To Be Queen Elizabeth at Home

To Be Queen Elizabeth at Home December 28, 2014

For those of us who weren’t brought up cooking and sewing, modern conveniences make any attempt to learn those skills seem like an exercise in futility,” writes Calah Alexander in Those Pathetic Millennial Moms.

Why learn to sew when the first few years will be filled with disproportional dresses that we don’t let our daughters wear because the seams look like they were stitched while we were schnockered? Why learn to cook when we’ll spend the first few years burning pasta and making garlic-coated steak bites of blasphemy? We know it’s worth it in the long-term, but the short term is a different story.

The story she tells is not only the story of women of her generation but a version of the story my wife and her contemporaries could tell. They may have been taught a few more skills. My wife grew up in a pastor’s family and not in the affluent world Calah assumes, and as a result she (my wife) could sew. She learned to cook within her family’s narrow culinary range, which is to say that she learned to cook, as long as one stayed within the range of dishes one might bring to a parish pot luck supper.

They were slightly ahead of Calah’s generation in useful skills, but they also became mothers at home when being a mother at home was even less approved of by elite opinion than it is now. Now, having or being a wife at home is a sign of success,for the wife as well as the husband.

Even in the conservative Christian circles on the edges of which we lived for many years, people — almost always slightly older women — would ask “But what do you do?” when my wife or her peers said they were at home with their children. The slightly more generous question was “What will do when they’re in school?” i.e., old enough to leave alone for hours at a stretch. These people, many of whom were very conservative in their theology, assumed that no one would really want to be a full-time mother and wife for years on end, that the real good life was found outside the home, with the home a kind of bonus.

It is easy, especially when you don’t have to make the choice, to romanticize stay at home motherhood. But it’s also easy to reduce it to deprivation and that’s the dominant way people, including as I say some very conservative people, think of it. In response, I will quote the famous “To be Queen Elizabeth” passage from G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World:

[W]hen people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; 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.

Some complain that this is a subtle way to oppress women by romanticizing their oppression.

Update: Idiotically forgot to finish this one. After the preceding sentence, I was going to say: Chesterton may have romanticized the vocation, but only because the vocation was already romantic, a good thing in itself. One might fault him for not recognizing the exceptions and limits, but he was describing an ideal and describing it accurately.

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