Housework is a beginning, not an end. But it is a beginning—not a sidetrack, not a distraction, but a beginning, and an essential one at that—in the properly Christian work of, among other things, meeting the everyday needs of others, whether those others be our fellow household members, our near neighbors, or people more sociologically or geographically distant from ourselves.
I divided this first chapter up into two weeks because there was so much content. It covers both the history and sociology of housekeeping AND the scriptural references to housekeeping, which were both meaningful parts of the book for me. So I thought we could easily find enough to discuss for two weeks. After that we'll try to read a chapter a week. The chapters are quite short so I hope it won't be too much even during the holiday seasons which are coming up fast!
This week I am reading What's Christian about Housework? and stopping just before the section called Divine Domesticity. I am sorry that these two sections are not very practical. I think as we go through the book we will get more into implementation and practical helps, but perhaps it's better to consider the principles before getting into how they work out in everyday life.
In the first part of the chapter, Mrs Peterson tells about her upbringing from the perspective of keeping house. As a child, she liked to cook and her mother showed her how to make a few simple dishes. She doesn't remember liking laundry, but her mother taught her anyway, and one of her brothers got very good at folding, to the extent that he was widely admired by old ladies at the laundromat. She never learned to like cleaning much, perhaps because her mother didn't care for it.
As an adult in grad school, Mrs Peterson went through the severe illness and eventual death of her first husband. During those years, she was made sharply aware that the basics of feeding, clothing and caring for one's loved ones are more fundamental and crucial than the academics everyone else was focusing on. She carried that awareness into her second marriage and eventual motherhood.
I retained the long-held sense, of which I had been made so consciously aware during those difficult years of illness, that housekeeping—cooking, cleaning, laundry, all the large and small tasks that go into keeping a household humming along—was not a trivial matter but a serious one. People need to eat, to sleep, to have clothes to wear; they need a place to read, a place to play, a place into which to welcome guests and from which to go forth into the world. These are the needs that housework exists to meet.Being an academic and Christian, she looked for books on this topic, but could find none, which surprised her. She delved into the history and sociology of housework and found that as the actual amount of housekeeping done has declined, the "myth" of housekeeping has gone upwards.
There are lots of fancy magazines devoted to cooking and cleaning and "keeping house" but it is pictured as sort of a leisure fantasy activity. The dailiness and sometimes hard work of housekeeping is not usually mentioned. You are encouraged to believe (as with so many things in our culture) that if you buy the right products everything will be easy and look glamorous.
There is also a note of resentment in our cultural approach to housework. Who should do it, especially as everyone is increasingly spending much of their time out of the home? Does it change as circumstances change? Why are women commonly given most of the responsibility even when they are the primary breadwinners in their family? What about retired couples, or adult kids living at home?
Yet at the same time, everyone still seems to have a longing to have someone take care of us, somehow.
This note of longing is the other side of the frazzled reality that is housework for many people. Shouldn’t home be a place of refreshment, of nurturance, of beauty? Why do the house, and the housework, seem so out of control? Isn’t there a better way?There is also the promise of decluttering schemes and home improvement projects that organizing your house will make deep changes in your life. So keeping house still seems to be thought of as deeply connected to our inner selves.
Finally, there is the fact that while keeping house is somewhat glamorized in magazines and our own nostalgia for "someone to take care of us", and seems to be deeply connected with our sense of self and of family relationships, it is also looked down upon.
In fact, anyone who takes too much time to cook (or clean or iron) runs the risk of being regarded as a parasitic blot on society. One study on attitudes toward gender and the workplace found that “while ‘business women’ were rated as similar in competence to ‘business men’ and ‘millionaires,’ ‘housewives’ were rated as similar in competence to the ‘elderly,’ ‘blind,’ ‘retarded,’ and ‘disabled.’” Attitudes like these appear not to reflect gender bias pure and simple, for if they did, businesswomen would presumably rank lower than businessmen. They appear, on the contrary, to be a reflection of judgments about housewives as such. I have a friend, a housewife, who says she cringes every time she fills out a form and is asked to state her occupation. Is it any wonder why?Mrs Peterson says that all this tangled mixture of attitude towards housework is a legacy of our society's history. Before the Industrial Revolution, the idea of "staying at home" would have little meaning since almost everyone worked at home -- man, woman and child. The etymology of "husband" as well as "housewife" both derive from "house" and were related to the primary tasks of man and woman -- caring for their house and land. The spheres of work were different but fairly complementary.
This changed as factories and industries grew. Now man, woman, and child all left the home to earn their keep. Child labor laws changed this for children, and compulsory school replaced compulsory labor.
But though now women went out to work as well as men, the house seemed to become the main responsibility of the woman. Things like World Wars and feminist movement would flux the situation and bring more women out into the workforce, but nothing changed radically. Outside the home work was still considered somehow more real and dignified than keeping house.
Again, sentiments and attitudes run very deep and complex in these areas. Whether work is "paid" or not seems to be more important than whether it is important or not. Chesterton remarked on this when he said:
It seems to come down to a couple of things. People think public work is more important than private, and paid work is more important than unpaid. The book does not go into why this would be. I think that it could probably become a book in itself. But certainly, industrialization has had a major impact.
How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?
Another quote from Keeping House:
The “problem” of housework thus became not just that it was “women’s work” or that it was low-status but that it was widely suspected of not being work at all, even by the men who benefited directly from it and by the women whose lives were consumed by it. The seemingly endless amounts of work actually involved in housework (whose pace and quantity only increased with the introduction of every new laborsaving device), the absence of any help at home, and the lack of any recognition of the value and necessity—or even the reality—of the housewife’s work surely went a long way toward fueling the fires of feminist theorizing about housework. For many feminists, the “housewife” embodied the very antithesis of the self-actualized human being. Germaine Greer, in The Female Eunuch, characterized the life of the full-time housewife as one of absolute servitude. Housewives, she said, “represent the most oppressed class of life—contracted unpaid workers, for whom slaves is not too melodramatic a description.”Mrs Peterson's historical sketch is just that, a sketch. To me this seems like very rich territory. I certainly am personally not immune to the feeling that housekeeping is less distinguished than, say, intellectual work or work of public usefulness. This tradition goes back a very long way. Greeks and Romans had slaves to do the dirty work, so that they could focus on the nobler things, in the intellectual sphere.
Later, Christianity rehabilitated the idea of domestic labor. It became noble purely because it was service. The Son of Man chose to be born into a humble working home; He worked for His own living, and He washed the feet of His own disciples.
Perhaps it is because we live in a post-Christian society that we have lost that idea of the dignity of productive service? It is not really intuitive, after all. In some ways it is paradoxical. It is something that has to be cultivated, and domestic cultivation is the very thing we are short of nowadays. You don't pick it up in school or in the workplace, where functionality and standardization are key values.
At the same time, I think it's very true that there is a deep sense that we are lacking when no one is "at home" -- when no one is taking responsibility for the most fundamental things. There is still a wistful ideal of the well kept, nurturing home. Even if no one really wants to be the one doing it.
I personally think a well kept home needs the involvement of both man and woman. It's not just a girl thing. Indeed, it's probably a family, shared responsibility. There is more to it than who ends up doing a given chore. It is more that, it seems to me, that it is ultimately a communal enterprise and one reason that resentment simmers is that people are trying to hand it off to other people rather than pick up their share.
However, it does seem that women are more likely to feel personally responsible for the state of the home. I'm not sure why that is, but would be interested in any thoughts on the topic I don't think it's JUST cultural.
Please follow your own rabbit trails here, or consider these questions:
- Have you read anything else recently that seems to tie into this topic of the mixed feelings towards keeping house?
- Why do you think it seems to be more of a woman's issue than a man's? Do you think that husbands/fathers have a part to play in making a home, too?
- What was your own background with regard to keeping house and its importance? How do you think that affects what you do nowadays?
- Any favorite quotes from the chapter (or from elsewhere related to this topic?)