If everything we know about housekeeping comes from our mothers, than my stepsons may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to making and keeping a home if they rely on my example. I’m rigid and obsessive most of the time, and carelessly negligent at others. I make multiple passes a day to tidy and declutter, but I’ve never washed the windows since we moved into our house. The fence around our backyard desperately needs a paint job, and the gutters are so full we have a “beautiful” waterfall off the second story roof line when it rains, but at least the towels in the upstairs bathroom have been refolded multiple times to fit neatly into the cabinet.
I’m a homemaking paradox, desiring perfection yet having to work so hard to achieve it. Nothing comes naturally to me in my cleaning and tidying capacities, yet I so desperately crave the cleanliness and order they produce. I thought of myself as I was reading chapter 3 of Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home. She talks about Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic essay, “The Weaker Sex,” in which Tsing Loh claims that today’s household economics have made women “unwifeable.” Yet a few paragraphs later, Tsing Loh laments the new world “without the deep domestic comforts—and care, and arts—not of our mothers (many of whom were in a transitional leaving-home-to-go-work generation) but of our grandmothers. Not one is taking care of us! No one!”
That’s how I feel when I step into the shower each day and see black mildew staining the caulk or when I get home after a busy work day and know that dinner “ain’t making itself.” Who’s taking care of us? I like to cook, don’t get me wrong, but not as often as my family likes to eat. And sure, I’ve recaulked a tub before. But it’s just so messy, and who has time for that?
Who has time for any of the housekeeping, really? The endless vacuuming and dusting. The repetitious dishwashing and laundry folding. The sweeping, the tidying, the fixing, the chopping. But whether it’s because I’m the wife, or simply because someone has to take care of these things, generally I lay claim to the domestic duties of our home, for better or for worse.
Lately, it’s been for the better. About a month ago, I realized that the rhythm of our lives had relegated the bulk of the household chores to Saturday mornings. Many weeks that works. On the weekends when the boys are at our house, they each have a list of chores to do, and at the same time, my husband is usually catching up on the laundry or the lawn care and I do the weekly shopping. When the boys aren’t with us, Steve and I would take Saturdays to try to do all of the chores ourselves, tackling a list that was far too long on days when we’d rather be sleeping in or doing something fun. Putting it off left the housekeeping for another day, but there just wasn’t time. So we had a dirty house, and a pile of frustration to sort through.
That’s when I decided to tackle the chores one at a time for a few minutes each day. I’ve tried this before, relying on my “instinct” to know what should be done when. Usually I’d just end up sweeping the kitchen or wipe down the bathrooms every day, allowing the sheets to remain unchanged and the windows to still not be washed. Now, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I type all the chores into my to-list app which is synced on both my laptop and smartphone. Each day, along with the other duties of my work and family life, the chore(s) for that day pop up on “today’s” list. Then, either before or after dinner, I do them. Last night I vacuumed. Tonight, I’ll sweep and dust our bedroom. Some chores pop up weekly, some every other week or monthly. Washing the windows is on the list quarterly, mostly because I’m still putting it off. If I think of a chore I’d like to add, I just pull up the app, and add it in on a day when the chores are otherwise light.
Some days, I run out of time to do even 15 minutes of chores. Of course I’m already making the bed, cooking dinner, doing the dishes, and tidying up every day. So if I can’t get to another chore, I’ll put it off until the next day, or sometimes until the next week. Since I have a plan in place, I know it won’t get neglected forever.
The result of about a month of doing daily chores? Our house always feels a little cleaner and neater than it did. I still love the feeling of doing all the chores in one day and having the whole house clean from top to bottom. But that doesn’t work out for me very often. Instead, with a daily chore plan, I get the ongoing feeling that someone is taking care of us. And that someone is me!
Other results? I no longer feel guilty on the weekends when I’m doing other things because I know the house is being taken care of. And I’ve seen the benefit of doing other things in small chunks instead of all at once: like caulking the tub, redecorating our screened in porch, and painting the backyard fence. If I wait until I have time to complete the whole project at once, they’ll remain undone. But if I tackle them in stages—or as my dad says, “Slow and steady”—the slow progress will eventually result in completed projects. In fact, I’m a third of the way finished with the front porch project as we speak.
I still worry that I’m “unwifeable,” that a home where I am the one taking care of us is a bit too risky. Thankfully, Steve does his share of the work, too, by taking care of the laundry, the garbage, the lawn, and often the dishes. But there are many other aspects of homemaking and housekeeping that remain undone … and possibly even unthought of. And it’s certainly not my mother’s fault. She taught me and modeled the importance of keeping a clean and tidy home. But as Michel writes, it’s not just the technical aspects of keeping house that make a home. “To be sure, a homemaker will find pleasure in wringing order from chaos and likely appreciate the principles of good architecture and interior decoration. But more than architecture and aesthetic are required for making a home; more than form and function are to be considered. Most of all, a homemaker must love guests: ‘Empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home.’”
It’s the empathy that we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.
Discussion Questions for Your Consideration from chapters 1-3 of Keeping Place
1.) Where’s home for you? Talk about the place(s) you most identify as home.
2.) What cultural assumptions do you bring to a book about home? Did you grow up in a home where gender roles were strictly defined?
3.) Which of the domestic images of God resonate most with you (from chapter 2)? How does that image enrich your view of God?
4.) What care is necessary for a home to feel like home? Who has cared for you in that way? Or whose neglect or abuse communicated lack of care?
I’m thrilled to lead a book discussion of Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place here on my blog during the month of June. Look for posts each Wednesday (or Thursday!) of June where we’ll talk about three chapters a week. If you want to write about the book yourself, please make sure you slip a link to the article or post in the comments section each week.
Need a copy of the book? You can use this 30% off promo code (READKP) at ivpress.com. (By the way, Janna was the winner of the free copy of Jen’s Keeping Place. She received the book in the mail a couple of weeks ago.)
I hope you’ll join me in discussing what home means. This isn’t just a book or a discussion for women. According to Jen, “The message of Keeping Place is bigger than gender roles and responsibilities. It’s about the human longings for and losses of home, the human labor and love that’s required for God’s people to ‘keep place’ in the world until Christ comes.”
*I received a free preview copy of Keeping Place from Intervarsity Press. Any comments or opinions about the book are mine.