For years, I unwittingly subscribed to the prevailing notion that housework is a necessary evil, an uphill battle against entropy that there is never enough time for. But reading the intro to Cheryl Mendelson’s tome, Home Comforts, felt like I was looking into a mirror. Aptly titled “My Secret Life,” this chapter gave me a perspective that resonated so much with me and gave me the language to describe how I really feel about keeping my home.
Mendelson describes herself as a “working woman with a secret life” and goes on to talk about how, even with a career as a lawyer and professor, she not only performs the duties of a “housewife,” but loves them.
One thing that really spoke to me was that rather than being a brainless set of activities one must check off a list in order to be responsible, homekeeping can be a valid expression of oneself. And I’m not talking about decor and style choices, but a channeling of who one is and what one feels into an act that conveys something to others.
I’m not an “over-educated housewife.” I’m a woman who keeps my home and uses my intellect, education, experience, and heritage to create and manage something meaningful. And I literally express myself through my home. As Mendelson puts it, discussing a traditional woman, although of course this could be applied to men as well, when a woman successfully kept her home:
“…her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and the pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in is light and air. She lived her life not only through her own body but through the house as an extension of her body; part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made” (p. 9).
Housekeeping is not something that’s beneath any of us, and it’s not merely something we can’t get away from. Rather, it has the potential to confer benefits beyond the obvious end result of a clean and orderly home.
I enjoy the mindlessness of cleaning tasks because my mind is free while my hands are busy. I can let things impress me, I can mull over conversations, I can consider the lives of those I care about and make room for them in my heart. I can calm down and focus on something that is small and well within my power to change and fix. And in the life I’ve been privileged to choose, one of primarily raising children, there’s something I can do and actually see the fruits of my labor without having to wait twenty-five years.
But, satisfying as it is, the sense of accomplishment isn’t confined to a shiny sink:
“… housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of. Each of its regular routines brings satisfaction when it is completed. These routines echo the rhythm of life, and the housekeeping rhythm is the rhythm of the body. You get satisfaction not only from the sense of order, cleanliness, freshness, peace and plenty restored, but from the knowledge that you yourself and those you care about are going to enjoy these benefits” (p. 10).
While many homekeeping tasks themselves might be mindless, running a home is anything but. Mendolson describes:
“You need to exercise creative intelligence to solve problems and devise solutions: efficiency measures that save money or time; psychological or social measures to improve cooperation; steps to improve physical comfort; analyses of why and how some routines break down … Above all, housekeeping must be intelligent so that it can be empathetic, for empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home. Good housekeepers know intuitively what needs to be done in their homes because they know how their homes make people feel” (pp. 10-11).
How empowering language is, how validated I feel through this uplifting of what makes up so much of my daily life, the elevation of domesticity to something lofty and valuable. And you know what? When I’m facing the mountain of laundry on the couch or staring down the pile of dishes in the sink, I could use a little perspective that sets prosaic tasks in the context of a bigger, loving purpose.