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.
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,
[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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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."