I think there was a lot to like about President Beck’s talk, despite its few cringe-worthy moments.
A while ago, at T&S, a poster took a BYU professor to task for lumping “disdain for housework” in with threats to the family like abortion and gay marriage. I think the problem with her talk is that she doesn’t go far enough. Disdain for housework is actually a much more serious threat to families than the other evils she lists.
I don’t know what sort of “housework” she had in mind, but, for the sake of
argument discussion, let’s consider just a few kinds of work that need to be done in a household: cooking, cleaning, and caring for small children. (The cleaning of small children would require its own post, especially if your small children are as fat as mine were, necessitating ingenious methods of cleaning between rolls of delicious chubbiness!) These were jobs that the June Cleaver-patterned housewife of the 50s would have regarded as unquestionably her own. Moreover, she would have been concerned to teach her children (at least her daughters) to do them or help with them. A father could be expected to do the yardwork and many home repairs, and teach his children (at least his sons) to help with these tasks.
In the typical middle- or upper-middle-class American family these days, even those that conform to the most common interpretation of the Proclamation model–mother at home, employed father–these tasks are not necessarily considered the job of either parent. Even mothers not employed for pay are likely to be extremely busy volunteering at church and school, chauffeuring kids to and from school, after-school music lessons, sports practices, and other activities (including weekly YW and YM activities and Scouts or Achievement Days for younger children). The 40-hour work week for fathers is a distant memory, with most dads (particularly those who earn enough to afford to have their wives at home) logging easily 60 or more hours a week, plus long commutes in many areas.
The predictable result is that much of the work that used to belong to the family is now outsourced to housecleaners, landscaping services, and convenience-food suppliers–all of whom are paid abysmally and often lack basic benefits and work in unsafe and inhumane conditions. (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s _Nickel and Dimed_ for horrifying details. I love mentioning that book, just to make Frank Macintyre’s blood pressure rise).
This outsourcing, which creates efficient divisions of labor, is undoubtedly good for the economy–just look at those beautiful American productivity stats!–has terrible costs, both for the affluent families who can afford to outsource their work, and for the poor families, who absolutely need both parents to be working, probably more than one job apiece, just to afford rent and food. Affluent kids don’t learn to do chores. They learn to regard parents, teachers, YM/YW leaders as tools for their entertainment and edification. Mothers in particular take on the role of servant to their teenagers (I LOVE David Brooks’ line about the suburbs “where women weigh less than their tweens”), with nasty consequences for both mothers and children. Even diligent LDS parents can get so caught up in making sure their kids appear bright, accomplished and well-rounded to the Harvard admissions committee (let’s call this “Preparation H”) that they justify not making the kids work by saying they’re just too busy achieving their goals to be bothered with housework. Lacking the work that used to bind families together and create a sense of family identity, we resort to inventing identity with elaborate scrapbooks, framed Proclamations, and membership in political action groups that allow us to “thank God that we are not as other [families]” with working mothers, or divorced or gay parents.
For poor families, the costs are greater–parents are completely absent, childcare is spotty, there’s no one to help with homework or volunteer in the schools. Once upon a time, when AFDC was started, it was to help poor mothers be at home with their children. Now, of course, we regard having a mother at home as the privilege of rich children, and we cheer the passage of punitive welfare “reforms.” Losing sight of the value of having a parent readily and consistently available to children has huge social costs, borne physically and psychically by the poor, and, eventually, financially by all of us as taxpayers. The spiritual costs are immeasurable, for everyone.
So, I like it a lot that President Beck talked about the value and the power of the day-to-day tasks of mothering and, yes, homemaking. I don’t even mind that housekeeping and homemaking were conflated to some extent. They are closely related. It has taken me many years to admit that my lack of housekeeping skill is no badge of honor, and that it affects my family negatively. Of course we can’t keep our houses as clean and perfectly orderly as the temple, but the principle applies–some modicum of order is essential for a family to function. And attaching the proper value to the daily physical tasks that make a household run would go a long ways toward making the world a better place.
What I wish President Beck had talked a little bit more about was how our mothering can connect us with the rest of the world, and prepare our children not only to be missionaries, but to be engaged and capable citizens of the human family. I think there is great danger that our excessive focus on nuclear families will be profoundly atomizing (ha! a mixed metaphor that includes confused physics–both of my parents are writhing in agony :)). If we create orderly, happy homes only to benefit our own families, we will have utterly failed. Surely God has grander goals in mind. My favorite ever Mothers’ Day sermon (by the Reverend Canon Susan Harris) makes this point beautifully:
As mothers, as fathers, we have at our disposal a wonderful time of rehearsal. We may set aside our interests time and again; we may practice watching the interests of others. But if that sacrificial love starts with our children, and stops there, we will have lost our opportunity to fulfill Christ’s commandment, and so have everything that He has promised. Christ’s commandment is that we love, not just our children, but one another!
…Jesus said, ‘whosover loses his life for my sake, will keep it for eternity.’ If my sacrifice, and yours, is not so much pointed at personal fulfillment, and not even toward the health and education of my children, but beyond that, to the love of the world and God’s creation, then I have resurrection. Whatever I have lost, I will have gained–not in the shining faces and adulation of my own children but in the living fabric of the world they inhabit.
This is the best news of all, because, mothers and fathers, when our time has come, when, having fulfilled the duties of our state of life we are free to address ourselves to the needs of the world, when it comes time to love one another as Jesus loved us, we already know how! We have already learned! How to teach, how to feed, how to tend, how to heal, how to care, how to love. But it is different with us this time, because we act not out of duty. This time, in addition to knowing how to love, we also know why.
Because He first loved us. Because Christ has risen. Because in addition to being seen, spotted, glimpsed walking on earth, our beloved Christ has begun to dwell within us. …Having practiced our scales, played the daily exercises of love for our children, the scales of our belonging, now we come to the concerto. Now the music begins. Having loved our own, we now can love the world. Now we rise to the task for which parenting prepared us. Because he loved us; because while we lost ourselves not just in sin but in duty, not just in forgetfulness but in earnestness, in our sincere desire to do what was right for our children, because although we lost ourselves in our mothering, God remembered us, and brought us forward, and made us new.
I’m glad to hear a talk focused on mothering and homemaking, glad to hear women enjoined to do it better and encouraged to keep trying. Of course this will make many (me!) feel inadequate and small–that is as it should be. We are all too small for such an endeavor. It may also feel confining or limiting for some women (me!). But if we remember that the doors of our homes must not only swing shut to protect our families, but also, ultimately, open wide to invite the world and embrace it, we will never find home too narrow a sphere (to slightly paraphrase Great Aunt Eliza). And when we see our mothering and homemaking as part of the grand process of saving and redeeming the whole creation, we will surely also sense the grace that sustains us and covers our weakness with glory.