The Thinking 

Intellectual Excellence for the Housewife

December 12, 2012


Still Life by Giovanna Garzoni

CHRISTIE writes:

I am so grateful to have found your website. I am struggling with my current situation and feel a light of hope shining in – the possibility of truly engaging my mind while being a housewife.

I am a college educated, stay-at-home mother of two young, elementary school children. Having come up for air out of the whirlwind life of preschoolers at home, I am struggling with the rhythm and meaning of my daily life. I physically labor each day cleaning and cooking, etc. for my family, but my mind feels dull much of the time.

I pray and offer up each hour as I work. This helps some. I’ve tried homeschooling my kids and find it not to be one of my gifts, plus my husband does not support the idea. I have advocated for and won a gifted program at my children’s school as well as begun a Wellness Committee to increase the nutritional and physical wellness at the school. I received a trophy at our county fair in baking. I have started a small, weekly adoration group with some of the other mothers. But, these things are “come and go” activities, not in-depth, long term and fully engaged work.

My marriage and children are in-depth, long term work, but I feel like they are being well cared for and there is still more of me to go.

While I have friends, most are running at such a fast pace it is not frequent that we all get together. And, I live in a subdivision where the houses are spread apart and few people are ever seen out of their homes. I don’t follow popular media and don’t get hyped about the latest fads that keep many feeling connected.

I am feeling disengaged. I muse about further education in a intellectually demanding field, but know that is not the right choice for our family. How can I stay sharp while being a housewife?

Laura writes:

Here are a few things for you to think about. My comments are predicated on the assumptions that 1) you cannot have more children, which would be the very best thing for you to do with your time, and 2) you will not be homeschooling, which is something I urge you to consider trying again at some point.

A housewife goes through many phases. As her children gradually gain independence, the nature of her work changes. When she is going through a transition, it is not uncommon for her to experience boredom, malaise or a lost sense of purpose. Whenever boredom hits us, there is only one appropriate response to it, and that is to confront it and refuse to run away. Don’t flinch, but look it square in the eye. Don’t move, or it will settle into the deeper layer of our being. As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is through.” Very often, boredom terrifies us because it is empty. But it is always an illusion; there is never an emptiness, except in ourselves. Eventually, if we stare down boredom long enough, it will tell us what to do.

The menial tasks of running home can be very boring, but they are most boring when we are too busy and are not leading a balanced life that involves time for reflection or reading. Everyone needs leisure time. During the years when children are very young, this is hard to get, but it becomes much more possible later. A woman at home must make sure that her family gives her that time.

What you want, however, is to achieve some form of excellence, to put yourself into something more deeply without being constantly scattered and divided. You crave intellectual excellence. There are many things you could do with this craving — various forms of independent study, writing or art work — but in order to satisfy it you have to give up other things. You have to put aside time that might go to more social activities and devote yourself to this work. What this work might be, I can’t tell you, but that there are many interesting subjects and artistic pursuits is obvious from a simple visit to the library.

“You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at,” said W.H. Auden. I am sure you are good at various things. You need to pursue them, but realize that it will not be easy. Independent study, writing, and art require discipline and persistence. You will not receive praise or achieve much right away.

I know a woman who when her children were grown transformed a dull suburban backyard into a magnificent terraced garden with coniferous alcoves. It was a work of art, a gift to the world, and she went about it mostly alone and quietly. The important thing to remember about intellectual and artistic work is that it draws from the whole self, not one compartment. Consider yourself fortunate that you are in the midst of another job — the job of nurturing your family and running a home — because this work can only deepen your awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, which is essential to intellectual excellence as opposed to mere expertise. When you are interrupted by the demands of running a house consider yourself lucky. Every act of selflessness liberates us and enriches the mind in secret ways. Soul and mind are one. Truth and virtue are connected.

You might first try writing a very short book on some subject that interests you. Make it for no one but yourself but make it the best that it can be. Or you might try to learn a language, especially Ancient Greek or Latin, because these will enrich your reading on other subjects. You could take an important author and read everything he or she has written and then write a book about his work. You could develop an area of expertise with the idea of someday teaching a class for adult school or homeschoolers. Or you might decide to get a degree.

One final piece of advice: Despise mediocrity. It surrounds you at every turn in this remarkably ugly world. Despise it with all your heart. There is nothing good about the mediocre. More so than blatant ugliness, mediocrity is not recognized for what it is. Its blandness and uniformity infiltrate the core of existence. It’s a perpetual, blinding, mindless fog.

Seek perfection and excellence in one small area. Then you will defy mediocrity and make the world a better place.

I wish you the best in your endeavors.

— Comments —

Sibyl writes:

Christie’s letter hit me between the eyes, because she perfectly describes my current interior state. It’s not that I’m just bored; it’s that I know there is more I can and would like to do. But I am perplexed as to what it ought to be, and where to turn. You said that in transitions of life, housewives (and probably everyone) experience boredom or restlessness, and I can say that is exactly my case. Although I’d love to have more babies, my age is against that happening, and so now my youngest is four. I have no one in diapers! No one is nursing! They can all get their own breakfast!

Thank you so much for your excellent and provocative advice. Good things to think about. Christie, I am with you. Searching. Let’s pray for each other.

 Laura writes:

You’re welcome.

To repeat, you don’t need to do anything. Only boring people stay bored for long. Just be patient and it will pass.

Will G. writes:

Your post to Christie reminded me of a line in Whit Stillman’s recent movie Damsels in Distress.

“The Lord gave us abilities and He requires that we use them. ‘Good.’ ‘Better.’ ‘Best.’ ‘Excelsior!’ ‘Higher!’ Only excellence can glorify the Lord.”

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