…but they are differently applied. Expecting the lifestyle of a suburban Christian family of 2017 to look like the lifestyle of a family who lived in 1900 -or even 1950- is an invitation to all kinds of battiness and heading off the rails.
I’ve considering several different takes on the subject of the Proverbs 31 wife and how she translates in our current era. Depending on where you look and what you listen to you, can find countless books, commentaries, and discussions on the topic. For example, here and here.
Many debates, in my opinion, miss the point of the “ideal woman” vignette and it’s too bad, because there is a lot to be learned from it, and most of that has little to do with the practical matter of how one keeps house. That matters, but too much criticism and too little thought are given to the strains of postmodern homemaking because a lot of the physical demands have been mitigated by modern technology.
Life today offers many opportunities for leisure and with that the attendant mischiefs. I often think about Maslow’s hierarchy and how perfectly his pyramid applies to postmodern life.
In the absence of a need to focus on survival, we fall prey to distractions, some of which seem good, but are their own form of mischief. One of the ways this manifests is in our insistence that the solution to today’s problems is to live life exactly the way it was lived when the struggle for survival occupied the majority of people’s time and thoughts. And so wives are advised:
- We should sew our clothing even though it’s often far less expensive to buy comparable clothing ready to wear.
- We should grow large portions of our food even if we live in areas or climates which again, can make this difficult and expensive compared to buying produce.
- We should eat the cheapest food available to save money even though we know that many of those processed foods are not nutritious or good for our long-term health.
- We should have one car while having many children despite living in areas where public transportation is inconvenient to nonexistent.
- We should spend all our time at home, with little contact or support from other believers. Even though this is not how families and mothers lived 100 years ago when multi-generational and woman to woman support was a significant part of family life.
This is far from an exhaustive list, but as I contemplated it I remembered something written a few years ago by a prolific blogging friend of mine, and she pretty well captured a lot of the inherent problems with trying to pretend that we can live a simplistic, 19th-century lifestyle in the context of the isolated, atomized 21st century with its complicated economy, proliferations of choice, and higher expectations and standards which most all of us embrace:
We are incredibly mobile now, and getting my children in and out of the car is so stressful that we need 30 minutes head-start in order to get everyone buckled in without a meltdown. There is one day in the week where we undergo that particular torture 4 times, and by the end of the day, I’m exhausted even though I haven’t really done anything. I’m increasingly purchasing with local businesses, many of whom will deliver for a small fee, in order to spare myself a bit of that pain.
Visiting friends and relatives is equally grueling, as everyone lives at least 15 minutes drive away. We visit grandma at least once per week, and it’s a 1.5-hour drive in each direction, longer if there’s traffic. And there’s usually traffic. In my MIL’s homemaking days, everyone lived in the same neighborhood and visiting her sister entailed walking two blocks down the street. She was also never in the position of caring for her children while nursing a fever, or alternating making them snacks and vomiting up her own lunch.
I’m lucky that my husband supports me letting the children play outside, and that our house is small and sparse enough that cleaning it is short work, but other women aren’t so lucky. I know women who clean four bathrooms twice a week, as opposed to my 1.5 baths, and cleaning the floors takes them hours and involves lugging a vacuum cleaner up and down stairs to clean their wall-to-wall carpeting. The truth is, anyone who had a house larger than mine “back in the day” also had a cleaning lady or shared the house with other women who could help her.
Yes, you have a washing machine in your basement, but you used to only have three changes of clothes per person, and many had their laundry washed for them. I know this for certain, as my aunt’s family used to run a laundry service and she swears that her family washed the laundry for the entire urban neighborhood. Women bought washing machines, which killed the washerwoman business, but then everyone’s wardrobes grew exponentially.
For all of the talk of “pioneer women”, they were a small minority of women and tended to all be dead before they hit 50. Most women 100 years ago were doing a similar level of housework and homeschooling as I am, but they didn’t have to take on the additional chauffeuring duties, they weren’t as isolated, and they weren’t expected to look like a lingerie model and turn tricks in the bedroom that would put some prostitutes to shame. The workdays were also shorter before cheap electric lighting and most people got more sleep.
So spare me the rewriting of the past. Spare me the rewriting of the present, as well. Far from the “Desperate Housewives” meme, the majority of homemakers are in the lower and working classes. The equation has flipped precisely on its head: the middle-class homemakers are now middle-class workers and the lower-class workers are now lower-class homemakers. And the latter are increasingly male.
I’m not complaining, as I enjoy my life, just pointing out the obvious: then and now aren’t really comparable.
Am I saying that the Proverbs 31 ideal woman is irrelevant or obsolete? Absolutely not! She is more relevant that ever, in context. One of the first areas of the passage that I focused on when I stopped running from it several years ago was this:
The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
This alone encompasses a lot, and when I focused on this with my whole heart, a lot of things came into clear focus and instantly fell into place. Along with that, every single item on my bullet list above? It became unnecessary or at least pared down significantly.
Most of my days are quite full, although without very young children underfoot, I certainly get more breaks than a mother of many littles. The priorities of my days are the priorities which will keep me in line with the verses I highlighted above, and my husband is very much a postmodern American man. Take that as you wish, but coupled with faith, this means a combination of modern things executed in the spirit of eternal truth. Mostly it means lots of editing: of memos and emails, or other stage management type deals. Also, lots of cooking. The proliferation of food choice has certainly infected this family.
So, while there is a small garden, a bit of sewing, and even homemade bread from time to time, for me Proverbs 31 means that at the end of my child-rearing years, I will prayerfully be able to look back over the decades and see where I struck all the ideal woman notes. I cannot get it all done today. Trying to do so would illustrate a stunning lack of regard for the priorities of the man whose heart’s trust I am trying to maintain and the ultimate goal of a life which represents a woman who fears the Lord.