Idealized Domesticity

If one of my kids came to me and said, “I am going to clean my room like you asked me to. I’m giving up time with my books and paint box to pick my clothes up off the floor. I would like to read or paint instead of doing something so mundane, but I do find that the ritual of hanging up clothes and making my bed gives me spiritual nourishment that compensates for the time and effort of obedience.” – I would not know whether to give them a cold shower or counselling.

But you can buy Christian books for women that talk about missional motherhood, sacramental aspects of homemaking, and the holy experience of homeschooling on a farm. Some of these were written in response to women who feel like staying at home with kids is drudgery, even though they believe it is right – women who gave up careers to raise their children, but haven’t found the fulfillment or the public laud of a husband that they thought it would bring. Women have stayed at home expecting to be content and happy washing loads of dishes just because they know they’re doing what’s best for their kids, and instead they are tired, discouraged, and hungry for an adult conversation. The new mommy literature often tries to address this by encouraging stay-at-home mothers to feel as though they are doing religious work as they go about household chores.

In trying to help women feel better about doing laundry instead of office work, though, these authors have set up an unbiblical alternate ideal. Their musings about sacramentalism, euphoric experiences during mundane chores, or the holiness of changing diapers sound more like descriptions of a Roman Catholic nun running an orphanage, than a Protestant wife biblically parenting.

We know from Scripture that all of life is to be worship: “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31). But holiness comes not when we feel like we are sanctified or making religious progress as we scrub the toilet. It comes when these chores are set apart to God’s glory through prayer, even if nobody else but the Lord knows that we did them to the best of our ability out of love for Him, even if we did them with tears.

Holiness is Monica agonizing in prayer for her son Augustine, when he was living in what he later called “a seething cauldron of iniquity”. She agonized for him to just before her death, and only saw the smallest beginning of the great fruit that he bore. Holiness is Maggie Paton working without complaint for decades on a remote island, not knowing that her service to her husband would bear eternal fruit. Holiness is a widow being faithful in prayer for the church, even when nobody visits her in the nursing home. Holiness is being faithful in what God has called you to do on this earth even if nobody—including your husband, children or the church—recognizes it. It is obeying even when we feel like obedience is fruitless. It means quietly and uncomplainingly dying to self and living in the Saviour’s service. Sowing in earthly tears and reaping with eternal joy (Ps. 126).

This new mommy literature ignores the fact that all of the toil and repetition and weariness and hurry that come with stay-at-home motherhood are normal. Getting out of bed early, changing a diaper, getting breakfast on the table and packing a lunch for your husband, day in and day out, is not sacramental. It’s not even ritual. It’s routine. It’s normal. If you look at the women in the Bible and church history who model godly womanhood, you will see that they did not see anything unusually holy or earth-changing in their humble service. In fact, hard work, multi-tasking, child-bearing in difficult circumstances, loneliness, giving while financially tight, slow spiritual growth, weariness, helping a busy husband, practicing inconvenient hospitality, while doing daily devotions and attending weekly prayer meetings and Lord’s Day worship (with the occasional date night) is all very normal for the Christian woman. There is nothing extraordinary in giving up a career to stay at home and educate your children; it should be normal. The Bible shows that ease and comfort are generally attributes of unbelievers’ lives. Self-sacrifice is normal for the believer. Our Saviour lived an earthly life of poverty and suffering—we mothers should expect a life of much difficult work for the Kingdom and pray for grace to do it cheerfully and quietly.

This is scripture’s domestic ideal. Be encouraged; our faithful hard work might never be noticed or seem to bear earthly fruit, if we do it out of love for Christ, in thankfulness for His atoning love, we will hear His approval, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). That goal should enable us to tackle the pile of ironing with joy.