To Dwell in a Household: Menial Work, Meaning, and Motherhood

The domestic joys, the daily housework or business, the building of houses / they are not phantasms / they have weight and form and location…”

–Walt Whitman, To Think of Time

If ever I came to the blank page with some legitimate expertise on a subject, I hope ordinariness might be it.  I have been fairly up to my neck in it over the past several days in fact, spending hours on the phone sorting out a problem with our family’s health insurance, making arrangements for my kids to get to swim lessons while our car is in the shop, and making a faithful-but-barely-noticeable dent in the mountainous heap of laundry in our basement.  As a mother of three kids aged five and under, ordinary life and time are what some might call my “bread-and-butter.”  Routine and repetition are the sustenance that nourish my family’s life even as I, personally, often find these rhythms of ordinary living to be mostly an acquired taste.

Over the years of bearing and caring for my children and working to shape the life and heart of our home while pursuing other callings alongside these roles, I confess that the ordinary, no-frills, domestic tasks such as making meals, changing sheets, doing dishes, and running errands have often proved to be the most challenging part of my work life.  Not because they are inherently difficult or terribly unpleasant – at times these daily tasks can be wonderfully refreshing and enjoyable—but rather because I find I am more susceptible to doubt the value of these ordinary tasks than I am the more measureable contributions of public or marketplace work.  We live in a time and a culture that celebrates the extraordinary, yet as I increasingly lean into the importance of my mostly unremarkable, ordinary life and activities, I find there is ample celebration in understanding the nature of ordinary work and the nature of ordinary time.

A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article titled Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary that explores the achievement-oriented culture that governs much of modern childhood and parenting.  As writer Alina Turgend writes, I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager—or adult—who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.”   She goes on to argue, “…we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.”

One quality, in particular, that gets devalued in our modern cult of accomplishment is the unique ways in which ordinary domestic life and work foster relationships.  In her tiny treasure of a book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work,”  Kathleen Norris dedicates much-needed and thoughtful attention to the daily, menial tasks that are common to us all, perhaps particularly common to mothers, noting that the origin of the word “menial” has its root in the word “manor” and is derived from a word meaning “to remain” or “to dwell in a household.”  As she says, “It is thus a word about connections, about family and household ties.  That it has come to convey something servile, the work of servants, or even slaves, is significant.”

She argues that it is significant for precisely the same reason Turgend acknowledges, namely that our culture values education and advancement above other important aspects of life.  As Norris goes on to write, “Cleaning up after others, or even ourselves, is not what we educate our children to do; it’s for someone else’s children, the less intelligent, the less educated and less well-off.”  Essentially, she argues, our understanding of work that is menial has adapted because our ability to comprehend its meaning has changed.  What originated as a term to imbue a sense of rootedness and connectedness—closeness even—in our modern context has no expression except to imply a rote, undervalued, and anonymous sense of “house help”.  This is noteworthy not only because it divorces the “menial” nature of a mother’s work from its relational context, but also because it values this work in strictly monetary or economic terms.  In his essay The Body and the Earth, Wendell Berry echoes this sentiment when he writes, “The orthodox assumption of the industrial economy [is] that the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.”

From the standpoint of human history then, we can begin to recover and reorient an understanding of household or “menial” work as work that cares for people and knits together a common life—or community—built around the shared and humble needs that comprise regular daily living.  As Andi Ashworth writes so wisely in her book Real Love for Real Life, “Home, by nature of its physical layout, draws people within close range of each other.  Devoting ourselves to the good of others begins with demonstrating love and service to those nearest us.”  And indeed, for most of us, this demonstration is no more complicated than laboring to consistently provide clean clothes, hot meals, or simply by taking out the garbage.

Recognizing how the nature of ordinary domestic work bears relational and communal value also helps us think differently about the nature of time as it regards the work of the home, and even the embodied, physical work of childbearing. As Judith Shulevitz observes in her blog article “Motherhood Changes You,” one of the primary tensions mothers face when they seek to reconcile or compare the tasks and work of the body and the home with other more marketplace-oriented jobs is not dissimilar to the challenge peasant farmers faced during the era of the Industrial Revolution.  As she writes,

“The time of peasants—agricultural time—ebbed and flowed.  It was task-oriented, that is, evaluated by how well jobs were done.  The time of the factory owners—industrial time—was steady, uniform, clock-oriented, evaluated by how quickly jobs were done.  But as task-oriented as a farmer’s work was, the farmer’s wife’s work was even more so, particularly when it involved taking care of infants.” 

Indeed, the care of nursing or diapering infants is rarely an exercise in efficiency, nor is the reading of bedtime stories, the baking of pies, or the cooking of a homemade meal that is shared around a family table.  The work of the home, like the farmer and his wife, is most certainly measured by the quality of the work done rather than the speed with which it is accomplished, and it is easy to see why.  Whereas the primary task for the industrialist is to produce, the primary task of a mother is to love.

When my family lived its relatively short stint in England, one of the habits I adopted was to bake a fresh boule of bread every afternoon to have with dinner in the evening and then the leftovers as toast the next morning.  It was an exercise in economy more than efficiency since yeast and flour cost a fraction of what they do here, but in addition to saving a few pence, I was surprised by the way this simple act of daily mixing and kneading became a sort of liturgy in the life of our family – a sacred time set apart from the normal efficiencies of a regular day.

My daughter was a toddler at the time and she enjoyed helping me measure and mix the dough, never tiring of jutting her chubby hands into the sticky mixture and pulling it up like Silly Putty.  My son, who was teething—always teething it seemed!—grew accustomed to chewing the hard crusts, and later, using the toast as an excuse to pile on as much jam as would fit.  My husband learned to expect the smell of fresh baked bread at the end of his school day and together the result was a simple family tradition forever enshrined in my memory of rainy days in England eating a steady, affordable diet of soup and pasta.  The bread baking was, of course, not the point when it was all said and done.  Rather, the ordinary, necessary and relatively slow task of cooking each day transformed our daily meals from mere nourishment into a liturgy rich in meaning.  And, quite rightfully, daily work like this naturally transforms the way we think about time.  Our meals, like our homes, ought to be places we can linger and rest, even as necessity will sometimes require us to hurry up and get out the door to the next thing.

By coming to see my ordinary tasks in light of their relational nature and their wonderful, purposeful inefficiency, I come to see what Soren Kierkegaard means when he writes, “The love of repetition is in truth the only happy love.”  What is more, I can begin to think afresh about the simple, mundane, but purposeful work God calls me to pursue for the care of myself and my family day by day.  Indeed, the Incarnation itself shows us how intimately familiar God is with our daily needs, deeming the faithful care of a loving mother  and father sufficient to provide all of the necessary, bodily care and nurture for His only son while on earth.

This simple truth reminds me I need not endeavor to make those things which are ordinary somehow profound, but rather simply to consecrate them.  Gerard Manley Hopkins offers a wonderful reflection on the consecration of all things in his address regarding St. Ignatious of Loyola’s writings on The Spiritual Exercises,  where he writes, “To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too.  God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should.” We worship a God who has bent low to meet us – to take on –  our feeble humanity so we need not dismiss the fetters and routines of our physical state as inconsequential, but rather offer the simple liturgies, the close relationships, and the ordinary tasks of our days back to him in trust that all work is indeed His own.

Kate Harris is Executive Director for The Washington Institute, wife to a good man and mother of their three young children.

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  • Kate, who knows how many women (and men) you may have lifted to grace by sharing your own journey through ordinary days? You help us, not just to endure, but to see the beauty and calling of living and being faithful in everyday things. I have often succumbed to the Olympic Medal measure of success – of being the best in the whole world at whatever I do. Of course that is a prescription for failure. So I love what you say and how you say it. I want to love and honor God in the smallest things in life, which, in fact, may not be so small after all. So thank you, thank you!