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Excerpt: 'The Summa Domestica': Deciding to Be Home

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Excerpt: 'The Summa Domestica': Deciding to Be Home

The Summa Domestica comprises three volumes: Family Life, which delves into the essentials of establishing the home; Education, which explores the basics of teaching children and preparing them to learn on their own; and Housekeeping, which presents detailed instructions on taking care of the house, meals, and laundry in an active and populous household.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 8 in the first volume of The Summa Domestica: Order and Wonder in Family Life. The volume is called Home Culture.

By Leila Marie Lawler

Within the bosom of the woman is a deep desire to be home. The problem is that, as a result of having a nurturing nature, women are good at doing what other people think they should do. The tendency to doubt that the woman has an irreplaceable role in the home means that sometimes women find it difficult to admit that what other people expect is not what they truly desire.

Most women today bravely and against self-interest (but really, against the interest of feminine nature) accept that they cannot remain home, according to society’s expectations. But a little something is ripped away whenever a woman finds herself more away than not, less with her children than she had dreamed, often not the one to make the little domestic choices and find solutions.

Even the woman who works from home feels a stress at being beholden to someone else’s schedule that a man doesn’t experience; that outside pull means that her body is there but her mind is on her commitments. Often there is a screen she’s tethered to, and ordinary interactions with family members become interruptions and vexations. Working at home means there are no boundaries at all; hardly the pat solution many seem to think it is.

This situation, of a woman feeling the need to work in order to be ful- filled, feeds her sense of not being competent in the area of homemaking. If she stays home and gives up outside work commitments, she worries that she won’t know how to make up for the income she loses. Does she know how to shop frugally? To manage housework on her own?

I understand. My goal is to offer help for women to learn how to stay at home and to live on one income. As with many an endeavor, more than half the battle is starting, even without knowing all the answers. In so many things, I find that, once I start, each step presents itself in a binary way: up or down, right or left. All I have to do is decide at the time, provided my goal is clear, and the path reveals itself. Prayer together, husband and wife, and conversations, and simply doing lead to the answers.

Over the years, I have had readers tell me of the rather dramatic ways in which they have reorganized their lives, including selling their “dream-home McMansion” for a rental in the city, so that they can stay home. Some have told me of walking away from high-powered careers, and of disappointing parents and in-laws, to resolve the inner conviction that they are needed at home.

Living on one (small) income means resetting expectations, especially about spending. I discuss this aspect in volume 3, but here I will confine myself to the observation that the biggest expenses for most families are housing payments and health insurance. Ideally, the latter will be covered by the husband’s job, but if not, I recommend looking into a health cost- sharing plan (such as Samaritan Ministries).

I believe that mothers are happier at home. The home needs a center, a heart. Paradoxically, we may feel this most strongly when we have been away from our home, and the atmosphere that greets us upon our return is not what we would want; we know it would be different if we had been there.

It seems to me that some women and their families have learned to live with a certain tension, borne of the need on all sides to assure one another that everything is fine. Maybe the children are longing to be relieved of this burden.

One fear that lurks in the background for many women is that their children won’t respond to them the way they do to the people they hire, and that they themselves won’t find their children’s company enjoyable.

Often, and here I think we come to the real anxiety, a woman who looks longingly at the possibility of staying home with her children doubts her ability to care for them. One reader put it to me this way: “The woman who takes care of my children does this professionally. Would I just be surviving every day with little ones? Would their days be worse with me than with her? . . . Still, they’re mine . . . and I want them.”

The trouble is that outsourcing, and thus objectifying, the care of children will always tend to make the already doubtful mother feel that she is indeed inadequate. Think of the helpless mothers in British literature who cower before their competent nannies!

Well, certainly no one wants to spend money to get the sort of shenanigans that children normally dish out (including injuries, illnesses, and naughtiness!). And no wonder British households had nurseries, where Nanny could relax from parental assessment of her performance but was at least a part of the household. Professionalizing childcare creates the sense that mothering means supervising the children’s every waking moment (with the fear of lawsuits lurking somewhere in the background), interacting constantly with them, and above all, getting “results” from them to affirm that money is well spent and one’s position has been well earned.

Gone is the un-self-conscious relationship so necessary to real family life.

The best way to recover it is to consider that in stepping away from paid work outside the home, the woman is not turning toward devotion to children per se, even though this is the way most women express what they are doing. Believe me when I tell you that even childless women sense the need to leave the workplace (or never enter it). You see, the devotion I’m speaking of is to the home. Ultimately, the children will grow up and leave. The husband and wife’s marriage is what creates the sacred space of the home, and the home is the fitting object of devotion.

The home offers a culture of the family and hospitality for friends and strangers. The home is the place from which the children venture forth, having been formed, in order to take their gifts to make new homes of their own. And they will go. A home remains, when it has a heart, and reveals a new phase — one we are missing today, now that we are several generations into the experiment of abandoning this intimate and sacred space.

Committing to serving the home frees the woman from expectations about how the children will fare when professional support is removed. She can discover her task of eliciting from them an ever increasing sense of responsibility to life together in the home, and to help them not to be “happy” or to be “fulfilled” or to “reach their highest potential” but to find their vocation for the time when they leave home to make their own.

Ironically, now that enough time has passed since the feminist movement took hold, many women who resisted, seeing their devotion as child-oriented rather than work-oriented, express bitterness when the children leave. Having spent their time totally involved in their children’s every need and wish, husband and wife find they have neglected their own friendship. The woman hardly knows who she is apart from the children’s activities on which she has spent so much energy, and their father is almost a stranger. These women feel robbed and regret not going along with the feminist idea of seeking worth in a career. Thus, the phenomenon of divorces when the children go off to college, otherwise so incomprehensible.

And yet, we know that there is significant bitterness in knowing that the children came and went and their mother wasn’t there, having been absorbed in her career! Is the woman’s lot bitterness, regardless of her choices? Is there peace to be found? Understanding the commitment as being to the home (however humble it may be) helps the woman avoid disappointment when the inevitable occurs.

Having a home with a wife and mother in it is what matters to your children and to your husband and, most likely unbeknownst to you, to the neighborhood and the world. Seeing herself as devoted to the home allows a woman to have many interests and creative outlets (all of which, in turn, enrich her family). As to making it work on one income, G. K. Chesterton said in his brilliant essay “What’s Wrong with the World”: “Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance. . . . Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. . . . If a man could undertake to make use of all the things in his dustbin, he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare.”

Leila Marie Lawler is a wife of one, mother of seven, and grandmother of sixteen (and counting!). She lives in Central Massachusetts. You can find her at Like Mother, Like Daughter, and Happy Despite Them. Lawler also co-authored 'The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home,' and authored 'God Has No Grandchildren: A guided reading of Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii, On Chaste Marriage.' Leila is a Fellow of the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture, a project of Thomas More college of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

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