Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The cook, the baker, the candlestick-maker

Leah graciously referred me to another Chesterton quote from his book, What's Wrong With the World, which I found worthwhile:

"Women were not kept in the home in order to keep them narrow;  on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad . . . A woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.  I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task;  I will never pity her for its smallness."

Traditionally, the woman's task in the home was broad.  She was expected to have a variety of skills necessary for the proper running and upkeep of a home.  She could mend a garment, and sew a new one; strip old shirts and piece a blanket's top, then quilt that top for the bed.  She knew how to read a recipe and cook a meal.  She could nurse an infant, and tend the garden.  She kept the laundry caught up, and knew which combination of household goods would be best to get the stains out of her husband's clothing.  She baked bread, and put up cans of homegrown corn for the winter.  She enlisted her children to help make butter and candles and soap, and still invited friends over for dinner. I could continue, but you get the point.

The interesting part of this, however, is that each of these tasks once expected of all women, have now become hobbies, and women only do those of interest.

We now divide ourselves according to our likes and carefully honed skills- we are quilters, or stitchers; knitters, or bakers; soap makers, canners, gardeners, day care providers.  Anything we dislike doing that has to be done, we outsource.  We order in, or eat out.  We hire a nanny and a maid.  We drop off laundry at the cleaners, and pick up cans of peaches from the grocery store. 

Or, if we can't outsource, we convince ourselves that our husbands should be helping out more, and we push our duties off on them..  After all, with both parties working a full-time job, it's unfair that the woman would have to do all housework and child-rearing by herself.  So we assign our husbands jobs, and keep track of their completion on our mental chore charts.

When neither of these options work-they are too expensive, or jobs aren't done to our level of expectation, we'll pull on the rubber gloves and do them ourselves, but with a scowl.

Now certainly, not every woman in the past enjoyed every part of her jobs.  Every mother rejoices when a child is potty-trained, for that marks the end of rinsing that child's dirty diapers day after day.  And certainly, not every woman was equally skilled at every task.  If that were the case, county fair judges would have a difficult time placing blue ribbons on the winning quilts and pies.  Rather, women realized that they had work to do-whether they were experts or not, and whether they enjoyed it or not.  Families had a square meal on the table, even if they had to douse it with ketchup.  Children had clothes, even if they were all made from the same simple pattern.  They knew their duties, and they had the range of skills they needed to make sure their house was in order.  And now, in our modern age women have few of the same skills our mother and grandmothers were taught.  And we are the ones claiming to be "advanced," and "progressive."  Seems a contradiction to me.


  1. I remember the first time I read "Farmer Boy". I was awe-struck by the vast range of home-making tasks Almanzo's mother accomplished within a day, week, month, year - mostly for necessity's sake, which made these skills of great value to everyone. I even felt envious, for sadly, not only have many of these homemaking skills been lost to us, as women, wives, and mothers, but these skills have been devalued and made to SEEM obsolete and unnecessary as well. I pray that we, together, can make steps toward restoring the value of "caring" with our own hands for our families, because "care", not only for the little details of a home, but for the little (and big) bodies lovingly, meticulously, and long-sufferingly nurtured within it, can never be replaced.

  2. Another thing I noticed from Farmer Boy--the kids went to SCHOOL so she could get it all done! ;D I wonder if she was quite so productive when they were younger.

    I've pondered the skill/hobby question a lot and come to blame economies of scale and globalization for much of the switch. The fact is that a factory in China can make prettier, more durable things at a lower price than I can make them from home. Sad for me in terms of my own need to feel productive. :(

    What about when I put a freakin awesome meal on the table and they STILL douse it with ketchup? (Or, more likely around here, pepper.) Grrrrr.

  3. Ha! My dear lord has taken to trying at least one big mouthful and making yummy sounds before dousing his food in pepper. It's but a minor token, but I appreciate the sentiment. :D

  4. Rebekah - good point... kids going to school makes a BIG difference. Although the older they get they actually begin to take on many of the household chores as well which balances it all back out.
    And as to - "Sad for me in terms of my own need to feel productive. :(" - exactly how I feel!

  5. I think a person could get it all done, even while homeschooling. It would require two things: a change in the expectations and understanding of a good education, and a strict schedule (nursing children and young toddlers are exempt and are expected to wreak havoc on the schedule; so mothers, do your best).

    If we start including these womanly skills in our education curriculum, cooking, cleaning, and sewing, then the mother wouldn't be responsible for doing it all herself. Rather, her responsibility is to teach these skills to her children.

    But then again, I only have one kid. Perhaps you know otherwise, and should chalk my opinions to naivety. :P

  6. As far as the dousing of food in pepper or ketchup...hide it? Or go on cooking-strike. Explain that it drains your energy whenever they douse your meals with condiments, as you went to such hard work to carefully prepare it with the spices you felt were best; and now, you have no more energy, so if they're hungry, they know where the kitchen is. Then order Chinese takeout for yourself!

  7. Actually, the stricter your schedule, the less you get done, when it comes to homeschooling and housekeeping. :P But that's us.

    I've found it's better to have low expectations, and then to be pleasantly surprised by the gift of days where the bread behaves itself on the second rise AND the school kid finally figures out division. :D

  8. RE: the spices issue: I've stopped spicing the food altogether, opting to provide what spices I think are needed in cute shakers on the dinner table. Undercover huswifery: it amuses me. :D

  9. My "strict" schedule is pretty vague right now. By strict, I only mean that I am intentional about doing the things that have to be done. If I wait for a good time (or the motivation) to clean, or go to the store, it will never come. So I dive in and hope for the best.

  10. I think a lot about how "easy" (effortless? mindless? I don't mean without thought--maybe automatic, mechanical?) housework and housewifely duties were for previous generations (generally speaking). I think they had a larger community of support than we do (mothers, aunts, neighbors), and were taught right away how to run a house. Although my mom was a great stay-at-home homeschool mother, she does not "keep" house or manage her time very well. I feel like I'm learning everything 10 years too late.

    Those previous generations also didn't GO ANYPLACE. We have one car, and I still waste so much time on errands. And they had a lot less stuff. I feel I have to plow through hours and hours of everyday duties before I can get to the gardening/canning/sewing/building/agrarian awesomeness.

    Then I remember that my grandmother and great-grandmother's homes were just as cluttered and dirty as mine, and so I think maybe my mom and I just have bad genes. And then I remember that my great-grandmother was widowed at 36 and raised 8 kids and ran a farm alone. Can't say I have that excuse...

  11. Katy-

    I agree. It seems the older generations had much more support and education than we ever did. My mother and grandmother are excellent housekeepers, but I'm still in the learning process.

    And you're right about the traveling. Now days, it seems the most important thing you can do if you have kids is to be that awesome mother who totes her children along to all the various extracurricular activities, starting when they're newborns! Otherwise, your children won't have the same advantages as all the rest, and you'll never see another mother your age. Older generations were very different. Much more concerned with putting dinner on the table at a decent time and socializing in their homes with their neighbors.