A Place to Eat, Sleep, and Watch
Emptiness in the Modern Household
I wondered if the editors at The New York Times realized the irony in the title “The Pandemic Created a Child-Care Crisis. Mothers Bore the Burden.” Working mothers, who once bore their children in the womb, were forced by the pandemic to now bear what was called the burden of their children’s care.
In response to this “child-care crisis,” the author writes, mothers “became the default solution.” Forced from work back into the home, “forgotten and shunted to the sidelines,” these women waited for their kids to get vaccinated before returning them to daycares and schools. The milestone reached in January 2019 — when women outnumbered men in the workforce for the first time in American history — crumbled before the triumph could be fully enjoyed: Men, once again, hold the majority. Only 56 percent of women are working for pay — the lowest since the mid-eighties.
At stake for these working mothers, the author claims, is not simply a paycheck, but self-determination, self-reliance, and the survival of their complex selves. As this childcare crisis lingered over weeks and months, “the shock turned to despair at the drudgery of the days, the loss of their professional purpose, the lack of choice in it all.”
Some of the women interviewed for the article expressed sentiments like, “I love everything about motherhood, and yet it doesn’t feel fair that I should have to sacrifice my career.” Others asked, “We think we’ve progressed so much, and then this pandemic happens and we all just revert back to these traditional behaviors. . . . And this is a good moment to reflect, why do we do that?”
Have we arrived at the bottom when the Times sees nothing amiss in including the example of a mother who walks dogs professionally, wanting out of full-time mothering in preference to being “out and dirty with animals”? Rather outside with dogs than inside with her kids.
Much is amiss in our society and our families, as the article displays without realizing it. But instead of criticizing the disagreeable, I would actually like to defend these women and some of their sense of misfortune. The loss is greater than they suppose, and it includes us all, for it includes the household.
Have you ever considered how industrious and productive the Proverbs 31 woman is — how much work she has accomplished? Over the course of a lifetime, this woman not only has raised admiring children in the instruction of the Lord, but has
- sought wool and flax, and worked with willing hands;
- brought her family food from afar;
- considered fields and bought them;
- planted a vineyard;
- dressed herself in strength;
- considered her merchandise with regard to profit;
- labored throughout the night;
- made bed coverings and clothes for winter;
- sold homemade garments and linens;
- contributed to the needs of the poor;
- labored such that her husband was respected in public; and
- not bowed to idleness or inactivity.
Was she a stay-at-home mother or a working woman? Yes.
“The modern home, in many respects, is hollow.”
Her duties toward the people of her home required production for her home. She was not forced to choose between them. Her ideal was to love her husband and children and to contribute her gifts and ingenuity to the production of the household. She did not replace Dad as primary worker, but she did work alongside him, in different ways in different seasons, to help build and manage their realm.
When we read of women who express a distaste for confinement to the realm of the household, thinking of it as a sort of dungeon, we can hear in their complaint a groan that the household is not what it is supposed to be. The productivity, the ingenuity, the purposefulness — for mother and all members involved — no longer exists as it once did within the household. The modern home, in many respects, is hollow. Though filled with more goods than ever, it has been emptied of purpose.
The modern family can be described, simplistically, in terms of the household after the Industrial Revolution. During the mechanization and technological advancement of the world, work left the home — and men with it. This transition dealt a severe blow to the household as containing family business, as a productive realm. C.R. Wiley writes,
We don’t think of our households as centers of productive work. That’s because the economy has largely moved out of the house. During the industrial revolution steady work in factories replaced the home economy, and many people were forced to leave home to make a living. In the process the household was reduced to what we think of today — a haven in a heartless world — a place to sleep and eat and maybe watch television. (Man of the House, 31)
In the preface to Wiley’s book The Household and the War for the Cosmos, Nancy Pearcey describes some of the effects that followed the exodus of men and work from the home:
- Education moved from the home to schools.
- Care of the elderly and sick went from the home to institutions.
- Grandparents and singles moved out to separate houses and apartments.
- Recreation allured beyond family bounds or became a privatized enjoyment.
- Family devotions, even, migrated from the home to churches and youth groups.
The home grew thin. Its functions that tied members together were outsourced. People were emptied (extended family, singles, sick, and school-aged children), productivity left (home industry, education of children, good works in the community), and with it all, much of its purpose fled. What remained for mothers? Housework and early childcare.
Of course, neither housework nor childcare is a small matter — especially not childcare. Chesterton was exactly right not to pity Mrs. Jones, the former teacher and now stay-at-home mother, for the “smallness” of taking care of her children:
How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness. (What’s Wrong with the World? 95)
Nevertheless, as production, people, and purpose have been outsourced to specialists — including ever-growing Father State — a loss has occurred. The modern mother has fallen from homeschool educator, industrious worker, healthcare provider, helper of the poor and elderly, and host to doing good for those in the community, to being tempted to insignificance and invited to send even her infant children out of the home and into daycare.
Not just the mother has been affected.
The father went from the head leading a body, engaged in the education of children, the care of the elderly, the production of a family business, the passing on of a family trade, the shepherding of souls, the defense of the community, the regulating of relations between members, and the representation of the family in society, to the one who spends vast time away from his home, working for another’s household (a corporation or the government), giving what little he has left to his family when he returns.
The son went from heir of the family business, steward of the household responsibilities, co-laborer with his brothers, and recipient of discipleship from his father, to one who plays video games and charts his own path in his late teens.
The daughter went from early preparation for marriage, learning from a mother how to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, strong in her various realms of competency, building the household with her mother and siblings, being what Chesterton called the great universalist, competent in many different things, to being trained as a specialist away from her mother.
The elderly went from honored and provided for to regularly forgotten. Singles went from their father’s house to their own, often greeted nightly by loneliness. The orphan and widow became dependent on the state.
I do not mean to idealize the ancient family or say that the modern family is in every way inferior. The pages of Scripture include records of deep brokenness in premodern families, even in families of great men and women of faith. Nor am I suggesting that a return to the past is possible (or even desirable). But I am suggesting that our frantic, detached, emptied, individualistic ideals of what a family should be stand to learn from times past.
Ancient ideals can be reforged and remembered and reappropriated to match the new times and new challenges of today. The family can be bonded by more than mere sentiment and consumption, but by meaningful mission and output. One of the benefits of our modern situation, in fact, is how quickly reformation can happen.
While a robust vision of reformation would require far more space, here are a few ways I’ve seen others (or tried myself) to bring people, production, and purpose back into the home.
People. Guard family rhythms like eating dinner together and going to church together. Schedule routine times to have neighbors, family, or church members in your home. For those who are able, consider living near (or with) your parents and extended family. Consider how you can be a blessing to them in their old age. Other ideas include inviting singles and widows over for family meals, trying homeschooling or hand-in-hand structures that leave responsibility with the parents as well as teachers, and having the father work some from home if possible. And of course, the most obvious way to fill your home with people is to have children.
“Perhaps the pandemic didn’t so much create a childcare crisis as expose a household one.”
Production. Consider the talents and passions in the home (especially of the wife and young adults), and dream together about a family business. I know a family who has a T-shirt printing company in their garage, a family who does Airbnb, a family who gives music lessons, and a family who grows a vegetable garden and sells the produce. If you have sons, consider something like lawn mowing or snow shoveling. Consider bigger investments, such as real estate. Consider foremost how you can invest riches in heaven through creative ways of blessing your local church and those in your community.
Purpose. Consider developing a family creed to give direction to decisions. Consider family goals for now, later, and beyond. Establish the priorities of the home and how each member fits into them. Limit screen time and awaken the lost discipline of family worship. Envision how your family can strengthen your local church and serve missionaries overseas.
New purpose can invigorate the Christian family to address the fact that perhaps the pandemic didn’t so much create a childcare crisis as expose a household one and gave us a fresh opportunity to find solutions.