When people ask what I do, I say that I’m a writer. It’s true. I do write most days and sometimes publish things. I feel lucky to have work I love, even if I can’t rely on it for income. And yet in social situations only rarely do I mention my real job. This is because my real job feels less acceptable, less noteworthy than my other work, even though in some ways it’s harder and more challenging. My job has long hours, unregulated conditions, and maddeningly low status. It’s not exactly a calling, though some days it feels like it. Until my kids leave school my job is to keep our home running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. My job is housekeeping.
Countless people keep their homes running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. They may not feel called to it, nor, as I do, wear an apron. Nonetheless, they spend a similar amount of time shopping and cleaning and cooking and listening and sorting and fixing and laughing and generally making things happen at home. And then cleaning up afterwards. Like me, they don’t call this their main work, and certainly the world doesn’t. Knowing this isn’t what makes them interesting to others, they rarely bring it up in conversation. Nonetheless, measured in hours, devotion, effort, and skill, it’s a big part of their life.
“A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life.” As a young woman growing up in Australia, I never questioned these words by English writer Rose Macauley. Like my friends I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive and unfulfilling tasks that full-time work was designed to release women from—this much we knew. There was nothing wrong with housekeeping and cooking and growing things. They were just much less important than staying abreast of work demands, travelling to far-flung places, and having a five-year plan.
In our home my mother had a cleaning woman whom I actively avoided on reaching adolescence. The matter of fact way Mrs. Bryce cleaned our house made me feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. Reading and writing and riding my bike were all very well, but they weren’t solid and real like emptying the bins and vacuuming the stairs. And so I knew early on, from my experience of avoiding Mrs. Bryce, that housekeeping was no small thing.
Making wherever I was living feel like home was for a long time a secret pleasure of mine. Shouldn’t I be more interested in politics, GDP, and my own career, than in line-dried sheets and fresh fish for supper? Things were worth doing for their CV value or social credit, not for their intrinsic satisfaction. However, I clearly wasn’t the only one who longed for satisfaction at home: The world was awash with glossy magazines showing stunningly svelte homes, an array of lifestyle products and tips, and home management experts who got something over and above money from sorting their clients’ cupboards.
Moving through my twenties, I shared a string of flats across London and focused on my career in publishing, higher education, and psychotherapy. Keeping on top of home life was no big deal. I could fit it in after work or on the weekend. I gave over a chunk of each day to cooking, organizing, errands, and shopping—to housekeeping, in fact. This involved time, imagination, and effort. However, it was time, imagination, and effort that I didn’t credit. Something in me refused to recognize all my big and small efforts to keep home life pleasant or in any way significant. In those days, I couldn’t imagine that making the kitchen gleam, after a long dinner, would one day give me a moment of pride. Right into my thirties I had no sense that domestic rituals like flowers on the windowsill or a casserole simmering would ever come to feel like an achievement.
But then one spring day my partner and I had a baby and, two years later, another. Together, these children put a bomb under my carefully constructed independence. Soon I was spending more time doing household tasks that my feminist upbringing questioned the value of than I was teaching and writing. Overnight I embraced the imaginative and practical efforts that a family home demands. I stopped believing in Mary Poppins—that someone might umbrella in to look after my family and me—and instead got on with looking after us all. Having a family gave me permission to care about what I’ve always cared about. I still have worldly ambitions. Yet I’m often my most grounded, at ease and free, when caught up doing things at home.
While I’m as much of a feminist as I ever was, these days I’m less of a chauvinist. My struggle with housekeeping has led me to admire it all the more because I know first-hand how challenging it is to keep a home and family afloat. Now, living in Hobart in southern-most Australia, I count housekeeping as an accomplishment and an act of love.
These days, domestic life is no more the exclusive domain of women than the board room is the exclusive domain of men. Equally it’s a woman’s career, rather than her family, that credits her in the eyes of the world. And yet despite real shifts in the public sphere domesticity continues to impact women in an especially profound way. Every woman I’ve spoken with about domestic life takes it very personally. Home life is subject to a level of pride, joy, and shame that confounds even us.
Domesticity can be seen as an invitation. It gives us a chance to express ourselves at home, away from the public eye. But it can also feel like a trap—a spiral of unfinished chores. Most of us feel a bit of both: We’re keen to find satisfaction at home, yet we’re alive to domesticity’s tentacle-like hold, a contradiction that makes it all the more curious that we don’t talk about domesticity, and particularly our tussles with it, more openly.
It’s normal for me to ask people how their work is going. And I love hearing about their relationships and family. But I’ll almost never ask even a good friend how she feels about running her home, or the atmosphere she is seeking to create there. Homemaking seems so personal, so sensitive, that I feel reluctant to probe. It seems too risky to ask someone what cooking means to them how they feel about growing things, and that perennial conversation stopper: spring cleaning. Even though, the more my thoughts turn to domestic life the more it strikes me that everyone I’m talking to must be spending quite a lot of time doing or not doing such things.
Realizing this set me thinking: Looking around it was as if every woman with children I knew, and a fair few of their partners, were going round and round in the same circles. Like me, they were continually bumping into the icebergs under the surface of their otherwise smoothly-running consciously-chosen lives. Like me, they were confronted by the rude fact that life is seventy percent maintenance. Like me, they were forced to accept, after Thoreau, that the price of anything is the amount of life we are willing to exchange for it. And like me, they had discovered that home life is both costlier and more precious than they’d ever have anticipated in their younger, more carefree days.
It was at this point that I decided to make a study of domestic life. If I was going to make sense of and feel proud of my own domesticity, I needed to understand it first. Initially I read everything I could get my hands on that touched the domestic sphere only to discover that apart from how-to manuals, sociological research, feminist texts, and reams of opinion pages, there isn’t much in-depth thinking on the nature of domestic life. There isn’t much—beyond Marguerite Duras’ splendid essay “House and Home” and some wonderful online essays—that explores domestic feelings in an open-ended, agenda-less, non-judgmental way.
Turning away from books and articles, I started asking people how they felt about domesticity, at first casually, and then through informal interviews. Initially when I approached a woman to ask if she might talk with me about her home life, and she paused, I chose not to think much of it. Conscious that it was an unusual request, I’d fill in the pause with chat to put us both at ease. But soon I realized that it wasn’t my imagination; most people really did think twice before responding.
On sitting down to talk I always stressed that I wasn’t particularly interested in the practical side of housework. I didn’t want to know how often—if ever—her shower grouting was scrubbed. I was, I explained, more interested in her feelings about running her home, than in how she thought she should be running it. How, I wanted to know, did she deal with the daily domestic pressures? I never put it this plainly, but really I was fishing for what home life meant to her at a personal level.
In the end I sat down for an hour with fifty people—forty women and ten men—in the thick of domestic life, and asked them eight questions: Is your home expressive of who you are? How did you first learn about housekeeping? How do you keep on top of your home life now? Have you found ways of being creative at home? Do you like being in the kitchen? Do you enjoy being alone at home? How do you unwind after work? Are you aware of your environmental footprint? And where and when do you feel most at home?
Once upon a time women had no choice when it came to housekeeping. Whether they identified with the home or not, society judged them according to their domestic competence. Whereas these days, so the story goes, women have a choice. Society doesn’t judge women—or men for that matter—according to how well they cook dinner, clean the bathroom, or sort out cupboards. However, this shift, in so many ways a positive one, has had an unforeseen consequence. Between one generation and the next the dilemma of domesticity has moved from the outside to the inside, from society at large to inside our heads. Judgment now comes less from our neighbor across the road than from the critic within. We are the ones who notice smears on the bathroom basin and crumbs on the kitchen floor. We’re more likely to be pushed into housekeeping by niggedly little things like toothpaste on a tap, or squashed peas on the floor, than by any pressure to keep up appearances.
Housekeeping prompts powerful feelings which, particular to ourselves and seemingly slight, we struggle to articulate and share. This is because housekeeping is really homekeeping. It’s the means by which we keep our lives attractive, sustainable, and meaningful. It’s not the only way we do this, of course, but domesticity plays a huge role in keeping ourselves recognizable—and acceptable—to ourselves and those around us.
In the past it was considered a good thing for women to be house-proud, to wear an apron to the front door and to feel rewarded for their efforts. These days, being house-proud is considered a little suspect, a bittersweet recompense for women with nothing better to do. And yet, I’ve discovered that I get more satisfaction from my home looking after it myself than I did when I worked enough to pay for a cleaner. And it’s this shift which makes me want to turn house pride back into a compliment, rather than a sidelong put-down.
This project, to understand the essence of domesticity, has awakened some of the excitement I once felt reading Sigmund Freud in the British Reading Room, pencil in hand. Because many of the problems Freud addressed—ambivalence, resistance, repression, and projection—are the same problems that beset me housekeeping today: overcoming my resistance to domestic tasks that I don’t feel like doing; seeing the way I project laziness on to my family as they walk past the yet-to-be-unpacked dishwasher; recognizing how unacceptable it is to me that, though my parents are dead, my mother and I now have more in common than I ever shared with my father. Such feelings have enriched and complicated my experience of domestic life enormously. These days, I identify with and feel pride in what I do at home in a way that gives me a perspective on life that I had no inkling of when my fantasies of the future were organized around career, romance, and making a difference in the world.
Had I not sat down and explored this subject, I’d have known nothing of other people’s experience of domestic life. For despite a wealth of research into our work lives, and nearly as much into our sexual lives, we know precious little about each other’s domestic feelings. We don’t really know how we come to feel nurtured and looked after at a deep level. We don’t know much about why we care about what we care about at home—in particular, why it’s so stressful having to care about things that, in the scheme of things, we couldn’t care less about.
While some of this reticence around domesticity is due to the advances brought by feminism, much of it is personal. It’s as if the stories we tell ourselves about how others manage their home lives lead us to keep us quiet about our own. At least this way, we tell ourselves, we avoid being compared with a domestic excellence that we know we’ll never achieve ourselves.
This may explain why, whenever I do sit down to talk with someone about their home life, our conversation takes on a life of its own. Like a babbling brook after rain, whomever I am speaking with has a lot more to say after our hour is up. The fear that they might have nothing interesting to say, that their domestic life is without further significance, flips into reverse. And the relief is palpable.
Running through all these conversations are some common questions: Is there an art to running a home over and above folding towels into three and keeping energy use low? Is it a worthwhile thing to do, or merely a drain on our energy and earning capacity? Might domesticity be something to seek out and identify with? Or something best avoided? Will we, on getting older, wish that we’d spent more time in the office? Or will we be glad of our daily rituals, our private culture of home?
A year into this project I have some simple findings. Done in the right spirit housekeeping is no more drudge-inducing than an hour at the gym: Many I spoke with said that, for them, housework generates as many endorphins as a hike up a hill. Certain housekeeping tasks take up more time in our minds than the amount of time it takes to actually do them—clearing out cupboards, putting away laundry, getting the vacuum cleaner fixed. I’ve also observed how the choices we make and the things we do, alone at home, come increasingly to define us. And that the things we desire when we’re young aren’t necessarily the things that we end up liking as years pass, when what we can bear becomes as important as anything we might want.
Putting it all together, I’m left with this question: What if our main problem with housekeeping lies in our thoughts about it, rather than in the tasks themselves? (“There is,” Shakespeare wrote, “nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”) What if we’re wary of aprons because we worry about what others will think of our wearing one? What if, at the end of the day, we’re more unsettled by the absence of structure at home—a lack of external demands and our elastic experience of time—than by quibbles about who takes out the rubbish?
We laugh at the idea that running a home could fill us with pride. Or that we might undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobles our time on the earth. We may peer into a Vermeer painting of a woman scrubbing the doorstep, or turning the handle of a butter churn, but this is more in wonderment than admiration. In these intimate scenes there is a sense of quiet dignity, of calm and order, of things being as they should be despite a world of flux just beyond the canvas.
Critics of housekeeping are right: dust bunnies in the bedroom probably won’t be what we care about on our death bed—assuming we are lucky enough to die there. Nonetheless, finding satisfaction at home is still a valuable aim. Ultimately, what we are nudging towards in feeling on top of home life is the sense that we’re up to looking after ourselves. There are other benefits too, like finding beauty in the ordinary and being at one with time passing. But really it’s this ability to look after ourselves, and those we love, that we prize. Domestic life is the stage on which we do this wonderful yet paradoxical thing of loving family and friends as ourselves, and of expressing this love in concrete ways.
On the morning of her suicide, Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard, concerned about Virginia’s mental state and seeking to distract her from it, suggested to their maid that Virginia might join her in some light housework. Later that day the maid recalled how Virginia had picked up a duster and looked at it as if it were a piece of cloth, rather than a duster. When eventually Virginia did some dusting, she did so, the maid noted, like someone who never dusts—dabbing at surfaces rather than running the cloth purposefully over them. Before long, Virginia had dropped the duster and was gazing out the window.
In my experience, it’s only once you start doing your own housekeeping that a duster becomes a duster, rather than just a piece of cloth. It’s only once you assume responsibility for the appearance of your home, however big or small, that beauty through domesticity becomes achievable. Housekeeping becomes a means to an end—a warm and attractive home—rather than a litany of domestic demands.
When this happens—for me, the trigger was having a family—housekeeping becomes part of who you are. It becomes part of your identity and not just your weekly schedule. You think about it when you wake up in the morning and it follows you into the bathroom as you brush your teeth at night. Looking after things at home—a plant, a child, a loaf of bread—roots you to the earth beneath your feet.
Like everyone I’ve spoken with about domesticity I groan at the chores that a happy home demands. And yet this is only half the story. The other more important half involves the deep satisfaction that home life holds out: the tangible pleasure I get from cooking with fresh herbs, from wearing pajamas I’ve sewn up myself, and from slipping a homemade pie in the oven when friends come for dinner.
As a young woman I had fantasies of changing the world, or at least of making a lasting impression on it. This, I assumed, was what my PhD in psychology and literature was for. And yet, these days I feel that what marks me out as mature and loving is my willingness to make the most of this, my domestic period—and to do so with grace and pride. There are, I now realize, are many ways to change the world. We can genuinely touch others via our domestic life, not despite it. Sharing our home life with family and friends, allows us to recognize that beneath all our chafing about world events, it’s the domestic world that we intimately live in, and this pushes me forward and gives me hope.
When people ask what I do I still reply that I’m a writer. Partly because my work still defines me. But also because I don’t want to be shrill, to protest too much. Like so many women I know I rarely flag my domestic role—even though in my heart I’m very much a writer/housekeeper. While it’s too simple to say that I have embraced domestic life wholeheartedly and irreversibly, housekeeping for twenty years has changed me. I have served up supper to my family around seven thousand times. I couldn’t begin to count how many socks I’ve paired or library books I’ve unearthed. And while I continue to seek external credit—I’ll never be so mature not to need this—family and domestic life have taught me, in minute yet powerful ways, that being inspired by my own values is more empowering than trying to live up to other people’s.
Nonetheless, I’m not without conflict and would never recommend my choices to others. To be honest, I’d be hard put to say that my decision to juggle family and work and housekeeping was even a choice, given that in a deep emotional sense it was made for me. It was the line of least emotional resistance which, though I didn’t actively choose it, I now accept. These days, I’m able to play around with my position in life. I don’t feel constrained by it. And while I admire women whose careers transcend the domestic sphere, thankfully I no longer envy them.
This year has awakened in me a deep respect for domesticity. It has made me wonder why collectively we don’t give more dignity to the work of maintaining the lives that we already have. My hunch, which is also my conclusion, is that housekeeping takes a special kind of courage. It takes courage to look after and feel grateful for what we have at home, rather than losing precious energy to resentment or envy or fantasies of alternative futures. It takes courage to prize the possessions we have over acquisitions to come; to invest in today over tomorrow; to relish staying put over traveling widely; and to open ourselves to domestic longings which are more mysterious and soulful than are our ego’s demands for achievement. Above all, it takes courage to give precious time, once the housekeeping is done, to a creativity that offers so much. This may sound like something our grandmothers once said, but there it is.