow. And the whole cycle starts again, a cycle that is the only hope for our society carrying on as it is. Or should I say, as it was.