More Than Clean Windows: The Unrecognized Value of Housework

When our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they were told that their present state would end. Henceforth Adam would labor to bring forth the fruit of the field, and Eve would labor to bring forth children. Most of us would agree that the Lord’s words to Adam—“Cursed shall be the ground for thy sake”—were actually a benediction, for work can be a blessing. But do we feel the same about housework—is it also a blessing? If so, is it a blessing for women only?

Anthropologist Dorothy Lee described an experience that changed her perception of housework:

“It was Christmas Eve; … I was exhausted after a day of housework, of coping with two small children, of Christmas preparations; but I had to finish making bedding for a doll crib, and I was working against time, wishing I were in bed.

“I had been living a life of conflict since my marriage, since I had felt that I owed it to my profession to continue my work in anthropology. This meant that I had to organize my life so that my housewifely duties did not encroach unduly on my professional work; and I had to justify everything that I did as a housewife, as something imposed by the exigencies of my budget or by my role as wife and mother. In this way, I did not have to feel guilty toward my profession. The doll blanket I was making that night was amply justified; it would give happiness to my three-year-old daughter, and it had been necessary for me to take the time to make crib and bedding, for I could not afford to buy them.

“As I sewed this Christmas Eve, I was suddenly astonished to discover that I had started to add an entirely unpremeditated and unnecessary edging of embroidery; and, simultaneously, I was aware of a deep enjoyment in what I was doing. It was a feeling that had nothing to do with the pleasure the work would give to my daughter on the morrow; it had nothing to do with a sense of achievement, or of virtue in duty accomplished. And I knew that I had never liked to embroider. There was no justification for my work; yet it was the source of such a deep satisfaction, that the late hour and my fatigue had ceased to exist for me.

“At this moment of discovery, I knew that I was experiencing what it meant to be a social being, not merely Dorothy Lee, an individual; I knew that I had truly become a mother, a wife, a neighbor, a teacher. I realized that some boundary had disappeared, so that I was working in a social medium; that I was not working for the future pleasure of a distant daughter, but rather within a relationship unaffected by temporality or physical absence. What gave meaning to my work was the medium in which I was working—the medium of love, in a broad sense. So far, my rationalization and justification of my work had obscured this meaning, had cut me off from my own social context. It suddenly became clear to me that it did not matter whether I was scrubbing the kitchen floor or darning stockings or zipping up snowsuits; these all had meaning, not in themselves, but in terms of the situation of which they were a part.” (Freedom and Culture, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1959, pp. 27–38.)

All of us recognize that a certain amount of housework needs to be done to provide for the physical care of house and family, but doing housework is something most of us—women, as well as men and children—would often gladly delegate to someone else. We commonly complain that housework is sheer drudgery, that it is unnoticed unless it is left undone. Moreover, housework is widely considered a low-status occupation.

Why is housework held in such low esteem today? A closer look at some of the changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution can help us understand why.

Before the industrial revolution, the home was the center of production essential to family and community survival. All family members contributed: men ground grain and chopped wood; children hauled water and entertained younger children; women cooked bread and soup. Often a maiden aunt helped with the care of young children and hired aid helped with other housework. On occasion neighbors and relatives would join together to make quilts or harvest crops. So household work provided social interaction, at the same time providing for family needs.

As society industrialized, machines took over most of this work: it was no longer necessary to grind flour or haul water, so men and the hired help went to work in factories, and children went to school. But meals still needed to be cooked, and the wife was left to do the household work alone.

The economic value of household work also changed. Before industrialization, goods produced in the household were not only used by the family, but were also exchanged for other goods and services. You could trade your surplus eggs for cloth at the dry goods store. When society industrialized, the production of goods and services with exchange value moved out of the home into the factory and marketplace. The home continued producing goods and services, of course, but only for the direct consumption of the family. So household production still had use value—it was necessary for the well-being of the family; but it no longer had exchange value—you could not use it to buy cars or televisions.

Today we determine the worth of work by its exchange value, or what it will bring in the marketplace. Since work in the home has only use value, it remains outside the market economy. Its value has become invisible, and it is thus seen as valueless.

Of course, we can compute the dollar value of housework simply by figuring how much it would cost the family to hire someone to do the work or to purchase similar services in the marketplace. Judging the worth of housework by its market equivalent yields a very low estimation, however. When we compare what a person might earn as a housekeeper or nursemaid with what he or she might earn in a more prestigious job in the marketplace, the job of doing housework fares quite poorly.

Focusing on the dollar value of housework alone has led many to assume that the goods and services purchased in the marketplace are adequate substitutes for the work done in the home. But are they? Does ice cream purchased in the store have the same meaning for a family as ice cream churned at home? Does it make a difference if a nursemaid, rather than a father, washes a child’s face?

Reducing the value of housework to its market equivalents focuses our attention on the products of our labor—the washed dish, the vacuumed house, the bathed child. But these products are secondary. The more important value of these tasks lies in the social situations in which they take place.

When home economists began to study household work during the early twentieth century, Thomas N. Carver cautioned them against emphasizing household efficiency at the expense of more human-oriented values. He told of an efficiency expert who, watching a father amusing his child by tossing her up in his arms, calculated that a machine could toss the child twice as high with less expenditure of energy. “The only reason why we should want to economize energy,” observed Carver, “is in order to have more energy left for some other purpose which we consider more important.” (“Home Economics from a Man’s Point of View,” Journal of Home Economics, Oct. 1913, pp. 291–300.)

In this regard, Dorothy Lee cautioned against too readily substituting technology for home-produced goods without considering the consequences for family relationships or human development. She illustrated her concern with the following example:

“When my first child was two or three, I used to shell peas with her. Nowadays I buy my peas already shelled and packaged. This saves me time; the peas are probably even fresher than they were when I used to shell them; and I get good and efficient nutrition. But was this all that happened when I shelled peas with my daughter? Did I merely get a dish of peas? If so, the package of frozen peas is more than an adequate replacement. Yet it was more than this. It was a total process; and if I am going to see to it that the totality of the important aspects of it are retained, I shall have to find out what these were and then find media through which they can continue to be expressed.” (Freedom and Culture, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, pp. 29–30.)

Of course, these scholars are not arguing against every labor- or time-saving device that lessens the burden of housework. But they do suggest that seemingly mundane tasks can provide an important setting for family interaction, as well as for the nurturing and teaching of children.

President Kimball has captured the essence of this idea:

“Who can gauge the value of that special chat between daughter and Dad as they weed or water the garden? … And how do we measure the family togetherness and cooperating that must accompany successful canning? Yes, we are laying up resources in store, but perhaps the greater good is contained in the lessons of life we learn.” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 78; italics added.)

President Kimball has also suggested that the process of working to maintain our homes and provide for our temporal needs can also help us put the gospel into action in our lives.

“Even if the tomato you eat is a $2.00 tomato, it will bring satisfaction anyway and remind us all of the law of the harvest, which is relentless in life. … Even if the plot of soil you cultivate, plant, and harvest is a small one, it brings human nature closer to nature as was the case in the beginning with our first parents.” (Ensign, May 1978, pp. 77–78.)

Through the simple, homely tasks required to maintain our households, we can develop such qualities as love, unselfishness, and cooperation—traits President Kimball has identified as essential to our becoming a people capable of building Zion. (See Ensign, March 1985, pp. 2–5.)

Clearly, then, much more is at stake in the doing of housework than maintaining the physical well-being of the family. For my dissertation in home management, I observed several families in their own homes, with an eye to how they interacted as they did housework.

The Thelins are a young family, with seven children whose ages range from five months to ten years. The three oldest children help prepare for and clean up after meals and also help with housecleaning. The three younger boys help with small tasks, such as running errands and helping set and clear the table.

Brother Thelin recalls overhearing Tiffany and Tricia, ages seven and nine, who had just finished cleaning the kitchen range. “Didn’t we do a good job! Mom will really be proud.” When Mom was indeed pleased, the feeling of a job well done was reinforced and helped them feel competent and worthwhile. Housework can give children an opportunity to complete something successfully every day.

Both Brother and Sister Thelin work along with their children. This provides opportunities for valuable family interaction. I watched Sister Thelin and seven-year-old Tricia stand side by side at the sink, washing and rinsing dishes. With one hand in the dishwater and the other around her daughter’s shoulder, Sister Thelin pulled Tricia close, singing, “To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you.”

Obviously, the emotional bond between parent and child brings significance to such interactions. Brother Thelin notes that at bedtime, the drink of water itself often means less to the child than the person who brings it. “If it is the wrong person,” he laughs, “the child will protest, ‘No, I want Mommy to bring it,’ or ‘I want Daddy to hear my prayers.’” And I believe the parents benefit as much from being needed by their children as children do from having their parents love and appreciate them.

Of course, participation in housework can trigger conflicts. But this is not necessarily harmful. Conflicts are a part of life, and parents and children alike can learn how to deal with conflicts in the world as they learn to deal with them in the home. What is fair? Why must I give up my time so someone else can do something they want? Why do I have to do something I don’t like?

Household tasks also provide opportunities to teach children problem-solving skills. One sunny afternoon I watched Sister Budge prepare lunch for her children. “What would you like, Timmy,” she asked, “peanut butter and honey?”

“Candy,” responded two-year-old Timmy.

Mother and son briefly discussed why candy was not an option. When nine-year-old Michael requested grilled cheese sandwiches, Sister Budge checked the refrigerator. “We don’t have enough cheese,” she said. “How about grilled tuna?”

“Can we cook it outside on the grill?” asked Michael. And so went the dialogue.

Child development educator Elizabeth Prescott notes that this kind of problem solving, typical in a housework context, “requires inductive logic which must bring a wide variety of ideas together.” By contrast, dialogues over lunch in day-care centers often require an understanding of abstract categories: “What are these?” “These are peas.” “Are peas a vegetable?” “What color are peas?” This type of thinking is useful in preparing children to do well in school, but “it does not require wide ranging problem solving or sensitivity to the needs of human systems.” She suggests that parents whose children are in professional child-care situations may want to be sure their children experience a variety of problem-solving situations. (“Is Day Care as Good as a Good Home?” Young Children, Jan. 1978, pp. 13–19.)

Many household tasks require minimal mental effort, so family members can concentrate on the interaction at the same time they are doing the work. Such interaction can range from singing together to helping children work through problems unrelated to the task at hand. After ten-year-old Jason’s parents asked him to decline an invitation from one of his friends, a girl, to spend the night at her house, a discussion of standards for boy-girl relationships was threaded through work activities for several days. Household tasks bring parent and child together regularly, and hold them together long enough to allow parent and child to work through problems.

Why not save such problem solving for formal parent-child interviews? A young woman in one of my classes, the daughter of a very busy General Authority, told me of going home one weekend and helping her mother with the housecleaning. Her father arrived home, picked up the dustcloth, and helped her clean the living room. As they worked, they talked of her activities at school. There is warmth in that picture, a feeling quite different from that communicated by a formal interview.

A father related an experience where he discovered the integrative potential of doing housework together. Brother Ivan Beutler regularly helps with weekend housecleaning. He and the children had typically done their assigned tasks alone, since that had proven to be the most efficient way to get the work done. One Saturday he proposed to his thirteen-year-old son, Anthony, that they do their chores together. Anthony could easily see that meant doing twice as many jobs and objected to the idea; but agreed to give it a chance. As they worked Brother Beutler remembered other tasks that needed doing; the work list grew and so did Anthony’s frustration. All in all, their working together was not a satisfying experience.

The next week Brother Beutler asked Anthony to try working together again. This time he promised to not add in any extras. As they worked, Brother Beutler asked Anthony about his friends and his experiences in a new school. Brother Beutler thought he knew his son well, but was amazed at what he began to learn as they worked and talked together. Later that evening, Anthony thanked his dad for “one of the best days I’ve had.”

Many parents have reported reaching a level of intimacy in such settings that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under more formal conditions. Children sense their contribution to family goals is needed and appreciated. Working together at humble tasks can dissolve barriers between parents and children and bring greater feelings of unity. I believe it is significant that the Savior chose a task as humble as washing feet to teach his disciples what they must do if they were to become one with him. (See John 13:5–16.)

What happens when parents offer money to get their children to help with housework? Unfortunately, the money often becomes the reason for doing the work, and the effect is not unifying. Nephi noted a similar principle when he described what we would need to learn in order to become a Zion people. He taught that we must learn to work not to get gain and praise of the world, but for the welfare of Zion. “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish.” (2 Ne. 26:31.) Children can learn to work for the welfare of the family as a whole, and in the process the family can become more unified.

Because we are accustomed to valuing work according to its economic benefits, learning to see housework as an important means to becoming a unified family may require a considerable change in our thinking. It will mean learning to see beyond the economic value of work to the value of the work processes. For housework is more than clean windows. It is a labor of love.

Let’s Talk about It

When you have finished reading “More Than Clean Windows,” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss the following questions and ideas.

1. Discuss the ways that work—even mundane work—can be a blessing in our lives.

2. Housework was once seen as an essential and important task for the well-being of the family and society. Today, many see it only as drudgery. What has caused that change in perspective? What values does housework have beyond the “marketplace” value often imposed on it?

3. Interaction between parents and children is an important element of housework. How do you and your children feel about working around the house? What can you do to improve the quality of your interactions as you work? How can you use house or yard work to teach your children discipline, responsibility, and other skills important to success in life?

[photos] Photography by Michael M. McConkie, styling by Craig Soffe

[photo] Shelling peas with a child may not be the most time-efficient method of getting a bowl of peas. But such a task can provide an important setting for family interaction, as well as for nurturing and teaching.

Kathleen Slaugh, an assistant professor of Family Sciences at Brigham Young University, serves as Relief Society president in her Provo, Utah, ward.