"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Moral Ambiguity of Home-Making

(The curtains pictured above were completely and utterly unnecessary.)

When hearing that we were purchasing a house, one of my classmates said, "Welcome to the moral ambiguity of home-ownership." I admit, for someone who does moral theology, I hadn't really given much thought to the moral ambiguity of being of the "landed class," as another classmate called me. All I knew is that it was cheaper to buy than to rent, and I'd rather liquidate the savings by buying a house than by using it on rent. Let's be honest, there was quite a bit of moral ambiguity in our assets anyway.

But anyway, I've been thinking about home-making lately because, now that we do own a house, I've basically devoted the last week to trying to make that house a home. Thank God I had the help of my parents. Dad winterized the basement (yes, I realize it's still summer, but he won't be around when that draft is coming in through the basement door, he reasoned), helped me put together the Ikea furniture, and did all the dishes every day. Mom organized my pantry, hung pictures, lengthened pull cords so I can reach them, filled in a dangerous guardrail on the third floor, bought me a Costco memmbership, and, oh yes, she convinced our Verizon Internet installer to install a medicine cabinet in the bathroom while he was there with a power drill. Not to mention they accompanied me on numerous trips to Home Depot and often helped out with their credit card. By the time they left, the house was much more liveable. My parents are professional home-makers, I guess.

Awhile back, I mentioned in my 25 random things about me that when I moved from California to Ohio everything I owned fit in the trunk and half the backseat of my 03 Corolla. That is certainly NOT the case now. I think it all started with the wedding gifts... and was compounded by having children. But the fact is that, well, we own a lot of STUFF now. My dad even commented on it. Now, of course, we haven't purchased any of our furniture (with the exception of a couch to be delivered later this week- oh, and $200 of it was a gift). Everything of that nature has pretty much been a gift or an inheritance.

But here I am, making excuses, just as I did to my dad when he kept observing (several times a day) that we had so much stuff. I could, in fact, write a few paragraphs more of excuses and explanations, particularly for the new purchases I've been making, like the curtains pictured above. One of the nice things about this house is that it came with all window treatments included. It had recently been painted too, so there wasn't a lot of cosmetic work to do. The kitchen curtains were a red checked pattern, perfectly usable and perhaps even quaint. Our kitchen chairs, however, are kind of a teal or turquoise or blue-green, and when we started putting things on the decorative shelves and walls, those things were primarily shades of blue. The red check just didn't GO all that well. With the darker paining scheme, the kitchen needed something brighter, more cheerful...

So, with the help of several 20% coupons, I bought three sets of the ones pictured above. Of all the home-making purchases, these were certainly the least necessary. This was not like buying window caulking for the exposures in the basement. But, as I told myself at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I'll just feel so much better and happier in the kitchen if I have bright, cheerful curtains that match the kitchen chairs!

And I do. But what I wanted to get to is that I was recently reflecting on one of my friend's blog posts where she suggested that the problem with Protestant missionaries is that they are married and have a responsibility to feed and provide for a family. The liminal lifestyle of missionaries can lead to a "culpable neglect," of family as she calls it. I would add that there are different kinds and styles of mission work, and a lot of programs provide some sort of guaranteed stability. Granted, there may be no first-world immediate medical care, but other than that, the family is fed and educated etc.

So what I started thinking about was how we, or maybe I should just say, "I," can use family as an excuse to come up with "needs" for things like bright, cheerful, color-coordinating kitchen curtains. After I read my friend's post, I thought about how our lives would be different if Jeff hadn't gotten a job... (dream sequence here)... a few years ago, we entertained the idea of doing mission work if neither of us could get a job in academia. Of course we had concerns about raising our children in a foreign country, but, on the other hand, it seemed there were some benefits, too, like learning a foreign language, getting to know another culture, valuing family time, and having a slower, non-stressed pace of life more amenable to seeking out the higher things of life and meditating upon the final end. Chief among the benefits would also be NOT being in a place that was so indulgently materialistic. Of course, I know that it is possible to live counter-culturally in regard to worldly possessions. Many of the great saints did just that. But (and I say this having lived in Kenya for a couple of months and witnessing my brother's Peace Corps stint in Benin) it's just easier to live simply in a country where people live simply.

Despite what the past week would indicate, I am NOT a shopaholic. But my daughter is being formed in the habits of shopping. She knows the ropes, like how to sit in a cart, potential treats in each store, etc. Although we've gone apple-picking and she likes to eat off my basil plant, for Maia most food simply exists in stores in a sort of abstracted way. She recently started asking questions like where do grapes come from - a tree or a bush or something else? Mostly, however, food simply comes from a store. The same is true for things like curtains or a storage ottoman (our new toy box). It's just there, in the store, and, one swipe of plastic later, it's in the car. Who made it, what they made it from, and how they made it is not something Maia or I know.

It makes me uneasy. I think what matters about owning a house is how we use it - for hospitality, for providing a loving environment for our kids, and so on. But it also seems we could do these things with red checked curtains and Goodwill furniture. My utilitarian inner child informs me that I could have fed a family of five in Bangladesh for a month for the price of the curtains. Somewhere else I hear a reminder that those curtains, the storage ottoman, the couch etc. won't go with me when I die. But although I sort of regret the curtains, it's not enough regret for me to want to take them back. I guess that's the moral ambiguity of home-making.


Clara said...

Part of the background of my post on Protestant missionaries is that I have a handful of Protestant friends from my high school days and I am continually getting requests from them (mass-mailing request, of course) for "sponsorship." Perhaps it's uncharitable, but it bugs me. They're at an age where they're supposed to be settling down and starting a family (which some of them want to do, and some, though married, are delaying for this reason.) But instead they're trying to scare up funding from family and friends to go on mission trips. One particular friend has discussed this with me before, and seems to feel that it is actually better not to try to lay some kind of secure foundation for his family's future because "God will provide." Lilies of the field and all that. He also spurns the idea that he ought to provide his family with things like medical insurance, because people in developing countries don't have it. Both these attitudes seem wrong to me. God will provide, but as the father of a family (which he isn't yet, but he is married and hopes to have children in the near future) it's his responsibility to do his best to care for them, which doesn't seem to me to include relying on sporadic donations from family and friends even just to feed himself and his wife. And as for medical insurance, you can bet that people in developing countries would get it for their families if they could. If you have no dependents and you want to risk your own health in solidarity with the poor, all right. But risking your children's, when it was in your power all along to provide better for them, doesn't seem right.

Anyway, I don't think any of the people in question know about my blog, but I've learned that that's never a safe assumption, and so for obvious reasons I kept the post itself fairly abstract. But yes, there probably are some circumstances in which an organization could guarantee sufficient stability to make family missionary work an option. I just think that when we enter into family life, we have to realize that our ability to live a liminal kind of existence is necessarily limited. And we have to be prepared to make those sacrifices.

I have a few more remarks on curtains etc., but perhaps I'll break this into 2 comments. :)

Clara said...

Now, on the subject of materialism.

Certainly, our society often tends to be too much preoccupied with material things. Most often this manifests itself as a continual thirst for more stuff. But, though it's admittedly a less common problem, I think it's also best to guard against the kind of preoccupation with material things that leads one to continually fret about whether one has too many, and whether they could be cheaper or could be done without. The having or not having of material things is not, in the long run, terribly important, but our natural inclination is to fit roughly into the standards of our own society and time, and I don't think this is necessarily such a bad thing, as long as we try to, as I like to say, "wear it lightly." The least materialistic person is the one who is equally at ease in a richly ornate house or a mud hovel, not the one who is regularly preoccupied with weighing the necessity of material goods. They say that Mother Theresa had this quality, of moving between all different classes of people, always perfectly at ease and seeming not to be troubled at all by her material surroundings; she was perfectly happy to sleep on a cot on the floor, but also had no objection to a richly furnished chamber. Christopher Hitchens criticized her for what he regarded as hypocrisy, but I find this attitude inspiring.

Perhaps I am partly influenced here by a conviction I came to while living abroad, among families, in much poorer societies ("showing solidarity with the poor" as a certain set of people would like to say): poverty doesn't automatically translate into a distancing from materialism. Far from it. Poor people can be just as greedy and grasping as anyone else. But also, on a more positive note, they care just like richer people about things like looking respectable for social functions, keeping their houses pleasant and homey, and so forth. Often they may have to pursue less expensive ways of achieving those goals -- through barter, recycling fabric from older things to make their own curtains, etc etc. But they still care about such things, and pursue them using such means as are available to them. I think that's healthy.

It *is* better to live in an aesthetically pleasing environment, and the women I've known in poorer countries would probably be the first to say that this is a reasonable concern for a mother and wife. I for one *want* my family to live in a pleasant, comfortable environment; I think it's healthier and that it forms better sensibilities. And indeed, one of the things I appreciate about my own mother is that she was so skilled in making our home a bright, warm, attractive place to be. (Which, interestingly, I didn't consciously notice for much of my childhood, but I think I realize in retrospect how much this improved our lives even when we weren't thinking about it.) Now of course, we're not millionaires, and there is such a thing as getting overly obsessed about home decor. So I look for budget-conscious ways of improving our living space, for example by making cost-effective improvements with paint or curtains or house plants instead of with rare antique furniture or thousand-dollar ornate rugs. Conspicuous consumption, certainly, is a sign of vice. But to dismiss any non-utilitarian home improvements as "really unnecessary" seems to me a mistake; very few things in life are "strictly necessary" in the sense of being needed for physical survival or sine qua non requirements for salvation, and yet that doesn't mean that such goods as books, nature, music, good food, interesting hobbies, and so forth, are pointless or trivial concerns. The quality of one's home environment -- though certainly it *can* become an unhealthy obsession for some -- is also a legitimate interest.