As I write this article, I am doing my level best to ignore the piles of clean laundry in the other room. There has, I am sorry to say, been a good deal of arguing amongst my brood today. And I am not quite sure what we will have for dinner. In fact, were Chesterton to survey my unenviable position he might remark that he would pity me for the the hugeness of my task; and never pity me for its smallness. By defending the amateur housewife, I hope to normalize this lack of professionalism and encourage other women to be gloriously imperfect in this large and most important role.
There is a constant barrage of unspoken expectations inflicted upon women in our society. Fit bodies, tidy homes, happy husbands, intelligent -and well adjusted- children. In Christian circles, this expectation takes on a religious tone. Cleanliness is next to godliness, don’t you know?
In my own life, I have fallen prey to the pressure of outside expectations, with disastrous consequences to my mental health and spiritual life, and that of my husband and children. I have also sadly been witness to the precipitous destruction of marriages and families related to these outside expectations of women who were ten times the homemaker I have ever been, but who never felt like they were enough. This is a serious matter.
This focus on externals is destructive. In my experience, while externally beautiful children and homes are objectively a good, the focus on outcomes and appearances can work at cross purposes to the ultimate goal of the domestic sphere – the flourishing and well-being of those within.
Countless books, websites, and articles promise us that if we buy certain products, adopt a certain system, pray the right prayers, or even decorate our homes correctly, that we will have better homes, thriving families, and always be “company ready.” I have found, over the years, that there are no easy answers. A system may work for a while, but we are not running a factory, nor an assembly line. Order and systems are good, but very individual. The answers will not come from online trends or mass movements, but from individual discernment… varying from home to home, and empress to empress.
Being a domestic empress is an important endeavor – one that should be approached with thought and purpose. As Chesterton so frequently points out, the woman in the home has a lot of freedom to create beauty, but also the obligation to prioritize people and tasks according to the needs of her own home. As he says, “of the two sexes the woman is in the more powerful position. For the average woman is at the head of something with which she can do as she likes; the average man has to obey orders and do nothing else.” Unfortunately, many women today have unwittingly chosen to enslave themselves to unrealistic expectations created by overconsumption of social media. Instead of being in charge of their domestic spheres, they allow the fashions and false expectations of the day to dictate their perception of their “success” at homemaking. Exchanging their freedom for slavery, they choose to take orders from unseen forces.
Thankfully, the care of the home has always been and should remain an entirely amateur affair. Attempts to professionalize the care of the home inevitably crash up against the reality that the home and the people within are not cogs in some machine, but individual creatures of God with myriad needs, tastes, and requirements which can change at a moment’s notice and resist even the most well intentioned schedules and methods. As Chesterton points out, “A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically.” Sometimes, it’s cereal for dinner as the needs of a forlorn toddler, or even more urgently, a forlorn teenager, take precedence. Freedom and flexibility are features, not bugs in the system. A woman is a despot by design – her freedom allows her to become exactly the person needed at the moment.
We all love to accomplish wonderful things. As a domestic empress – the possibilities are endless, but patience is required. If she decides to focus her efforts, royal icing may be mastered one day, eventually the closets will be tidy, all the laundry will be neatly folded and put away, and the house decorated just so. But today, the more important task is to accept that one cannot do it all, nor ought one try. By accepting the imperfection inherent in the work of the home, the domestic empress paradoxically creates an environment optimized for herself and the other inhabitants.
A domestic empress with her priorities straight is always a happy hostess – because she knows that her messy hospitality is giving a home to the Christ child, who is happy to dwell in the most humble of dwellings. Comparison is the thief of joy, and by gratefully accepting the lot she has been given, and her talents and limitations, she maximizes her own joy and that of those around her. Acceptance and humility lead to gratitude and joy. She knows that social media can be a terrible liar, so the wonderfully messy and complicated humans in her home can be seen as the beautiful creatures of God they are, and not as a dim shadow of the perceived perfection she sees in the online image of others.
The work of a housewife is too important for the professional – it must be done by amateur. As Chesterton notes, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” No where is this more true than in the domestic sphere – the one for which all the others exist.
This article first appeared in Gilbert Magazine, the official Magazine of the Society of G.K. Chesterton. I encourage you to become a member today and support this most important work by joining at chesterton.org.