I have a favour to ask and a reward to offer. As a reader of this blog, you’ve probably picked up that I’m interested in home, family and the domestic arts. Like you, I expect, I don’t find looking after my home and its inhabitants easy. Some days it drives me crazy. Still, I think domesticity is interesting and worth understanding – more than we give it credit.
Partly arising out of this 10-year-old blog, I have written a memoir about housekeeping. It spans 30 years and traces the revolution in my attitude to the stuff of daily life. The chores that I hated at 20, and the comforts of home that I escaped when I left it, are now the bedrock of my existence. In Praise of Housekeeping is the story of how I came to appreciate the value of what goes into caring for our homes, ourselves, our loved ones and our planet.
In Praise of Housekeeping is now complete, and an agent is sending the manuscript to publishers. This presents a special challenge. Last week, the manuscript was passed over by a big publisher because its marketing department wasn’t confident that sales for the book would be sufficiently high, after the modest sales of my last book. Once upon a time, I worked in publishing in London. The market was tough then. These days, it’s even tougher. However strongly an editor champions a manuscript, if marketing isn’t confident of getting it over the line, it’s out.
Yesterday, a marketing friend came up with an idea which, being a shy writer not a bold marketer, hadn’t occurred to me. It’s this. If, dear reader, you can spare five minutes to read the introduction to In Praise of Housekeeping (pasted below), and some of the ideas in it ring a bell with you, if you could follow it up with comment (and email), I will send you either:
- the e-version of my last book, A Slow Childhood: Notes on thoughtful parenting (with a foreword by Alain de Botton)
- a free copy of In Praise of Housekeeping as soon as it’s published
- or should you prefer your marshmallow now, the foreword to In Praise of Housekeeping, again by Alain de Botton (it’s a punchy read…)
So here it is, the 3000-word introduction to In Praise of Housekeeping. Happy reading!
Whenever I’m taken up with housekeeping, and answer the front door in an apron, the person on the doorstep looks me up and down. What’s normal for me, protecting my clothes as I tip stock into a colander, mix dough or vacuum floors, is less so for others. Wearing an apron to the door late in the afternoon, seems as provocative as opening it in pyjamas early in the morning.
I didn’t start out in life wearing an apron. As a girl, I hardly thought about my home, which I mostly took for granted. Whenever it did cross my mind, I sided with the writer Rose McAuley who thought that ‘a well-kept house was a sign of a misspent life’. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive, unfulfilling tasks that paid work was designed to release people from. Like my friends, I assumed that caring about domesticity meant avoiding the real challenges of life. So totally did I believe this, I rarely heard this side of life mentioned. It just went without saying. And if ever the topic did come up, I scoffed at the idea that running a home – growing vegetables, home decorating, spring cleaning – could ever fill me with pride.
On leaving Australia for London, after an Arts degree in my home town of Adelaide, I felt confident that the woman that I hoped to become would emerge through my career, my self-esteem growing as I met the demands of the world. A string of shared flats, north and south of the Thames, were a mere backdrop to my working life. It wasn’t until I moved into a studio flat, in my late 20s, that the place where I lived played a role in making sense of my life beyond it. Only then did I stop for long enough to realise that what I’d left Adelaide to escape, the comforts of home, weren’t to be despised.
Still, I continued to run away from housekeeping for five more years. Until one day, midway through my 30s, there was nowhere to hide. Until that is, I became a mother. From day one of motherhood, the emotional, imaginative and physical work of looking after my baby and home was demanding. Unwilling to live amidst sprawling mess, I was forced to prioritise housekeeping. If I was to look forward to getting out of bed each morning, I had no choice but to stay on top of household tasks. I could no longer put them off till the weekend. Laundry, cooking, organising, errands, shopping and cleaning became urgent, imperative even. My life may not depend on these things, but my sanity and wellbeing did. Looking after my home in an intelligent way, creating a pleasant atmosphere there, keeping surfaces clean and tidy, and expressing the love that made sense of the whole endeavour – these didn’t happen by magic. No matter what was going on in other parts of my life housekeeping demanded time, thought, creativity and effort.
By the time I had my second child, I’d come to accept that there is an art to running a home. I knew that a warm and attractive living space isn’t something that happens naturally. If anything, the opposite. A pleasant, welcoming home is an achievement that assumes hundreds of small efforts in support of this ideal. I just wasn’t convinced that these efforts were worth it. How could homely satisfactions, I reasoned, like cooking, gardening and renovating, hold their own against foot-on-the-ladder, worldly strivings? Might I disappear, like Alice down the rabbit hole, if I gave in to my desire for home-cooked meals, line-dried sheets and garden beds?
Around the time my kids reached the ages of two and four, I fell down the rabbit hole, returning to Melbourne with my husband and family, in search of a better quality of life than seemed possible for us in London. I was excited about the move. It was what I’d been longing for. But then, within a year of moving out of a small flat in London, into a house with a garden in Melbourne, I developed a fear of being at home. I felt overwhelmed by everything there was to do there. Where to start? I’d gotten what I wanted – a family, a house and interesting part-time teaching. Yet I missed the pre-child me, the woman who knew what she was doing between 9 and 4 on weekdays, the scheduled me. Teaching part-time became code for spending the after-school hours chasing my tail at home. Bossed about by things I felt I should be doing, time slipped like sand through my fingers, the big hand on the kitchen clock whizzing mockingly round its face. Should I be pairing socks or calling my elderly aunt? Preparing dinner or checking my diary? Taking my kids to the park or fixing the sprinkler out the back? Feeding the worms or vacuuming the floors?
It was at this point, tired of splattering cooking oil on my clothes, that I bought my first apron. Doing up this black linen apron had an immediate effect. I felt less stressed. I still brought in the washing and prepared dinner. However, wearing an apron stopped the chatter in my head that told me I should be doing something else. I didn’t drop by my desk to check on the writing I wasn’t doing, the emails I wasn’t sending. I just got on with whatever needed attending to, around the house, and then felt better for having done it. Because until I took off my apron, my job was housekeeping.
So what, exactly, is housekeeping? Housekeeping is the sum of all our efforts at home. It’s seeking a level of order that we never quite achieve. It’s caring about a raft of things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a pleasant home. Housework is part of it. The domestic arts – cooking, gardening, renovating – are part of it. The thousand and one acts that add up to a well-run home are part of it. Then there is love. Love is the glue that holds together the everything there is to do at home. Without it, there wouldn’t be much point, bar survival, in any of our domestic efforts. Housekeeping is the whole constant, insane, wonderful juggle of keeping up a home worth loving.
Housekeeping, I soon realised, doesn’t relate solely to the home. It’s an attitude, an existential approach to life that reaches beyond it. It takes in just about everything that goes into how we live our life. This is how it goes for me. It’s sharing a family bathroom with a thought for the person using it next. It’s having a reusable bag at the supermarket check-out. It’s banging sink strainers into the bin straight after washing up. It’s digging holes in the garden before the plants I fell for in the nursery get root-bound in their pots. It’s airing duvets outside on sunny days. It’s giving a thought to the evening meal ahead of time. It’s picking herbs as I pass through the garden, knowing how much I hate fetching them in the dark. It’s borrowing cookery books from the library when I tire of my own cooking. It’s folding tea towels straight off the line because it’s heartening opening the drawer to a neat stack. It’s taking a sewing class after despairing at being unable to fit a zip. It’s stashing chicken bones in the freezer and then defrosting the stock that I go on to make from them. It’s filling hot water bottles on cold nights and remembering to replace them once a year. It’s taking appliances to be repaired and picking them up when they’re fixed. It’s keeping an eye on the freezer so that it stays my friend and doesn’t, back turned, become my enemy. And it’s vacuuming dog hair and sand from the car seats.
Mostly, once my apron is off and the weekend comes around, I feel free to do what I like doing at home. Renovating, cooking, sewing, entertaining, gardening – these draw me out of myself, beyond my daily busyness, my noisy ego and my determination to get things done. They give back in surprising ways. Immersed in one of these activities, I feel at one with time passing. I gain valuable breathing space, away from family and work, to get on with just being me. There is, I’ve discovered, beauty in the ordinary. I never stop caring about my writing work. However, the things I get up to at home are on another level. Crunching scissors into fabric, slapping dough on a bench and spying seedlings poking through the soil – these feel deeply satisfying. Lying in bed on Sunday night, thinking back on my day, it’s making pastry and winding bean tendrils round a stake that flash through my mind. And while I’ll never be expert at baking or gardening, just tackling them gives me a sense of buoyancy, of lift, which keeps bringing me back to them.
Socially, when I’m asked the ‘What do you do?’ question, I say that I write and teach yoga. It’s true, I do write every day. I do teach yoga twice a week. Rarely, however, do I tell people about my job. This is because my job seems less acceptable, less noteworthy than my writing work, even though it can be every bit as challenging and time consuming. My job stretches and inspires me. It has long hours, low status and is unregulated. It isn’t quite a calling, though some days it feels like one. Until my kids leave home, my job is to keep our home running smoothly without shouting or moaning too much. My job is housekeeping.
It isn’t just me. Countless people keep their homes running smoothly without shouting or moaning too much. They may not feel called to it, as I do. They may not treat it as a job nor wear an apron doing it. Nonetheless, they spend a similar amount of time shopping, cleaning, cooking, organising and maintaining things – and generally making things happen at home. And then clearing up after. Like me, they don’t consider this their main work. Certainly, the world doesn’t. This may be why we tend not to bring it up in conversation. Mostly, we just get on and do it. Still, measured in hours, devotion, effort and skill, it makes up a big part, up to a quarter, of our waking hours.
Now that my kids are older, and we live in Hobart, I find that many of my deepest pleasures are domestic. I love slipping into a freshly-made bed. I adore sipping tea at the kitchen table. I look forward to choosing fabric for a sewing project. And I’m always looking for excuses to visit the plant nursery. Doing these things returns me to childhood joys. But they also give me a sense of satisfaction and well-being like nothing else. Still, even though a Saturday afternoon spent gardening is a simple thing, it isn’t an easy thing. It assumes time, energy and imagination, of course. But it also assumes love. Perhaps this is why, whenever I feel overwhelmed, and my heart shrinks just a little, gardening and piano are the first things to disappear from my week, however much I miss them when they do.
I am a domestic realist, and am not a sentimentalist nor an idealist. I’m keen to find satisfaction at home. But I’m also alive to the tentacle-like hold of housekeeping. While spending time at home allows me to express myself creatively, away from the public eye, it also has a habit of slipping into a spiral of unfinished chores. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, with too few mops and buckets to halt the flooding basement steps, in the wrong mood, housework can feel like a trap.
I’m aware that housework has a bad reputation. For nearly everyone I know, it’s a source of stress and frustration. It frustrates me too. Except it isn’t only frustration that I feel when I do it. Once I pull on my apron, and get on with household tasks, I nearly always take off my apron feeling better about myself than when I put it on. Housework takes real energy. But it’s also energising. It gives me something back.
I’m not alone in having mixed feelings for housekeeping. As for so many others, there is a push-pull in my relationship to it. This may be because it encompasses so much. Staying on top of my home’s day-to-day running, creating pleasant living spaces, cleaning up after myself and my family, and sustaining the love that makes this housekeeping feel worthwhile – these are very different activities. Could this explain the heated confusion that arises whenever the subject of domesticity does come up?
Fifteen years after having kids, and two months after my mother entered a nursing home, I decided it was time that I understood housekeeping better. The big questions that haunted me, since my early 20s, finally caught up with me. Is it possible, I asked myself, to find meaning and satisfaction in the daily tasks of living? Do the challenges that domesticity throws up have something to teach us about life itself?
I began by reading everything I could find on the subject. This proved so fascinating that it took a while to realise this didn’t answer what was really an existential question about the value of the time and energy I gave to housekeeping. So, I did an about-turn. Instead of fossicking in the library or burrowing on-line, I would use my experience of housekeeping to answer my own questions. I would be both scientist and student. I wouldn’t don a white coat. But I would tell the story of my unfolding relationship to housekeeping, from watching my mother around the house as a girl, to clearing up after my husband and teenagers in the home I once dreamed of and now run single-handed. And in telling this story, I would find out whether an attractive home is indeed worth the effort that maintaining it demands.
For all my questioning, whenever I take off my watch and do my own thing at home, I enjoy myself. I love smelling a slow-cooked casserole filling the house in winter. I feel like the girl I once was when I come back inside from the garden with late summer tomatoes warming each hand. I may struggle to credit these things as valuable, but they always bring me joy. As I know they bring joy to others, too.
A few years ago, at the end of a phone call with my mother, from her nursing-home in Adelaide to my kitchen in Hobart, she asked whether I thought that she’d wasted her life. Assuming I’d misheard her – she had always staunchly defended the value of home life – I asked her to repeat her question. She did so, with more insistence. ‘Course not’, I said, feeling offended on her behalf, and listed her accomplishments as they streamed through my mind, from running a family home, farming, charity work, gardening and various sports, to a loyal circle of friends.
That question stayed with me, is still with me. In the months following that phone call, I kept returning to it. Because what I’d heard my mother ask, through the echo chamber of our relationship, was whether I thought she’d wasted her life caring for family, housekeeping, and all the other things she’d devoted herself to. She hadn’t wasted her life, I told myself. Or had she?
In a way, everything that follows is a response to this question. Because it’s not just my mother’s question. Ultimately, to the degree that we value looking after ourselves, our home and the people we care about, it’s everyone’s question.