- If Berry is right, our being intentional about bringing back housework is central to our bringing back the household itself. Tweet This
- We are beginning to see that a richer home life is in fact a primordial and irreplaceable form of authentic human living. Tweet This
- Work is transformed from the inside when it is engaged in as a way of being-together in love. Tweet This
Since some time ago, most any work in the home—other than work that is really telecommuting to somewhere else—has been the object of more or less aggressive denigration. Indeed, work in the home has practically given up the ghost; it is not actively denigrated anymore because it is so generally seen as menial, servile, or simply below our serious notice.
The connotation of the word “chore” pretty much says it all.
But then again, there seems to be something new afoot. People are sensing that our wholesale abandonment of daily life in the home has left a serious crater. For a growing number, the glamor of new ways, new freedoms, and new technologies—most of which have been at the expense of all that goes on at home—is growing dull.
We are beginning to see that a richer home life—once a matter of necessity that did not require intentional choice—is in fact a primordial and irreplaceable form of authentic human living. Perhaps the last few generations can be forgiven for not realizing that. For us, the evidence seems beyond question.
If the larger issue is the value of homelife, a key manifestation of it is work in the home. Historically, as the “job” or “career” of the man left the home, to be followed later by that of the woman, most of the work left behind tended to be the dregs—the more menial and less fulfilling tasks of daily life. Think: doing dishes.
It is not surprising that wife and children, or anyone else in the home, found this work burdensome. It had been disconnected from more complex and artful forms of work, and besides, there was less and less going on at home that gave call and context for the more menial work. Work outside the home—generally more honored and reckoned as the context of “success”—could finance paying others to keep the home in reasonable order. This arrangement has functioned as an ideal for some time.
There is a special value in this type of work that both engages our creativity and provides products that fill basic needs and enhance life.
In 1980, Wendell Berry wrote,1
For most people now do seem to think that family life and family work are unnecessary, and this thought has been institutionalized in our economy and in our public values. Never before has private life been so preyed upon by public life. How can we preserve family life—if by that we mean, as I think we must, home life—when our attention is forcibly drawn away from home?
Forty years later, what Berry observed is probably even more enshrined in our economy and public values. But again, I think something new is afoot. More people are noticing and feeling a problem. Especially affected by ongoing quarantines and a diminution of communal activities of all kinds, people have a keener sense of their deep need for rich relationships and bodily presence. And some—perhaps from their forced time at home together in the last year—are beginning to intuit what Berry saw as the practical heart of the matter: work in the home.
Good work, Berry writes, is “the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of a brace or a prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love.”2 To rediscover work in the home is to rediscover the flesh and bones of this primordial human community.
But how can we rediscover that for which most of us now lack the time, the taste, and the talent? If Berry is right—and I am convinced he is—our being intentional about bringing back housework is central to our bringing back the household itself. Here are two things we can bear in mind in this effort.
First, while many of us are not in a position to change our primary profession, we can choose to cultivate richer, more artful work in the home. We can begin by focusing on one task: it can be gardening, food preparation or preserving, carpentry, crafting in other forms, auto mechanics, animal husbandry, or an array of do-it-yourself arts. There is a special value in this type of work that both engages our creativity and provides products that fill basic needs and enhance life.
Second, once we see and treat work in the home as “a way of living” and “one of the forms and acts of love,” we and those around us will experience it differently. Work is transformed from the inside when it is engaged in as a way of being-together in love. In this way, even the more menial but still necessary forms of work become something richer and are taken up into the larger reality of the household.
As Berry wrote: "Work is the health of love. To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world—to produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well-made things.”3
Once again Berry points the way to something primordial, something that speaks to us from deep inside. Housework is never far away. We can choose it again—with care and discernment—and so enflesh our love for those closest to us, in the daily life of our home.
John A. Cuddeback, Ph.D. is professor of Philosophy at Christendom College. His writing and lectures focus on ethics, friendship, and household. His blog, Life Craft, is dedicated to the philosophy of household.
1. Wendell Berry, “Family Work,” in The Gift of Good Land
2. Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture