Does Housework Even Matter Anymore?
I like things in our house to be tidy, at least presentable for any guests who pop in on us. But as much as I appreciate neatness and order, I am not so good at maintaining it. I don't like to clean, and my house is usually messy.
Anne of Green Gables perhaps said it best when she pleaded, "Can I go right now – without washing my dishes? I'll wash them when I come back, but I cannot tie myself down to anything so unromantic as dish-washing at this thrilling moment." I too can think of nothing so un-romantic as the dishes. Especially when there's anything else to do, anything at all.
It is easy for me to blame my untidy home - where dust bunnies are permanent residents and coffee mugs can be found piled around my desk – on my full-time work, my part-time pursuit of a master's degree, and my husband's part-time work and full-time pursuit of his own graduate degree. (He still manages to do more dishes than me, though!)
We are busy folk, buried in work and books and when we are granted the rare gift of free time, cleaning house is the furthest thing from our minds. In the U.S., we're not alone in our manageable mess. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Esquire editor Stephen Marche explained that as more women enter the work force, less housework is being done – and, in his opinion, that shouldn't be a problem.
In "A Case for Filth," Marche calls housework "intimate drudgery," and notes that since the 1960s, the number of women in the United States working outside the home has quadrupled, the amount of housework done by men has not significantly changed in the last 30 years. He also cites a study from the year 2000 that shows that women have reduced the amount of housework they do by about 50 percent since the '60s. So if women are doing half the chores they used to, and men aren't doing any more, who is cleaning our homes?
Well, standards for cleanliness have slipped. We no longer "iron the sheets and vacuum the drapes," as Marche says. But his conclusion goes too far, even for messy me: "The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple," Marche writes. "Don't bother.… A clean house is the sign of a wasted life."
Sure, part of me (the part that hates cleaning) loves this. Who needs to mop once a week when there are people to see, books to read, wines to drink, and new restaurants to try? But then I spend that precious non-cleaning time watching HGTV and browsing Pinterest, only to see what my house could look like if I put in a bit more effort. (Or a lot more effort if I did things like make my own cleaning supplies. Thanks, Pinterest.)
Cleaning does seem like a necessary evil at best, and a nagging enemy at worst – reminding me of my inadequacy. I can't do it all – keep a clean house, cook homemade meals, stay fit, study hard, and do good work. So cleaning is usually the last on the list. I don't live in filth, of course, but somewhere in between Marche and Martha.
My husband and I are preparing to move this spring. I keep telling him that I want to downsize, to live in a smaller space that is less overwhelming to clean and more conducive to the active, people-filled lifestyle we desire.
I want to reframe my priorities when it comes to cleaning and hospitality. I believe that my home is a gift from God, a sacred space. When I invite someone into my home, I'm inviting them into my life – and my story of faith. God has blessed me with a home, and even though I don't have a pastor or a pipe organ, it is a place of worship.
If we treasure the sacred and sacramental in the everyday, and we believe in a God who cares about creation, then it should change our perspective on our little corner of our Father's world. My corner may be an 80-year-old, poorly insulated dust-trap of a house, but it still – on every level – belongs to God, and he has charged me with its care. The way the setting sun shines through the stained glass on our front stairs reflects his glory, and on frosty mornings when I peek out those single-paned windows, it is easy to utter a prayer of thanks.
Leonard Vander Zee (in Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, one of Christianity Today's top books of 2005) writes it this way: "My daily activities more often feel separated from God's immanent rule and partnership with the world than involved in them... But in reality my desk, complete with Mac Powerbook and shelves of books, is no less suffused with the presence of God."
And so our homes matter. Perfection doesn't, of course, and more often than not we should probably leave idol-factories like Pinterest and HGTV to the realm of inspiration rather than reality.
With this in mind, I can't in good conscience say that I should just leave it a mess. I am called to a life of hospitality, and part of that call is to keep it presentable, welcoming, and warm. Not perfect, but not a wreck.
I think Marche has it partially right: obsessing over the cleanliness of our homes is not worth it. There are many more valuable things we can do with our time than mopping once a week. But we can't leave our homes a total mess, because they are a reflection of God's blessing, a place of worship and a sacred shelter for us and others from the busyness and brokenness of the world. Our homes are holy ground.
Melanie Rainer works at Creative Trust where she produces and writes church and family spiritual formation resources. She muses occasionally at melanie-rainer.squarespace.com and studies at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where she and her husband make their (fairly messy) home.
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