Valuing the Craft of Beautiful Homemaking

Ivana Greco
May 14, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Stay-at-home moms and dads get called many things these days, but they're rarely called artists or craftsmen. That should change. Understanding homemaking as a creative art form available to ordinary people may seem odd or anachronistic. If media outlets consider the beauty of homemaking at all in 2024, it is usually relegated to surveying the interior design choices of the wealthy. Glossy magazines at grocery store checkout lines portray elegant, expensively furnished rooms. Instagram and TikTok offer plenty of opportunities to view - perhaps with jealousy - the impeccable homes of the rich and famous.

There is nothing wrong with beautiful houses, of course. Indeed, aspiring to create an attractive, pleasant home is a good and worthy goal. But the beauty of homemaking is not merely in tastefully choosing home decor or paint colors. Nor is it only available to those with the time, money, and lack of rambunctious children needed to create a magazine-worthy house. Instead, it is a much broader and deeper skill that can help provide the foundations of a well-lived life. We have lost this more comprehensive understanding of the beauty of homemaking due to deliberate policy choices pushed by activists in the second half of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, we should reverse course and seek to restore greater respect for the hard work, imagination, and skills that go into creating a well-functioning home and family.

From Art to Obsolescence

In the nineteenth century, homemaking was generally understood to be a skilled occupation requiring a specific set of abilities, knowledge, and creativity that were vital to every home. Society needed craftsmen, such as carpenters, smiths, weavers, and shoemakers - but it also needed competent homemakers and housewives. The author Isabella Beeton, who published the best-selling treatise Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861, explained: "I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways." Thus, she devoted enormous effort to writing her book, which quickly sold millions of copies in Victorian England. Beeton saw her housekeeping manual as providing a public service, since "a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home."

Similarly, in the United States, Catharine Beecher (sister to the famous abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote in her Treatise on the Domestic Economy that American women should not consider the art of domestic work to be beneath them or reject housewifery in favor of supposedly more sophisticated artistry. Beecher argued:

For example, to draw a large landscape, in colored crayons, would be deemed very lady-like; but the writer can testify, from sad experience, that no cooking, washing, sweeping, or any other domestic duty, ever left such deplorable traces on hands, face, and dress, as this same lady-like pursuit. . . . [E]very American woman, who values the institutions of her Country, and wishes to lend her influence in extending and perpetuating such blessings, may feel that she is doing this, whenever, by her example and influence, she destroys the aristocratic association, which would render domestic labor degrading.

To be sure, for many in the nineteenth century, the valorization of the beauty of housewifery went hand in hand with the idea that the "domestic sphere" was the only sphere that women were suited to occupy. Further, though women were responsible for running the domestic sphere, many understood them as doing so primarily for the comfort of men (rather than for the entire family). The famous Victorian poem The Angel in the House, for example, contained the lines: "Man must be pleased; but him to please/is woman's pleasure; down the gulf/of his condoled necessities/She casts her best, she flings herself."

Building on this nineteenth-century understanding of the value of housewifery, in the early twentieth-century United States, homemaking was still generally respected as a skilled occupation. Indeed, some were beginning to hope that women might be able to combine both their homemaking skills and their professional achievements. Long before anyone spoke of "having it all" or "work-life balance," a 1926 article in The Atlantic titled "Homemaking and Careers" envisioned a future in which women benefited both from education in "the art of homemaking" and professional training for the "many [women who] will wish to earn their living in productive work outside the home." The author hoped that women would no longer need to choose between home and career: "Why should they not round out their lives with many interests and carry on simultaneously different lines of activity - each in its proper place and each contributing directly to the fuller life?"

That vision, however, never came to fruition. Fifty years later, the ideal of homemaking as a special art in which one might seek to become skilled was almost dead. For many second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, the pursuit of the worthy goal of equal legal rights and career opportunities for women came at the expense of devaluing the work done by homemakers. Consider a 1975 conversation between Betty Friedan, the noted American author of The Feminine Mystique, and Simone de Beauvoir, the French author of The Second Sex. Friedan had written that no educated woman could find fulfillment in caring for home and family: "There are aspects of the housewife's role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity." Nevertheless, Friedan argued that homemakers were deserving of protection and social support. In response, de Beauvoir claimed that in an ideal society, housewifery would be prohibited as an occupation, and all women would be required to enter the workforce. De Beauvoir said:

No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.

Under this worldview, homemaking has no beauty or intrinsic value. It is nothing but unremitting drudgery that infantilizes and oppresses those engaged in it. Friedan argued that women could not thrive as homemakers. De Beauvoir also viewed housework as oppressive and suggested women needed to be freed from it even against their will, claiming that laundry, cooking, and cleaning should be managed collectively outside the home by both men and women - otherwise too many women would choose to stay at home. For de Beauvoir, "women will still be oppressed" as long as "the family and the myth of the family and the maternal instinct are not destroyed."

Homemaking today remains a form of skilled craft, in which a woman - or a man - uses experience and intelligence to create something that is both beautiful and functional.

Restoring Respect for the Craft

While few people today find the idea of being "liberated" from all family ties appealing, the view of housework and childcare as oppressive has remained popular. Dealing with household tasks is now often described as "the mental load," which is perceived as an unequal burden falling on women that "means many feel they cannot physically or mentally put in the extra hours demanded by many workplaces, so the gender pay gap continues to widen." This "mental load," combined with U.S. standards for parenting, has been deemed so oppressive that author Jessica Grosse wrote a book titled Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood.

While this gloomy view of homemaking is responding to real issues in many families' lives, I believe it is neither helpful nor true to view caring for the home (or babies) as unremitting drudgery that all parents in a just society should be able to outsource. Among other things, it ignores the little moments that form the warp and weft of a family. Eating a home-cooked meal together, taking the time to sing a fussy baby to bed, baking a birthday cake with a child: these small things are often what knit spouses together, and children to parents. Likewise, it ignores the fact that homemaking is truly a skill developed over time, meaning that many families benefit when one person can put in the effort and thought required to develop that skill. Anyone who has dealt with the modern puzzle of trying to figure out how to get all the kids to school, to baseball practice, music lessons, and so forth on time with all their associated homework, equipment, etc. quickly understands how "Project Management" and "Logistics" are specialized fields in the paid workforce. Making a packed lunch seems like a small thing until you've driven 45 minutes for a kid's activity only to realize you left the cooler with the food for all your kids at home!

Pope St. John Paul II once wrote: "Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet . . . all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece." To reject the importance of homemaking is to reject the importance of crafting a good family life. There is, to be sure, a lot of work involved in taking care of a home and family. Much of that work is repetitive and may look unsophisticated to someone unfamiliar with the mental gymnastics that go into doing it well: cleaning the kitchen floor, changing diapers, making sandwiches - often while coping with the distractions and chaos of small children. However, even for those we widely acknowledge as skilled craftsmen and artisans, the same is true. An excellent stonemason will spend many hours repetitively working on the same task. Through skill and expertise, the wall he makes will be both beautiful and useful. Similarly, a seamstress spends much of her time carefully measuring, cutting, and stitching. The process may look boring to an outsider, but this doesn't mean the shirt she eventually produces will be any less lovely or practical. Likewise, an ER nurse spends much of her time coping with chaos and interruption: we usually recognize that this means her job requires more skill, while somehow the homemaker is less respected because she cannot do her work without interruption.

I would suggest that homemaking today remains a form of skilled craft, in which a woman - or a man - uses experience and intelligence to create something that is both beautiful and functional. The difference, of course, between the art of homemaking and other kinds of art is that homemaking's beauty is often not produced in the form of a physical object. Much of the beauty of homemaking is fleeting and intangible. It might look like a mother reading a favorite book (for the fifth time) to a toddler who just loves every repetition of Little Blue Truck. It might also look like a dad who can take the time to listen and talk extensively to a son devastated by a heartbreaking loss in a championship sports game. A daughter might bake a special birthday cake for her mother's 70th birthday - but a few days later that cake will probably be gone. Indeed, much of the beauty of homemaking comes in tending relationships with families, friends, and communities. Thus, a family can live in a small apartment with battered furniture and plates from Goodwill but still have a beautiful home, if the relationships between the family members have been carefully nurtured and grown.

Understanding homemaking as a craft that produces beautiful (if intangible) results should hopefully encourage young men and women who are thinking about caring for a home and/or children. For the young mother or father overwhelmed by all there is to do and feeling incompetent in the face of the multiple - often conflicting - demands of house and children, it may help to know that homemaking is a skill to be developed over time. Just as Michelangelo honed his abilities for many years before painting the Sistine Chapel, adults may find with each passing year that their skills at cooking, cleaning, shopping, and parenting develop. Most importantly, this vision of homemaking makes clear that rather than an oppressive burden to be lifted, it is a socially useful occupation that should be supported and encouraged. Valuing families and the home means valuing the beauty and artistry of homemaking.