I had a decision to make this morning. Write or clean my house.
I dreaded staring at a blank computer screen.
But I also dreaded the thought of stripping beds, folding and putting away my daughter’s clothes, emptying trash baskets, hanging up my husband’s suits from Sunday, watering plants, cleaning off my desk, opening mail, shelving books, thawing chicken and deciding on a way to serve it for dinner, and unpacking my luggage from this weekend’s trip and sorting through my closet for something fresh and clean to pack for this weekend’s speaking trip.
I had to decide. So I decided to write about housework. Afterwards I will do some housework.
I earn enough to hire someone to clean and indeed have a woman who comes in every other week to help with the cleaning, so why in the world would I spend my time on house work when it can be put off on someone else?
First things first: I can’t work in clutter. Some people can, but I’m not one of them. I clean so I can write. Sure, sometimes I clean the house to put off writing. But sometimes cleaning reminds me, in ways that writing and being a minister do not, of the holiness of caregiving.
Of the many things she failed at as a mother, my mother who was a country girl took pride in the fact that she kept a clean house. She insisted that her two daughters learn to do the same. My younger sister was better at my mother’s craft than I was. I preferred books over a mop. But my mother didn’t care. I had to learn how to clean (even though I never mastered cooking). Keeping a clean house (along with being a great cook) was the way my mother who was otherwise shy and not very affectionate communicated her love to her family. “Never eat from the table of a woman with a dirty house,” she admonished us.
Education was supposed to free women from being relegated to domestic work. And talking here about reclaiming housework as sacred work feels somewhat anti-feminist and counterrevolutionary to me. But the daily obligations of having to clean up behind ourselves and those we care about serve as reminders to us of our inherent messiness and ability to wreak chaos around us. It’s thankless, repetitive work that constantly comes undone and must be redone, and hardly any of us do housecleaning without doing our share of mumbling and grumbling. Menial labor is how those who scoff at and underestimate its importance categorize it in the workplace. It’s the unpaid labor of generations of women in the home which patriarchy dubs “labor of love.” It’s a shame women have been expected to juggle the obligations of family and work with as little help as they’ve gotten from those around them.
For a long time picking up after and caring for others have been construed as intellectual and spiritual impediments that squander our potential and ties us down. But what if by relegating caregiving to women men have missed out on an important venue through which God speaks and teaches us compassion? Afterall, it’s nearly impossible to stay up all night caring for a sick child and return to your office the next day and sign the papers to bomb villages in a distant land, or sign the order to lay off ten thousand workers, or vote not to provide health insurance for poor children. The dailiness of caring for others teaches you something about patience, compassion, attentiveness, and the grace of obligation. Or, at least it should.
Years ago I was condescending toward Martha and her complaints in Luke 10 about being stuck with all the cooking preparations when I wrote about her in my first book Just A Sister Away. Like every other modern woman I saw Martha as a domestic shrew and preferred Mary’s choice of chucking cleaning and cooking for the chance to luxuriate at dinner in Jesus’ heady teachings. I’m still a mystic at heart and prefer reading and thinking over hauling water and slaving over a hot stove. But there are days when standing over yet another chicken laying legs up on my kitchen counter and pondering what new way I can prepare it to make my family notice and appreciate my efforts that I understand just how Martha felt. Taking care of others means risking having the little things you do for them taken for granted.
We need a theology that elevates housecleaning and caregiving as spiritually on par with studying the bible and sermonizing.
The obligations that come with taking care of a family and serving others is holy work. And the scores of daily, barely noticed rituals women do without compensation to make the lives of those they love comfortable deserves to be honored. When that work ceases, we notice and finally understand what it means not just to be loved, but to have been cared for.