Recently I noticed that whenever I open our front door wearing an apron, whoever I greet on the doorstep looks me up and down. A flicker of surprise crosses their face. It might be the postman, the plumber, or a parent of one of my kid’s friends. There is the same moment of surprise.
That flicker has made me think. What for me is totally normal, putting on an apron when I’m making bread, or tipping stock into a colander in the sink, is less normal for others. Wearing an apron to open the front door is as mildly provocative as opening it in my dressing gown. It isn’t what the person on my doorstep expects me to be wearing.
‘A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life’. For years I believed these words by Rose Macauley. Like every young woman I knew, I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. Spring cleaning, sorting cupboards and having friends round for dinner was of course a good thing. But it was less important than staying late for a deadline at work, or keeping yearly targets.
I no longer think this. These days I think that given an attractive, welcoming and smoothly-run home is important to me, the time and energy that I spend keeping it that way is not misspent. If anything the opposite. I’m not interested in perfection at home. However I now think that keeping house is a personal accomplishment. And no less an act of love.
Throughout my twenties I had no reason to suspect that a gleaming kitchen, after a long dinner, could give me a moment of pride. Even into my thirties I had no inkling that a vase of flowers and a casserole simmering on the stove might come to feel like an achievement. However these days I’m happy to admit that domestic rituals like flowers on the window sill and stock on the stove are things that I strive for. I still want other things. I’m ambitious for my writing and want to make a difference in the world. And yet I’m also aware that I’m often my most grounded, at ease and free, when I’m caught up doing things at home.
During my twenties I felt more at home in various London offices, out and about, and socialising with friends, than in my bedroom in a succession of tight shared flats. Occasionally I felt wistful about my sisters starting families back in Australia, and daydreamed about a home of my own with a vegetable garden. But this was passing. Years went by before I started looking to my home to centre and sustain me, and to help make sense of my life beyond it.
The story which I grew up believing is that domestic life is a tangle of tasks which full-time work is designed to release us from. Like everyone else I knew, I assumed that running a home was largely drudgery. However as time passed I changed my mind. ‘There is’, Shakespeare wrote, ‘nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so’. What if, I wondered, the problem of housekeeping lies in my thoughts about it, rather than the tasks themselves? Was housekeeping really any more drudge-inducing than an hour at the gym, or hiking up a hill? Couldn’t sorting the washing as well be done meditatively as resentfully? What if, I thought, it’s the lack of structure at home that I struggle with, rather than the actual demands?
By this point I had lived in enough shared flats around London to know how precious it was to be able to turn my key in the lock and to feel welcome inside. I knew that really feeling at home was, like catching butterflies, elusive. And yet it was something that I tried to bring about each day, between opening the blinds in the morning to putting the kitchen to bed at night.
Although I was working full-time, I was giving over a chunk of my day to the necessities of life – housekeeping, looking after myself, cooking, organising, errands and shopping. This involved time, imagination and effort. However it was time, imagination and effort that I wouldn’t credit. Something in me refused to recognise all my tiny efforts to make my home life pleasant.
Then I had a baby and, as for so many women, everything changed. Overnight I had to grow up and look after not just myself, but us both. For the next fifteen years, possibly more if I had another child, I would be ‘it’. My husband, friends and family couldn’t respond to my every demand. At a certain point, for me it was three o’clock in the morning with a crying baby, I had to learn to look after myself. I had to hold, feed, attend to and clean up after my small family. I had to decide what to cook for dinner, whether baby clothes will shrink on a hot tumble dry, and how dirty I could bear the bed linen to be.
As I say, I didn’t mind, in many ways I welcomed it. I was ready. But it was still a jolt to realise that I had reached the top of the chain and that there was no one there to look after me but me. And so how did I respond to this? I did what so many new mothers do, I set about creating a warm and attractive home, the kind of home that I could look forward to returning to after a bracing walk in the park. A home that would, I hoped, hold and strengthen me as a mother, and that would slowly bring my son out of himself and into the world around him.
Today, eighteen years on, I can look back and say that I have succeeded in doing this. I have created the kind of home that my family and I look forward to returning to – and that my son is now toying with leaving. I value this hugely, and realise how lucky I am to have been able to bring this about. However I also know that this wonderful thing has come at a cost. Without wanting to sound bitter, I’m conscious that putting home life first hasn’t done much for my career. My domestic life is not something that I talk openly about in work situations. It’s not what I tell people I do when I meet them at a party, even though I regularly spend as much time housekeeping as I do writing.
When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. It’s true. I do write most days and sometimes I publish things. I’m lucky to have work that I love, even if I can’t rely on it for income. My job, as I see it, is less noteworthy. My job is to keep our family home running as smoothly as I can, without shouting and moaning too much. Hence the apron.
Lots of people I know – mainly women and some men – keep their homes running smoothly. They may not wear an apron, but they spend as much time as I do shopping and cleaning and cooking and listening and sorting and laughing and generally making things happen at home – and then clearing up after. Like me, they don’t consider this their main work. And because this isn’t what makes them interesting to others, they rarely bring it up in conversation. They just get on and do it.
Domesticity, in its largest sense, isn’t just about cleaning and shopping and cooking. Watching my children grow up, it has become obvious to me that the roots of domesticity lie in our early longings to be loved and looked after. It stems from our longings to be held, fed, attended to, cleaned up after, listened to, encouraged and waited on. Even when we grow up, and begin a lifetime of looking after ourselves, we never give up our longing to be looked after in this warm and encompassing way.
Recently I started talking to people, mainly but not wholly women, about their domestic lives. How, I asked them, do they feel about housekeeping and running errands and cooking every night? Do they like entertaining and gardening, or do they prefer lying on the sofa with a book? Do they find it easy to unwind at home? Do they have a special place to be creative? And what about that cupboard under the kitchen sink, how do they feel when the plumber opens it to unblock the drain?
The more that I talk to people, the more I appreciate how valuable domestic life is. The place where someone lives, and the things they care enough about to look after, are in some ways just as important as the people they love. At the very least the spaces they share and the objects they live among frame their closest relationships – even when they live alone and their closest relationship is with themselves.
Through chatting with people about their feelings towards housekeeping I have discovered something. Looking after ourselves, the rooms we move between, and the objects we love enough to care for, is for many of us as strong an instinct as sexuality, especially with the passing years. This makes it the more striking that we don’t discuss it more. Perhaps feminism has in some ways succeeded in making chauvinists of us all. Whatever the reason, we no longer bring housekeeping into our conversations. Domesticity is the elephant that we leave the room to avoid talking about.
And yet what I’ve realised, through my conversations about housekeeping, is that most of us are asking the same questions about it. Is there, we want to know, an art to running a home, over and above folding towels into three and keeping our energy use low? Is it a worthwhile thing to do, or just a drain on our energy and earning capacity? Is it something that we should actively avoid, or something to seek out and feel proud of? Will we, when we are older, wish we’d spent more time in the office? Or will we be glad of our daily rituals, our special moments at home?
It is of course a good thing that women sit on company boards, lead congregations and fly fighter jets. Personally I love seeing women driving buses and heading political parties. However social advances like these have unintentionally impacted on how we feel about our domestic lives, and the value we give to them. Given the social message that it’s our careers that credit us in the eyes of the world, many of us, women especially, are in two minds about how much time and energy we should invest in home life.
And yet none of this answers to the deep satisfactions that home life offers. Like everyone else I groan at the physical tasks that a happy home demands. However this doesn’t touch the pleasure that I get from cooking with home-grown herbs, wearing pyjama bottoms I’ve sewn myself, and slipping a pie in the oven when friends arrive for dinner. It’s this pleasure, this wholeheartedness, that I’ve enjoyed exploring with other people.
And my aim? It’s not that we should all start wearing aprons. No, it’s the hope that we might pay more attention to our satisfactions, to what makes life feel worthwhile, and a little less to our achievements.