“This book is an invitation to reconnect the dots between home and homemaking, to help us hardwire the concepts of homemaking as the deeply purposeful art of sheltering and nurturing the souls of others, offering them a place to grow into the people God intends them to be.”
By Carrie Gress & Noelle Mering
Embracing Home, Rejecting Homemaking
Betty Friedan called it the “ache with no name.”
It was a concept that resonated and reverberated in the West, hitting a nerve with 1960s women. Believing that this nameless ache was due to life at home, women fled in droves in search of more meaning, success, acclaim, and money beyond the four walls they believed enslaved them.
Six decades later, women are still plagued with a nameless ache—a desire for something they can’t quite put their finger on. Friedan, had she known her faith tradition of Judaism, would have recognized this ache as a desire for God. Christians know this ache too. St. Augustine famously summarized it when he said, “Our hearts are made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.” He was identifying the desire that all men and women have for the eternal, for something beyond the passing pleasures and delights this world offers.
For decades now, the entrenched wisdom has been that women’s unhappiness is largely due to the fact that home life demeans us, and the remedy is for us to demean it in return. Overlooked has been the possibility that perhaps home had precious little to do with our ache in the first place. Since Friedan’s declaration, we have looked high and low, but that ache is still there, as every happiness metric shows. Statistics on depression, suicide, substance abuse, and divorce point to the general reality that vast majorities of women are truly and deeply unhappy.
But the pendulum seems to be swinging in a different direction. Back toward home. Over the past decade, our culture has seen a resurgence of interest in the domestic arts. What was old seems new again. Contemporary McMansions are shunned for old farmhouses or low-slung mid-century homes. Convenience food is now something we buy sheepishly, opting instead to wear aprons while making simple, slow meals served on hand-thrown pottery. We knit, sew, quilt, and even quill. If it is a craft, it has probably made, or is about to make, a social comeback from relative obscurity.
What is interesting about this rise in the domestic arts is that it is not necessarily springing from an equal rise in our appreciation of homemaking. There continues to be a disconnect between loving our homes and recognizing the important and real value of a homemaker. While we can interpret this in different ways, there seems to be a general consensus that we like the trappings of what homemakers do without the actual daily grind of making a home for others. Why? Much of this stems from the irrational social taboos against homemaking ignited by Betty Friedan and others, but the answer is more complex.
If we look to various metrics to understand how humans define happiness, a few patterns emerge. While lists vary, bestselling author and consultant Patrick Lencioni discusses three common elements to evaluate career happiness. Lencioni asks:
1. Am I respected and known in my job?
2. Do I know why my job matters?
3. Am I progressing in my work, and is there a measure for this progress?
If the answer to any of these is no, an individual may feel disillusioned in her current role. What happens when we apply these questions to homemakers?
“Am I respected and known in my job?” is not a box that many homemakers would check. While there are exceptions and wonderful communities to be found in support of homemakers, one doesn’t have to look far to feel the chill sweeping in from the broader culture.
Even a quick trip to the neighborhood Trader Joe’s is revelatory. While the employees are always friendly, the customer base often is not. Sighs, eye rolls, and veiled remarks are all things a mom with a crew of little people may have to contend with in one of America’s smallest grocery store chains. Too often, what is wordlessly communicated is that the mother with children stands in the way of the very important professional’s day.
The other reality is that it is difficult to feel known in the often-isolating work of motherhood. In many cases, our neighborhoods aren’t full of kids, there may be few other women home, and with families strewn across the country, a grandmother or aunt can no longer be counted on to offer a helping hand. Women getting together to can or quilt while their children play together outside is a rarity. Most of us get our advice on the domestic arts from YouTube or Martha Stewart instead of from a neighbor or close relative.
And what about the second question? Do mothers know their job is important? Not always. Radical feminism has long promulgated the idea touted by Germaine Greer that children are simply brought up—they will be no different if they have two parents or no parents, they just grow. Fifty years of collective research shows that Germaine was emphatically wrong, but the attitude has stuck. Without mincing words, Friedan also took a hammer to mothering by explicitly stating that a life spent taking care of one’s children is a life wasted. Even today, these lingering messages whisper to women that their job is not only unimportant but a squandering of their time and gifts.
The idea of homemaking is often closely associated with the notion that a woman is making herself a slave to her husband and children. Yet we don’t vilify the demands of a hobby or an employer. Consider how something like gardening, which can be a full-time job of weeding, fertilizing, watering, pruning, and so on, is not viewed as demeaning, nor is the demanding boss who asks an employee to spend extra hours at the office. The apparent rewards, such as the joy of growing one’s food or of bringing home a paycheck, render the service worthwhile. Yet the work of nurturing, loving, shaping, and caring for those whom we love most is often assumed to be oppressive to the will, freedom, and flourishing of the woman doing the work. This double standard is evidence that something is culturally amiss.
A Measurement of Progress from . . . Somewhere
As for the last criteria? Does a stay-at-home mom feel like she is progressing in some area, and does she have a way to measure that? Looking at trends in homemaking, one very real change has been the relative ease that our culture and economic status affords. We don’t have to sew our own clothes, knit our own socks and sweaters, or grow our own food in our kitchen garden. We also don’t have to consult friends or family about canning and food preservation because we don’t actually have to preserve food for the winter. Even with the renewed interest in domestic arts, there is still a wide chasm between dabbling in making bone broth and actually needing to regularly darn someone’s socks.
Without the daily necessity of more skill and craft-based aspects of motherhood, today’s iteration of homemaking is largely dotted with very mundane and routine tasks—pulling together a quick meal and cleaning it up, washing and folding laundry, keeping the house clean, and driving children to various activities. But among these regular tasks, few among us would call them a “practice” as defined by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.
A practice is a work that requires honing a skill and learning new techniques while growing in virtue as the work is performed. Think, for example, of the tradition of a master tailor, for whom boys would apprentice for many years, slowly learning the craft. In learning about fabric, precise cutting, and human anatomy, they also learned the virtues of patience, attention, perseverance, and obedience, in addition to experiencing the joy of doing something with their hands and mind and achieving new benchmarks in their abilities.
For the woman who is task oriented and wants to have a sense that her work is important and meaningful, in homemaking today there can be very little to hang onto. No homemaker has ever gotten excited about her progress in driving skills because of the increased hours spent shuttling children. No homemaker takes pride in how deftly she can sort whites from darks and how quickly she can get wet clothing into the dryer. These kinds of mindless activities cannot constitute anything resembling a practice. The rush to help women break out of the home coincided with the automation of the arts once relegated to homemaking. This, coupled with numerous childcare options and the nanny state, has left the contemporary homemaker wondering if her efforts are all that necessary.
University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has discovered that the happiest women are those who are home with their children but who have some kind of part-time work outside the home. This makes sense given that, for the modern homemaker, her achievements at home are unknown, and her work grossly undervalued. These realities leave many restless and seeking vocational satisfaction elsewhere while still maintaining a significant connection to home life. Work provides a network and engagement with adults that the neighborhood used to supply, and it helps check off the boxes of feeling like she is working toward a goal, such as helping her family financially or seeing progress in her own personal development.
The ennui of motherhood isn’t the only reason women work. Often, financial needs or a particular gift or calling make their family demands sometimes welcome and other times not. But much of the ambivalence women face in motherhood can be remedied with the support of a loving and attentive husband and a handful of supportive friends and neighbors. While the return to the craft of domesticity that has captured the broader culture can also help with the homemaker’s sense of fulfillment, ultimately the undervaluing of motherhood is the more persistent issue.
Curiously, while a homemaker may not engage in specific kinds of daily practices, to make a home is, in a way, the ultimate and most human “practice,” in that it is a life spent developing not just a specific skill but the very skill of being a human in full. In the face of its challenges, the homemaker who approaches her calling in a purposeful way is working daily to develop generosity in herself and others and asking and discussing life’s big questions in small and unexpected moments. She is also regularly prompted to see the world anew with eyes of wonder, is tested in patience with the intensity and effectiveness of a boot camp, learns how to be an advocate for another, and puts aside her girlish diffidence and narcissism for which she no longer has the time.
Most importantly, she is getting a doctorate in love, which for her had been an empty, abstract word without the dirty, messy, loud, itchy particularities of this life in close quarters. And she is consoled and astounded, time and again, with the beauty, purpose, and enduring consequence of building lives through the universal language of home.
Reconnecting Home with Homemakers
While the emphasis of the first volume of Theology of Home was on the elements of the home, here we would like to look more carefully at the homemaker, the one who provides the connective tissue between the material of the home and those who abide in it. We want to examine motherhood, both physical and spiritual. We do this through our own observations and experiences, but also by interviewing several heroic women with powerful stories.
There is a wide gap between loving the home and embracing the concept of homemaking. Rather than merely a box for souls to be stored, home is where body and soul are nourished, protected, comforted, and known. We long for a beautiful home because we long for a beautiful life. But this yearning will not be satisfied on a purely material level, and the attempts to do so fall short of the mark far more than a humble-but-cared-for and spiritually rich home. Such a home requires the careful hands of a gardener, the mind of a multitasker, a heart attuned and attentive to the needs of loved ones, and the exercise of spiritual gifts which come from a deep and abiding relationship with God.
Homes that are truly lived in won’t always be ones of picture-perfect curation, but rather, they can, despite some occasional chaos, express their perfection as places where the very robust and real activity of family life can belong and flourish.
This book is an invitation to reconnect the dots between home and homemaking, to help us hardwire the concepts of homemaking as the deeply purposeful art of sheltering and nurturing the souls of others, offering them a place to grow into the people God intends them to be.
There is much more to us, our homes, and homemaking than simply the need for outside affirmation and career goals. Fundamentally, homemaking offers an opportunity that is difficult to acquire outside of a home, be it meager or sprawling, a homestead, a farm, or a cloister. That something is the capacity to be fruitful.
This isn’t a book just for full-time stay-at-home mothers; those of us who work also care about making a house a home. Nor is it just for biological mothers. It is for every woman. Ultimately, homemaking is a kind of mothering. Despite what the culture may tell us, all women—no matter our vocation—have been hardwired for a kind of fruitfulness, with a unique calling afforded to each of us.