On the front lines of the Mommy Wars, blogger Erin Parsons has (very nicely) thrown down the gauntlet to the recently popular notion that the best mamas have messy homes.
“We hear it all the time: A messy house is a happy home. A dirty house equals kids who are loved. If it’s messy, there are memories. Clean equals a dull and boring homemaker. Each time I hear this, I get more frustrated than I was before.”
She goes on to discuss her own “neat freak” tendencies and how they fit into her life as a mother of two, but she wisely shies away from criticism of moms who don’t share her love of cleaning toilets or the smell of Pine-Sol. Parsons even goes out of her way to apologetically mention the times when her daughter spills Legos on the floor or sticks her hand in a cup of coffee, deflecting the inevitable comments from readers who’ll swear that she’s not a real live mom until she’s buried in filth and toddler toys.
For Catholic mamas, housekeeping carries religious significance, making it a subject prone to guilt and hostile judgment. Our Jewish brethren, bound by the Old Law, had all kinds of God-given regulations about cleanliness. The Proverbs 31 woman “looketh well to the ways of her household.” In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he tells them that “all things should be done decently and in order.” And every woman has had the proverb “cleanliness is next to Godliness” chucked at them a time or two. But on the other hand … the Proverbs 31 woman was praised for her hard work in the home’s business affairs, not her scrubbing abilities. Jesus rebuked those Jews who were overly concerned with outward appearances, comparing their hypocrisy to dishes that were washed only on the outside. And the infamous “cleanliness and Godliness” quote? Nowhere to be found in the Bible. It is commonly attributed to Methodism founder John Wesley, and has no foundation in Catholicism.
So how should a Catholic feel about the condition of her home? Where does good housekeeping factor in the plethora of obligations a Christian keeps in mind? I take as my personal ideal my saintly Grandma Edna, of blessed memory.
As a rural mother of ten, living below the poverty line in a small farmhouse filled with eight rowdy boys and two rowdy girls, housekeeping was not quite at the top of her list. Even after her kids grew up and moved away, the carpet was dingy with the tracks of work boots. Piles of country music magazines collected in the space between easy chairs. The refrigerator harbored questionable leftovers, and the bathroom smelled perpetually damp. Every closet and corner held a child’s yearbook, a piece of 1970s-era furniture, or an old wool blanket. Grandma E. didn’t neglect the home or its sanitation by any means, though. She spent regular time each day picking it up. She was just really busy with other parts of life: tending tomatoes, baking pies for a local restaurant, butchering chickens, berry-picking, quilting, raising babies, praying her Rosary, watching Cardinals baseball, doing a crossword puzzle, visiting a grandkid, putting up with difficult relatives, or recovering from another surgery. Her life was messy, beautiful, terrible, and filled with love and suffering but one thing it never, ever was–sterile.
Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between Erin and Edna, cleanliness and chaos, two kids and ten. We keep our homes out of squalor, but we don’t sweat the small stuff. We have been given domestic talents that range from keeping a sparkling home to baking the best pie to narrating a bedtime story like no other. But despite our differences, the Lord gives us all two mandates in common. He is calling us to life, which is the opposite of both sterility and filth. He is calling us to love, the enemy of both rash judgment and slovenly excuse.