A few months ago, my friend Jo* and my friend Patrick** and I started an email discussion about homemaking, and we decided to do some parallel blogging on the topic. Eventually we settled on a topic -- Homemaking: Whose Job Is it? -- and a deadline --today! Sometime this afternoon or evening, we are all posting and cross-posting our essays -- so if you're not completely bleary-eyed by the end of my essay, be sure to check out Jo's at The Modernity Ward, and Patrick's at Loose Ends.
*Before Jo blogged at The Modernity Ward, she was one of the first and most influential infertility bloggers, and her blog The Leery Polyp was my introduction to blogging and my inspiration for beginning my own first blog, the wide tent. Happily, Jo shed her infertility woes and is the proud mama of scrumptious Sophia and Daphne, but just as happily for the rest of us, she retains all of her thoughtfulness and wit. This woman can write! I feel so fortunate to be her friend.
**Patrick and I went to Earlham College together, but barely knew each other there. As I have written before, though, to be an Earlhamite is to be part of an extended family, like it or not, and I like it very very much when it comes to Patrick Lacey. Thanks to Facebook, we recently became reacquainted, and thanks to our respective blogs, have come to be much closer friends than we ever were as undergraduates. I spent most of last evening reading the archives of Loose Ends, and dreamed all night about Patrick and his family, some of whom I also know. As I wrote most of today (ignoring all my chores, I'll have you know!), I was acutely aware of how family-oriented my image of homemaking is, a limitation that has rarely occurred to me before I tried parallel blogging about homemaking with a single, childless gay man. I'm grateful to Patrick for expanding my horizons, but mostly just for being my friend!
***I am cross-posting this under The Cost and Joy of Discipleship, but wonder if I shouldn't come up with a new category, since faith and homemaking so often overlap for me: Diary of a Mad Yet Joyful Disciple? Diary of a Housewifely Disciple Joyfully Going Mad? Hm.
And now, for our main attraction.
Sometimes I rue the fact that family circumstances landed my conversion to Christianity in the United Church of Christ, in which my partner Julie was raised, rather than, say, Quakerism (where I started my conversion when I joined Clear Creek Yearly Meeting of Friends when I was a student at Earlham College) or Catholicism (where I still sometimes think I may end up, especially now that Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, ordained a priest through full apostolic succession, if not with the blessing of the Vatican, is leading weekly Masses in Philadelphia). The problem with the UCC – and probably any mainline, liberal Protestant denomination for that matter – is that when it comes to worship, we don’t do either of the things that I love most all that well: that is, gathered silence on the one hand, and high liturgy on the other. A UCC worship service has the strong potential to be, well, a bit cerebral. A bit ... tepid. Not that it has to be, mind you, and when Julie’s jazz band plays at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ (as it will on Pentecost, and you should definitely come visit), they rock the house. But most of the time, UCC worship services are not much to write home about, not if you are at heart a “Quathlic,” as one of my favorite nuns once called herself.
But here’s the thing about the UCC, the thing I love: we believe that God is Still Speaking. If you’re a member of a UCC congregation, that slogan may sound a little tired, even trite, but really, it’s a pretty profound thing, and what keeps me coming back (that, and my little church that could, there at the corner of 4th and Race; I do love that place, even when it’s driving me crazy). What it means is that there’s room for taking faith, and scripture, and spiritual practice very seriously, and, at the same time, there’s room for being a doubting Thomas, like me – a heretic, even!
Years and years ago, when we first moved to Philadelphia and Julie was teaching at a small, private school in Mount Airy (which shall remain nameless but which Julie sometimes liked to call Project We Never Learn), she and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of the junior high students whom Julie had taken on many, many hikes, including a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. This young man’s Torah portion was the Noah story, and I still vividly remember his thesis, which was that at the time of the flood, God was still learning how to be God, but hadn’t quite gotten it right yet, and that was why God made such a terrible mistake in sending the flood. The mistake, by the way, was not in killing all the wicked human beings and saving only Noah and his family. No, the mistake was that so much of the natural world was destroyed – the natural world that this young man had come to love, in particular through his year of hiking with Julie. It was inconceivable to him that God could have sacrificed all of that innocence and goodness just to teach us a lesson; surely, he concluded, God had made a mistake in God’s quest to figure out this Being God Business. Now how cool is that, huh? This thirteen-year-old kid with the confidence and permission to stand up in front of his community of faith and argue with God? If that kid were a Christian, he would be welcome in the UCC, and that’s one of the things I love most about my church.
Which is all a really long and roundabout way of saying that I have a little bit of a bone to pick with Jesus when he went to visit Martha and Mary in Luke 10: 38-42. You may not be familiar with the story to which I refer, and if you don’t have a New Testament handy, here it is:
Now as they [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-43 (NRSV)
I’ve heard several sermons on this text, and I’m well aware of the standard, feminist interpretations – that this is a wonderful example of Jesus not only treating women as equals, as worthy of studying with him, but actually extolling that over a woman’s traditional role as a homemaker. And I’m down with that, that’s cool. Lord knows the Church has gotten more wrong than right when it comes to women’s roles, and it seems likely that if the Church (and especially the Roman Catholic Church) would just stick to what Jesus actually said about women, rather than putting words in his mouth and offering tortured interpretations of what he didn’t actually say, well then, things might not be such a mess. So yeah, it’s cool that Mary is there studying at Jesus’s feet. Very cool.
But if you look a little closer, I’ll bet you’ll find that the floor she’s sitting on is clean, right? I’ll bet there’s not a lot of pet dander kicking up Mary’s allergies, or dirt and crumbs making Jesus’s feet feel oogie when he takes off his sandals. And I’ll bet when Jesus came in, Martha offered him something cool to drink, and that when the lesson is over, they’ll all sit down to a nice meal she prepared, and I bet Jesus won’t be all condescending with Martha then. The thing about homemaking is that when it is done well, it is almost by definition invisible, something that will be taken for granted. A well-run household, one that is clean enough for health and comfort, one that is organized in ways that are simple yet pleasing to the eye, one in which tasty meals and quenching drinks are offered and laughter is frequent and conversation easy – this all can quite easily seem to be a matter of course, Just The Way Things Are Here. That there is an architect behind all that, an artist even, crafting all this simple comfort and easy hospitality – that is easily missed.
One of my dearest friends -- I’ll call her Dee – is also my homemaking mentor. Dee’s home is stunningly and inexplicably lovely at all times (I know this, because I sometimes drop by unexpectedly, just to see). The surfaces are always clear, or arranged as a pleasing still-life; there are never dishes on the counter or half-finished bowls of cereal on the dining room table, and the bathroom sink never has spooges of toothpaste; even the kids’ rooms are neat, for crying out loud. It is the most comfortable and welcoming home I know. Last fall, when our house was turned upside down with a basement renovation, I would go to Dee’s house and just sit on her couch and do whatever it was that I couldn’t bear to do in my own house because it was such a dirty, chaotic pit. I still don’t quite understand how Dee maintains such utter homemaking discipline, especially since she actually has a Jay Oh Bee, albeit a work-from-home one, but still, a job that requires her to think about things other than homemaking for at least thirty-two hours a week. Here’s the thing, though: I used to have this sense that Dee just had some magic that I could never even aspire to, so why even try? Right? I mean really, aren’t those the kinds of friends you love to hate just a tiny bit, not the friend herself, but what she seems to be able to accomplish, the thing that just throws your own failures into relief?
I was once at a party at Dee’s house, and a mutual friend and I went upstairs to check out the newly tiled bathroom floor. This mutual friend, I’ll call her Em, is a working mother with three young children, and although I have never been in Em’s house, I understand, based on Em’s own description, that it is, well, not always as tidy as Dee’s, shall we say. So I assumed I had an ally in Em, and as we ascended the stairs, I said in a mock conspiratorial tone, “Don’t you just hate Dee sometimes? Her house is always soooo clean!” I was joking of course. Few people can love Dee as much as Em and I do, and I knew that Em knows that. So I fully expected her to join me in the mock conspiracy, but instead she just said, simply, “No, not really, because Dee works really hard to keep her house so nice.”
Now I will admit to being just a bit chagrined at Em’s thoughtfulness and honesty, because it really highlighted how absurd my own magical thinking was. Dee’s house is lovely and calm and welcoming not through some magic that only Dee possesses, but because she works really hard at it? Duh! As someone who works really hard too, albeit with less consistent results, I of all people should have known better.
And so I guess I should let Jesus off the hook too, because at the end of the day, maybe the problem really lay with Martha. Not with her choice to offer Jesus hospitality, rather than sit at his feet and study, but in her own failure to honor that work by complaining about it. Of course, the quotidian tasks of homemaking are definitely something to complain about if you don’t feel called to homemaking as a vocation, and you are just stuck doing the work because you’re a girl, or you’re poor, those being the two main reasons people who would rather not nonetheless get stuck doing the housework. (I will note here that the quotidian tasks of homemaking can still be something to complain about even if homemaking IS your vocation, but generally I think anyone called to a vocation of homemaking would not find a visit from Jesus an occasion to complain.) If Martha had a true vocation as a homemaker, she should have gone about her tasks, invisible as they sometimes are, without complaining, just because she loved them, or at least the homemaking gestalt of which they are a part. If she did not have a true vocation as a homemaker, she should have stopped her work, as Jesus suggested, and sat down and listened. Either way, I guess Jesus was right after all: she definitely shouldn’t have whined.
So, whose job is homemaking? Well, for starters, I think homemaking should be the job of anyone who is called to it. In my family, that is primarily me, a truth that took us all awhile to figure out and to honor. And we had fewer hurdles than many families have – especially progressive, heterosexual families, in which gendered expectations can get in the way of discerning who, if anyone, is called to such a vocation. I have known some women who love being home with their kids and making a home for their families, but worry that taking on such a role conflicts with the commitment they and their husbands have made to equality within their marriages. I have known some women who worry that if they pursue a vocation of full-time homemaking, they will reinforce cultural stereotypes about what women and men can and should do in the world, and they especially worry about the influence those reinforced stereotypes will have on their sons and daughters. These all seem to me honest and legitimate things to struggle with. On the flip side, I have known not a small number of men who are probably missing their calling to homemaking because they cannot break free of the stranglehold that “breadwinning” and “career” and “success in the world” seems to have on the male ego. I have also known a very small number of men who bravely pursue their vocation (and find along the way, I suspect, that humility is not a burden, but at the very root of happiness). The irony of having been categorically excluded, until just recently, from the institution of marriage, and with it, all of its normalizing nomenclature that comes laden with such gendered expectations (come on, admit that “wife” and “husband” connote something quite specifically gendered in a way that “partner” is not) -- the irony is that in many ways we, Julie and I, have been more free to truly pursue our vocations.
But even so, a vocation to full-time homemaking was not easy to discern. At least for progressive, middle-class, educated folks like us, there are many, many barriers. I suspect that if those barriers came down tomorrow, we would all be surprised by how many people would pursue homemaking; I also suspect that many more than a handful of them would be men. But even in a barrier-free world, I suspect that the vast, vast majority of both men and women would NOT feel called to homemaking as a full-time vocation, which leaves us, even in a perfect world, with a lot of houses that need cleaning. And whose job is that, indeed.
Let’s start by talking about the barriers, shall we, and then we’ll get to the problem of all those dirty houses left even after the barriers come tumbling down.
There are obvious economic barriers, of course – many families these days couldn’t maintain their current standard of living without two incomes. There are other, less obvious, economic barriers to an unpaid vocation such as homemaking, including the precarious financial dependence that the non-wage-earning member of any marriage places him- or herself in. It is well-documented that many homemaking spouses, and often their children too, sink rapidly into poverty or near-poverty if their marriage ends, and often retirement savings are not sufficient to keep them out of poverty if they are widowed. There is also the lack of status that comes with non-wage-earning work, about which I have written before.
But at least as big a barrier to pursuing homemaking as a vocation is the fact that it is viewed as boring, menial, drudgery; lacking in creativity and intellectually challenge; small, private, and leaving no meaningful mark on the world. But I would vigorously dispute that homemaking is any of those things – or at least any more of those things than most other careers to which feminist, liberated women and men are urged. A typical feminist critique is that homemaking is terrible work, and therefore women have traditionally been left to do it, but I would argue the opposite: that homemaking can be wonderful work, but is disrespected precisely because women have traditionally done it. In her wonderful essay “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’” Kathleen Norris notes that the word “menial,” which is related to the word “manor,” derives from a Latin word meaning “to remain,” or “to dwell in a household.” As Norris explains, “It is thus a word about connections, about family and household ties. That it has come to convey something servile, the work of servants or even slaves, is significant. It may help to explain one of the strangest things about our culture: that in America we willingly pay the garbage collector much more in salary than we pay those who care for our infants in day-care centers.” (p. 5).
When I worked for a law firm – one of the biggest and most powerful firms in Philadelphia – I once spent weeks on end in a conference room reviewing documents, looking for anything possibly related to a lawsuit against our client. This was work that my twelve-year-old daughter, who is bright and an avid reader, could easily have been trained to do. Possibly semi-literate children in any English-speaking nation in the developing world could have been trained to do it (and no doubt will be soon enough). It was mind-numbingly boring, and profoundly unsatisfying. Indeed, much of what I did as an ERISA lawyer (which, according to Julie, in one of our Christmas letters at the time, stands for “Erudite, Really Intellectual Stuff, Actually,” but in truth stands for the “Employee Retirement Income Security Act”) would strike most folks as drudgery, transformed into a respectable career only by the fact that I was paid more money than God to do it – even if, at the end of the day, I had nothing calm or lovely or sweet-smelling or tasty to show for it. Which is not to say that ERISA work is not interesting or valuable. It makes perfect sense to me that many smart, talented women and men, including most of the terrific lawyers I worked with, feel called to that field of law, and lead satisfying careers in it (and thank goodness for them, really, because if you think your health care and your retirement plans are complicated, let me tell you, you don’t know the half of it!) But it does strike me as interesting that if I ever complained about the drudgery of my job at the law firm, nobody ever suggested that my work was demeaning and that really, I should strive for something more meaningful and rewarding. It seems to me that drudgery is part of just about every job – a point which has been driven home to me in the past few days by at least five plaintive Facebook updates from friends who are professors facing the end-of-semester grading frenzy. If drudgery alone were reason for a woman to abandon her vocation, it strikes me that the unbearable drudgery of being Julie every time grades are due would have sent her packing from a career as a public school teacher long ago.
Likewise, the notion that homemaking lacks creativity and intellectual challenge has always been mystifying to me. I hear some variation of this so often: “I could never do what you do, I would just be bored out of my mind! I just need to engage that grown-up part of my brain! I just need some real intellectual stimulation!” These comments used to bother me, but I have come to realize that they are really more about personality type and temperament, rather than about the intrinsic nature of homemaking. Kathleen Norris makes the point that housework is repetitive, daily, and never ending, much like liturgy, and that like liturgy, “the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day.” When I was in college, one of my most dear and beloved professors was the quintessential brilliant, absent-minded professor. He was a philosopher, a writer, a peacemaker (and, interestingly, a lawyer with a specialty in bankruptcy, an intricate and highly regulatory field of law, much like ERISA) who had a tiny bit of a cult following among us Peace and Global Studies majors. One day in class, throughout a discussion in which Howard participated but was not leading, he methodically peeled an orange, getting up from his seat with each piece of peel, walking to the garbage can and throwing it away, then returning to his seat to sit down, before peeling another piece, getting up, walking to the garbage can, and throwing it away. On and on. By the time the orange was half peeled, most of us were too distracted to continue with the conversation, although Howard appeared oblivious that our discussion was waning because of his bizarre behavior. Finally, someone blurted out, “Howard! What are you doing???” Howard flashed his enigmatic smile and said, “I am discovering myself through repetition.”
Indeed. For those of us with introverted personalities and contemplative minds, housework, like liturgy, is far from deadening, but in fact precisely the work that primes our creative and intellectual pump. Norris notes that she wrote her book The Cloister Walk while serving as an artist-in-residence at a Benedictine monastery, where she practiced the daily liturgy of the hours: “To my surprise, the monotonous, repetitive activity did not place a damper on my writing, but the opposite: the prose and poetry began to flow, in near-constant stream. The wonder for me was that this was not at all a matter of wild, unfettered inspiration so much as a dialogue with the liturgy of the hours. It all depended on a steady, daily routine that by the standards of the busy world looked boring, repetitive, meaningless.” (p. 24) For me, housework is a form of “Quathlic” worship – hours of blissful silence and a high liturgy of dishes and dusting, bed-making and bread-baking -- and if you read this blog, you see some of the fruits of that worship (for what they are worth – hardly the likes of Kathleen Norris’s books, but satisfying to me, nonetheless). It should surprise no one that if I were not a housewife and mother, I would most certainly be a nun.
But surely homemaking really is small, right? And private? At least admit that homemaking, while it may be good for you and your family, does not really engage the world in any meaningful way. To which I answer, “yes,” homemaking is small (in a “think globally, act locally” sort of way). But as for the latter two, I must answer decidedly “NO!” and “NO!” Easily subsumed in my job description as a homemaker are all of the following: community organizer, conflict resolution and race relations consultant, urban community gardener, ecologist, interior designer, home renovator, writer, intellectual, unaffiliated scholar, chef, early childhood educator, global warming activist, and lactation counselor (retired). And that’s just for starters. Because in my family at least, we see our work in the world as an organic whole: Julie is able to do what she does because I do what I do, and vice versa. So by extension, I guess I can also claim urban educator and worship leader! Add to all that the fact that I have time to read – any damn thing I want, whenever I want – and I will admit, no other career of mine (and I’ve dabbled in many) has engaged me so meaningfully in the world while at the same time satisfying all of my intellectual and creative impulses.
When Trixie was first born, my then-step sister (our parents, who married when she and I were adults, have since divorced) used the term “attachment parenting” to describe the sort of mother she was. I had never heard this term, but was intrigued, and having just gotten hooked up to the internet in the chambers of the judge for whom I was clerking, I did some research and found an “AP” bulletin board (remember those?) I lurked for many weeks, intrigued by this community of stay-at-home moms. I hesitated to dip my toes in and post, because it struck me that on the surface, at least, I did not in any way belong here: I had not given birth, I was not nursing a child, I did not own a sling, I did not co-sleep, I had a full-time job, and my baby was in day care (ten floors down, right in the Federal Building where I worked, but still). Yet I was so drawn to this community of moms, and to what struck me as a mostly lovely philosophy of raising their children.
From the moment Trixie was born, I wanted nothing so much as to be home with her (Julie, on the other hand, was immensely proud that she conducted the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter a mere ten days post-partum!) I remember in particular one mom on that AP board, “gooseberries” (hi Pammy!), who wrote about visiting a friend in a law firm. Wearing cut-off jeans, hair wind-swept, juggling a new-born and a toddler, she couldn’t wait to escape the stuffiness and the suits and the quiet hum, escape back into the sunshine and the chaotic freedom of her life as a new mom. I remember how so many friends in real life discouraged my aspirations to stay home by telling me that being home with a small child was so hard, and stifling -- and I know many people do experience it that way, but I was sure I would not. That sun-filled, wind-swept image of gooseberries and her babies stayed with me and sustained me through several more years of soul-deadening (albeit highly lucrative) lawyering. Indeed, that entire AP community sustained me, for which I am profoundly grateful, all the more so because at the time, I really didn’t “fit” at all. Fortunately for me, and unlike many other, more ideological on-line parenting communities, this one believed that “attachment parenting” was a philosophy, and not a checklist, and they welcomed me with mostly open arms.
I think homemaking, at its best, is the same: a philosophy, not a checklist. And in that way, homemaking can be everyone’s job, whether we are called to it as a full-time vocation or not. As I am well aware, most people – women and men alike – are not called to a full-time homemaking vocation, and that’s a good thing. There are many other things that we need both men and women to do, and I’m a staunch supporter of breaking down all the barriers of race and gender, education and economic opportunity that prevent women and men from heeding those calls. But it seems to me that in liberating women from homemaking, we have not only unnecessarily denigrated this work, but we have virtually abandoned it, much to the detriment of our families, the social fabric of our communities, and the ecology of the world (not to mention the domestic workers whom we exploit to do some semblance of homemaking for us, be it caring for our children, laboring in the fields and sweatshops of industrial agriculture, or scrubbing our toilets – but that’s probably another essay).
I recently was brainstorming about self-care and stress-relief with a cherished friend who has a demanding and incredibly important full-time job, a husband who also works full-time, and two small children. I suggested she hire a housekeeper from three o’clock to six o’clock to do housework, laundry, prepare supper, pick up the kids from after school care, and get them started on homework. Even while my friend acknowledged the wisdom and attraction of such a set-up, she also confided, “But I want to do those things for my family.” Her dilemma is the dilemma of many working parents who recognize how fundamental and satisfying, on some visceral level at least, the supposedly small and menial work of homemaking can be, and so try to do it all. “But you can’t do it all,” I said to her. “You just can’t.” Sick for the third time in as many months, sleepless from caring for equally sick kids, worried about her job in this “economic downturn” (as we are so politely calling it these days), she did not offer much of an argument. But my heart goes out to her, and to all of my friends who are called to great, and satisfying, and important work in the world, many of whom would not choose full-time homemaking even if every barrier came tumbling down tomorrow, but who still yearn to make a home for themselves and their families. Maybe if there is any silver lining in the current economic depression (‘cause let’s be real, shall we?), it will be a turn to some semblance of sane social policy related to our work-a-day lives: paid family leave, real part-time and flex-time work, universal health care, realistic expectations about “productivity” -- in short, work lives that do not demand every ounce of our time and energy and creativity. Such a sane work world would leave both men and women with some interior space and some time to participate more meaningfully in making a home for themselves and their families.
So in an ideal world, homemaking would be everyone’s job, and everyone could share in the rewards of making a home. But even in this less-than-ideal world that we actually inhabit, it seems to me all is not lost. Just as my AP friends saved my sanity when I was toiling at the drudgery of the law firm by reminding me that “attachment parenting is a philosophy, not a checklist,” so can we all liberate our inner housewives by remembering that homemaking is the same. You are not abandoning hearth and home when you hire someone to help you! Really folks, if you can possibly afford to pay someone a living wage to do a few of the things on your housework checklist? That’s good! That, in fact, is taking homemaking seriously. That, in fact, is honoring this work as being important enough to pay someone to help you with it. I just read George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and I would like to point out that Mrs. Poyser, the farmer’s wife who so prides herself on her tidy, polished home and her sparkling and efficient dairy, had not one, not two, but three girls who worked for her, full time! So, if you possibly can afford it, you actually get extra stripes on the sleeve of your housedress if you hire someone to help.
But of course, many folks simply are not in an economic position to hire help, especially not at a living wage, especially not these days. So whose job is homemaking then? Well, the reality, more often than not in heterosexual, dual-income families, is that it’s still the woman’s job, the woman’s “second (and, if there are small children, third) shift.” And that’s a shame. I mean, c’mon fellas!
Just yesterday I was walking with Micah (he was actually scootering) to our local Chinese restaurant (Julie, Trixie, and three of Trixie’s best friends were out to eat prior to meeting twenty-five of Julie’s students at a performance of Hamlet, so Micah and I were having our own special date), and Micah, out of the blue, jumped off his scooter to turn and ask, “Mom, have you ever been to a place where the water runs free? And where the horses run free? I think it’s Assateague!” (We recently spent a chilly spring break camping on the beach there amidst the wild ponies.) I found this particularly charming, and began belting out that ‘70’s childhood favorite, “Free to Be You and Me!” (Micah informed me that I don’t sound nearly as well as Mr. Darcy, his music teacher, who sings it with a guitar.) Remember that album? And remember that great Carol Channing piece about those nice ladies on TV who seem to like housework, but they’re really just trying to sell you something? Well, now that all the little boys and little girls who listened to that with me as a kid are all big husbands and wives, it seems that maybe we all – and the big husbands especially – need a refresher, so here it is: “If you want all the days of your lives to seem sunny as summer weather, make sure, when there's housework to do, that you do it together!”
And all the people of God said, “Amen!”