Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Domestic Bliss

The winter sun shines warmly on the long, polished pine dining table before me, interrupted only by the brief flickering shadows of chickadees and titmice alternately feasting and bickering at the feeder outside the window. At one end of the table my four younger children, ages four, six, eight and nine, attend quietly to various school work. Well, mostly quietly; if I remind them often. Blue and Royal are building math equations with plastic blocks designed for the purpose (we use Math-U-See curriculum), Little is copying letters and numbers in her lined primary pad, Justin has laid aside his coloring book and Tupperware box of old crayons and is now familiarizing himself with the math blocks by building walls and what he tells me are spaceships with forcefields. The older children have received their assignments for the week and are upstairs working on their daily portions of math, reading and writing. 

Little making apple pie
At my end of the table are a couple of bread pans, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, and a mound of bread dough which I’ve begun shaping into loaves. After years of baking bread for my family, I know that the smooth and soft elasticity of the dough means I combined the right measure of ingredients and kneaded it for a good length of time. It will rise well and yield tasty loaves, light and easy to slice without crumbling. I love the feel of it in my hands. I love oiling the pans, rolling the dough out, pinching and tucking, placing it in the pans, covering it with an old flour sack towel, and placing it somewhere warm to rise. Today it rises near the wood stove. Which reminds me…

I peek in the stove and see a bed of coals needing attention. I pull the damper on the stove, open the door, rake the coals over with a tool my dad made out of steel re-bar for just such a purpose when I was a young little thing and he and mom burned wood to keep our family warm during long, cold Vermont winters. The firewood is nearby, but the pile is running low. I make a mental note to have the children bring in wood after lunch. The floor is due for a sweeping, so the timing is good. I select a few smaller pieces of seasoned oak and arrange them on the coals in such a way to allow the air to flow around them. I’ll add more once they get going well. Pulling my iPod out of my pocket I set a timer for ten minutes. It wouldn’t be the first time I started the fire up only to forget about it and let it go nearly cold. Setting the timer reminds me I didn’t set one for the bread, so I pop into the kitchen and set the timer on the microwave for an hour.

As I clean up my bread-making mess I check on the wee ones. Royal has done a fine job, but needs help reading a couple of words on his last problem. We finish up, he dates his page then runs off to my office to put it with the other completed schoolwork. As for Blue, her sixes and most of her twos are backwards again, and her 21 should be a 12, but she’s managing her dyslexia better than she did when she first began writing. I gently and matter-of-factly point out her errors and she corrects them without complaint or discourage. For the millionth time, I experience a warm ache in my chest. I am so glad that this brilliant, artistic and tender girl is able to learn at home instead of lost in a crowd and teased mercilessly at public school just because written symbols dance around unpredictably on her. She’s learned to read, albeit with more work and over a longer time than her siblings, and she enjoys it. She loves to write and make up stories, too, illustrated with the most imaginative and colorful creatures. It’s a pleasure to work with her.

And so the day goes. Beautiful moments that make up the good stuff of this brief life. Warm sunshine highlighting the cold, bare trees outside the windows, complimenting the cozy fire inside. Bright, lovable children going about their schoolwork and play. The whole family gathered for a simple lunch of cheese, crackers, pickles and fruit, then back to our various activities. Some of the kids bundle up in their worn, torn and mismatched winter gear and head outside. After bringing in firewood they visit the frozen creek to enjoy its wonders. Those whose assigned day it is to wash dishes get started after I add some hot water to the sink from the pot on the wood stove. I turn on some music, do some preliminary prep on dinner, and water the houseplants while the bread bakes. When I water the plants in the back rooms Denny pauses his design work and gives me a sweet smile and a kiss.

Domestic: adjective      of or relating to the running of a home or to family relations.
      (of a person) fond of family life and running a home

Bliss: noun      perfect happiness; great joy. 

I can’t remember ever being unsatisfied with my role as a homemaker. Frustrated sometimes? You bet. It can be overwhelming, yeah, and demanding, but I have never desired another occupation. In my late teens I held a very pleasant and suitable-to-me job on a landscape crew at a local golf course. That lasted about a year and a half before I had to quit due to my unplanned pregnancy. My boyfriend and I moved into a 5th-wheel camper in my parents’ yard, renting for $100 a month. I stayed home, cooked, cleaned, crafted, managed the finances, and planned while he worked construction five days a week. We married and, with the help of a midwife, we welcomed our firstborn in those cramped quarters. Shortly before my twentieth birthday we put a down-payment on our first house; very small, but roomy after seven months in a camper.

Soon we were welcoming another child. And another. I had plenty to do at home. If my husband and I ever talked about whether I would stay home and raise our children, I don’t remember it. He wasn’t the communicative type. In the last years of our marriage I think he resented me staying home. He seemed jealous of my freedom to manage my own time and enjoy the children, but he didn’t see half of what I did around the house and his own time at home was spent much differently. A sad and classic story, I’m afraid.

When I was growing up my mom had mostly stayed at home and seemed to find much satisfaction in it, and Dad, a carpenter by trade, seemed to appreciate what she did there, so I guess I just assumed that since I’d started a family, I’d stay home and manage things the way Mom did. 

I’d gotten a head start, but soon my friends were settling down and having children too. They weren’t all enjoying it as much as I was. “I’m stuck in Baby Jail,” one friend was fond of saying. “I’d love to go back to work and feel like I’m contributing. I miss it.” Interestingly, she'd spent two or three years working in a nursing home taking care of the elderly before coming home to start a family, caring for equally unappreciative droolers in diapers. I reckon the difference was that at “work” she earned a paycheck, had time off, worked alongside other adults, and was patted on the back often because she was truly good at what she did. It can be a little daunting, being alone with babies and toddlers all day, with no end in sight, especially if no one appreciates what you do.

I understand more of this now that I’m older. Not everyone is cut out for parenting and homemaking or enjoys the same rewards for their efforts. For the most part, that’s okay. Most families manage. There are extremes, however, and I feel more strongly than ever that people who don’t enjoy or find some satisfaction in raising children shouldn’t be bringing children into this world, but that’s a rant for another day.

I don’t know whether anyone in particular appreciated or cared at all about what I did—if my husband did he never expressed it and to expect children to is a burden I don’t believe they should bear—but I felt good about it. What I did and what I continue to do at home satisfies me.

Investing in my children with time, kindness, patience, firmness when needed, and thoughtfulness has resulted in a house full of interesting people whom I enjoy tremendously. Is it easy? Nope. I’ve shed more than a few tears, wondering if I was doing the right things, occasionally cracking under the constant demand. Let’s face it, some days are just demanding and we’re not always up to the tasks, are we?  But I pull myself together and put the children first. As the days go by and I watch these amazing individuals grow, I know I’ve done something right, something worthwhile. Maybe it has something to do with my belief that relationships are the most significant factor in enjoying a full, rich life. This is a huge part of my domestic bliss. Deeper, secure, fulfilling relationships for all of us is one of the reasons I am raising my own children instead of sending them away five days a week.

My home isn’t always clean. I like to clean, I just don’t do a lot of it because there are other things I enjoy more. I like things tidy, but I’m not fussy. Dust doesn't bother me. With seven children and various pets there’s little in the way of home furnishings that don’t take something of a beating, and there’s a constant barrage of clutter that must be dealt with, but generally it’s cozy and inviting, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and so forth. No one who steps foot in the door questions which we love more, each other or the material things, and if you’ve ever been in such a home there’s something lovely about it. There’s usually good food on our table and the place buzzes with life and vivacity. There are interesting things going on everywhere, always a project or two in progress; the natural outflow of nine creative people who love each other, love life, and love being at home.

In the past year I’ve experienced an occasional spell of frustration, realizing how much of my life I’ve lived in a bubble, shutting out the sinful world, ignorant of world affairs, of societal issues, ignorant of my part, just focused on the goings-on within my four walls and engaging with a few families besides, leaving the world in God’s hands and washing my own of such responsibilities. I studied the Bible and prayed instead. Granted, I had my hands full with a bunch of young 'uns, trying to make meager ends meet. But I have moments of regret, hating how caught up I was in my own things and knowing I missed out on a decade and a half of learning, understanding, being involved. I’m ashamed of my ignorance, but I’m learning to deal with it. And slowly to remedy it.

When I’m having one of those days I try to focus on accomplishments that I'm proud of. I think about domesticity. I realize I’m good at it. Damned good. I can turn out delicious, nutritious food three times a day, balance my bank account, juggle bills, wash clothes, milk goats, build fences, garden, build shelves, make soap, sew up a storm, teach children these things as well as to read, write and do arithmetic, while fine-tuning their attitudes, having a good laugh, and so on... and it’s all in a day’s work. Fifteen years of this; I do it well, I enjoy it, it gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. It takes the sting off that feeling that I wasted my life on God when I could have been doing something meaningful.

Yeah, I guess what I’m saying is that when I get down about my religious past, I fold laundry, bake bread, tend plants, teach my children about evolution, and remember not to regret the past because I love who I am today. And tomorrow's possibilities are limitless.


  1. I think about it quite a bit. I still get frustrated and lonely. I've mostly managed to become an optimist about being at home. I like home.
    Part of my problems staying home went with being as Christian as I ever managed to be. I very strongly put aside everything I enjoyed. I felt guilty if I heard a 90's song on the radio that I enjoyed. I thought art was a waste of time better spent sweeping and scrubbing. I fell into pressures in NY to be a better home school mom and get a "real curriculum" I can't tell you what a huge mistake that was! A good math curriculum sure, but a curriculum like A Beka that shoves perfection at you biblically in ever page? No thanks! I couldn't teach Greek mythology (which I adore!) And even the hobbit or the Lion the witch and the wardrobe was questionable. I felt so imperfect. God forbid I read or watch Interview with the vampire! I struggled with the rules I

  2. Good stuff, my friend. I mean, bad stuff, but yeah, good observations. There's a lot of pressure and shame within religion, and even more within religious communities. I felt the same way, believe it or not. Thinking back, I think I just embraced it and turned it on others; you, for instance. We called it "accountability," didn't we? But it was just a way of shaming others and making ourselves feel better. I guess I had a natural bent toward domesticity, so it wasn't something I struggled with and it's still something I enjoy today, but the other things... Well, I also have a bent toward legalism. Black & whites. It was easier to shut some things out because of my children--so determined was I to raise them purely--but some things I had to work mighty hard at stifling, inflicting shame upon myself for my carnal desires (you know, like listening to 90's alternative music ). Also, I recognize now how much I used it to try to control my husband because I was so afraid of who he was, drinking and drugs and sleeping around... I didn't even want a single song in our house that reminded him of his "old life." But anyway, yes, I could write another three books, I think, about how free I feel on this side of things. All the time I'm discovering things about myself I'd buried. My taste in music, for instance. Or the fact that I LIKE my hair short. I would have said I liked it long--I really believed I did--but in hindsight, in my religious culture long hair was the thing; long hair was a "glory to a woman." In my new life, I prefer it short because it's fun and flirty. Same with clothing. I didn't know I was in such a constraining mold... It's marvelous to be free to really explore who I WANT to be instead of who I think I SHOULD be. I think that was the kick-off for this post, really... realizing that I enjoy domesticity, that it's not one of those "christian" things that I made myself do. And I'm also free of the need to help shape other women into that mold.

    Cheers to you, as you explore who you are!


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