The Role of the Homemaker

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, December 2004

When I was watching TV the other evening (yes – I watch
some TV. I tell my 11 and 13 year-old sons that I like to keep an eye on
popular culture, that I’m interested in what “everybody else” is doing. They
usually snort in derision as they leave the room, making rude remarks about
“Mom’s stupid cop shows”) I became interested in a commercial for vacuum
cleaners. It showed a woman eagerly
rushing around the house, happy to have this new and wonderful machine which
would help her get through with her work as quickly as possible, so that she
could join her husband and children in more important pursuits, i.e. leisure
and entertainment.

So that’s one picture of homemaking. Another one on TV
(one I have not watched as it might
prompt me to do violence!) is a show called Desperate
Housewives
. I think the title says it all and, judging from the articles
I’ve read about it, it is made clear that being “just a housewife” is something
to escape from, preferably with the hunky delivery man.

For those of us who stay at home with our children, not
only are we weird because we are “just mothers” (or, weirder still,
stay-at-home dads) but we are “just homemakers” as well. As those who make money
in our society are most valued, those who generate income so that they can buy
things, we surely must be ‘desperate’, must be unfulfilled.

How does it feel to be a homemaker? Lonely, isolated,
unsupported… Can be. Lucky is the homemaker who lives where there are others
who stay at home and who can visit together, giving one another support and a
chance for adult conversation. For many of us, this is just a dream, and
certainly my family has moved from intentional community to intentional
community in search of the support and adult company I felt I needed when my
children were young.

But what if homemaking were more widely valued, seen as a
fundamental prerequisite for a healthy society? What if it was applauded as a
profession and a task central to the stability and nurturing of families,
providing a haven for those family members who work outside the home as well as
a nurturing place for children to thrive and grow? Wouldn’t such a change in
attitude, such a change in values,
help us overcome our inner feelings of isolation and lack of support? Even if
friends were sparse, surely it would help our own sense of fulfillment and
confidence if what we were doing was more widely viewed as a valuable
contribution to society.

Many anthroposophists, those inspired by the work of
Rudolf Steiner, feel that the role of the homemaker is of central importance in
society, the one that will carry new impulses of spirituality in the future.
Manfred Schmidt-Brabant (who was a homemaker for a time) writing in his book, The Spiritual Tasks of the Homemaker,
gives us a picture of the home as the cradle of a new spiritual culture.
Whereas in days of old, people would have to travel to priests to receive the
word of God, to those who had the clairvoyance needed to interpret God’s
messages, Schmidt-Brabant says that, as part of the modern human being’s growth
toward freedom and individuality, this is no longer appropriate. Instead, he
says that we are all priests, that we all have the potential to hear and
interpret the Word, and that the vessel for nurturing such spiritual perception
is the home. This is the dawning of the New Mysteries and the homemaker carries
the central role. He says of the homemaker:

She becomes a priestlike figure, she takes over a priestly function…
One should not think of traditional priests, but of a type that existed in the
ancient Mysteries – an Isis priestess, or the ancient priestesses of the
Mystery cultures that still were part of matriarchal societies. Only when the
homemaker sees herself as a new type of priestess can life in the household be
understood as a sacrament and so become a seed for the new Mystery culture.
Ultimately this means that the work of the homemaker will gradually become
permeated with spirit, that she will understand it as something spiritual.
Spirituality is everywhere.

This is a mighty task to shoulder, but if viewed in this
light, homemaking becomes a calling, a sacred vocation of nurturing the people
who live in the home, helping them discover and answer their destiny questions.
No longer something to be over and done with, no longer an obstacle to the
illusions of ‘real life’ brought by entertainment or leisure, homemaking can
become a fulfilling role, one in which the homemaker, through the ordering and
ensouling of her (or his) home, works directly with spirit. If, as
anthroposophists do, we try to understand that, for instance, the very act of
cleaning is an alchemical act, a way of transforming matter, then that sink
full of dishes can be viewed not simply as an onerous task, but as an
opportunity to positively affect our surroundings, our home.

Crucial to developing – and maintaining – such a
reverential attitude toward housework is learning to separate the essential
from the non-essential. Details, procrastination, fussing and unnecessary
twiddling about in the kitchen or in the muddy hall can wear us down. “What do
I need to do and what can I leave be?” are profoundly important questions to
ask oneself and the self-discipline to discern the answer is an important part
of the self-education of every homemaker.

Once we’ve decided what we need to do, the way we approach
our tasks is also of great importance. Linda Thomas, an anthroposophist who
lectures and gives workshops on the profession of the homemaker, says:

The attitude that we have regarding the work that we do is of the
utmost importance. If we are unable to lead the meditative, spiritual life we
wish to lead, we can try to find a spiritual attitude toward everything we do
in our daily lives. In other words, if you are not able to do what you love,
you should try to love what you do. Things that repeat themselves constantly
either turn into routine, which can have a very dulling effect, or you can try
to make an exercise of awareness out of the most menial task, and already you
are starting on your spiritual task.

 Her words can give comfort to us as we try to live with
the idea of the importance of our work as homemakers, helping us find meaning
in what can be viewed as meaningless, and pave the way to open up to the great
task that Schmidt-Brabant says is ours as homemakers.

* * * * *

Practical Ideas and
Resources

Here are a few suggestions relating to the mundane and,
sometimes, difficult aspects of homemaking:

  • Make sure that children are involved in household chores and are part of what you do from their earliest days. A baby sitting on your hip in a sling can ‘help’ you tidy and clean. Sing and jiggle whilst doing the dishes with your baby in a backpack.
  • Arrange your housework so that your little children can join in. Instead of Circle Time rhymes and movement games which mime work, sing and chant rhymes as you do real work together around the house. 
  • If everyone does chores because everyone is part of the family, this engenders a more helpful and participatory attitude toward housework than star charts and other external rewards. We all do our bit because that’s what we do when we’re part of a family. 
  • Housework and caring for the home are not something to ‘get through with’ so that the ‘real work of school’ can take place. Learning to be part of the family, to have responsibilities, to care for a home, are as important as academic work. Indeed, especially for under-7s, the purposeful tasks of homemaking should be a large part of the child’s day.
  • Get organized and focused! What needs to be done every day? What need to be done on a weekly basis? How much time is wasted looking for things because you haven’t yet ‘found a home’ for the paper, matches, laundry powder, light bulbs, shoe polish and other things that disappear amidst the chaos? 
  • Try to stay focused on the job at hand instead of thinking about the next thing you need to do. Certainly this can be challenging in a house full of children, but it could help you -and therefore them – to stay calm and in the present. 
  • Although to-do lists can be helpful, it might be better to think of housework as process, not as a series of goals. One needs lists to organize one’s day and schedule but there is a danger in the kind of attitude which could view housework as a series of checks on a to-do list: housework is never done. If, instead, an attitude of caring for a home is fostered, then one wouldn’t feel defeated and disappointed when that floor is muddy 10 minutes after it’s been washed.

A few anthroposophical books to help with homemaking: 

  • The Spiritual Tasks of the Homemaker, Manfred Schmidt-Brabant

A slim little book, steeped in
esoteric anthroposophy but nevertheless surprisingly readable even for those
new to anthroposophy. 

  • Lifeways: Working with Family Questions, (ed) Davy and Voors

Absolutely my favorite source of
comfort and inspiration when I was just beginning my life as a homemaker and
mother. 

  • Clear the Clutter: Make Space for Your Life, Inge van de Ploeg

A practical hands-on guide to
ordering one’s home or workspace as well as help in gaining insight into why
one gets buried in clutter. Highly recommended by Nancy Parsons of Bob and
Nancy’s books. 

And, of course… your own attitude which you bring to
your daily household tasks, your own insights and reflection – what you DO in
your home – are all far more important than reading about it!

Posted on July 13, 2005 in Family Life and Parenting

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