No One Ever Taught Me to Be a Housewife

You don’t find many housewives these days.  Even the ones who stay home don’t necessarily perform the same chores that housewives once did.  Women instead spend their time crafting or book clubbing or carting their children to little gym classes or toddler music classes.  Women at home nowadays focus on their children rather than the home.  I think that’s okay.

And although I don’t stay home with my children all of the time, I am home most of the time and I can do a lot of my research and writing from home.  And because I’m busy with classes and research and writing (and ballet, piano lessons, gymnastics, activity days, joy school, preschool, church, homework, etc. etc.), the first thing I ignore is the housework.  I wrote earlier this summer about how I was dejunking.  I finally had time to do this because of summer break.  Now that school has started again (for me and the children), the housework is the first thing to go.  It is my last priority and the easiest thing to leave off of my list.  There really is no time.

But it’s not because I don’t want to do it.  I actually enjoy housework and what I enjoy even more is having a clean house.  I’ve always been an orderly and organized person.  As a child, my mother never had to tell me to clean my room.  It was already clean.  I often organized my stuffed animals or my CDs or my earrings when I was bored.  I also enjoyed mopping the floor.  That was my favorite job as a child, and my mother exploited that to no end.  I don’t think she ever mopped.  I always did it.  And if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.

Not much would get done in my childhood home in the way of cleaning.  It was never horribly messy or disgusting, for my mother liked to decorate.  We had nice things, but we never deep cleaned.  This bothered me.  It bothered me so much that once, when I had a boyfriend (an exchange student from Brazil) coming over to visit for the first time, I spent the entire day cleaning.  Eight straight hours.  I scrubbed baseboards, dusted shelves, wiped walls, organized the linen closet, removed cobwebs, vacuumed every single room, and on and on.  I was embarrassed of what he might think, should he discover dust over one inch of our home.

But the truth was that my mother did not know how to be a housewife and she did not teach me.  It is something of a lost art.  And although I don’t plan to spend all of my days from here on out making sure that my house is spotless, I do long for some of that knowledge and some of that order and purpose.  In fact, it fascinates me so much that I’m leaning toward taking a long, hard look at the domestic science movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s for my dissertation.

So what really got me thinking about all of this is a book called To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (2006) by Caitlin Flanagan.  It is a collection of her essays (she writes for The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly) about housewifery and women’s roles and postfeminism and all of that interesting stuff that applies to contemporary women.

to hell with all that cover

I like her perspective, because it is neither overtly feminist nor anti-feminist.  It seems to fall somewhere in the middle and it is a nice, new way for me to think about things.  I’m all for moderation.

She begins by writing about her mother’s death and how it made her realize that there was no longer somebody in the world who cared about her more than anything.  As she cleaned out her mother’s house, this melancholy realization struck her.  She was now a lone adult, who must play that role for her sons.  But she recognized the importance of that role.  While her father was researching and writing books, her mother “led the kind of life that is composed of countless acts of service, none of which lend themselves to the creation of a special collection in a college library.  A team of archivists was not flying in from Massachusetts to find out why she was so often the first person called when there was a disaster (when a friend’s son killed himself; when a suspicious lump proved malignant) . . . . No one was coming to catalog her recipes or take careful note of the way she organized her spatulas and slotted spoons” (p. xvi-xvii).  But Flanagan noticed, as she emptied the house, and she took souvenirs.  Sometimes that is all a woman’s life amounts to, but it is important.  Flanagan recognizes that and therefore compiled this book of her essays about women and children, households, and marriages. She sees something lost in losing the art of housekeeping, and her book is an attempt to explore that loss.

One of the first losses she writes of is “The Virgin Bride.”  It is an interesting essay about wedding culture and how women now wear white even if it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.  The chapter honestly reminded me of why I can’t watch shows like Say Yes to the Dress, for they make me anxious and upset about something long past and out of my control.   Weddings now are extravaganzas, once reserved for the super rich or royal.  Now everybody has to have a wedding that costs more than a house, and we have television to reinforce that.  I personally had a simple wedding in one of my church’s temples.  Afterwards, we ate a catered lunch in one of the reception rooms on the top floor of the old Hotel Utah.  It was nice, simple, and inexpensive.  My dress cost around $300 and I had it made.  We budgeted on the photographer, and we handmade centerpieces.  That was enough.  I was more excited about the marriage than the wedding.

I’ve been to weddings that go all out.  I’m not a fan.  And honestly, the most memorable one I attended, that costs thousands and thousands of dollars, ended in divorce.  Flanagan makes this astute comment: “In our culture, the wise counselors who instruct young people on the most important ritual of their lives are salesmen” (p. 14).

Another essay, titled “The Wifely Duty,” is quite interesting.  The basic premise is this imperative:  Wives, have sex with your husbands!  She claims that everybody will be happier, and even shares the story of a wife who did just that and ended up getting the new refrigerator she wanted without having to nag or beg.  It is certainly something to think about!

Flanagan additionally explores the differences between at-home mothers and working mothers.  She laments the loss of housework as an art, and instead sees at-home mothers as women who care for children, not housewives.  She also notes that the expense of losing the art of housework is that women of lower socioeconomic classes end up doing it.  She sees at-home mothers as more concerned with “motherhood, which is for me an exquisitely over-wrought enterprise, full of guilt-racked, sleepless nights and over-worried-about children and the never-ending sense that I’m doing too little or too much or the wrong thing, or missing the crucial moments, or somehow warping these perfect creatures” (p. 69).  She notes, “Housewives didn’t trot after their children the way I trot after mine” (p. 69).  It is a fascinating look at the way parenting and housekeeping have changed over the generations.

Flanagan experienced this change.  Her mother was a housewife, who suddenly, one day, when Flanagan was about 11, decided to get a job.  “[M]y mother threw the sponge back in the basin and said—out loud, to no one but herself, and apparently with finality—‘To hell with it’” (p. 206).  This was the moment when life for that family changed.  Flanagan found herself home alone after school, sticking freezer meals into the oven, and missing her mother.  But as much as she recounts her own horror and the hard adjustment, she saw it as an ultimately good thing, for her mother was happier and Flanagan learned independence.

Flanagan realized that her mother was saying to hell with “wasting her education,” and “with her marriage—or at least its most unpleasant aspect, my father’s cheapness and my mother’s absolute lack of financial power” (p. 207).  The father didn’t want the mother to work, but she did it anyway.  She had a nursing degree and starting using it, but it worked because “she was increasingly finding herself out of work in her own home” (p. 209).  Her children were growing and her husband was working more and more.

However, when Flanagan’s mother died, she said, “I probably should have found something more estimable to say about her, but in the days after her death all I could think about was what a wonderful thing it had been to be raised at home, by a mother who loved me” (p. 225).  She is grateful for all of the invisible work her mother did, for Flanagan believes, “The only thing you can protect your children from is the bad behavior of their parents” (p. 236).

Overall, this book of essays is fascinating and enjoyable.  There’s a chapter on clutter, an exploration of Dr. Spock, and some analysis of Martha Stewart and her success.  There does seem to be a resurgence of late of housework and domesticity.  If you’re not sure what to make of all of it, let Flanagan be your guide.

And if you want to know where I heard about this book, it was from my friend and former boss, Alex.  I’ve been able to have a few lunches with him of late, and when we get together, we talk about feminism.  He reads my blog and loves to tell me about the books he’s been reading.  He has five daughters, and he says he is interested in books about women and their changing roles, because, as he sees, it, “When women’s roles change, so do men’s.”  I concur.

Thanks for the great recommendation, Alex!

52 thoughts on “No One Ever Taught Me to Be a Housewife

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  1. The last quote speaks volumes, Emily. From this man’s point of view, we need more women in politics and leadership. Maybe this “I win/ you lose” form of governing (or should I say “not governing) will stop.

  2. Sounds like a great book. My mother stayed home with us and loved housework. There was something extremely comforting about coming home to a clean house with the smell of good food cooking. She’d drop the housework if we needed to talk or whatever, but I’ll always remember the quiet gifts she gave us.

  3. On my to read list! I hardly remember when my mother didn’t work. I think there may have been a span of time in the 5 years we homesteaded in Alaska, but other than that she was always working. She was an RN and worked night duty when we were young and than changed to days as we got older. There were five of us and I don’t think we suffered from it at all. We learned how to be independent, do housework, take care of ourselves and each other. As for cooking – my older sister thought she was the only one that could do that so when I married I did have to learn to cook! LOL

    1. Homesteading in Alaska!?! Do tell more. That sounds fascinating. I never learned how to cook until college either. My husband taught me the basics, and now I do better than he does!

      1. More about Alaska? Well…I have stories and lots of letters my mother wrote. After I finish the sequel to ‘Crossing The Line’ I plan on putting all those letters and memories into book form! Can’t wait to get started. I may also post a few on my blog so watch for that. (my husband doesn’t cook much..just us now so we eat out a lot!)

  4. Wow, I’m so glad to know that other people are saying these things, many of which I’ve thought silently for a few years now. I want to read this book! It will be refreshing to hear from someone who takes a middle position between feminism and anti-feminism. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I hope you enjoy it. Flanagan certainly has been a breath of fresh air for me. She has challenged me to think a little differently, and I like that. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything she says, but I love that because it makes me examine my own positions.

  5. This popped up on my Reader, very conveniently, on the day that my graduate class will be discussing feminist pedagogy. The last quote — concerning men’s and women’s roles — is so applicable to just about everything. I love it. Totally going to apply it to first-year composition teaching methods.

  6. I’ve never much cared for Flanagan’s writing (I’m an unabashed feminist, and I don’t think being a feminist is incompatible with being an at-home parent, or the three hours of cleaning I put in this morning), partly because she focuses so much on women in the home, instead of parents in the home (oh, and you know, only heterosexual couples). In the essay “The Wifely Duty” she writes, “The rare woman—the good wife, and the happy one—is the woman who maintains her husband’s sexual interest and who returns it in full measure.” Seriously? Seriously? Really? THAT’s her idea of a good wife?


    My mother was the at-home parent until she decided to go to law school, and when she graduated, my dad became an at-home dad (I was the only one of my friends growing up whose dad was at home). My dad is a wonderful cook, keeps the house running smoothly, and is former tax lawyer and current pro-bono teacher. I’m fortunate to have memories of both parents at home, and it drives me absolutely nuts when people like Flanagan focus on “houseWIFEry.” I’m the at-home parent in our family for financial reasons (for now) and our house is clean and tidy most of the time, but I am NOT a housewife. My dad isn’t either. My mother wasn’t. And we don’t want to be.

    I’d also point out that having even one parent in the home is a luxury for many families, and yes, quite a lot of housework is outsourced to housecleaners, drycleaners, nannies, as Flanagan mentions. But did she mention that she herself is one of the outsourcers?

    I’m done ranting now.

    Oh, and I’m with you on the crazy weddings.

    1. No, please rant! I have a hard time with some of Flanagan’s ideas too, but her writing style is brilliant. You have to hand her that. The outsourcing at-home parent CAN write! 🙂 Thanks for bringing up some of the flaws and issues. Her seemingly anti-feminist ideas rubbed me the wrong way too, but I did really enjoy the experience of reading her opinions. They made me think.

  7. This sounds like a really great read! I often lament the fact that I’m a total housewife failure (even though I’m not married yet and we don’t have any children). It does seem like a lost art. My aunts are housewives extraordinaire – one even went to a convent school that taught her how to be the best housewife. She’s amazing.

    I’m adding this to my list! Thanks!

    1. I wish I knew some of those skills. I guess I’ll have to be content with recognizing the invisible work of women as remarkable in my research. And don’t consider yourself a failure! You have different priorities.

  8. I would be curious to read this book.

    I am so envious of people who are organized and who can keep on top of their houses because I know how much impact a clean and tidy house can have on one’s psyche and sense of serenity. My mother did everything around the house and never trained me either, hoping that I could devote all my time and energy to studying. I am hopeless as an adult now, and I am trying hard now to change, especially since I see my son following in my messy footsteps!

    It’s an interesting point you mentioned that housewives in the past focused more on the house (versus children). I had not realized that. The recent shift would help explain why there is so much criticism now about how recent generations are being spoiled and coddled.

    I had a boss who once believed there was a strong correlation between big weddings and divorce. I am with you – we also had a small, simple wedding with just 21 people. To me it was just the party and the marriage is what counts.

    1. I wonder if a study on big weddings and divorce would back up your boss’s idea. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I don’t want to stereotype either. 🙂 I like that you connected the shift to some of the criticisms now of helicopter parents. I’m not a fan of that either, but I do see value in placing emphasis on children rather than home. But there should always be balance and it should always include the father. A lot of what I’ve read about the problems with today’s type of parenting are that it focuses on motherhood, not fatherhood. Not all of the burden should be put on one parent. Ultimately, I see the pendulum swinging back and forth. Why can’t we ever just land somewhere in the middle? I think parenting will always suffer from this, along with everything else.

      1. I read a post recently by a male professor who said that every year during freshman orientation (for faculty) everyone would lament about 18-year-olds these days – spoiled, entitled, blah blah. He then did some research and found that every generation had complained about the same qualities 😉 I agree that we will always be swinging from one thing to another…parenting is so hard. (I agree too that attention should be paid, too, to fatherhood.)

        1. That is so true that each generation complains about the next. I read some composition theory once that called it the myth of transience. I like that term and I throw it around whenever I can just to sound smart. He he.

  9. This was a great post which makes me nostalgic for a time I don’t even remember. My own mother did not get to enjoy the role of housewife because she raised 3 kids on her own, worked full time, and for supplementary income, cleaned house for other families. I guess she was a housewife in that sense, not in our house, but in the homes of the well-to-do. Which makes me question how economic status also plays a role in the demise of the housewife, or maybe that the demise was only in a certain income level. Perhaps housewifery (is that a word?) still exists in low income families or perhaps also immigrant families whose household structure is different than the current American family structure. I wonder if there are still traditional housewives in a different income brackets. There is definitely value in home economics and I liked that you call it “domestic science” because that seems exactly right to me. Overall I think we know what we lost in losing the role of housewives. There’s a huge resurgence of knitting, canning, making homemade cleaning solutions, making homemade balms and soaps, gardening, and other domestic science traditions. Women of a certain means are picking these things back up, now because they have the time and money to pursue them as a hobbies. I could ramble on. This is a thought provoking post but my thoughts go in a lot of directions about it. Thanks Emily. 🙂 …and lastly, how on earth do you find time to read so many books?! I’ve added so many of your suggestions to my list and simply can not read them as fast as I’m adding them.

    1. Denise, first of all, I stack up my blog posts on these books. I read this one over the summer. I just stay ahead, so I’m not really reading them in real time! There’s NO way, especially now that I’m back in school. No time for pleasure reading anymore.

      So, I can answer a few of your questions, but you’re right that the whole thing is complicated. I would say that there are still traditional housewives, but perhaps of a different generation. Also, the women of lower income brackets are likely more like your mother was, cleaning house for other people. As far as I’ve researched, which isn’t much, back in the 1800s (and before), women had domestic servants. Then, in the 1850s, Catherine Beecher wrote a treatise about the home and its work, which some scholars have criticized for being imperialistic and really about keeping America’s border secure. She republished and expanded it a few years later with her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as The American Woman’s Home. Many other manuals follows, including one called Housewifery, so yes, it’s a word! The next hundred years or so saw these manuals, some published for public consumption, others for private correspondence courses, some for college classes in “industrial education” or “domestic science,” and others meant for high schools. In them, they talk about domestic servants and how to train them, and then that starts to go away. With so-called “labor saving” technologies for the home (I need to write another post about THAT book by Ruth Cowan Schwartz), servants began to dwindle. The two world wars also contributed to a decline in servants because they all realized they could make more money in factories. (This is simplifying it immensely, but you get the idea.)

      That was WAY more than you wanted to know! A current issue with housework is who should do it? If the privileged white woman doesn’t want to, she hires a woman of color to do it, who then must be away from her children and be paid pennies to do so. And how does she afford daycare on that? I think most feminists lean toward sharing the chores with men. It will certainly continue to be discussed and debated. The housework won’t ever go away. Somebody has to do it!

      1. Thanks for all the history on this. I am interested, so I appreciate your effort. And you’re right, it is complex, because now I’ve gone back and read Carolyn O.’s comment and agree with her there as well. Seems like teamwork, whatever that team may look like, is ideal.

  10. Huh, maybe I’ll suggest this book for book club instead of The Midwife’s Tale (I just read your review of it, thanks for that). The title alone would intrigue everyone. Anyway, I totally see myself as a housewife and a SAHM equally. My kids are 4 and 2 and I feel like I clean 50% of the day and tend to their needs 50% of the day. I get a lot of satisfaction out of cleaning and organizing my own space. I find after I’ve been on vacation, all I crave when I get home is to get back into my routine of cleaning and cooking in my own kitchen. Something about having control over my own little corner of the earth. I think about this a lot when I consider going back to work. I really fear letting go of home orderliness. I think it would cause a lot more stress on me and my marriage (cuz my hubby is a clean freak). So, if it’s not too personal, my question for you is: when you’re back in school, how do you and your husband balance the home chores? Is he pretty good about chipping in? Or do you outsource?

    1. No outsourcing! My husband is really good about housework all of the time. He doesn’t necessarily consider some of the same tasks that I do, but I remind him. 🙂 We have a pretty good system going of both of us keeping the kitchen clean and of getting to both the indoor and outdoor chores on Saturdays. Crack that whip, Martha! Ha ha.

        1. Dinner is all me because I’m the better cook and I care about how the food tastes! I do wish he could cook more, and he does when I’m at school in the evening. He feeds the kids and makes easy stuff.

          1. Now i feel like i’m just going to keep asking you questions…..but i’ll stop after one more: Do you feel like you ever get a rest? Maybe that’s THE biggest worry of mine…if I add more to a life in which I already feel pretty tired, will I ever get a chance to recuperate? Or will I just get progressively tired until I’m fried and can’t do anything right…

            1. I am not getting much rest this semester, but it is my busiest one ever. I’m counting down the weeks. In fact, I only got 3 hours of restless sleep last night, but that was because I had a steroid injection in my foot yesterday that hurts a lot and I couldn’t settle down. I usually get a nice long sleep at night. I do get rest during my breaks from school. But I hear what you are saying. I think that if you add something, something else has to go. For me, that ends up being housework the way I’d like it done. It also ends up being time with my husband and children. Mike took them to the children’s museum on Saturday while I studied and wrote, and I missed being able to go. But only ten more weeks! 🙂

  11. I’ll be reading this if only to commiserate with her mother. I very much connect with the statement lack of financial power and not using my degree. I often tell my children and my husband, “I did not go to school to get a degree in cleaning.” This book review finds me at a particularly defining time in my life where i have declared my year to Go.Do.Be and I am breaking all sorts of rules. I’ll be picking up this book and it may stand on my bookshelf, right next to Marriage Shock by Dalma Heyn, Flux by Peggy Orenstein and How to Talk so Kids will List by Faber and Mazlish which have all served me well as an unhappy-but-i-should-be-grateful-SAHM. and

    1. All of those titles sound interesting. I’m not sure that Flanagan is really arguing for freedom from being at-home, but she certainly addresses the issues from many standpoints. I’d be interested to know what you think if you read it. Also, I love your year of Go.Do.Be. Best wishes for that!

  12. This post was phenomenally written. It really spoke to my constant issues with marriage, the title wife, and the title mother. How is anyone supposed to fall into that mold? Should be a mold. Being that I am also a fan of moderation, marriage is usually a tough topic. I’ll have to add this to my growing list of must reads.

  13. Hi Emily:

    I ran across this post and picked up Flanagan’s book. I think she nails the issue, and I don’t think she is preaching one side or the other. More proof of the Universe conspiring to bring people together through literature: I have two friends who have lost their mothers within the last year and I’ve referred them to the first few pages of Flanagan’s book. They are having such a hard time sorting through their mothers’ houses – it’s been draining physically but absolutely exhausting emotionally, and they couldn’t really find the words to convey their experiences. Flanagan does a nice job of articulating the common feelings of filial obligation, commemoration, and loss for these women. Thanks for the review!

    1. I do think Flanagan’s introduction and the chapter about her mom would be helpful to those going through the same experience. I love knowing that you read it because of this post and that you found it worthy of recommending to others. That makes me happy! It also gives me reason to keep on blogging. 🙂

  14. Hm. Your blog post touched upon something I had been thinking about for some time. I think feminism may have reached such an extent that being a housewife is considered a lowly position and looked down upon. Isn’t that funny how even good things can go far enough to become bad? Just a random thought. 🙂

    1. I think that was more common in feminism a while ago. These days, feminists are all about choices and recognizing that what women do is valuable, no matter where, as long as it is their choice. So I would say, as a feminist scholar who works to recognize that women’s contributions in the home and elsewhere, that feminism is about valuing the “housewife.”

      1. That is true. There has been a wave of women empowerment lately. Yet, and this is only my opinion, there are still vestiges of stigma surrounding the idea of being a housewife. After all, there seems to be a great hullabaloo about women gaining greater employment opportunities and entering male dominated fields such as engineering. Just my two cents 🙂 I only recently started WordPress and reading your blog but it’s been great!

        1. Thank you! It is nice to have you here. And yes, I agree there is a stigma among some groups. I’ve also seen it the other way. Why can’t we all just be loving and accepting? World peace, anybody? 🙂

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