It was when I became a mother that I began thinking about keeping a house. Before that, the walls of the homes I shared with my husband were always bare. There were no curtains. I rarely ran a vacuum. It was just the two of us and making a home just wasn’t important. It didn’t help that no one had taught me how to keep a house. I barely knew how to do my own laundry when I got married, much less cook, clean, or decorate.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I read Kathleen Norris’s Acedia & Me. In it, Norris writes about making the bed an act of hospitality to yourself, a way to create order and peace. When she was a child, she thought making the bed was “stupid repetition” and I felt the same. My husband and I hardly ever made the bed; we just fell into a pile of sheets and blankets at the end of the day. So I gave it a shot. I started making the bed — a first, small step.
With the birth of my daughter came a shift in my life, not just from childlessness to motherhood but also from working primarily outside the home to primarily within. I left my full-time job to teach part time so I could be home to care for Lily and, as it turned out, our home. I was not only in charge of this baby but also of our home, which suddenly felt like it needed more attention and care.
Perhaps it was because I was in the house for more hours of my day, or perhaps I felt compelled to make a home my child would remember; whatever it was, I wanted a house that felt like home. What that meant was it was time to figure out how to make a home, keep a house, and take care of my family.
In her book Keeping House: A Litany of Daily Life, Margaret Kim Peterson writes about the theological implications of housework— primarily that Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless starts within our own homes. “Housework,” she writes, “is all about feeding and clothing and sheltering people who, in the absence of that daily work, would otherwise be hungry and ill-clad and ill-housed.”
Later Peterson writes, “How much more hospitable it would be if our homes were routinely to be places filled with satisfying meals, with shirts warm from the dryer, with smoothly made beds — not because we are trying to win the housekeeping prize but because these are good and pleasant ways to care for one another and ourselves.”
What I didn’t realize was how deeply entwined are the concepts of hospitality and housework. Keeping a home is an extension of hospitality, not in the way we might think of it as occasionally entertaining guests, but as a way of life. It’s not so important to have a magazine-perfect home or spend hours on end cleaning, but taking the time to clean house, clothes, and people; to make a meal; to make comfortable spaces — these are vital tasks.
After my daughter was born, I figured out how to get it under control. My house was clean enough. We ate real, homemade food. I did the laundry on a regular schedule (Mondays and Thursdays). I hung pictures on the wall. Then I had another baby and things quickly reverted to whatever was easiest. The cooking and cleaning all but went out the window. Laundry was all I could keep up with, even if it meant piles of clean clothes waiting to be folded. None of this is unusual with a new baby, but there is a statute of limitations on how long it can go on. Those early days and months, this was my mantra: “Quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep. I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.” Now my son is nine months old and it’s time to embrace a new routine.
So this year I’m doing something I’ve never done before: spring cleaning. Room by room, I am clearing cobwebs, vacuuming dust bunnies, and freshening up all in an effort to start anew. This kind of thing is deeply satisfying, I’ve found. What else can bring such gratification as using our hands — a little elbow grease, a little sweat?
According to Peterson, manual labor is good for the soul: “We all need something in our lives that can keep us from going down this road, the road of imagining ourselves too important to work with our hands. Housework, precisely because it is so daily and so present, is as good an opportunity as any.” I think Kathleen Norris would agree. She lists doing the dishes and baking bread as two of her most deeply satisfying activities.
It’s a sharp contrast to the idea that housework is drudgery. Too often I’ve heard others lament the endlessness of dishes and laundry. Housework seems an inconvenience, but isn’t that a matter of attitude? If there’s a better way to look at it — this mundane, daily work — shouldn’t we find it?
Housework is important work; so is caring for ourselves and others. Just because it is repetitive and continuous doesn’t make it unworthy of our effort or time or that we shouldn’t approach it with an attitude embracing its implications — that a well-kept home is a good place to be.
When I was a child, my aunt had a sign hanging in her kitchen that read, “Immaculate women lead dull lives.” It was her own little rebellion, I suppose, against having a perfect home. But I remember her house always being cozy, clean, and warm. We always ate well and lingered around the table. She cared for everyone deeply, though no one would describe her home as immaculate. That is what I want for my own house: not perfection, but hospitality. What I want is a home that feels like home.
All photographs by Lindsay Crandall.
Lindsay Crandall works as a freelance writer and editor, but her passion is for photography, particularly 35mm film and Polaroid (see her work here). She lives in upstate New York with her husband, four-year-old daughter, and baby son.