Don’t Dismiss Housework
By GRACY OLMSTEAD • May 25, 2016, 12:05 AM
Is housework a mindless, unintellectual mode of employment? This is the question Mary Townsend asks in her essay for The Hedgehog Review:
Cleaning is mindless work, we say, and a task we are happy to leave to others; should we have the money, there are maid services or one of the many “Uber for housework” services to take the work off our hands. The repairman, the electrician, the carpenter, and so on, earn our respect because of the intelligent skill they put into their labor; but the sting of domestic work is that it appears to require no particular skill: doing the floors, the dishes, doing the corners, picking up all the things strewn about the house; taking out the trash not once, but again and again, on down into the grave. … But I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework. … I suspect we can do more than praise its necessity, and that our inability to make a better case reflects an impoverished understanding of the nature of work, and of thought itself.
Townsend goes on to make a fascinating argument for the deeper mode of thought and being embedded in housework. Feminism has told us that “Housework is something to be liberated from, and something to liberate others from in their turn. The house itself is an oppressive structure, from which we hope to be free.” Yet this contempt for domestic work, Townsend rightly notes, is “all too wicked-stepsisterly, considering the movement’s forgetfulness of the women among the poor and women of color … . While we middle-class women are off pursuing the various professions of lawyer, businesswoman, and so on, who picks up the household slack? Other human beings; usually other women; and, most likely, women of color.” She continues,
The contempt for the house cultivated by this history is not easy to do away with. Personal ambition alone, and especially money alone, won’t solve the underlying problem. Although we don’t pay people enough for housework, the real problem is that we think that money will be enough to cover over our contempt and forgetfulness for the work itself—that we can somehow avoid our forgetfulness of the house itself. This forgetfulness is written into all our thoughts about the properly ambitious work outside the house that people are meant to desire; and the most pressing result is that, again, it obscures the simple practical necessity that someone—a human being—did or will do the domestic work that orders the space around you, right now, both for the place you sit to read this, and if you’re lucky, for the place you’ll sleep tonight.
The work of a stay-at-home mom—as well as the labor done by many domestic workers—is often disdained by our society because it fixates on and around the home. Yet traditionally, the home was not a place to be despised. Being a housewife was not degrading, either: as the gardener, cook, cleaner, and housekeeper, a woman was vital to the health and sustenance of her entire household—as well as, often, the other families surrounding her. What Wendell Berry has called “the essential art of housewifery” was a noble, vital practice. Proverbs 31 speaks of a diligent housewife (who is also an entrepreneur and local benefactor) who is “praised in the city gates”: the place where the leaders of the city would traditionally gather. Being a housewife required craftsmanship, skill, and prowess. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 19th century, said this of American women:
As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that, although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life … I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply—to the superiority of their women.
The entire family and household depended on women for comfort and survival. Unless one was very rich, and could buy such things from a store, it was the wife who created both clothing and food for her household: she kept her family warmed, clothed, fed. The home was the hub from which all comfort, sustenance, and productivity emanated. To be the matriarch of the home was to inhabit, at least to some degree, a place of prestige and honor. Much of that has changed, as Townsend points out, because of a denigration of the home, and of the life of the home, that we’ve seen since the turn of the 20th century.
Yet Townsend is asking another, very interesting, question here: is housework itself—dusting, sweeping, folding, washing—unimportant because “anyone can do it”? Because the skill involved is minimal? It’s true that, unlike the plumber, carpenter, or mason, housework doesn’t usually require the same puzzling or mental complexity. It’s a work we often repeat endlessly, even in the same day. “All work involves repetition, but cleaning rehearses the doing again and again, without doing anything—except, perhaps, for the state of the house,” writes Townsend. “And not for nothing do people find early childhood work Sisyphean as well: Children in the house don’t merely multiply the work, they constantly undo it; and they themselves require ever-renewed, constant cleaning.”
This is where, I would argue, the moral imagination comes in. The task of cleaning itself may not require a lot of intellectual prowess—but it does require a great deal of imaginative skill and understanding. The work of maintaining a home is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful. After all, why is it that we do not wish to live in squalor? Why do we see cleanliness and order as essential tenets for human flourishing? It must be because these constitute basic understandings of what human life should constitute—ideas that have a moral and spiritual tradition.
As Russell Kirk writes, “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.” It is the undignified work of cleaning the grimy corners of the kitchen floor and washing dirty stockings and underwear that enable the dignity of a clean, light-filled home and healthy, well-clothed body. But in order to understand the importance of that scrubbing and dusting and washing, one must have a vision for its end result and purpose: a flourishing home and family.
In contrast to the moral imagination, Russell Kirk spoke of the “idyllic imagination,” which “rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” This seems well suited to describe the emancipated housewife Townsend refers to, freed from the bonds of home and housework. It is not at all wrong to work away from one’s home, to have a career. But at the same time, we must recognize that it is through the rejection of old traditions and manners—dispensing with the importance of the home, and home life—that we’ve entered into our new age of careerism.
It’s true that the home is a sphere from which little public recognition or accolades are likely to come. The good deeds and virtues that we grow there are hidden behind closed doors, shielded from the public eye. It’s often a thankless career to pursue.
Yet it is one very well suited to cultivating virtue. It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day. It requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home. There will always be the children who, as Townsend writes, unmake things as quickly as they are made. There will always be the pets, who innocently scatter filth everywhere they walk. There will always be the busy adults, who fly through life so swiftly, they barely have time to notice the piles they leave in their wake. Domestic work requires care, kindness, and daily forgiveness.
In his book You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith argues that our daily habits reveal what we truly love. The daily rituals of virtue (or of vice) that we cultivate are most often happening “under the hood” of our consciousness. There’s a “liturgy” we’re repeating with our daily actions—one that informs our most basic desires and wants.
So what is happening, really, when we’re changing diapers and taking out the trash for the umpteenth time? On the surface, it’s a “mindless” ritual, as Townsend notes. But underneath the surface—“under the hood”—we’re repeating a liturgy, over and over. We’re building a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.
And this is true whether we’re tending to our own set of home chores, or whether we’re tending the home of another. On the one hand, caring for our own homes grows the virtue of stewardship: it is like farming or gardening. It involves a sense of ownership and pride in one’s property, a desire for order and beauty in the space we call our own. It’s done for the place itself, and for the people who inhabit it, but it’s also to some extent done for us.
On the other hand, all domestic care cultivates the virtue of service: caring for the possessions of others, being willing to scrub their toilets and do their dirty dishes, is a much harder thing (in my opinion) than caring for one’s own home. It requires a givenness and humility, a desire to serve diligently and well. It also requires a degree of love for the goods that undergird the work of cleaning itself: a love of order, beauty, and cleanliness. When we’re cleaning for others, we don’t necessarily get to enjoy the fruits of our labor—except in seeing the job well done, and in feeling pride and joy over the order we’ve brought from chaos.
Perhaps there is another way in which “cleanliness is next to godliness.” And that would lie in the very repetition of it, in the delight that one can take from daily bringing things into a state of beauty, continually bringing light and order out of darkness and chaos. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” The repetition of tasks often has a deeper meaning, one we shouldn’t neglect: for it’s the repeated acts that are often the most beautiful, and that grow beauty in us.