Keeping House — Ye Do It Unto Me

See also the table of contents for the Keeping House series.

This week Willa’s online book club is covering the first half of the first chapter, “What is Christian about Housekeeping?” Willa’s post is a good summary, so I will jump into a rabbit trail on the first section of the chapter, and hope someone else picks up the thread of the second section, dealing in broad strokes with the history and sociology of housework.

The author opens with what was for me a somewhat disappointing line: “I have always enjoyed keeping house.”

One wants to identify with the author of this sort of work. To hear, Once I was like you, but now I am so much better — and I’ll show you how to be better, too! Or, at least, I do. It’s my temptation to look for the next idea that will bring on, finally, some arrival instead of this very slow and plodding and undulating progress. Perhaps, however, this author will key us in to the psychology of someone who enjoys keeping house. However, she does say that cleanliness is the part she is slack in, so perhaps we can like her anyway.

Personally, I have always wanted a home to keep. I never wanted a career. I have only ever wanted a home and family to tend. I’ve never questioned that it is worthwhile. Whenever I think of that I am flooded with gratitude that God gave me a husband and home so early, so that I didn’t have to find some random job or feel obligated to pursue a career.

I married a marvelous man who believes it is worthwhile and would work round the clock if necessary in order to keep me home (that is, to make it not necessary for me to work; he has no objection if I happen to be able to make income. That hasn’t happened since #4 came, and what I got from tutoring and teaching beforehand was never much). So perhaps I am closer to the author’s starting point than I had originally thought. I wanted to cook from an early age, and by the time I was 10 or 11, I cooked dinner one night a week for our family of 8-and-then-9. I loved it.

However, I hated to clean my room. My version of cleaning my room was to dump my clothes in the laundry or shove them under my bed, put the random junk on my sister’s bed for her to deal with, then alphabetize my bookshelf. I enjoy organizing. I hate cleaning. I dislike laundry. I sigh at dishes to be done. I delegate dishwasher duties to children because I feel such things are beneath me.

I feel imposed upon by the housework, but I love the house and the family. I would find it a terrible drag to have to go to a job after being mistress of my domain. I am not quite sure how the two fit together. I think they only fit together if I was an old school landed aristocrat with household help. Really, love of the home and hatred of cleaning the home can’t coexist. They are inconsistent. Perhaps that sense of the inconsistency of my affections has been the impetus to my ten-year-and-counting quest to conquer this beast.

So. Let’s continue the quest.

Homekeeping’s Primary Goals

I understood [during that crisis], with a clarity that I have experienced at few other times in my life, that getting to the grocery store was one of the things that Really Mattered.

Forget fantasies about “accomplishing something.” […] I measured my my days by whether, at the end of them, the members of my household had been dressed and fed and bathed and put to bed. If we had been, then that was a good day. I had done what mattered most. Everything else was gravy.

Personally, I found this quote and thought clarifying and relieving. I read this chapter a week ago, and since then, I have several times found myself feeling pangs of regret over this or that that I didn’t get to, and I have remembered this thought and realized that the time spent on laundry and food was not interfering with those other goals, but were the primary goals for my day. Perhaps I have considered them so basic as to not count anymore. Clothes, food, discipline, food, talking and listening, food, stuff, food, laundry. Yeah, yeah, yeah — boring — but what project did I get to?

Dressed + Fed + Cleaned + Put to bed = Success. We should add “Loved” into that equation to cover a multitude of sins, but wow, what a concept. Those things count as the main deal. All that time spent on food is not a small matter, after all.

However, can we strike the implication of daily bathing of the members of the household? Thank you. I am not ready for that one.

But 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.

It is the reading and the projects and the welcoming guests that I have counted as “accomplishing something.” The work that it takes to get there has been, in my mind, the unfortunate reality. A little tending is lovely. That all things tend toward entropy, however, is just a little more than I can cheerfully take.

But if I fully recognize and readily admit that people need to eat, sleep, and wear clothes, that they need to read and play and work, that we need to sally forth and welcome in, then housework is the initial step toward all those things, not something to get out of the way before moving on to them. It is the beginning of reaching those very things. Without housework, those things can’t happen. If those things are the goals, then the housework is at least part of the means. If then, they are worthy goals, surely the means might also be worthy?

Housekeeping as Service

There is a tendency, I think, on the part of those of us who are well fed, clothed, and housed, to imagine that the needy people to whom Jesus refers in Matthew 25 [the least of these] are people we don’t know — the sort of people who are served at homeles shelters and soup kitchens, at which we ought therefore to volunteer at least occasionally. But housework is all about feeding and clothing and sheltering people who, in the absence of that daily work, would otherwise be hungry and ill-clad and ill-housed.

There is undoubtedly more to the merciful service that Jesus describes in Matthew 25 than caring for the daily needs of the members of our own households. 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.

Here is the crux of the matter. It is no small thing to feed and to clothe and to house and to love the little ones, the least of these, that God has entrusted to our personal care. Their being biologically related does not diminish the value of caring for and serving them. In fact, it merely increases the responsibility, duty, necessity.

This is the avenue where the connection between housework and ministry, between duty and calling, between mundane and spiritual. I think it is easy to be gnostic in thinking that such things as grocery shopping and sweeping floors do not really “count” as loving people. But no food in the pantry and sticky and crumb-crusted floors are precisely a disservice to them, so would not caring for such things be a positive service?

And that not only for the other members of the house, but even for oneself, lest we stray too close to martyr syndrome. Even in a single-member household, food and clothes and cleanliness matter, in order for the sallying forth, the welcoming in, and the reading, playing, and working to happen.

This home and these duties are the starting point of our Christian duty of charity, of love, of caring, of service. For ourselves, for our families, and for our community. Certainly that reveals the duties’ value and worth.

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