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The Theology of Housework

alec vanderboom

One of the most dangerous books that
I read in college was "The Second Shift," by Arlie Hochschild.

I read it in one astonished swallow in the beau parlor of my freshman dorm on a lazy Saturday morning. Hochschild was a sociologist who observed fifty married couples in San Francisco in the late 1980s. After hours of observations, Hochschild concluded that despite the feminist revolution of the 1970s, most working wives are still responsible for the majority of housekeeping task at home. This "extra" housework constitutes a six to eight hour "Second Shift" that most women work after they return home from paid employment.

At age eighteen, I was "domestically impaired" and had a strong bias against marriage and babies in general. I wasn't certain that I wanted to lose my last name and merge my identity with some boy. Babies frightened me. Housework filled me with dread.

Despite Hochschild's grim statistics, I decided that I would NOT spend more hours than my future husband scrubbing mold out of the bathtub. I'd insist on equality. I'd use my extra free time doing much more worthwhile activities such as Chairing a Volunteer Mitten Drive for the Homeless, Tutoring A Special Needs Child, Writing a Novel in a Hip Coffeehouse or watching reruns of old M.A.S.H. episodes.

I made a solemn vow to myself after finishing the stark conclusion of "The Second Shift." If I ever got married and if we ever had kids,then I would insist that my husband split the housework with me 50-50.

God has a good sense of humor! I grew up as a feckless diva in a house filled with dust mites and a shortage of clean towels since both my parents were absent-minded and messy professors. Meanwhile, my beloved grew up in a house where the living room floor wasn't considered habitable unless it had clear vacuum marks on the carpet. (My husband's mother, sister, and grandmother were all professional housekeepers at his grandfather's hotel on the beach.)

I married my complete opposite in the home-maintenance department.

As a newlywed, my husband mopped the wood floors with our baby smiling in a backpack above his head. He fed me vegetable stir-fry each night for dinner. Gradually, I learned to stop flinging receipts and credit card bills all over our bedroom floor and file them in neat folders instead. Still, I kept my solemn housekeeping vow- with a twist. I did all the laundry for the family. Meanwhile, my husband handled 95% of all other domestic chores.

At 28, I found myself with a husband and a baby. I had an office with a view of the Ohio River and my name on the company letterhead. I had a husband who cleaned my house, planted broccoli in the vegetable garden, played tickle monster with our daughter and painted with oils on the side porch.

I had a life that would have made Arlie Hochschild proud.

There was only one problem.

I felt miserable.

One Lent, I broke down in tears inside the confessional. "I hate my clients," I said. "Every time someone comes into my office with a new legal problem I feel so much resentment and anger towards them. Every new case that I open means more time away from my nine month old daughter."

The priest spoke gentle words that surprised my soul. "God made a mother's heart and a baby's heart to need each other. If you feel so much grief about missing your baby, why not quit your job?"

I took that advice to heart. At 30, I found myself a non-working, stay-at-home mother of an 18 month old daughter and a newborn son. God dumped me straight into the traditional role of wife and mother that I'd earnestly avoided for over a decade.

I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed my new job. I discovered how easy it was to be at home with my babies every day. I loved having conversations about art, religion and philosophy with my husband each night instead of always rehashing the stressful events from the office. I joined a choir for the first time since Junior High. I started writing again for the first time since age 10. I taught myself how to make chocolate eclairs. I took afternoon walks by the lake and started to attend Daily Mass.

I loved almost everything about stay-at-home motherhood.

Finding my inner joy as a housewife, however, took another five long years.

As an overwhelmed and incompetent housewife, I read many articles about "quick ways to clean" and "how to run your home like a CEO." None of this advice helped.

The only thing that helped convert my heart was prayer.

Slowly, I learned the theology behind housework.

I realized that I couldn't incorporate Helpful Heloise Hints or Fly Lady Suggestions until I first corrected my attitude towards housework. I needed to answer the basic "why" of housework before I could embrace my domestic chores with a cheerful smile and willing spirit.

Here's my humble list of five things that I learned on my spiritual journey.

1. All work is for the Glory of God
My distaste for housework came from a major case of pride (self-love). I thought there were there were important things that you did for God (such as volunteer at soup kitchens) and important things you did for your children (read Oliva 100 times a day or visit the Smithsonian.) Since domestic work was lowly, repetitive, and "simple" my sole objective was to fly though my tasks as quickly as possible to get onto the really important stuff in my day.

Reading about St. Therese of Lisieux's joy at "picking up a pin for the Love of God" in her "Story of a Soul" rattled my complacency towards housework. God does not desire big actions from us. Most of us are not called to leap into flaming volcanoes as martyrs for the Faith. Instead, God desires many small sacrifices done with great love.

I started to think about my two Teresas (St. Therese and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta) while I puttered around my house. Gradually, I started to redefine hated chores such as picking up legos, washing poopy underwear, matching pairs of socks, as many small acts of Love for my children. I started to say a prayer before each task, "Lord, Let me bless Alex by this action".

Prayer changed my heart. I realized that I told my husband and my son that I loved them each day. Housework was a chance to demonstrate my love in a visual way. If I gathered all 700 legos from under the living room sofa and returning them neatly to the lego box under my son's, then both Father and Son would be delighted to find all the undersea legos eagerly waiting to be turned into an imaginative drama on Saturday.

2. Adopt a Saint for Each Hard Task
One of my least favorite chores is to pre-wash poopy underwear before tossing the smelly load into the washing machine. One morning, I remembered that St. Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of laundry. As I did my dreaded task, I started talking to St. Clare in my mind.

I imaged how delighted St. Clare would be to trade places with me for a moment. This golden saint, the one so dedicated to the Eucharist, washed St. Francis grimy habit with joy. Surely, she'd do the same for my son's smelly underwear. I asked St. Clare to lend me her joy for laundry. I started talking to her in my mind. This great Nun reminded me how privileged I was to serve a child of God, what a limited amount of time I had for work on this earth, and how I couldn't imagine what glory a joyful woman washing brought to the Lord in heaven.

Matching up household tasks with an individual Saint brings great joy. I'm a chatterbox by nature. Praying to the Saints while I do my domestic chores means that I'm never at a loss for good company. I pray to St. Martha in the kitchen, St. Zita whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed, and St. Martin de Porres while I'm cleaning toilets. For some strange reason, I also pray to St. Bernadette whenever I vacuum.

3. Practice Penance The concept of "offering up" disliked chores is valuable. One day, I felt super stressed about how our Secretary of State was handling the peace process in Israel. I couldn't do much. Still, I found the most overwhelming task in my house and offered it all up to God in order to help. Afterwards, I just laughed. There are many, many people who might receive credit in the New York Times if peace is ever declared in the Middle East. Yet only God knows the hidden part this Carmelite played!

4. Accept all interruptions gracefully
Once I started taking housework seriously, I immediately became super agitated over any interruptions. Anyone who has small children in the house knows that it's virtually impossible to accomplish a task from start to finish without multiple interruptions from small people. In fact, it's easy to get discourage that nothing ever gets checked of the "to do" list.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton gave excellent advice to her Sisters of Charity "Do all things With God, For God, and For As Long as God wills." In a nutshell, that means deal with interruptions to your task with grace and humility. You should never be discontent to leave your spinning in order to attend to a crying, small child. Both spinning and consoling children are work for God. What do you care if God wants you to stop one task and attend to another one?

Thanks to St. Elizabeth's wise counsel, I stopped defining my work as a housewife as one of "production." My job was not to get X number of loads of laundry done a day or bake X number of pie-crusts from scratch. My job was to respond with love to the needs of my family. If I had a calm day and got caught up on the laundry, great. If quarreling kids caused my detailed chore chart to get tossed into the trashcan, then my new job was to loving teach an emergency crash-course in Advanced Placement Socialization to the elementary school set.

5. Adopt the Concept of Spiritual Motherhood
On the door of my fridge is a photograph with all the seminarians of my diocese and my beloved Archbishop. I can see this happy photo across my living room. The love that I have for Seminarians, Priests, and Bishops is so intense. On the hard days, I look across at the smiling faces of those blessed men and feel so consoled. Everything that I do in my hidden, humble home helps those priests build up the kingdom of God. Just as Mary prayed for Jesus and the Apostles, every Catholic housewife can pray for Priests to become Fishers of Men. Having a clear conception of Spiritual Motherhood gives a solid purpose to each action in the home, no matter how hidden or how mundane.