On Housework

On Housework September 26, 2013

Martha Hughes Cannon (1857–1932) wrote to her friend Barbara Replogle in 1884, “’Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world . . . That dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery… and the conformity to the vile customs of modern society. Barbara even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness—but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.”

Replogle and Cannon were roommates in Philadelphia while Cannon was in medical school and Replogle studied at the National School of Elocution and Oratory. Cannon was a physician, a wife, a mother, a suffragist, and in 1896 she became the country’s first female state Senator.

I quote Cannon at length here because I find all of her words provocative. She elicits a number of discussion subjects, but I want to consider her first point: the potential for household drudgery to dwarf talent. I know that too much housework can dwarf talent, but I believe it can also make our lives richer.

Cannon’s position was that housework endangered the pursuit of excellence. She was right. Today, I could fill my life with so much housework that there would be no time left to write or study or play.

I can imagine that housekeeping in Utah during the nineteenth century could become all-consuming. In fact, Brigham Young and Mary Isabella Horne had begun late in 1869 a retrenchment program that encouraged women to dress simply and to prepare uncomplicated meals. The goal was to free up women’s time, so more of it could be spent studying the gospel and in other “edifying” pursuits. Their message may have been that housework was a necessary evil, not edifying in and of itself. But maybe they only meant to safeguard against too much housework.

I suspect people cleaning their houses have usually had some degree of choice about, for example, how often one changed the sheets or swept the floors. But even when one cuts corners, there is still a lot to do. A number of women and men have chosen to do as little as they can in the way of housework, freeing up their time for work they want to perform. Most of them are able to ignore disorder. At the extreme end, I knew a man who did his laundry twice a year. He just kept wearing things over and over between washings. He did not smell good.

I want to smell good. I want my house to smell good. My husband insists I have internalized a cockamamie devil ideal that leads me to torment the family (especially him) to meet a too-clean standard. I look at the unmade beds, the piano music on the floor, and wonder how he could find my standards too high. He would prefer to “catch up” on dishes every couple of days. I find it more efficient to wash them immediately after use, when the still-warm tomato sauce will rinse right off and before the egg yolk has turned to Gorilla glue. My way does save time but it also serves to stop me feeling frantic. The truth is, I can’t be productive in an unclean house.

Most of us end up with family members who have different conceptions of what “completed housework” means. My friend Emilee says many things that she finds essential just don’t make sense to her family. She can’t get them to understand the purpose of top sheets, for example. Recently, when her son obediently made his bed, he carefully laid the top sheet over the spread.

Daryl Hoole (b. 1934), the grande dame of LDS housekeeping advice, introduced her 1967 work The Art of Homemaking with the idea that women who followed her methods for systematizing routine duties, “will find their interest in homemaking greatly increasing and that there will be time to get their work done and enjoy creative activities, family fun and personal development” (vii). Hoole believed that effective housekeeping not only created time for other pursuits, but would become a reward in itself. She taught that a home free of clutter and confusion, maximized progress and accomplishment. Hoole’s vision of an ideal homemaker was one so efficient in completing housework that she was, “also able to pursue some personal interests which contribute to her happiness and development” (3). Hoole intended her principles not only to keep people from doing too much housework, but also to help them enjoy it, with “their interest in homemaking greatly increasing.”

Cannon and Hoole both had women in mind as the homemakers. Now, of course, men wrestle with these questions too. But I believe something in it is good for the soul. In Lean In (2013), Sheryl Sandberg implores women, “Make your partner a real partner”—not just in achieving professional success, but in benefitting from the fruits of domestic responsibility. My friend Adam reaches for the vacuum first thing when he gets home from work. He sorts through his wife’s clothing to keep things organized. Housework means negotiating with each other, with time constraints, with the voices in our heads.

Keeping up with everything is hard, sometimes exhausting, and I have my own coping techniques. I start laundry on a Tuesday evening and try to have it clean, folded, and put away before bedtime on Wednesday so that it doesn’t always hang over my head. My family members, who create 4/5 of the laundry, do the folding and putting away. My friend and I cook for each other’s households. I make extra food on Mondays and she on Thursdays, an arrangement we both love.

When it isn’t overwhelming, I enjoy housework. Work that is continually undone is particularly hard—the wiping of kitchen counters or putting away coloring supplies just in time for someone to get them out again and leave little tiny paper cuttings all over the table, the chair, the floor. I must also admit that I pay someone to help me clean every week. My husband and I are lucky enough to work full-time in jobs that allow us this luxury. But sitting in a living room that someone else has dusted and vacuumed is not the same as sitting in a living room that I have vacuumed and dusted. When I have done it, the work means more; it brings me some peace.

My friend Laura gathers dirty dishes into her sink, then wipes off her counters with wide slow motions, like she’s singing a love song. I have lately taken to reading in the kitchen late in the evenings. Because the kitchen needs lots of cleaning every day, when sitting there I inhabit a place that I have just cared for, and it feels deeply comforting to be there. I think of the closet I organized at my grandparents’ cabin last summer, and my heart fills with softness.

I don’t mean to suggest that all people are built this way, although I know many who are. What I’m trying to say is that for some of us, housework isn’t always drudgery. Sometimes housework is drudgery and sometimes it is a gift.

In her autobiography Heaven is Here, burn victim Stephanie Nielson eloquently described how, in the early stages of her recovery, she yearned to shop for groceries and cook for her family. A year ago, when I was having eye surgeries, I couldn’t keep things clean my own, and I suffered over this. Often, now, when I pull out the vacuum, I feel grateful that I can.

Derr, Jill Mulvay et al., eds., This Labor of Love and Duty: Selected Documents from Latter-day Saint Women’s History, 1842-1892 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2014), document 3.14.

See also: Nancy Rollins Ahlander and Kathleen Slaugh Bahr, “Beyond Drudgery, Power, and Equity: Toward an Expaned Discourse on the Moral Dimensions of Housework in Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family 57, no. 1 (February 1995): 54–68.

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