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 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 prior 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. This can be interpreted in different ways. Maybe we are inadvertently seeking the comfort represented in caring for home, perhaps because that comfort was denied to us. Maybe it is just an acknowledgement that convenience has come with a cost.
Either way, we seem to like the trappings of what homemakers do, without the actual daily grind of making a home for others. Why? Some of this might be attributed to irrational social taboos against homemaking, but the answer is likely more complex.
How People Find Happiness
If we look to different 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 vocational happiness. Lencioni asks: 1) Am I respected and known in my job? 2) Do I know why my job matters? and 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 his current role. What happens when we apply these questions to homemakers?
The first question of “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 that can come 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 perhaps America’s smallest chain grocery store. Too often, wordlessly communicated is that the stay-at-home mom is in the way of the very important real-world worker’s day.
The other reality is that it is difficult to feel known in the often isolating work of motherhood. 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, to say the least. Most of us get our advice 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.
Of course, 50 years of collective research shows that Germaine was quite wrong, but the attitude has stuck. Without mincing words, Betty Friedan also took a hammer to mothering by explicitly stating that a life spent taking care of one’s children full time 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.
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, 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 physiology, they also learned the virtues of patience, attention, perseverance, and obedience all the while 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 ever has gotten excited about her progress in driving skills because of the increased hours spent shuttling children. No homemaker ever has gotten excited about how deftly she can now sort whites from darks, and how quickly she can get wet clothing into a dryer. These kinds of activities are simply mindless and cannot constitute anything resembling a practice.
Seeking Validation and Satisfaction in Paid Work
University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox has discovered that the happiest women are those who are home with their children, but who have some kind of work that they do part time outside the home. This makes great 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.
The ennui of motherhood isn’t the only reason women work. Often financial need or a particular gift or calling make their own demands on a family, 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 homemaker’s sense of fulfillment, ultimately the undervaluing of motherhood is the more persistent issue.
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 it in such a purposeful way is working daily to develop generosity in herself and others, asking and discussing life’s big questions in small and unexpected moments, regularly prompted to see the world anew with eyes of wonder, being tested in patience with the intensity and effectiveness of a boot camp, learning how to be an advocate for another, and putting aside her girlish diffidence for which she no longer has the time nor the silliness.
Most importantly, she is getting a PhD 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.