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The Power of the Home Economy



Kathleen Slaugh Bahr, Ph.D.


Remarks to The World Congress of Families II

I grew up in a small town, the second of 13 children.  We had a large garden, and among my fondest memories are the times I spent planting and weeding the garden alongside my Dad and my brothers and sisters.  My Dad would cut the furrows with his hoe, and we children would follow along after him dropping in the seeds.  In the autumn, we all helped with the harvest.  I especially loved picking and bottling the fruit.  It required the hands of all thirteen of us plus Mom and Dad.  We children swarmed through the trees picking the fruit.  My Dad would fire up an old camp stove where we heated  the water to scald the fruit.  My mother supervised putting the fruit in jars, adding the sugar, putting on the lids.  My youngest sister remembers feeling very important because she had hands small enough to turn the peach halves if they fell into the jars upside down.  That job kept her plenty busy because she had to keep up with all of us big kids peeling peaches and dropping them into the jars–and they usually fell in upside down.   When the harvest was complete, I loved looking at the freezer full of vegetables and all the jars of fruit–they looked like jewels to me.

My Dad taught at a university, but when he was home he joined in the work of the family.  In fact, my Dad and brothers helped cook, clean, and care for the yard–doing whatever tasks needed to be done–right along with my Mother and us girls.   Dad and the boys also repaired our car together, and fished and hunted,  providing most of our meat.  Stories of their hair-raising experiences on these hunting and fishing expeditions still create awe and respect as we hear them retold in family gatherings.

At our home there was always work to do.  We may have complained about having to wash the dishes or mop the floors, but the memories that remain are of good times working together.  None of us ever questioned the importance of this work.  Work was not an option.  It was the way we lived. 

I didn’t realize until I grew up and moved away from home how atypical these experiences were.  In many families, it seems, the work was not shared.  Women did all the work inside the house.  Men went away to the office or factory, and then came home almost as guests—to be waited on.   And because men earned money, and women didn’t, the men’s work seemed more important.  Our world has increasingly become one where the value of everything is assessed in economic terms: time is money, and money is power.  "He who pays the piper calls the tune," people say, repeating a common adage in the English language that no doubt has variants in other languages.  As the work people do for money has gained status, the status of unpaid work done in the home has declined.

Today there are many social and political forces at work that continue the devaluation of family work, and that encourage the belief that family work is the province of the exploited and the powerless.  Chief among these forces is the idea that because money is power, one’s salary is the true indication of one’s worth.  Another is that the important work of the world is visible and takes place in the public sphere–in offices, factories, and government buildings.  According to this ideology, if one wants to make a difference in the world, one must do it through participation in the world of paid work.  That is where it seems the really important work of the world is done.

 Some have tried to convince us of the importance of family work by calling attention to its economic value.   Thus, in 1971, the newspaper headlined:  "Housewives! you’re worth a fortune,"  in a report that economists had computed that the100 hours of work a housewife provided for her family each week would generate a salary of  $10,000 a year if she were paid.  Today,  the value of a stay-at-home mom’s work has apparently gone up–to over half a million dollars, according to a study conducted by Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Virginia.   

One can’t help wondering what this reported increase means.  It cannot be accounted for by inflation.  Does it mean people are finally recognizing the value of the work mothers do in their families?  Do such estimates make us more aware of the power of the home economy?   Are they intended to make the full-time homemakers feel better about themselves?   If money is power, then does saying housework is worth a lot of money mean that the public will respect the opinions of  housewives?  Can the family use the newly appraised economic value of their family work to improve their standard of living?

Here we begin to see a problem.  Saying a mother’s work is worth half a million dollars doesn’t make the family rich in worldly goods.  You can’t use that money to buy things.  It does little to help you pay a doctor’s bill; and it won’t make your family doctor or your child’s school teacher pay any more attention to your ideas about what your child really needs.  Chances are it will not buy the respect of family members either.  
I have sometimes wondered, if a housewife were paid a wage for the work she did at home, what would happen when she needed extra help from her husband or children?   Would they respond more willingly?  If the value of the work is pegged at its monetary value, will other family members pitch in because the work  needs to be done, or will they only do it for money?   At least some are sure to respond, "What will you pay me?"  or "You’re the one getting paid to do this.  It isn’t my job."  

On the basis of my own research, and experience, I believe assigning economic value to household work does not translate into an increase in its status or power.   In fact, devaluing family work to its mere market equivalent may even have the opposite effect.   I believe that the more we try to raise the status of family work by making it seem like market work—that is, the more we try to justify its worth on economic grounds, or the more we rely on money as the  means to persuade family members that doing this work is worthwhile—the more we risk diminishing its real potential to transform lives, to build strong families and strong communities.

Today, I would like to focus on an alternative view that assumes that the power of the home economy lies not in its economic value, but in its potential to remind us of our common humanity and to bind us together.  The power of the home economy is in its potential to teach us to be moral people and to love and care for one another.   This perspective is grounded in a spiritual rather than an economic or political tradition.  In this tradition, the most important work we do in this life is the work we do in our homes and families. 

There are many who share this view.  Noted philosopher, C. S. Lewis, said homemaking "is surely in reality the most important work in the world," and even asserted that "it is the one job for which all others exist."   

Similarly, David Patterson, a professor of European Literature, writes:

[Home] is the center from which we define and understand the nature of everything we encounter in the world.  The home...is not one thing among many in a world of things; nor is it merely the product of a culture.  Rather, the world of things derives its sense, and a culture its significance, from their relationship to the home.  Without the home, everything else in the world or in a culture is meaningless. 

Unfortunately, what  we see these days is a growing sense of meaninglessness, of family ties becoming weaker, of communities and nations engaged in competition for economic and political power.  If home is the center, if what goes on there is the source of meaning, then how do we strengthen that center?   How do we release its potential?

I believe that part of the answer is readily available to all.  It lies in the way we carry out our home economy.  It is the power of working together doing the ordinary, everyday work required to sustain and nurture life.  By changing how we do family work, we can build character, link families, unite communities, and change nations.  

This view of the power of the home economy is ancient.  It is based in sacred writings and traditions about a first man and woman.  In the one that I know best, taken from Biblical accounts, family work figures prominently.  In the biblical story, God placed the man Adam and the woman Eve in a beautiful garden, their earthly home, and told them to tend and take care of it.   This was apparently a rather cushy job, since, according to the biblical story, the garden was already planted and no weeds grew there.  And as yet, Adam and Eve had no children to persuade to help.  Theirs was, no doubt, a very comfortable life.  But it was not a life likely to produce experience and growth.

When Adam and Eve left the Garden, they exchanged an existence where life was sustained without effort for one dependent on hard work.  In this mortal sphere, death overcomes anything that does not expend a great deal of energy staying alive.  Traditionally, many have considered this need to labor as a curse, but a close reading of the Old Testament account suggests otherwise.  God did not curse Adam; he cursed the ground to bring forth thorns and thistles, which in turn forced Adam to labor.  And Adam was told, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake" (Genesis 3:17, emphasis added).  In other words, the hard work of eating one’s bread "in the sweat of thy face" (Genesis 3:19) was meant to be a blessing.

According to the New Testament, the work of bearing and rearing children was also intended as a blessing.  Writes the Apostle Paul:  "[Eve] shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety" (I Timothy 2:15, emphasis added).   There is good reason to believe that more is referenced here than the physical sparing of Eve’s life.  Considering the many women who have lost their lives in childbirth, it seems more likely to me that this scripture refers to spiritual salvation, or to the spiritual growth Eve and her daughters would receive through the work of caring for family.  Other ancient records suggest Adam and Eve did not work alone, each at their separate tasks, but that they worked together.  Adam labored in the fields, and Eve worked along with him.  Adam and Eve together taught and worked with their children. 

This Biblical story raises an important question.  How does ordinary, family-centered work like feeding, clothing, and nurturing a family—work that often seems endless and mundane—actually bless our lives?  The answer is so obvious in common experience that it has become obscure: Family work links people.  On a daily basis, the tasks we do to stay alive provide us with endless opportunities to recognize and fill the needs of others.  Family work is a call to enact love, and it is a call that is universal.  Throughout history, in every culture, whether in poverty or prosperity, there has been the ever-present need to shelter, clothe, feed, and care for each other.

Family work, by its very nature, can bind us to one another.  Ironically, it is the very things commonly disliked about family work that offer the greatest possibilities for nurturing close relationships and forging family ties.   Some people dislike family work because, they say, it is mindless.  Yet, chores that can be done with a minimum of concentration leave our minds free to focus on one another as we work together.  We can talk, sing, or tell stories as we work.  Working side by side tends to dissolve feelings of hierarchy, making it easier for children to discuss topics of concern with their parents.  We also tend to think of household work as menial, and much of it is.  Yet, because it is menial, even the smallest child can make a meaningful contribution.  Children can learn to fold laundry, wash windows, or sort silverware with sufficient skill to feel valued as part of the family.  Since daily tasks range from the simple to the complex, participants at every level can feel competent yet challenged, including the parents with their overall responsibility for coordinating tasks, people, and projects into a cooperative, working whole.  

Perhaps foremost, family work binds us to others because it requires sacrifice.  It demands that we put aside our own self-centered aims, first, to see more clearly the needs of others, and then to respond to those needs in ways that help foster their growth and well-being.  Economist Kenneth Boulding says that sacrifice creates the glue that binds people together.  When one gives a gift of her own time and the labor of her own hands to care for another, without calculation or as a condition of getting something in return, "the gift builds itself into the identity of the giver."  In other words, giving to others in a spirit of love creates an identity of the giver with the receiver.  Boulding continues that, by contrast, exchange, or conditional giving, the kind that takes place in a monetary economy, "has no such power to create community, identity, and commitment, perhaps because it involves so little sacrifice."   When members of a family make loving sacrifices as they care for each other, they are saying, "We are interdependent; we need each other; we matter to each other."  May I illustrate this idea with a story?

Several years ago, one of my students, a young mother of two daughters, wrote of  the challenges she experienced learning to feel a strong bond with her first-born.   Because this daughter was born prematurely, she was taken from her mother and kept in an isolette at the hospital for the first several weeks of her life.  Even after the baby came home, she looked so fragile that the mother was afraid to hold her.  She felt many of the inadequacies typical of new mothers, plus additional ones that came from her own rough childhood experiences.  As time passed, she felt that she loved her daughter, but suffered feelings of deficiency often to the point of tears, and wondered,  "Why don’t I have that ‘natural bond’ with my first child that I do with my second?"

Then she learned about the idea of working together as a means to build bonds.  She purposely included her daughter in her work around the house, and gradually, she recalls, "our relationship. . .  deepened in a way that I had despaired of ever realizing."  She describes the moment she realized the change that had taken place:

One morning before the girls were to leave [to visit family in another state],  Mandy and I were sitting and folding towels together, chattering away.  As I looked at her, a sudden rush of maternal love flooded over me—it was no longer something that I had to work at.  She looked up at me and must have read my heart in my expression.  We fell laughing and crying into each other’s arms.  She looked up at me and said, "Mom, what would you do without me?"  I couldn’t even answer her, because the thought was too painful to entertain." 

In a world that lauds the signing of peace treaties and the building of skyscrapers as the truly great work, how can we make such a big thing out of folding laundry?   Morson, a professor of Russian literature, argues convincingly that

"the important events are not the great ones, but the infinitely numerous and apparently inconsequential ordinary ones, which, taken together, are far more effective and significant."

His comment points us to another characteristic of ordinary family work that gives it such power, and that is the fact that it must be done over and over, day in and day out.  Almost as quickly as it is done, it must be redone.  Dust gathers on furniture, dirt accumulates on floors, beds get messed up, children get hungry and dirty, meals are eaten, clothes become soiled.  As any homemaker can tell you, the work is never done.   When compared with the qualities of work that are prized in the public sphere, these characteristics of family work seem to become just another reason to devalue it.  However, each rendering of a task is a new invitation for all to enter the family circle.  The most ordinary chores can become daily rituals of family love and belonging.  Family identity is built moment by moment amidst the talking and teasing, the singing and storytelling, and even the quarreling and anguish that may attend such work sessions.

Some people insist that family work is demeaning because it involves cleaning up after others in the most personal manner.  Yet, in so doing, we observe their vulnerability and weaknesses in a way that forces us to admit that life is only possible day-to-day by the grace of God.  We are also reminded of our own dependence on others who have done, and will do, such work for us.  We are reminded that when we are fed, we could be hungry; when we are clean, we could be dirty; and when we are healthy and strong, we could be feeble and dependent.  Family work is thus humbling work, helping us to acknowledge our unavoidable interdependence; encouraging (even requiring) us to sacrifice "self" for the good of the whole.

Recently I read an account of an eminent physician who understands this aspect of family work and its ability to connect us to others.  The physician, J. Ballard Washburn and a friend visited a family on an American Indian reservation on an assignment for their church.   They went into the family home and found three children alone, an eight-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, and a two-year-old boy.  The mother and father had not returned home for two or three days.  The tiny home was messy and the stench horrible due to a diaper on the two-year-old that hadn’t been changed in three days.  Excrement was caked and dried on his bottom, leaving it irritated, perhaps even infected.  The friend left to get a breath of fresh air.  He waited outside, anticipating the doctor would follow.  When he didn’t,  the friend went back inside to see what the doctor was doing.   The friend reported:

[Dr.]Washburn had sent the eight-year-old for a basin of water.  He carefully removed the baby's diaper and then soaked the dried excrement until it could be softened; then he tenderly removed it.  He cleaned up the little boy's bottom and gently dried it.  He sent the brother for another towel.  When he returned, [Dr.] Washburn pinned the towel on in place of the diaper, and then he picked the Indian boy up in his arms and loved and kissed him.

This story amazed me in part because it is so rare these days for a physician to visit a home, let alone a very poor home distant from his own, as in this case.  But also because it seems  rare for a professional to do this kind of humble, serving work.  Where did Dr. Washburn develop that moral quality, if not in his own family?

Facing the challenge today

A frequent temptation in our busy lives today is to do the necessary family work by ourselves.  We have learned that it is usually more efficient to work alone.  Also, experts have advised us that children must learn to work independently.  A mother, tired from a long day of work in the office, may find it easier to do the work herself than to add the extra job of getting a family member to help.  A related temptation is to make each child responsible only for his own mess, to put away his own toys, to clean his own room, to do his own laundry, and then to consider this enough family work to require of a child.  When we structure work this way, we may shortchange ourselves, by minimizing the potential for growing together that comes from doing the work for and with each other.
 Canadian scholars Joan Grusec and Lorenzo Cohen, along with Australian Jacqueline Goodnow, compared children who did "self-care tasks" such as cleaning up their own rooms or doing their own laundry, with children who participated in "family-care tasks" such as setting the table or cleaning up a space that is shared with others.   They found that it is the work one does "for others" that leads to the development of concern for others, while "work that focuses on what is one’s ‘own,’" does not.    Other studies have also reported a positive link between household work and observed actions of helpfulness toward others.   In one international study,  African children who did "predominantly family-care tasks [such as] fetching wood or water, looking after siblings, running errands for parents" showed a high degree of helpfulness while "children in the Northeast United States, whose primary task in the household was to clean their own room, were the least helpful of all the children in the six cultures that were studied." 

One of my colleagues at the university shared an experience that convinced him of the growth in the parent/child relationship that can take place when parents and children work together rather than independently.  Dr. Ivan Beutler regularly helps with weekend housecleaning because he is committed to sharing family work.  In his family the assigned tasks are typically one-person assignments, thereby maximizing productive efficiency.
One Saturday, he decided to try working with each child.  He proposed to his thirteen-year-old son, Anthony, that they do their chores together.  Anthony could easily see that this involved doing twice as many jobs and initially objected.  Finally, he agreed to give it a chance; however, as they worked, his father remembered other tasks.  As the work list grew, so did Anthony’s frustration.  The work infringed on his plans to do things with his friends, and all in all, working together that day was not a satisfying experience.
 Dr. Beutler thought about the experience over the next few days, then asked Anthony to give him another chance.  They would do their tasks together and not add anything extra.  They had recently moved from another state, so as they worked, Dr. Beutler asked his son about school and friends and how the new experiences  compared with the old.  Dr. Beutler thought he knew his son well, but was amazed at what he learned as they worked and talked together.  Later that evening, Anthony came in, gave his Dad a hug, and thanked him for "one of the best days I’ve had."  Dr. Beutler observed, "To think we had been scrubbing toilets."
Dr. Beutler asked his wife and children to draw pictures of their family work.  He let me make copies of the pictures, which reflect the feelings of those who were working alone and those who were working together.  I would like to share them with you.  First, his wife Lucy.  Her picture is of loads of laundry.  Next, Melissa, who loves to keep her room clean.  Notice the attention to detail--she has even drawn the pull on the lamp.  From Jason’s picture, you can tell there are things he would rather be doing than cleaning the garage.  And then there is Anthony’s picture—of him and his father cleaning the bathroom.  

Another dilemma many of us face as we contemplate the potential power of family work to transform lives and to link us to one another is that opportunities to do this serving work seem harder to find today, especially for those who live in urban areas.  For people who farm or live closer to the land, the need for each other is more readily apparent, and there is little reason to question the value of the everyday work of feeding, clothing, and caring for one another.  Life depends on it.  I think of the words of a Pueblo Indian grandmother, comparing her life as a child with what she sees of today’s world:
I remember the times that my mother would say to me, go see if your aunt has water. Go see if they need water -- in those days we hauled the water, you know -- and bring in the wood for her, and bring in the water and then go to your aunt and uncle and go see if they need anything . . . and then the main thing was to go and say, "Good morning," and ask how they had passed the night and all that . . . we were at that time so respectful, so obedient.  We helped one another. 

In that bygone era, children knew that if they didn’t haul the water, the grandmother would suffer.  Today, electric pumps and water pipes bring the water right into the house.  Grandmother can get her own water by turning on a tap. What happens when modern machines and methods reduce the amount of hands-on work necessary to care for each other?   Take away the work, and how do you instill these attributes in young people so they will know how to contribute to their families and communities in a meaningful way as adults?  
More seriously, how do you convince a generation raised in situations where the need for each other is not so obvious,  raised on the values of individualism, surrounded by "evidence" that money is power, that the ordinary, prosaic work of family life is worth their time and  their devotion.  I am reminded of the recollections of another Pueblo Indian grandmother:
There was a blind man in our village. We children were told to take care of him. So all the children in the Pueblo would take care of him, bring him water, or food, or whatever. There were always children around him to help him, "his grandchildren," so that at any time he would have somebody to call for help. And this man lived until he was 110 years old!  But today, children would say, take care of yourself.     

Obviously, going back to that earlier time is not an option.  And realistically, I am not sure many of us would choose to return to a bygone era even if we could.  What, then, can we do today?  What can we do in our homes, wherever we live, to create the desire to love and care for each other?
Life for most people may have changed over the century, but opportunities to instill values, develop character, and work side-by-side remain.  We have all seen how times of crises call forth such effort–war, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods–all disasters no one welcomes, but they provide opportunities for us to learn to care for one another.  In truth, opportunities are no less available in our ordinary daily lives.  When we are alert, we notice the small  instances of prosaic, ordinary work that can be shared—inviting a child to help prepare food, offering to help children with their turn to wash dishes.  One mother described her experience doing  this with her typically uncommunicative teenage son:

The other day, I began doing a chore along side my 16-year-old son. His first response was, "Mom, how come you're doing MY job?" After telling him that I just felt like it, it wasn't 30 seconds later that he began telling me things about friends, school, etc. This kind of voluntary information from this particular son is very rare indeed. 

From a very small effort, at a very simple task, came unusual results. I have learned much from the writings of Wendell Berry, a noted essayist and social critic, on why such simple efforts can have such powerful results.  He writes:

The business of humanity is undoubtedly survival . . . a  necessary, difficult, and entirely fascinating job of work.  We have in us deeply planted instructions—personal, cultural, and natural—to survive, and we do not need much experience to inform us that we cannot survive alone.  The smallest possible "survival unit," indeed, appears to be the universe. . . .   But of course it is preposterous for a mere individual human to espouse the universe—a possibility that is purely mental, and productive of nothing but talk.  On the other hand, it may be that our marriages, kinships, friendships, neighborhoods, and all our forms and acts of homemaking are the rites by which we solemnize and enact our union with the universe.  These ways are practical, proper, available to everybody, and they can provide for the safekeeping of the small acreages of the universe that have been entrusted to us.  Moreover, they give the word "love" its only chance to mean, for only they can give it a history, a community, and a place.  Only in such ways can love become flesh and do its worldly work. 

 I learned first-hand of the power of this ordinary work not only to bind families but to link people of different cultures.  I accompanied a group of university students on a service and study experience in Mexico.  The infant mortality rate in many of the villages was high, and we had been invited by community leaders to teach classes in basic nutrition and sanitation.  Experts who had worked in developing countries told us that the one month we had to do this was not enough time to establish rapport and win the trust of the people, let alone do any teaching.  But we did not have the luxury of more time.  
In the first village, we arrived at the central plaza where we were to meet the leaders and families of the village.  On our part, tension was high.  The faces of the village men and women who slowly gathered were somber and expressionless.  They are suspicious of us, I thought.  A formal introduction ceremony had been planned.  The village school children danced and sang songs, and our students sang.  The expressions on the faces of the village adults didn’t change.

Unexpectedly, I was invited to speak to the group and explain why we were there.  What could I say?  That we were "big brother" here to try to change the ways they had farmed and fed their families for hundreds of years?  I said a quick prayer, desirous of dispelling the feeling of hierarchy, anxious to create a sense of being on equal footing.  I searched for the right words, trying to downplay the official reasons for our visit, and began, "We are students; we want to share some things we have learned. . . ."  Then I surprised even myself by saying, "But what we are really here for is, we would like to learn to make tortillas."  The people laughed.  After the formalities were over, several wonderful village couples came to us and said, "You can come to our house to make tortillas."  "You can come to our house to make tortillas."  The next morning, we sent small groups of students to each of their homes, and we all learned to make tortillas.  An almost instant rapport was established.  Later, when we began classes, they were surprisingly well-attended, with mothers sitting on the benches and fathers standing at the back of the hall listening and caring for little children.

Because our classes were taking time from the necessary work of fertilizing and weeding their crops, we asked one of the local leaders if we could go to the fields with them on the days when we did not teach and help them hoe and spread the fertilizer.  His first response was, "No.  You couldn’t do that.  You are teachers; we are farmers."  I assured him that several of us had grown up on farms, that we could tell weeds from corn and beans, and in any case, we would be pleased if they would teach us.  So we went to the fields.  As we worked together, in some amazing way we became one.  Artificial hierarchies dissolved as we made tortillas together, weeded  together, ate lunch together, and together took little excursions to enjoy the beauty of the valley.  When the month was over, our farewells were sad and sweet—we were sorry to leave such dear friends, but happy for the privilege of knowing them.  

Over the next several years I saw this process repeated again and again in various settings.  I am still in awe of the power of shared participation in the simple, everyday work of sustaining life.  Helping one another nurture children, care for the land, prepare food, and clean homes can bind lives together.  This is the power of the home economy, and it is this power, available in every home no matter how troubled, that can end the turmoil of the family and begin to change the world.  Repeating Wendell Berry’s insightful truth: "Only in such ways can love become flesh and do its worldly work."






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