Tuesday, December 02, 2014

There's been a conversation about housewifery

It's been floating around on my corner of the internet, Facebook, what have you. Melanie's written some wonderful things about the book Bed and Board, by Robert Farrar Capon, and Calah shared this blog post about self sufficiency and the changes wrought in the home through the Industrial Revolution. Nat and I have been reading Farmer Boy, which is about the tail end of the family and farm as a separate functioning economic and societal unit. And I keep thinking about Ursula Franklin and her separations of prescriptive and wholistic technology. Because our homes are almost completely about outsourced labour now. By that I mean, almost everything we use to make and run our homes has gone through initial production elsewhere. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's that knowledge of separation from the mastery of doing things that is, in part, driving the Millenial return to fierce and contentious domesticity ("Oh, you raise your own chickens in your backyard? How quaint. I keep two cows in my suburban plot and also have a beehive in my bedroom.")

This is a big and complicated conversation. One well worth having. And there are so many worthy threads to it that I don't really know how to encapsulate it, so I'm just going to throw out thoughts.

We fundamentally need homes, and we've elevated homemaking to an art, but I think the conversation has gotten really confused about what homemaking should be. A friend pointed out that husband meant to be in mastery over, or in charge of, land or a household. We tend to use homemaker or housewife to mean, "Does lots of cutesy stuff and tries to be Martha Stewart" (minus the big expensive team actually doing everything). That isn't me. I'm a fairly crummy homemaker if you use pretty and has a good sense of style as a guide. I think (and here my husband may fall about laughing) that I'm a pretty good homemaker by my actual lights, given what I'm aiming for. Well, less so right now, because I'm pretty stressed. What I want is a place where people feel welcomed. I want to be able to run my household and deal with the general feeding and clothing of our family and the multitudes of houseguests that pass through our place. Capon had some excellent things to say about how embodiment, the rituals of family life, form liturgy, and highly specific liturgy. Liturgy being actions that are familiar and repeated in patterns. Also that nurture the people who practice them.

Other people, other households, may have different aims. Ours is, largely, the kind of hospitality that is always ready to read together, chat together, and also to point out that you can gets yourself a drink if you want. It's a specific outgrowth of our highly specific personalities, and as blessedly individual as our marriage.

Certainly I think there are skills, domestic skills, which it would be good for everyone to have, but I find (surprisingly) that I don't think they have to be cooking amazing organic GMO-free meals or following the proscribed method of parenting or even knowing how to do the laundry correctly (although I am sure Geoff would be delighted were I ever to learn that). I think people should be able to cope with the basic details of their lives, and get themselves and any dependents fed and clothed, and preferably kept clean, and generally be taken care of. There are a thousand different possible skills relating to that that all fall under that aegis, but I'm not competent to decide which ones are necessary to other people's lives and households any more than I can divine the state of some else's specific temptations and their general spiritual life or state of salvation. Because it's not actually my vocation. So, I think it's possible to be a completely adequate housewife who never cooks, buys all packaged meals, and sends out all the laundry, or adequate husband ditto. Because if what they're doing and how they're running their household corresponds with a totally different set of goals than mine- working in a demanding field doing scientific research, or being a passionate hockey family, or taking in twenty foster kids- their meal planning/shopping/laundry system/bill paying regime is going to be utterly different from mine.

And so while I welcome both the older domesticity that taught specific household routines and the new that thrives on doing everything the hardest and most detail-intensive way possible, I hesitate to assign value judgments to any of them, although my personal bent is for a lot of wholistic mastery over a few things, and buying large boxes of Goldfish crackers alongside. Because at base I see everyone trying to work out their own laundry schedules and goat-milking routines, and I say, Great, keep on making your own home.

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