What a Novel Taught Me about Housework

Years ago, when my third born was just a baby, I hated housework.

I was torn between wanting to be a good, competent homemaker and thinking that the state of my bedroom or the kitchen wasn’t a big deal. I could get meals on the table, keep things stocked, and complete a project just fine. But the day-in day-out routine tasks were a drag.

I’m not going to say that I love those routines now or that I totally rock them, because I don’t. But I am learning to love them.

And it all started back then, when my third born was just a baby, and I was reading novels.

I read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

In it, the heroine returns from her privileged uncle’s country home to her own family’s dingy home near the docks. The dishes are given a cursory wipe, but not actually cleaned. cough I do that with my cookie sheets and muffin tins. The bedrooms are a wreck because nobody cares about the state of things. Well, what’s wrong with that? Am I supposed to be annoyed by Fanny’s manners and fastidiousness or is she the barometer, telling me what should be the norm?

Unfortunately, it was both. So is she wrong or was I? Does the way we keep our home speak about our character?


Listen to this post!

What Novels Taught Me about Cleaning House


Synchronicity abounded – Providentially – during this part of my life and as I asked the question I came across this Elisabeth Elliot quote in Let Me Be a Woman:

The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on, all speak loudly about what you believe. The beauty of thy peace shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.

At that time I was also reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

In true Dickens’ fashion, character after character paraded before me, each a complete portrait of a particular sort of person. Each knew character, each new scene, relentlessly included the way the living quarters were kept. And, to top it all off, the virtue and worthiness of the main character was epitomized in her keeping of the household keys – that is, by how competently she performed the household chores.

Which character was I most like? Is it how I feel I am deep down inside that decides which character I am or is it what I actually do and how I actually live?

I love Doug Wilson’s quip that “Your theology comes out your fingertips; and what comes out your fingertips is your theology.” We might be able to make right statements about what is true and good and beautiful, but what we do is evidence of what we actually believe.

And that is true in homemaking, too.

Convicted by these novels and all the threads that came together, two things helped me learn to love what must be done.

First, I changed my attitude.

I had to accept that my grumbling bad attitude about housework was wrong, that it was sin to repent of because the work I was grumbling about was the work God had given me to do.

I had to stop myself from smack-talking repetitious work. Like Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project:

I had to accept the fact that some nagging tasks would never be crossed off my list. I would have to do them every day for the rest of my life.

Instead of calling that depressing, I had to call it stewardship, a blessing – I had to rejoice in the repetition, not merely bear it.

Second, I practiced.

If these routine tasks are ones I needed to improve in, then it was actually helpful how repetitive they were – the more opportunity to practice!

The only way to get better at something is to do it over and over and over again, and these tasks inherently required me to do them over and over again.

So instead of seeing the repetition as a drag, I chose to see it as an opportunity. I could definitely improve, because I was definitely going to be practicing.

I still have a hard time seeing and knowing personally that repetition is not weariness and a Sisyphean frustration, but I do believe that I am missing something — most likely practice! — and I trust that it will come to me if I continue on the path.

And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.

11 Responses

  1. Nelleke Plouffe
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    I’ve just been going through a productivity challenge (at Tim Challies’ blog) and thinking about my “mission statement” in each area of responsibility in my life. The home management part of it was really stumping me, and I came up with something like “I will work towards making housework as streamlined as possible so I can focus on more important things like homeschooling.” (…a goal that I am very far from achieving, by the way.) And then I read this. I am aware that my statement came out of a feeling of frustration, a “bad attitude,” if you will. I have four boys aged seven and under, and I am constantly defeated by the housework. My hope is that eventually –not this year, or next year, but maybe in five years– I may get to a place where my housekeeping is on autopilot, humming in the background without the need for so much focused attention. (A cleaning lady may be part of this pipe dream, too…) Is this wrong? I was just thinking about the apostles, who delegated the “serving tables” so they could focus on the ministry of the word. Homeschooling moms have a lot of callings. It seems like it’s impossible to do them all well, and I feel the need to choose which ones I will focus on. I feel that housekeeping is keeping me from the more important ones, and I want to make it as minimal a part of my life as I can. At the same time, I know housework is something God has called me to because I have a house and a family and no budget for a cleaning lady. :) I guess I’m where you were before you had a change of heart towards housework.
    I’m just wondering. How do you do it all? Do you have a hierarchy in the things God has called you to do? Are there some that are more important than others? Do you pay less attention to some callings for a season so you can focus on others?

    • Wendy
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      In five years, you’ll have a twelve year old who can cook and do the laundry, and his little brothers will be washing dishes, mopping floors, tidying the living room, and picking beans in the garden (or whatever your major tasks are…those are the ones I’m training my kids–13, 9, 7, and 3– to do). And then, in twenty or thirty years, you’ll have a group of thankful daughters-in-law! :) You are at the most difficult time right now with all the littles. I’m just starting to get my head above water but I can’t tell you how much it helps to have a 13yo who handles the laundry, a 9yo who is in charge of the dishwasher, a 7yo who cares for the chickens, and even a 3yo who is learning to pick up and put away toys, and everyone being in the habit of carrying in a few loads of firewood every day. It may help you to visualize your family in five years and think about what they could be helping you with (and what important life skills they could be learning at the same time!). Blessings to you!

    • Mystie Winckler
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      Oh, Nelleke, yes, you are in the most intensive and downing-feeling stage right now and it will clear up as kids get older and help out more and as you put in these years and go through the maturing process that they give us. What you said is exactly what I struggled with during that same stage. I think the wrestling is an important part of the journey.

      Here are some of the other things I’ve written along these lines:

      http://www.simplyconvivial.com/2015/why-clean-house
      http://www.simplyconvivial.com/2014/happy-household-help-be-a-homemaker
      http://www.simplifiedorganization.com/2015/what-making-my-bed-taught-be-about-goals/
      http://www.simplyconvivial.com/2014/gtd-isnt-giad-getting-it-all-done

  2. Brandy Vencel
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    I love this, Mystie. ♥

  3. kimberly
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    And we should never aspire to be Mrs. Jellyby. ;)

    • Mystie Winckler
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      That’s exactly what I was thinking as I wrote that paragraph! lol

  4. Beth
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    Please sign me up for the weekly email. Thanks !

  5. Jennifer
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    Thank you for this post. It is so helpful!!

  6. […] started back then, when my third born was just a baby, and I was reading novels. Continue reading What A Novel Taught Me About Housework at Simply […]

  7. Sarah
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    Thanks for sharing this viewpoint. I enjoyed reading it.

  8. Lily
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    You are quotable, Mystie. You are encouraging and you are wise beyond your years.