Gender roles within the home, traditional is modern again.
I was not raised to be a homemaker. Like many other women of my generation, I was convinced by the women’s movement that there were more important things to do than make a home for myself, a husband, and a family. My own mother, a piano teacher, helped support our family financially, but she didn’t make a home for us.
My early years were not completely without role models, however. I had two grandmothers who were wonderful homemakers. My mother’s mother knew about thrift. My grandfather was a truck driver, and on that meager income my grandparents owned a tiny Arts and Crafts house and had money in the bank. My grandmother prepared all their food from scratch. She tended a backyard vegetable garden where they grew much of their produce. Her home was always clean and tidy. And she still had time to volunteer at her church and become an accomplished painter.
My father’s mother was also highly skilled at homemaking, as were her sisters. From them I learned to bring beauty into the home. In their homes, the table was always set with fine china and silver and crystal. They taught me table manners and how to arrange food beautifully on the plate.
After many years of focusing almost exclusively on my career—and with all options open to me as a contemporary woman—I have chosen to be primarily a homemaker. As I began to be more aware of myself as a being of Nature, the deep natural instinct to make a home emerged within me. Although I also produce income, it is the by-product of creative work I love to do, and my life no longer revolves around my work.
Home is the foundation that supports everything we do. It is where we rest and renew ourselves and receive nourishment. It is the starting point of every new day. Although other activities are more glorified in our culture, I cannot imagine anything more important than making a good home for oneself and loved ones.
Until the industrial/consumer age, women and men worked together to make their homes. Traditionally the man built and repaired the house and did the heavy outdoors work. The woman maintained the interior of the house, decorated, cooked, and gardened.
In our home, my husband, Larry, and I continue this traditional division of labor. We don’t do something because it is “woman’s work” or “man’s work,” but because we fall to it naturally. I prepare the meals because I am a fabulous cook. But Larry nourishes us in other ways. In our backyard we have abundant citrus trees, which Larry surveys every morning. He examines all the fruit and picks only the perfectly ripe ones to put in his basket. Then he brings them into the kitchen and hand-squeezes the juice.
We work to improve our house together. We love to hunt for beautiful old windows and doors in salvage yards. While it is up to me to choose the décor, Larry often has his tools out to put up shelves or paint walls. As I drink the juice he has prepared for me or hang my broom back up on the pegs he installed, I feel his love for me and for our home.
In our home, there is no such thing as menial housework. Preparing food is creating loving nourishment for the health of our bodies and the joy of our senses. Making the bed is creating a lovely place for us to be together in our deepest intimacy. Cleaning and tidying up the house brings the ease of life that comes when everything is in order. Making our home puts my hands to work after the intellectual work of writing.
Homemaking is a creative act, a work of art in progress. In fact, it used to be known as “domestic arts”—cooking, cleaning, sewing, money management, raising children, first aid and basic health care, home décor, and home maintenance. We buy our food, clothing, shelter, and health care rather than viewing what sustains our lives as integral creative acts. We are consumers instead of creators; we buy instead of do.
Before the Industrial Revolution, everything that we now purchase was produced in the home, or by local artisans. We think that we have been relieved from tremendous drudgery, but we have also been torn from our connections with the earth and the materials from which our household goods are made. When you shear a sheep, spin the wool, and knit the yarn, you know where your sweater came from. You know you need to care for the animals and their habitat if you want another sweater.
It would be impractical to suggest that we return to a preindustrial way of life, yet we can restore many homemaking skills that bring personal joy and satisfaction as well as save money. I enjoy cooking, growing food and flowers, sewing clothes, cutting my husband’s hair, making music, and remodeling.
For me, homemaking goes beyond the four walls of our house. Included in my loving care are animals and plants that live in the garden. And the community is included, for I have an affect on the community—and, by extension of this logic, the entire earth is subject to my care and love, just as it offers me habitation.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, “If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” As we make our homes, so do we also make the world.
Debray Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).
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