A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Do it again!": On the Apparent Futility of Housework

The books are on the floor AGAIN.

There is a great satisfaction to offering our work to God and doing that work well, especially when we have the opportunity to hold in our hands the nicely painted piece of art, the well-written essay, the beautifully crocheted blanket, or the finely built table. Even without the attention and compliments of others, the material evidence of our time and efforts makes the work we put into a project rewarding. It tends toward a natural sort of contentment when we see the results of our work and know we can enjoy it for days, months, or even years to come.

Not every task offers us such a natural enjoyment and satisfaction of a long-lasting job well done, however. As parents, there is always plenty of housework, yard work, fix-up tasks, and household organization. Young children are often messy and sometimes careless, and even with our best efforts to teach children to clean up after themselves and participate in household chores, we parents will find ourselves immersed in a constant battle to keep our living environment under control!

Granted, maintaining a household well can indeed provide a certain amount of satisfaction. It is nice to see a sparkling, freshly-mopped kitchen floor, accompanied by gleaming counters and shiny appliances. It is lovely to survey a well-organized, picked up, dusted, and vacuumed living room. It can be a relief to organize hand-me-downs in labeled boxes and switch over clothes for winter.

And yet, we know from experience that such contentment is short-lived. The grass keeps growing, the rocking chair keeps breaking, tub scum comes back, the baby pulls the books off the living room shelving, and the kids inevitably spill smoothies on the freshly mopped floor. The laundry is never done. In moments of discouragement in our lives as parents, we may be tempted to see such work as completely pointless and worthless. And it doesn’t help that these kinds of domestic tasks are not valued in our society. When we could be producing something beautiful and meaningful, who wants to devote time to work like wiping down the refrigerator shelves or picking up shoes?

It is precisely this apparent futility of housework that makes it so valuable as a parenting mortification. The lack of natural satisfaction, due to the temporary results of our work, becomes a challenge we can embrace to die to ourselves and grow closer to God. As adults, we can have great control over our living environment. But as adults with other people (who happen to be young children!), we will not have complete control. We never know when we might walk into a bathroom to find the sink has been “painted” with toothpaste by a toddler. Much of the housework we do is simply to restore the house to the state it would be in if we didn’t have children!

From a supernatural perspective, the gift of this seeming wasted work of domestic life is twofold: it teaches us detachment, and it increases our appreciation for the supernatural reward of our labors.

We have probably all had the experience of being proud of our hard work and not wanting to let go of it. The reality of housework is that we must humble ourselves, so that we are constantly letting go of it, or else we risk being constantly angry with those little people who thoughtlessly destroy our hard work. There is nothing wrong with reminders to our children that we have worked hard to do some chore; we want them to recognize that the laundry does not do itself, the dishes do not clean themselves, the shoes do not magically walk over to their assigned boxes, and the sand toys do not find their way home to the sandbox of their own accord. We also want them to participate in household chores so that they recognize that running the home is about teamwork. The home is not merely a place for mindless consumption of others’ work, but rather a place where all members produce, contributing to the good of the household.

But at the same time, we must recognize that there will be more ironing, there will be more smudges on the windows, there will be more leaves in the yard, etc. Why should we constantly expect material affirmation for our efforts? What good does such attachment to the results of our work do for us spiritually? It is better, rather, that we embrace the fact of the ephemeral nature of the results of our work, becoming detached from the clean floors and folded laundry in a way that opens us to become better attached to that which is eternal, namely God.

Such detachment should not lead us to neglect the necessary tasks of running a household, but rather to keep them in perspective.  We sort through socks not so that they can stand enshrined in a drawer as a monument to our work, but rather, so that we can serve our family and offer that work to God. We scrub the slow cooker crock clean not so that we can display it to the world as a feat of our elbow grease, but so that we can earn treasure in heaven. In other words, the apparent futility of housework does not have to be futility; rather it can assist us, hastening us in our way to God.

Yes, it is understandably frustrating to see the newly-mopped floor covered in muddy footprints. We may get angry when a child pulls every shirt out of a full, well-organized drawer. But again, while we want children to be considerate of others’ efforts and we may lose time in having to redo tasks that we’ve just completed, the repetition of housework has great possibility as a mortification. We can almost hear God kindly but enthusiastically encouraging us, “Do it again!” the way that a child might ask us to read the same book over and over. And each time we “do it again” we can do it better, and by that, I do not mean simply perfecting our natural skills, but, more importantly, perfecting our supernatural skills. We can die to self each time we “do it again.” We can offer it as prayer each time we “do it again.” We can grow closer to God each time we “do it again.” We can build up treasure in heaven each time we “do it again.”

This work may seem menial and discouraging in the context of a busy household. But it is not so in God’s eyes. He invites us to “do it again” each day because He recognizes its potential for our good. If we also can humbly recognize that potential, we will “do it again,” better each time!

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