The Deep Work of Homemaking
On acknowledging the difference between house work and heart work
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It was a Thursday night in early February, and I was tired. I’d woken at 4:30 a.m., as usual, to pray and to squeeze in a couple hours of writing before my three little ones woke. After showering, I said goodbye to my husband as he left for school, made eggs for the kids, then let them watch “Max and Ruby” while I cleaned the kitchen. The next three hours were a blur of reading books, changing diapers, stopping fights, and picking up MagnaTiles all the while. When 12:00 arrived, lunch was served, the little ones went down for naps, and my friend’s daughter arrived to play with Toby so I could get more work done.
I then headed up to the attic, where I wrestled words into shape, until I needed to descend back downstairs three hours later. The babies had just woken up from their naps and the blur began again: changing diapers, fixing snacks, settling fights, trying and failing to tidy the house before my husband returned home. Then, once he did, more cooking, more cleaning, more wrestling, sneaking in answers to Instagram messages here and there, until finally it was 8:30 and all the children were tucked in bed.
Everyone was alive. Everyone was fed. The house was reasonably straight. And somehow I’d met my writing deadline for the day. But that was it. So much had gone undone. Laundry wasn’t put away. Too many toys were still in the tv room, waiting to be purged. No bread or granola had been baked. No closets had been organized. And even though it was February, a few stray Christmas items remained out and about, mocking me and my inability to get anything but the basics of housekeeping done.
That’s when I made the mistake of opening Instagram. First, there was the picture of sourdough bread. Then, the reel of some stranger’s perfectly organized basement. Followed by another reel of some woman twirling in a long linen dress. As I scrolled down, I passed more photos and videos—of daintily checked aprons and freshly folded towels and one gleaming, dish-free sink after another. Finally, one post stopped my scroll. It featured yet another gleaming sink and began “Dear Homemakers…”
“Lord, I hate that word,” I thought. Immediately, I stopped reading, surprised by my own thought. From where did this sudden animosity come? Why on earth would I react so strongly to a perfectly fine word like “homemaker”? That made no sense. I put the phone down and started to think.
I’m still thinking. I’ve spent the better part of the past month thinking about this word, which I don’t really hate, but with which I do struggle. The word itself is a lovely one, compounding coziness and comfort, love and creativity, warmth and generosity all into three little syllables. But, as I’ve come to realize, it’s also a loaded word, capable of eliciting pride and insecurity, guilt and longing, joy and sorrow, anxiety and scorn, sometimes all at the very same time, in the very same women. There’s so much bound up in that word—hopes, fears, prejudices, and, at least for me, a nagging sense of failure.
I don’t like to blame social media for problems in my heart, but the time I spend on Instagram has absolutely contributed to the effect the word “homemaker” has on me. My closest friends, mostly Gen X homeschooling moms, rarely use the word. If I see it, it’s usually in the posts and stories of Millennial moms I follow online. There, they share reflections on their work in the home; give advice on cooking, cleaning, and organizing; and offer glimpses of the life they lead. Those glimpses, more often than not, involve light-filled rooms, immaculately swept floors, and well-organized closets filled with curated collections of home goods. Before Instagram, I hadn’t even realized heirloom quality dust pans were a thing.
I appreciate much of the content shared in those posts and stories. The work of keeping a home and raising children is sacred work; it’s the most important work I do or ever could do. I also understand the desire to assert the dignity of the work, to share it and spotlight it and help people see the beauty of it. And I know that many—maybe most—of the women sharing these posts are learning as they go, having been wholly unprepared by our girl power culture for the day-to-day tasks of managing a household, not to mention the mental strain and isolation that can go hand in hand with raising small children. Online, they are looking for (and trying to offer) guidance and solidarity.
Nevertheless, for all my appreciation and understanding, something isn’t sitting right with me about their use of the word. Partly because it’s so often paired with images that don’t match up to my own life at home with children—a life with macaroni shells on the floor and sippy cups on the counter and cupboards with everything but heirloom quality dust pans spilling out of them.
I’ve also found myself questioning if the word even applies to me. Do the women who describe themselves as homemakers count me as one of them? Can I be a homemaker and also a writer? Can I be part of the homemaker club if I buy my sourdough bread and have help cleaning my bathrooms? Does working from home disqualify me from being a homemaker, dividing my attention, stealing my energy, and making it impossible for me to have those perfectly organized cupboards that I covet online?
When I am offline, I feel like a homemaker … and a decent one. But when I go online, I don’t. I don’t feel like I qualify. Not just because I have the wrong dustpan. But because I don’t do what those women do. The hours they spend baking and cleaning and making schedules about when to bake and clean, I spend writing. I have minutes, not hours to declutter. I couldn’t do a home reset if my life depended on it right now. I’m just happy when I have time to do a kitchen counter reset.
I am not, by some online standards, a homemaker. But to say that I’m not a homemaker would be to say that my own mother, who also had a career and worked from home, wasn’t a homemaker. Yet she was. And she did it so well. Not the baking or the organizing or the cleaning. But the literal work, the home making, the making of a home.
Last week, Chris, the kids, and I drove home to Illinois to prepare my parents’ condo for sale. They moved to a wonderful assisted living facility a month ago, and it’s been going well, so well that my dad has decided it’s not necessary to hold on to their condo any longer. Accordingly, he gave my sisters and me a weekend to go through 50 year’s worth of memories from their life together and claim what we wanted, before it all went to an estate sale.
Going through their belongings was hard. But not as hard as falling asleep, on our last night there, with the pictures taken down and the dishes packed up and the rooms utterly empty. Not of furniture. Much of that remained. But of my parents. And especially, of my mom.
The condo isn’t where we grew up, but it’s been their home and my home away from home for 16 years. It’s where I went every Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall for visits, first by myself, then with Chris, and then with our little family. It’s where we mourned our grandparents when they passed. It’s the first place we took our babies after they were born. It’s where I cooked holiday meals, fought with my sisters, and spent countless nights just being with my mom and dad. It’s where I was always welcomed, always loved, always wanted.
And that’s what made it home. That’s what makes any place a home. It’s not simply a place where we eat or sleep or hang our clothes. A hotel can be that. Home is a place where we are welcomed, just as we are. It’s a place where we are seen and loved for who we are. It’s a world, in and of itself, where we know we belong.
My mom worked. She worked a little when we were young and more as we grew. She never baked. She wasn’t overly fond of cooking. I’m not sure I ever saw her clean a bathroom. But she did know how to make a space where we could be comfortable and where family and friends were always welcome. She also knew how to be present to us, to give us her full attention and put us first no matter what her other work demanded. She knew when we were feeling more than we were saying and what that feeling was. And she knew how to create a home where her presence was felt in every corner. Even when she traveled for work, she never felt far away.
But she can’t do that now. Alzheimer’s has stolen that from her. She can’t make a home for us anymore. She can’t make a space to welcome us or shelter us or keep us safe. And that’s why I laid awake most of the night, on our last night there. Because I wasn’t saying goodbye to a condo. I was saying goodbye to the last home my mother would ever make for me, the last home she would make for any of us. I was losing something that had nothing to do with sourdough bread and everything to do with her and the space she had always been so good at creating for her children and those she loved.
My husband teaches seniors at one of the local Catholic high schools. He’s taught theology for over 20 years now, and loves both his work and his students. But he worries about them like he’s never worried about students before. So many are not alright. They’re isolated. They’re anxious. They’re depressed. And they don’t ask questions anymore. They don’t engage with ideas or debate with him like students used to. Instead, they get up and walk out of the classroom as soon as they don’t like what he’s talking about. They can’t handle emotional or intellectual discomfort. He still has good students, bright, healthy, happy kids. But they seem to be fewer and fewer each year.
Yes, social media is a contributing factor to all this. But many of these students are also struggling because their parents are struggling. They are so caught up in their own lives and problems that they can’t see what their child needs. Almost always, that’s the difference between the healthy students and the unhealthy ones: their home life. Those with a strong, healthy home are better equipped to navigate all the other challenges they face, both on and offline. And as any of them can tell you, what makes a strong healthy home is not the mother’s cleaning schedule.
This, I think, is the crux of my struggle with the word “homemaker.” It’s not the word itself; it’s that the word is being used too often as a synonym for “stay-at-home mom” or “housekeeper,” while its deeper meaning and the more urgent work, all too often go undiscussed.
Let me explain.
Despite how it’s typically presented, the vocation of homemaker isn’t just for mothers who don’t work for pay. It’s an urgent and vital call to every woman, married or single, fertile or infertile, whether she’s working inside the home, outside the home, or from the home. It is one of women’s great tasks in the world and an expression of what Pope Saint John Paul II called “the feminine genius.”
Almost a century ago, in Casti Connubi, Pope Pius XI described woman as the heart of the home. This isn’t because we’re the emotional sex; it’s because we have an innate orientation to the personal, to seeing particular persons, with their particular needs and their particular gifts. This orientation appears almost from birth, with research showing that baby girls are more attentive to faces, make more eye contact, and are better at differentiating voices than baby boys. The boys, for their part, are more interested in things—in mobiles and toys and stuff in general.
It’s this orientation that equips us to respond to the person rightly. It’s what makes women the heart, capable of entering into the feelings and struggles of others and recognizing how to love them as they most need to be loved. In short, this orientation is what allows us to be the mothers we were made to be.
If you want to sum up the feminine genius in one word, “motherhood” does the trick. It is the deepest expression of woman and her nature. “The mystery of femininity manifests and reveals itself in its full depth through motherhood,” John Paul II wrote (Theology of the Body 21:2).
This doesn’t mean every woman is called to physical motherhood. We’re not. But every woman is called to spiritual motherhood. We’re called to make the nurturing, nourishing love of God visible in the world, serving as an icon of the God who truly sees, knows, and loves us. We are called to be an icon of the homemaking God, the God who has created a home for us, in heaven and in the Church, and who joyfully welcomes us into that home, where we are wanted, needed, and belong.
None of us will answer this call in the exact same way. We share a common nature, but that nature expresses itself in as many ways as there are women in the world. But the call itself is universal: to see, to respond, to nourish, to nurture, to welcome, to love. Which is why answering that call is completely independent of having a big house filled with children. We can answer it just as well in offices and shops, schools and hospitals, dorm rooms and tiny studio apartments. We can answer it wherever there are people who need to be welcomed and loved. Which is to say, we can answer it everywhere. Wherever God has placed us, in this moment, we can create a home.
To do that, though, we can’t confuse homemaking with household management.
As women, we are more than simply the heart of the home. We are the home. We are a home for any children we carry in our womb, literally housing another human being. And we are a home for those we love and who are entrusted to our care. As Saint Edith Stein put it, “The woman's soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold,” (Fundamental Principles of a Woman’s Education).
With us, from us, and through us, people receive the love they need to flourish. What makes that possible is our presence, our attentiveness, and our self-forgetfulness. We can’t give the love others need if we are absent, distracted, or consumed with ourselves. Nor can we see the hurts, needs, and desires of others, if we are incapable of looking past our own hurts, needs, and desires.
Our ability to be a home for others hinges on our emotional and spiritual maturity, a maturity that can only be achieved by seeking healing for our deepest wounds and growing in virtue. That’s hard work. Healing is hard work. Growing in virtue is hard work. Choosing day in and day out to look away from ourselves and see the person standing in front of us—not our own insecurities, guilt, fears, or hopes projected onto them, but truly them—is hard, hard, saint-making work. It is vastly harder than any task of household management, including cleaning up after toddlers.
Which, of course, makes it a temptation to focus on the housework and not the heartwork, to do the cleaning, but not the healing.
It also makes it a temptation to treat others as we treat ourselves, pouring our energy into projects around the house, not the people in the house, seeing things more than we see persons, attending closely to the laundry on the line, but not the children on their phones.
And for some, it makes it a temptation to run from the home altogether, to reject both housework and heartwork, to do the work that comes with clear parameters and quick rewards for strangers, rather than engage in the complicated, hidden, and often unappreciated work done for those we call our own.
Qualifications and Reminders
None of this is to say that household management is bad. It’s not. All the tasks of housekeeping can serve the real work of heartkeeping. Knowing how to make jam, fold fitted sheets, and darn sweaters are handy skills that have been forgotten by too many of us. Serving nourishing food in a clean, beautiful space can help people feel cared for and comfortable. Every act of domestic service, done with love, can help create a home suffused with love. But you can take away the jars of homemade jam and still have a happy home. You can’t take away you and your unique attentiveness to the people in your care and say the same.
Also, just in case anyone has forgotten that I’m writing this while someone else watches my children, I’m not saying that mothers can’t have careers or do meaningful work outside the home. You can do the deep work of homemaking without being present to your husband and children 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But you do have to be present more to them than you are to the rest of the world. You do have to make sacrifices, as an individual and as a family, to build a culture in your home that prioritizes quantity time, not just quality time. With children, the latter is not possible without the former. Likewise, none of us can know what we do not see. Nor can we cultivate ground where we do not stand.
Sometimes I wonder how much of helicopter parenting—controlling children’s every move in our presence, obsessing over every food they eat and activity in which they engage, pestering their college professors or even their employers—is caused not by an excess of attentiveness, but rather a lack of attentiveness. Perhaps, it’s the refusal or inability to truly see our children—their deepest needs, greatest gifts, and hardest struggles—that leads to an unhealthy micromanagement of what we think are their needs, gifts, and struggles.
Either way, if you’re like me, looking at social media and feeling like you don’t measure up to the homemaker influencers because you don’t buy your clothes from small batch weavers in Switzerland … or because you’ve killed your last four sourdough starters … or because you pay a nice single mom who needs the money to clean your bathrooms every other week, just remember that you’re not alone and none of those things are the real work of homemaking.
And if you’re single or longing for babies that haven’t come, don’t think you have to wait to do that real work. There are people all around you, right this very minute, who need the love and attention you have to give. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can be a homemaker. God has given you the most important thing you need to do that: a woman’s heart.
As for me, I need to be more patient with the young moms on Instagram and their perfectly clean sinks. They are running upstream, trying to live a life that goes against the culture and, for many, their upbringing. It’s a good thing for them to see the importance of what they’re doing, even if they’re not articulating it quite how I would. Besides, it’s easier to show the world their sinks than the quiet moments where phones are off, and the real work is being done.
I also need to be kinder to myself, applauding that I’m learning to sacrifice the perfect order I crave so I can have more time just being with my children, watching them build and run and dig and become. And, of course, I need to be grateful that I grew up with a mother who knew how to make a home for her family and who showed me how to do the deepest work of homemaking, even when the realities of life don’t allow for the nice extras.
But I still kind of want that heirloom dust pan.