Monday, November 14, 2011

Keeping House Book Study: Chapter One

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

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?
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.

 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:

  1. Have you read anything else recently that seems to tie into this topic of the mixed feelings towards keeping house?
  2. 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?
  3. What was your own background with regard to keeping house and its importance?  How do you think that affects what you do nowadays?
  4. Any favorite quotes from the chapter (or from elsewhere related to this topic?)
Next week is the second part of Chapter 1, from the beginning of "Divine Domesticity" to the end of the chapter. 


  1. Willa, recently, our family has been led in a very unschooling way as regards chores and housekeeping. This has been a huge surprise for me because it went against my beliefs about responsibility, etc, but, it's working beautifully. I keep meaning to post on this because the fruits have extended into other areas of our lives - it's been quite unexpected:)

  2. Right now I don't feel in the right place to post about my reading. I'm too scattered by other things! But I am taking so much comfort from the the book and from your discussion of it, Willa. I have terribly mixed feelings about housekeeping. I think I watched too much Brady Bunch or something and that clean house with all those kids and Alice cheerfully wiping down an already clean kitchen somehow lodged itself into my consciousness. To me housekeeping takes an enormous amount of energy and focus with very little gain at all. I have so many layers of mental blocks about it! So I loved very much the author talking about how it is a Christian way of taking care of the needy, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty. Wow! Since I read the first chapter I've been trying (in a very hit or miss fashion) to be intentional about any little homemaking thing I do. It's helping a little bit I think, though I am just starting and forget more times than not. But this a.m. I decided to make cornbread for breakfast and I remembered to think and pray while doing so. Yay for me! LOL!

  3. I focused on the first section in my post, but the section discussing magazines resonated with me, also. It's easy to get a wrong picture of what housekeeping is or should be, like Faith mentioned.

    There have been times I've wondered, theoretically, if I would prefer to "hire out" the housework if there was the spare income. Or, would an ideal future scenario be teaching, and using my spare income to hire out the housework, say. That thought never settles right with me. While getting help would be nice in a tight spot, is that the ideal set up I should envision? Even though it seems just as elusive as having the spare income to hire it out, it seems like it would be better to do it myself and have a good attitude about it. :) But, I do have a strong do-it-yourself streak; I need to apply it more readily to my housework and not just the house decorating or homeschooling. :)

  4. You know, I think it ends up being a woman's job more than a man's because we bear the children, and therefore we just do end up being home more than our husbands. Biologically (in the ordinary course of things anyway), we're very necessary for children during at least the first year, and so it makes sense for us to stay home. And if we're there, than we ought to do what work we can, right?

    In other words, I think that, despite how twisted and tangled the discussion of gender roles in the home eventually gets (and it's complicated, and the specific solution is different for every couple, I think), the start of the situation is pretty logical and straight-forward. I think the hard part comes in juggling it all as children grow and the needs of the family change.

    In the newborn days though, mom takes care of the baby, and dad takes care of mom, and mom does what she can when the baby doesn't immediately need her, and dad takes care of what he can when mom doesn't immediately need him, and we all just muddle through until the days when everyone's getting enough sleep to really argue about it! :D

  5. I think it is more than just a coincidence of biology that woman happen to bear the child. I think we are biologically set up to more home centered. Even I, with poor homekeeping tendencies, have experienced a drive to make our home a place of nurture. For instance, I remember when I was pregnant with my first child. We had two cats at the time and I recall becoming obsessed with vacuuming every single hair up right before the baby was born. I remember working like crazy on the stairs of our little townhouse (ones which previously I had neglected for an embarrassingly long time) because I didn't want the baby to come home to house filled with cat fur! Later I read something about nesting and I realized that I was in full nesting mode! My husband even saw how obsessed I was about it. It turned out that I had an emergency c section and was in the hospital for 5 days. I was so worried about what the house would look like when I got home (my dh is no housekeeper at all!) that he hired someone to come in and scrub it from top to bottom so that when the baby and I arrived home our house was sparkly clean.

    Anyway, nesting is probably hormonal. I think we women are built to be concerned about the house. Heck, why does the Home and Garden channel have so many gay men who are into things like home decoration? They don't have enough testosterone in their system! That's my working theory anyway to explain that phenomena. LOL!

    So I do think women are physiologically built to be keepers of the home. Some might have the tendency more than others. And things can happen in life that alienate that desire or disrupt it, but I think the basic tendency is there. Men can grow into being keepers of the home too, but I think it comes from a different place for them.

  6. "Anyway, nesting is probably hormonal. ...why does the Home and Garden channel have so many gay men who are into things like home decoration? They don't have enough testosterone in their system! That's my working theory anyway to explain that phenomena. LOL!"

    I know you're joking but that might not be a valid theory. I had to have my testicles removed after an accident and so (when I don't apply testosterone gel for a while) my testosterone levels are way lower than when I had testosterone producing balls -- and I am still as bad at housework as ever. I might have made a good palace eunuch but I wouldn't have tidied up. ;)

  7. Hi Willa!

    I'm late but I posted my thoughts on chapter 1 of this book if you're interested. It's a bit on the long side though so feel free to skip. You can find it here -

    This book is giving me a lot of food for thought. And that's a good thing!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!